Board aspirations turn into a sudden reality

Published by Karen Hands on

Yesterday morning, I took a phone call from the Chair and 90 minutes later, I was standing in for her by chairing the board of Trustees at our quarterly meeting. Almost before I had time to catch breath, I’d chaired a board meeting with resoundingly positive feedback and now I’ve taken another big step towards my board career aspirations.

The role of Vice Chair is often ill-defined and might be considered a superficial title, with or without a clear path to becoming Chair once a term has been duly served. Nevertheless, it represents an opportunity and I’d be reluctant to miss one of those. When the Chair falls ill, a Vice Chair might be the only person who knows enough of what’s going on behind the scenes to know where to focus, when to allow the questions to flow and how to move on. They probably command sufficient authority to control the pace, to get through a packed agenda with the necessary goodwill of fellow non-execs and staff members around the table.

Going in at the deep end can be an uncomfortable experience, yet by the time I joined the Zoom meeting, I was able to say that I was excited to take on the chance to chair – and to mean it. Several factors came together to help make this a rewarding experience, which I want to explore in this article because there was no magic, just commitment to the organisation and the skill of making things happen. The harder I work, the luckier I get, or so they say.

I haven’t been a Trustee with this organisation for very long, but I joined in order to apply my knowledge and skills within a sector about which I believe strongly. The subconscious deal that any of us does when accepting voluntary roles is that we’ll get something back in return for giving to a cause we support. Strategic thinking and planning were clear needs for this organisation and I’m used to facilitating these kind of discussions to achieve a shared purpose. Naturally, I had volunteered to chair the strategic planning sessions and I was already prepared to report back on the output to the board yesterday. My framework of understanding where we are now and where we need to be, developed in conjunction with a wide cross-section of Trustees and stakeholders, gave me a basis from which to steer our discussions. Many of the same people were on the call. It’s been a challenge but I have at least experienced working with these new colleagues through our screens. I knew many of the key issues and most of the people at the meeting.

The Chair is also new to the organisation and we’ve met a few times online, to focus on preparing for board meetings as one of our principal means to influence the direction of the organisation. Emergencies like this highlight why it’s so important for a Chair to trust their Vice Chairs with the detail – enough that I could apply my positional power during the meeting, knowing how she had wanted to run the meeting and being able to create that shift myself. We’d agreed in advance that the board should spend most of its time on strategic and organisational issues and I was perfectly placed to drive that agenda. So I knew many of the key issues, most of the people, and I knew where the Chair had intended to focus the Trustees’ energy during the meeting.

Being in command of the relevant information was crucial, but it doesn’t fully explain the speed with which I could turn so quickly from being a contributor as planned, to chairing the whole two-and-a-half-hour show for 17 attendees. I think this comes down to mindset. If I’d been desperate to prove that I could fulfil the role of Chair, then all my preparation would have been focused on me in that limited 90 minutes. How rubbish for everyone else would that meeting have been, if that’s what I’d done? And how counterproductive for my own aspirations. I’ve had the debate with myself already, when I was initially disappointed at not being picked for the role of Chair, and I’ve turned it into an acceptance that I wasn’t the right person on the day when the panel met. I’ve taken that to mean that I need more evidence; more proof of what I offer in board roles. This is what underpins my choice of sub-committee involvement and every decision I take about how to allocate the time I give to this cause. I’m being purposeful in my approach and the opportunities are presenting themselves to me. I knew I had to step up when the Chair needed me, and I did so with efficiency and effectiveness.

Today, my reflections have brought me to an equilibrium. The way forward is certain: chairing the board is my destiny. The means is also certain: by demonstrating that I put others’ needs first, to be of service to them, whilst making my ambition for the board crystal clear. We closed yesterday’s meeting by going round the screen, checking how everyone felt. I know precisely where I stand for having asked, and it feels good.


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