On Chairing

Image of Conductor Alondra de la Parra (Photo: Felix Broede)
(Source: https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat/audio/2018662376/celebrating-female-trailblazers-in-orchestral-conducting)

The use of the word “chair” to signal a person in a seat of authority apparently dates back to the mid-1600s. Trivial dictionary searches suggest a chair is a person “in charge” which means this person has accountability and a duty of care towards one’s charges. This is helpful to remember when the word “chair” is used in the context of a board or a board’s committees.

As a non-executive board director, I have been fortunate to gain early chairing experience with much breadth. At the time of writing, on one of my boards I chair the remuneration committee, on another I chair the nomination committee, and on a third, having earlier chaired the governance committee, I now chair the audit committee. Forward-thinking chairs of these boards, who assessed and pegged my ability and my potential, have been crucial in these appointments.

There is no way to learn the practice of governance except from experience — that of others and that of one’s own the latter of which is likely to be just a compendium of bloopers made. That said, here is what I have learnt so far:

The Chair is the shepherd: This may sound like a hot take on “the Lord is our shepherd” and I admit, it is. Just so there is a mnemonic hook with humour. This is also the first lesson I learnt about chairing.

The chair sets the direction, the tone, the agenda (in consultation with the exec teams the board is in charge of overseeing), the preparatory work with the exec team and relevant others, the pre-conversations with the committee or the board members and all else it takes to keep things working.

The chair — unlike the said Lord — does not have to die in the service of the flock, sorry, committee or board, and the committee or board do not need to follow the chair’s voice instead bring independent scrutiny and oversight to the meeting.

The Chair is the orchestra conductor: This one is a trick and a half. Especially with an orchestra — a board or a committee meeting — that is playing ex tempore variations.

Running meetings that do not exceed the time allocated and that cover the agenda — the score — fulsomely without just box-ticking is no mean feat. Crucially for a chatty person like me, it was some work to ensure that I talk less and elicit more, knowing whose voice to bring forward at which point, much like the conductor of an orchestra. No batons are involved obviously.

I also drew upon my experience of teaching for some crucial lessons in conducting the conversations. There must be time for questions, debate, and segues. As well as some fun. I serve on a board that laughs a lot and while it was a lot of work in 2020, I look forward to our meetings and conversations with eagerness. We must not underestimate the value of fun.

The Chair is the responsible person: And anything that goes wrong, the chair is responsible. “Not me, Guv” aren’t words a chair looks good saying.

Jokes apart the chair is responsible for ensuring that the work is done effectively and efficiently, without sacrificing either efficiency or effectiveness. Committee chairs lead the board presentations on recommendations made by their committee and have to know the brief and the detail inside out.

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With the lessons learnt from my bloopers already in my back pocket, I recently joined the first cohort of Women On Boards‘s “Becoming An Effective Chair” programme.

The programme helped put a wrapper around my experience and gave me some more preparation for chairing better. Crucially there is a network of stellar fellow alumnae, with a ton of sector-varied experience, a generosity of spirit to share without breaking confidentiality, and a commitment to lifting and supporting fellow women NEDs on their career trajectories.

As I said earlier there is no way to learn the practice of governance except from experience. The WoB programme is a focused way to broaden access to such experience and gain an edifice on which to continue building one’s learning and growth.

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director.)