How to be an effective board Chair

Chris Thurling is Chairman of Armadillo, a Bristol-based marketing agency specialising in CRM and Chair of Bristol Creative Industries, a not-for-profit network and membership organisation that champions the region’s creative sector. He shares his thoughts on the best practices for being an effective board Chair.

I have been a board chairman for five years. Like many chairs, I had no specific training until I took several Institute of Director (IoD) courses in the last two years. Most of what I have learned about how to ‘lead from the Chair’ I’ve picked up piecemeal, often through trial and error. If you are new to the role of Chair, the following tips may help you take a few shortcuts to master the job.

  1. Carefully recruit your board.

While the CEO is in charge of running the day to day operations of your company, your primary role as Chair is, in the words of the IoD, “to ensure that the board is effective in its task of setting and implementing the company’s direction and strategy.” So if the board isn’t performing, the buck stops with you.

A board of directors is no different to any other team; to use Jim Collin’s well-known metaphor, you need “the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus)”.

The ideal board exhibits high levels of both challenge and cohesion. You want directors who ask searching questions, enjoy debate but always remain objective and approach every topic with the company’s best interests in mind.

Once you have the right board lineup in place, it is worth encouraging inexperienced board members to get formal training in the essential elements of being a company director. i.e. governance, finance, leadership and strategy. A board member who is reluctant to undertake director-level CPD is a red flag for me. I have found the IoD’s training for directors beneficial and of high quality.

  1. Create and agree on a board code of conduct. 

It is easy to assume that all directors share norms of behaviour and conduct. However, it can come as a nasty surprise and be destabilising if this is not true.

Therefore, I think it is good to head any issues off at the pass by agreeing on some basic ground rules for directors on your board. You might ask everyone to read the UK Corporate Governance Code 2018 (UKCGC). Although the code is aimed primarily at large organisations, most of its principles and recommendations apply to smaller companies.

You might wish to go beyond the generic UKCGC framework and create a code of conduct specific to your board. Example rules and norms could include:

  • Chatham House rule
  • Full engagement – no phones or laptops
  • Support each other
  • Keep on time
  • Stay on topic
  • Listen
  • Accept constructive feedback
  1. Be prepared

One of the hard lessons I have learned since becoming a dedicated Chairman is that, like most things in life, the success or failure of board meetings depends on the amount of preparation I put in beforehand.

Over the years, I have developed a monthly routine to ensure my fellow directors and I are well-prepared.

A couple of weeks before each board meeting, I spend an hour with our CEO discussing the agenda. Once agreed, I then arrange 1:1 meetings with the other board members one week before the meeting to run through the agenda. I use this meeting to make sure directors are clear on the purpose of each agenda item and what kind of outcome we want; for example, is the item ‘for discussion’ or ‘for a decision’?

  1. Adapt to a virtual world

I had never run a virtual board meeting before lockdown in March 2020. Like everyone else, the two boards I chair had to pivot to online overnight. I quickly learned that some rules of thumb apply to both online and IRL, but some don’t.

For IRL board meetings – or any in-person meeting – I make sure we create the best environment possible. Simple things like making sure there is drinking water available, healthy snacks to munch on and that the room is well lit and ventilated can make all the difference to the energy in the room.

I don’t have the same control over the environments with online meetings, but getting them right for each attendee matters just as much. I am conscious that staring at a screen for hours can be tiring, so I build in more 10 or 20-minute breaks for virtual sessions to allow people time to recharge. I encourage directors to go for a walk rather than using the time to check emails.

I start every board (both online and IRL) meeting with a warm-up exercise to generate energy, connection, and trust. Then, before fatigue sets in, I like to use the momentum we have created to tackle the most intellectually challenging items. Don’t waste the most productive time at the start of a meeting ploughing through procedural or hum-drum operational matters.

As Chair, I see my primary role in board meetings as orchestrating challenging discussions – I am not doing my job if I am the loudest voice around the table. Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant writes: “Expressing doubt doesn’t always mean you lack confidence. It might be that you see nuance…The person who talks tentatively has often done deepest reflection.”

I have found that making occasional use of small breakout groups (or breakout rooms if using Zoom) encourage greater participation from less vocal directors and leads to more diversity of thinking and higher quality of debate.

I also like to run the occasional informal board meeting in a non-traditional setting to stimulate fresh thinking, e.g. an outdoor walk and talk.

  1. Feedback, communication and action

In a private company like Armadillo, where the shareholders are also the directors, there is a danger that the board is unaccountable for its performance and actions. For that reason, we make a conscious effort to hold ourselves to account.

At the end of every board meeting, I ask each director to evaluate what went well and what could be improved next time. After each meeting, we agree on communication to key stakeholders – especially our staff. In addition, the board keeps an action register to log all significant board decisions, and we review the register weekly to maintain momentum and hold one another accountable.

The road to mastery

In his book Corporate Governance and Chairmanship, Adrian Cadbury wrote, “Chairmen…have to see the business as a whole, in the context of its environment, and need to integrate the skills and perceptions of all those seated around the boardroom table.”

I consider myself an apprentice, but hopefully, some of the advice in this article will help new and aspiring Chairs to begin the road to mastery.