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How do Chairs encourage discussion and share power effectively?

Updated: May 10

Joe Saxton Chair of Association of Chairs on how he makes sure everyone gets a slice

This blog is based on a webinar organised by Getting on Board as part of Trustees' Week in 2023. The ideas came from those on the panel (Malcolm John from Action for Trustee Racial Diversity, Sarah Clarke from Kinship, Sumaia Mashal from Leaders in Community and Pedro Malheiro from Birkbeck Students’ Union) and the participants in the seminar as well. I was merely the moderator of the seminar and the moderator of this write-up. As there were so many ideas, I have tried to limit each idea to 3 lines!

Here are 18 themes that came out of the discussion:

1. Chairs are merely the conductor of an orchestra

Chairs are not there to make all the decisions, but the conductor of an orchestra whose job it is to bring all those different talents together, to create a brilliant ensemble.


2. Being inclusive in meetings, starts outside of meetings

There is much that can be done to be inclusive that takes place outside of meetings. One-to-one meetings with trustees, the building of confidence for individuals to speak out on an issue, so when a meeting happens all trustees feel able to say what they want.


3. Long board papers, long meetings, with rambling agendas, are bad news

Any set of agenda papers which are hundreds of pages long, or agendas which are packed with matters arising, or which ramble, or have no clarity about what is important, all hinder inclusion and good decisions.


4. Chairs eat last!

It’s not a Chair’s job to pontificate on the issues with their adoring trustees as an audience. It’s a Chair’s job to make sure that all the trustees (and staff where appropriate) have a chance to speak. Chairs can then summarise and give their view.


5. A Code of Conduct is really important

Many boards find a code of conduct very useful. It sets out how a board should behave, do its work, and the style it wants to adopt. Many individual board codes are based on the Charity Governance Code.


6. Learn from the bad stuff, and do better!

A number of panellists said they had seen bad behaviour on boards and used it as a yardstick to encourage themselves to do better when they were in positions of greater power or authority.


7. Co-chairing shares power

There is a rise in co-chairing in the last few years. Those with experience in the discussion said it meant they had a partner to get feedback from, they could use their skills to best effect, and build a more inclusive collaborative style.


8. Boards need a culture of asking awkward questions

Boards need a culture where any trustee can ask questions which are not comfortable, or challenge the executive or Chair. These questions should be asked politely but assertively – no board benefits from a chorus of yes-men or yes-women.


9. Leave agenda space for important issues

Every trustee meeting needs to discuss big issues with sufficient time for a good discussion that involves trustees. That should be the goal. The danger is matters arising, approving minutes, committee reports, CEO reports, can all drag a discussion into the weeds of minutiae.


10. Chairs need (regular, honest) feedback

Chairs should get honest feedback as frequently as necessary with a systematic exercise at least once a year, where trustees and senior staff are asked for their anonymous contributions. Mine is coming in the next couple of months.


11. Ask trustees (and CEOs) what they want to discuss at a board meeting

If a topic that a trustee is interested in, is never on a board agenda, then it can’t be discussed, and so a trustees’ interest is gradually dimmed. Ask trustees what issues they want to discuss a month or so before each board meeting.


12. Encourage quiet trustees to speak more (and noisy ones less)

In any board meeting some people speak more than others. At some point it’s a good idea to ask the trustees who haven’t said much if they have any thoughts or comments. It’s also worth noting who is hogging the conversations, and give a little less opportunity to speak.


13. Making big decisions should take months, not minutes

The biggest decisions should evolve over time, people will look at them from different angles, marinade over the implications. Giving time to look at big decisions means more time for people to contribute, and more time to be included.


14. A diversity of trustees is worthless without inclusion

Many board invest a lot of time and energy into diversifying their boards. That is time well spent. But once a new cohort of (more diverse) trustees is appointed, it’s critical that their thoughts, their views and their insights are woven into discussions.


15. Zoom/Teams meeting can be both inclusive and exclusive

Zoom meetings allow people to participate as it reduces travel time, and allows meeting to be held outside working hours. That is the good news. The bad news is that Zoom makes it easier for people to be present, but not engaged.


16. Silence is not an invitation for the Chair to talk more

Silence is sometimes good in a meeting. It is only when there is silence that some people will be emboldened to speak up. When there is silence, the Chair doesn’t need to chip in and fill the gap.


17. Being emotionally intelligent, not autocratic, is vital in a chair

One of the most important attributes of a Chair is to build relationships with people, to realise when people might have something to say but are keeping stum. Being emotionally perceptive is vital for a chair.


18. A great Chair raises the input of all trustees (and senior staff)

In the end a Chair that manages to improve the quality and quantity of input from trustees and senior staff is delivering a benefit to the organisation. To paraphrase Lao-Tzu in 5th century BC China: ‘when the great Chair’s work is done, the trustees will say my voice was heard’.


The Association of Chairs is for all Chairs, no matter how small or large your charity, wherever you are on your chairing journey. Find out more here.

The panel discussion on which this article is based was part of Getting on Board's Festival of Trusteeship, which is kindly sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance UK.

Getting on Board's Trustee Learning Programme is jam packed with more useful tips. Sign up for our forthcoming sessions here


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