There has been an ongoing growing demand for Board Chairs in the UK. This is evident in the number of chair roles we have advertised weekly for almost a decade. Despite the risks and increased responsibility, many individuals still aspire to become board Chairs. If you are one of them, I will guide you through what to consider when applying for a board chair role in this article.
What does the board chair do?
The chair’s primary role is to provide leadership to the board, enabling it to function effectively as the organisation’s highest decision-making and governance body. The chair is also responsible for ensuring that the board focuses on strategic matters, overseeing the organisation’s business and CEO, plus setting and maintaining governance standards.
In doing so, the board chair is responsible for the board’s composition and fostering the effectiveness of the individual directors inside and outside the boardroom. Chairs must lead and facilitate to ensure board meetings are structured, productive, efficient and accountable.
Sounds easy, right? It is anything but. A board chair role should not be taken lightly, as there is added pressure and reputational risk above what any non-executive director (NED) might be exposed to.
What are the reasons someone would want to be a board Chair?
Board chairs face pressure from various angles and typically spend two to three days a week dedicated to the role. However, they are usually compensated 50% more than the non-executive directors they work with. However, boar chairs can spend years building their careers and reputations, only to have them demolished relatively quickly.
Aspiring directors often face challenges as they underestimate the workload and responsibility of chairing boards. These challenges include:
- The board chair’s workload is significantly higher than a non-executive director’s, which can increase even further during a crisis.
- The role of chair carries a greater responsibility and experiences considerably more pressure than a non-executive director.
- In some organisations, the added workload and responsibility of being chairman do not come with additional powers or significant extra fees.
- From a legal standpoint, chairs hold the same power as the other directors. However, they may have additional responsibilities and performance expectations. They then need to rely on their ability to influence others.
Benefits of taking on a board chair role include:
- Higher remuneration than a non-executive director
- The opportunity to represent the organisation in public
- A definitive element to develop or complement a portfolio career
- The self-fulfilment of leading a team to achieve common goals
- Being a significant contributor to the success of an organisation
- Serve an organisation, industry or cause that you are passionate about
- Makes you a better leader
- Makes you a better, more strategic communicator
- Further your executive career
- Opportunities to network at a level not afforded to you in your executive or non-executive roles
Here, I should stress that the pursuit of status should not be the reason for someone to consider the role of a board chair.
What are the characteristics of an effective board chair?
It is often stated that a chairman is naturally equipped or ‘born’ with certain qualities, although this is not entirely accurate. Numerous attributes contribute to being an exceptional chairperson; some are innate, but many are gained from experience. Identifying an effective board chair is straightforward, but determining their shared qualities is more challenging.
You should consider some common attributes when determining suitability and applying for a board chair role:
- Personal and professional integrity
- Personal strength and resilience
- Interest in the role and governance process
- Emotional intelligence encompasses skills such as tact, diplomacy, and sensitivity
- Impeccable communication skills
- Inquisitive nature with a strong desire to learn and seek answers
- The ability to establish goals and prioritise tasks
- The ability to lead by example
- The ability to influence others without dominating
- Patience to focus on getting things done properly
- A good listener, concentrating on what each director has to contribute
What are the necessary qualifications?
In the UK, no formal qualifications are required to become a Chairperson. In fact, there are no universally accepted qualifications or skills needed. Often, having the desire to be a chairperson along with the desirable attributes is sufficient.
Within most UK organisations, it is good corporate governance practice that the board chair be an independent director.
Where to begin, the pathway to a board chair role
Chairing board sub-committees or smaller Not-for-profit boards can be a great way to develop chairman skills and experience. These roles provide an opportunity to enhance strategic leadership skills and become accustomed to a Chair’s duties and responsibilities.
Board committees have different shapes and sizes. Their primary purpose is to advise and guide the board or a similar management group. Committees are formed to focus on a specific topic or task. They review policies, develop strategies, and plan events.
Similarly, assuming the position of deputy board chairman can serve as a pathway to becoming a board chair. It offers the opportunity to showcase your ability and learn along the way. Excelling in the role of deputy chair can increase your visibility enough to secure a board chair role.
The final way to become a board chair is by being a highly effective non-executive director and waiting for the right chair opportunity.
What is the process for applying for a board chair position?
It is interesting to note the increased frequency of Chair roles being advertised. This presents a unique opportunity for individuals seeking a board or portfolio career because board chair roles attract fewer candidates than regular non-executive director roles.
Before applying for a board chair role, there are specific questions you should address:
- What are the motivations and requirements of the relevant organisation?
- Do you possess the necessary or prerequisite skills and experience, such as previous experience as a NED and familiarity with the organisation’s industry or sector?
- Are you the right cultural fit for this board and organisation’?
- Do you have a solid commitment to the role and a passion for the organisation?
To focus on your goal, start by researching and engaging before applying. It’s best to speak with past non-executive directors to understand the board and organisation. You should be able to find and contact these individuals on LinkedIn. However, Rocket Reach is another handy tool for researching organisations and finding individuals and their contact details.
Engage with the organisation by using and sampling their products and services. Conduct mystery shopping and visit their offices or locations. This kind of in-person research is impressive and shows you are proactive, intelligent, connected, informed, and engaged. It also reflects your level of commitment that can reduce any perceived risk of your potential appointment.
Lastly, it is beneficial for you to speak to the advertiser directly. During this conversation, you should seek to understand the specific application requirements better and attempt to gauge what they, or the client, are genuinely looking for in a board chair candidate.
Now that you have gained the necessary insights, it is time to prepare your board CV and cover letter to demonstrate why you are the ideal candidate for the board chair role.
Being a board chair is more than just a title; it’s a position of leadership and responsibility. It entails effective communication, strategic thinking, and the unity of diverse perspectives towards a shared objective. As a board chair, you can make a significant impact, shape an organisation’s future, and leave a lasting imprint. If you’re prepared to take on the challenge and lead with passion and purpose, we regularly list numerous board chair roles available to apply for.
About the Author
David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Appointments – The UK’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world.