10 Key Skills for a Non-Profit Board Chair to Master

The role of non-profit board Chair can be both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. The average Chair can arrive at the role from a number of pathways ranging from being ‘the one willing to put their hand up’, right through to being the most experienced and qualified to take on the role.

Success in the role can depend on many things but having the right skills and experience can ensure your time in the role is not just productive but more enjoyable as well.

That said, harnessing the multi-faceted role of non-profit Chair can take even the most experienced executive or captain of industry some time to master. If you are not accustomed to managing teams or harnessing the energy of the collective, then the learning curve can be even steeper.

There is a lot of general information and advice available for leaders but the absence of old-style authority can mean the role of NFP Chair is more politician than director. Thinking beyond the idea that the role of Chair as ‘CEO of the board’ and more that of ‘Facilitator’ will enable the Chair to understand that skills beyond command and control are critical.

Here are 10 key skills I believe the NFP Chair must master to become a Facilitative Chair.

1. Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Since Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence’ was published in the 90’s, a great deal has emerged about emotional intelligence and EQ for leaders covering many aspects of self-control, empathy, motivation and social skills.

One key skill that crosses over a number of these areas is the ability for an NFP Chair to recognize that they don’t have to be, or attempt to be, the smartest or all-knowing person in the room. This can be fatal thinking for a Chair and quickly turn their tenure into a no win competition.

Being comfortable to let other shine by utilising their expertise and skills is a vital first step.

2. Empathy

Although empathy may be covered under EI it is worth making special note as a key part of the NFP Chairs tool kit. Having empathy and commitment to the cause whether leading a sporting club that champions a healthy lifestyle and community participation, through to medical research to eradicate a human condition, or protecting the environment and animal kingdom, developing a connection and deep understanding of the cause are critical areas to master or work on.

3. Listening

Sometimes the most underutilised skill in a Chairs tool kit, listening is vital to creating understanding and appreciating other people’s perspective. Stephen Covey understood this and highlighted as one of the key elements of effectiveness when he said “first seek to understand then to be understood”.

With myriad perspectives, expectations and experiences to be acknowledged around the board table and broader community, it is always wise as Chair to be a listener first and a speaker second.

By practicing this you will find at times, you don’t need to speak at all.

4 & 5. Building Trust and Developing Relationships.

Whether it is lifting up and empowering their board, or developing great internal and external relationships, the NFP chair needs to be a builder. It is unlikely to affect significant change without the support and trust of others. Trust has many aspects but being a good listener as stated above is a great start. Reliability, fairness, and Honesty are also vital in building trust. The NFP Chair also should identify key stakeholders and potential followers who can be solicited for support and advocacy.

6 & 7. Being a Strategic Thinker and having a Clear Vision

Concentrating on the end game, not the play book, can help lift the Chair above some of the more unproductive parts of the role. Being able to formulate and articulate a vision coupled with putting the right people in place to make it happen is the goal. This aligns well to the previous point of not always having the have all the answers.

Strategic thinking is not just about big ideas. It is about being able to formulate plans, goals and objectives that are aligned to the vision but are also formulated to be robust in evolving and ever-changing environments.

8. Distinguishing between Community Payback and Economic Payback

The one fatal flaw that can kill a for purpose or non profit organisation is expecting the organisation to be measured on purely commercial basis. The normal calculations regarding efficiency and effectiveness can be blown out by the law of nature and the need to be true to a cause. Every NFP strives to utilise their funds, expertise and broader resources to their maximum but that can quite often mean basing decisions on equity rather than economic equality.

9 & 10. Facilitating Discussion and Decision Making.

A great lesson I learned a few years ago while studying facilitation with Boston based Interaction Associates is that a leader doesn’t need to have all the answers, but they need the skills to lead the team to the solution. As Chair, being able to step back and take a guiding role assisting the board to discuss and develop a fully supported outcome is fundamental.

As discussed with listening, the advice from Nelson Mandela about being the last to speak and only entering the debate at the end is extremely relevant. I have seen the opposite of this many times where Chairs and leaders are the first to espouse their theories, opinions and solutions, effectively shutting down any other debate.

The board that can formulate fully supported plans and decisions under your guidance is a beautiful thing.

When all of these skills combine, and the board is working well under your leadership, you will start to uncover and experience the true role of the Chair.

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robert @ leadingforpurpose . com . au

Amplify Me Pty Ltd trading as

Leading For Purpose