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The Role of the Board Chair, Part II: Leading the Board

The Role of the Board Chair, Part II: Leading the Board

Charles Middleton is the chair of the board of trustees of City Colleges of Chicago, president emeritus of Roosevelt University, and a senior consultant with AGB Consulting.

As chair of the board of trustees, you do not have an executive function in your relationship with the CEO, but you do have one in your leadership role on the board itself. For starters, most chairs have considerable influence, if not final say, on all appointments, such as committee chairs. You also are the primary liaison with the board professional who manages board affairs (setting meetings, keeping records, serving as liaison with executives in the institution etc.). That person will need your guidance, along with that of the CEO, on these matters.

While all these management functions take time, in my experience, making sure the board operates effectively is one of the chair’s top priorities. In a sense, it is an extension of the time the chair spends with the CEO, and is a key component of effective coordination between the board and the administration as the institution evolves.

The chair also serves as a sounding board for trustee colleagues on any and all issues. Some are large and strategic, others small and perhaps even personal. In this role, the chair’s listening skills are key. Perhaps the next most useful thing in this context is the chair’s role to educate—and cajole where necessary—unhappy trustee colleagues who may not fully understand and support some of the executive team’s operational decisions. Being available to colleagues and actively engaging them individually and/or in smaller groups (lunch, anyone?) is a key component of your leadership. It also enables you to give the CEO a heads-up on emerging issues and, where needed, to develop joint strategies on how to deal with them.

Finally, at public institutions, the governor, mayor, or other elected officials will see you and the CEO as the leaders. It’s possible that one of them appointed you, and you might have a longer-term relationship with that person than with the institution. Either way, it’s natural for the elected official to want to engage the two of you collectively as well as individually on important issues. In these instances, it is helpful to remember that you represent a board that is independent and whose members will look to you to work continuously to assert their collective authority. In that sense, therefore, you are the representative of and liaison to the other trustees on all matters of public policy. 

If you have an opportunity to serve in this role, do not be daunted by these responsibilities. As my grandfather once said, “It’s great work—if you can get it.” Wise man.

Part 1, “Relations with the CEO,” was published on July 27.

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