10 Things To Know Before Becoming a Board Chair | Gagen MacDonald

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10 Things To Know Before Becoming a Board Chair

Jan 14, 2015

Last year, I served as the 2014 Chairman of the Board for the Colorado Technology Association (CTA), an industry association that leads the network of companies and professionals fueling Colorado’s economy through technology.

Even though I have served on many boards including CTA, this was my first time serving as chair. I loved every minute of it.

My term has just ended, and I thought I’d share a few things I learned along the way.

Of course, the governance of an organization varies based on the industry it serves and any related regulations, as well as the association’s culture, legal structure, mission and goals. However, some of the skills required to lead them are similar. Here’s what you should know before you take on the job, no matter how the organization is structured.

  1. It’s often a 3-year commitment. Your job as chair starts one year before you are actually the chair and your role continues a year after it ends. So keep in mind, if you accept a one-year term as chairman, you are committing to three years of service.
  1. The role takes a lot of time. Learning the issues the organization faces, understanding the thinking behind many of the decisions that are being made, learning what works and doesn’t—all takes time. You work side by side with the board’s CEO and must act as both his/her partner, confidant and manager.
  1. A board chair drives the organization. Being the board chair is very different from being a board member. As chair, you need to drive change, oversee the organization, manage the CEO and lead the board of directors. The responsibility is significant and direct.
  1. You are the face of the board. You will need to be comfortable as a spokesperson, and understand how to talk with the press. You represent the organization much more than when you were a board member. Make sure you are prepared to speak about the organization, its role, mission, vision, and issues.
  1. Just like in business, there are people issues to tackle. I didn’t realize I’d be involved in the organization’s personnel issues. Or that I’d have to get to know the board members in a new way. They will bring things to you with a whole new level of expectations—much more than they did when you were all board members.
  1. It can get political. This is a public role and it can involve politics—literally. The chair balances the perspective of the organization, the board, the members and the policy makers. There is a lot of studying required to successfully navigate the system.
  1. You need to chair board meetings. This may seem simplistic, and might not look like much from an attendee’s perspective. I found, however, that to make the meetings most effective and to fully engage the board, it takes a lot of planning, research and prep. I needed to learn how to better leverage the board book to disseminate information so the meetings could be used more efficiently to conduct business and to make important decisions. The CEO and I needed to work very closely with the COO to be sure we set the right priorities for each meeting. It was like being back in college, where I had to spend three to four hours outside class for every hour in class.
  1. You have a responsibility to be present. People need to see you. This can be a real challenge as you try to balance your day job and the rest of your life. It takes a lot of planning and coordination to meet your obligations. This is especially true today with the business travel that is required for many of us. I learned to set priorities and ask others to help. My firm, Gagen MacDonald, was very supportive of my role; I am very grateful to the team members who helped cover client commitments, allowing me to fulfill my obligations with CTA.
  1. You are not alone. As chair, I was a link in a chain that included the chair from the previous year and the incoming chair for the next year and they helped a lot in providing the coverage we needed. I also asked executive committee and other board members to help. Thankfully, our CEO was everywhere—so between all of us, we were able to handle things.
  1. You have to know who you are representing when. I found that it was important to properly represent CTA in my official capacity as board chair separately from my role with Gagen MacDonald. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to use the board position to promote your company as much as you might like to during your appointment, but that should not be the primary reason to serve as chair.

I believe serving on boards is an important way to give back to the business community that has been so good to me. The opportunity to serve as chair not only enabled me to expand the ways I could support the CTA, but I learned a tremendous amount about the responsibilities of running a business association and helping to keep it relevant, constructive, and influential for the people and organizations it serves.

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