In the perfect world, chairpersons, when elected, would have all the perquisite skills and knowledge needed to excel in this important role. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Notwithstanding a chair-elect’s skill set, however, building the CEO – Chair partnership and preparing an incoming chairperson to be successful begins with the “first meeting" - the orientation meeting. When should the CEO sit down with the incoming chair (chair-elect) and begin the structured chair orientation / development cycle? Probably, nine to twelve months before the new chair’s term begins. This, of course, doesn’t mean your organization shouldn’t have a longer horizon leadership development program.
Some of the key discussion topics for the first meeting should include the association’s governance structure, roles & responsibilities (chair’s and board vis-á-vis CEO), association’s strategic plan, and the chair’s desired focus, if he or she has one. However, open-ended questions to stay away from are: “What do you want to focus on during your chairpersonship? What would you like your legacy to be at the end of your term? What would you like to accomplish as chair?”
Irrespective of your prior relationship with the incoming chair, this meeting serves as the starting point for developing the CEO – Chair relationship. Both you and the chair-elect have the opportunity to set the tone for this all-important partnership. Consider conducting the business portion of the meeting at your office, followed by lunch where the two of you can relax, as well as double back on meeting highlights or concerns that surfaced during the meeting.
Key Agenda Items
Governance Structure. Since the Chair, most likely, has been engaged in the governance structure for sometime, this item will be a high level overview. The most important points to cover are the roles of the various board level committees and their respective missions, along with how they work collectively to undertake the governing work of the organization. It is especially important that the new chair understand the role of the governance or executive committee, which s/he will lead. If you’ve had an executive or governance committee that has been over stepping its bounds and not engaged in best practices for executive / governance committees, now is an opportunity to begin to right the ship. If the Chairperson in your organization is charged with appointing board committee chair people, now is the time to get the incoming Chair to think about whom s/he might like to appoint. You might even come prepared with some names to discuss.
Roles and Responsibilities. This agenda item should include the Chairperson’s roles and responsibilities, and the CEO’s roles and responsibilities. Further, it should include an overview of the board’s role vis-á-vis the staff role. It is critical that a common understanding of the different roles you each play exists. It is also important that the Chair recognizes that one role s/he plays is making sure the board and its members stay focused on their roles and don’t inappropriately encroach on the CEO / staff role. You might even discuss different options and techniques the Chairperson could engage should the board veer off course.
Finances. In addition to providing the incoming Chair with an overview of the current financial status of the organization and any concerns you might have, other items you may want to raise or clarify are: handling of CEO expense reports and check signing authority. Depending on your situation, you may also want to include a conversation about the associations financial audit process and financial controls program.
Headquarter Resources. Here is an opportunity to create clarity around what direct support the headquarters’ team will provide the Chair and clarify boundaries. It is also an opportunity to clarify expectations regarding Chair / board communications with staff, especially as those relate to requests of staff.
Major Projects / Events. In addition to highlighting the organization’s major projects / events, this item allows for a discussion about what role the Chair typically plays at the events and creates an opportunity to define what role the incoming Chair would like to play once they are Chairperson.
Strategic Plan. This may be the most important agenda item. It sets the stage for the later discussion about the chairperson’s focus for the year, should the chair choose to have a particular focus. It is critical that the chair understands the organization’s priority strategic initiatives, including the specific issue the initiatives address. It is also important that the Chair recognizes the important role s/he plays in keeping the board focused on driving the strategy forward and using the strategy to make decisions on what the organization will or won’t do.
Chairperson Focus. As mentioned above, it is not advisable to ask an incoming Chair “what would you like your focus to be for next year”? There is nothing wrong with a Chairperson highlighting or focusing on an issue that is important to them, provided the focus falls with in the bounds of the organization’s priority strategic initiates and drives the strategy forward. As such, a more appropriate question is: based on our priority strategic initiatives, is there a particular aspect of these priorities that is of special interest to you and to which you would like to devote more of your personal time and energy? Of course, it is important that the chair’s focus doesn’t come at the cost of hampering advancement on the other priority strategic initiatives.
Chairperson Development Schedule. There is no “one size fits all” development program. Limited time exists between this “first meeting” and the Chair-elect assuming the Chair’s role. It is critical that you, prior to this first meeting, engage in a gap analysis to determine critical competencies might be focused on over the next few months to ensure the chair is ready to serve in an effective and productive manner, and what experiences might assist the chair-elect in gaining these competencies. Ultimately, you and the Chair-elect will need to determine what experiences over the next months will be most beneficial to the Chair-elect to further prepare him or her to lead. Of course, prior to presenting your views on what experiences might best prepare the Chairperson, ask the Chair-elect what additional experiences he or she thinks would be most beneficial to ensuring their success as chair.
Chairperson concerns. Finally, it is important that you act as a catalyst for surfacing particular concerns the Chair-elect might have about their soon to be role. The quicker these concerns are in the open, the sooner you and the incoming Chair can work through them.
Who Should Attend
Often, CEO’s wonder whether or not the current Chairperson should participate in this “first meeting.” I lean heavily toward the belief that the current Chair should not participate. After all, one of the objectives of the meeting is to continue to develop the personal relationship between the CEO and soon to be Chair; the dynamic between two people can often be altered when a third person is present. As long as the customary practice is to involve only the CEO and Chair-elect, there is nothing wrong with occasionally inviting the current chair should you believe the current Chair’s influence is critical to a positive meeting outcome.