How to be an effective chair

Friday, 05 May 2023


    Great chairing involves both effective leadership of the board and specific competencies to support collective analysis and decision making. In the first of our series of three webinars on the skills and psychology of effective chairing, we explore the leadership archetypes commonly seen in boardrooms. Our panel also drilled into the fundamental skills and practices of effective chairs.

    A good chair is like an orchestra conductor who guides, coaches and challenges the board to ensure all board members are singing from the same songsheet, a recent AICD webinar was told by Graham Bradley AM FAICD Chair of United Malt Group, Infrastructure NSW, Shine Justice, Virgin Australia International Holdings and Ensemble Theatre Limited.

    He quoted a recent legal judgement by Federal Court Justice Jonathan Beach, who said the chair is not some sort of dictatorial overlord, but rather more like an orchestra conductor.

    “I see the role of the chair as being a servant of the board, rather than a boss, in helping directors become an effective and collective decision making group,” said Bradley. “And so I think the real leadership challenge is to manage that process.”

    Good listening skills are also a critical criteria for effective chairing, he added. “A bad chair is bad at listening and impatient about listening and doesn't open the space for directors to speak and be heard to create a respectful dialogue or debate. What is needed is that at the end of the day, the chair should lead from behind and in my view should normally be the last to speak in the context of debate, rather than the first.”

    The webinar was told that there are four leadership archetypes seen in the boardroom.

    A} THE CAPTAIN.  Talents : Professionally confident, intellectually influential, methodical, brings focus to the board table. Boardroom Impact: Shapes agendas, gets to the heart of matters, results focused, always makes a difference.

    B} THE TEAM BUILDER. Talents : Develops teamwork, calms the room, strong listener, prudent decision maker, polite and responsible. Boardroom Impact: Encourages the quiet ones, builds consensus, sustains board relationships, a safe pair of hands.

    C} THE INFLUENCER Talents : Engaging communicator, develops relationships quickly, decisive, insightful outside-thebox thinker. Boardroom Impact: Innovative solutions, wide-ranging discussions, meetings that are not just successful but also fun.

    D} THE PASSIONATE Talents : Emotionally authentic, values driven, a person of principles who doesn’t need everyone to agree, but who ensures their views are respected. Boardroom Impact: Energy and drive, lively and honest discussions on the important issues.

    AICD boardroom psychologist Rob Newman says one of the ways we can think of leadership in the boardroom is as a force for personal influence. Each of the four styles of leadership influences differently. “But as important as the positive impacts are, each of these styles also has a dark side. Overused or applied incorrectly they present as derailing behaviours, which typically emerge when people attempt to gain control in difficult situations.

    “When we overuse our talent, it's normally when we're under pressure, in a new environment and feeling personally stressed, and we then bring out our big guns and overuse our talent.”

    So the leader who's normally confident and assertive, under pressure becomes domineering, says Newman. He outlined the following  below as derailing behaviours exhibited by chairs with different leadership archetypes.

    Leader archetypes: Derailing behaviours

    THE CAPTAIN becomes domineering. Behaviour under Pressure: Overconfident, opinionated, domineers, expects others to fall in line, or overly details focused, pedantic, having unrealistic standards. Impact in the Boardroom: Controls the agenda Pushes their views Creates coalitions

    THE TEAM BUILDER becomes conflict averse. Behaviour under Pressure: Reluctant to act independently, eager to please, goes along with the majority, silent against authority, stays quiet on controversial issues. Impact in the Boardroom: Smooths over differences Goes quiet during conflict Withdraws from discussion

    THE INFLUENCER becomes distracting to others. Behaviour under Pressure: Seeks attention entertaining but talks too much, wacky ideas, visionary but light on detail, acts without fully considering the risks. Impact in the Boardroom:  Easily bored Draws attention to selves Focuses on shing things

    THE PASSIONATE becomes unpredictable to others. Derailer under Pressure: Emotions swing from over-optimism to disappointment and frustration, sensitive to threats, can jump to conclusions. Impact in the Boardroom: Losses focus and energy, Others feel uncomfortable Can drive people away

    Beyond the leadership factor, the webinar also explored the fundamental practices of effective chairs. These are competencies that create structured and focussed agendas and social skills to support discussion and analysis in board meetings.

    With regard to failure in the Boardroom, Newman told the webinar that the greatest risk that he has witnessed is not fractious conflict but groupthink.

    Similarly, Elizabeth Jameson AM FAICD, Chair of the Endeavour Foundation and the Queensland State theatre company, told the webinar there are two main types of dysfunction seen in boardrooms – demands for consensus decisions (groupthink) and chaotic and shambolic time management and organisation by chairs.

    “As a very young director, (a practice by the chair) almost drove me spare …the obsession that every discussion had to come to a complete consensus. And what that meant was long drawn out, delayed decisions and things being deferred over to the next meeting”.

    She added that she had learned a lot from other chairs about what to do and what not to do.

    “I learned a lot from I'm pleased to say mostly good, wonderful chairs. But of course, you learn an awful lot from those who are not (wonderful) about what doesn't work.”

    The webinar outlines the following competencies for the practicalities of chairing.

    Four core competencies of chairing meetings


    Effective chairs create focused meeting agendas they put time into planning them so that priority items receive the attention they deserve, and meetings are efficient for the four meeting functions - informing, evaluating, exploring, and decision making.


    Effective chairs allocate the right amount of time to each agenda item, they adapt plans if items run over time, and they start and finish meetings on time.


    Effective chairs use strategies to engage everyone in discussion, ensuring a wide range of views are canvassed before a decision is made, and by engaging all directors, they foster a sense of collegiality, shared responsibility and ownership of decisions.


    Effective chairs sum up the key points of a discussion, identifying emerging consensus for the group, as well as points of difference. They use these summaries to help the board track its progress towards a collective position on an issue.

    The three fundamental roles of the chair are to feed the board and ensure the proper information flow to the board so it can fulfil its’ duties; guide the board and facilitate the effective functioning of the board as a forum for collective oversight and decision making, particularly during board meetings and representing the board to lead the relationship between the board and Chief Executive, and represent the views of the board to the organisation, members, shareholders and wider public.

    The first webinar, ‘Chairing with Impact’, is one of three in the Boardroom Behaviours series, with all three webinars available here. Register now for the second webinar in the series on Thursday, May 25, Dealing with ineffective chairing . The third in the series, Facilitating effective chair-director decisionmaking , will be held on Thursday 6 July.

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