Essential Responsibilities for Board Chairs: The Work of the Board Chair

Four broad themes capture the board chair’s basic responsibilities and challenges. He or she must be dedicated to:

  • Understanding the institution in all of its complexity;
  • Guaranteeing the effectiveness of both the chair and the board;
  • Being a strong external advocate for the board; and
  • Acting as the board’s conscience, disciplinarian, and consensus builder.

These themes are evident in the essential responsibilities of the position of board chair.

Make a Commitment to the Board and the Institution

Too often board members think they want to be chair, yet they have not sufficiently thought through the demands of the position, nor do they have the requisite experience or skills.

It is important to evaluate carefully what being board chair entails and to assess honestly the level of commitment and the qualities required, including the ability to:

  • Devote a significant portion of one’s time to being chair. The position is not honorary.
  • Understand the gravity of the position. The chair’s success or failure could deeply affect the institution.
  • Set an example of leadership and engagement, from being present on campus to providing financial support.
  • Gain the trust of other board members and the administration by being available to them and by keeping on top of the major issues affecting the institution.

Focus on Strategic Direction

A roadmap for the institution is a critical tool because it defines a clear direction for the board chair. This means a strategic plan is essential, with well-defined objectives. There is nothing more essential to an institution’s success than for its governing board and administration to be operating from an established and mutually agreed-upon strategic plan. For the board chair, this means:

  • Being knowledgeable about the institution or system in all of its complexity, including its financial model.
  • Understanding the mission, which should be spelled out in a strategic plan. If there is no strategic plan, then work with the president or chancellor to start the process of creating one as soon as possible.
  • Knowing the institution’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Staying informed about current issues in higher education.
  • Keeping the board focused on strategic issues and governance matters rather than on the distractions that inevitably arise.

Establish a Mutually Supportive Relationship with the President

The board chair should be a trusted advisor to the president. Open communication and mutual respect enable the chair to help the president set administrative priorities without encroaching on the goals and responsibilities the president was hired to accomplish. Especially for a president who is new to the role and to the institution, the chair’s guidance can often make the difference between presidential success and failure. The board chair should:

  • Provide advice and counsel to the president.
  • Act as the liaison between the president and the board.
  • Keep the board from micromanaging the president’s administrative team.
  • Facilitate an annual presidential evaluation and compensation review.
  • Ensure a good process for presidential search, selection, and transition when the need arises.

Cultivate Board Relationships

It is almost axiomatic that the board chair’s effectiveness is only as good his or her word. The board chair must be trusted. He or she must have relationships with fellow board members, the president, and other stakeholders that are premised on mutual respect and trust. This involves:

  • Building a respectful relationship with each board member based on trust, never forgetting that the board members elected the chair.
  • Meeting with new board members individually to learn about their personal goals for board service while enlisting them to work toward the institution’s goals.
  • Making sure every board member knows he or she has the ear of the chair.
  • Helping each member develop a meaningful role on the board.
  • Making serving on the board a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Build Board Effectiveness and Consensus

A successful chair understands how to lead his or her colleagues on the board. He or she listens to them, knows their areas of interest, and is seldom surprised by how they vote on important matters. Strong chairs draw their strength from their colleagues and work to meld them into a unified group after accommodating—to the extent it is productive—their differing opinions on how to reach common goals. To do so, the board chair must:

  • Articulate and enforce expectations of board service.
  • Help to identify, cultivate, and recommend board candidates.
  • Ensure board orientation and ongoing education.
  • Set an example in personal giving and fundraising leadership.
  • Plan, chair, and facilitate productive meetings.
  • Stimulate board members’ engagement in committee work as well as in full board meetings. Look for ways to involve board members in the life of the institution through interaction with students and faculty.
  • Lead a self-assessment process for the full board and for individual board members.

Serve As Advocate for the Board and the Institution

In conjunction with the president, the board chair is the face of the institution and the focal point of board leadership. The chair’s words and actions matter greatly because they determine and shape critical relationships with key constituents, from the faculty and students, to the local community, to major funders. The board chair who understands the power of the position and how to use it will be an untiring, focused messenger for the agreed-upon mission and the strategies that will achieve it. In independent institutions, where personal philanthropy is often an expectation of board service, the chair sets an example for the rest of the board with his or her personal gift and commitment to fundraising. Effective advocacy includes:

  • Along with the president or chancellor, being a spokesperson and advocating for the institution with stakeholders and communities.
  • Communicating the institution’s story with enthusiasm and conviction.
  • Being prepared to defend controversial decisions within and outside the institution.
  • Being a strong fundraising partner with institutional leaders—particularly with the president—whose job may involve substantial fundraising, and with the chief development officer or (in a public institution) the foundation executive.

This post is part of the Board Chair Toolkit, which includes a host of resources that enable board chairs to understand essential responsibilities for board leadership and establish an inclusive board culture.