Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of board jokes about missing a meeting and finding out you were elected president as punishment for your absence. I’ve heard about, and occasionally witnessed, a clearly hesitant board veteran being cajoled into taking his/her turn because there wasn’t exactly a line forming to take the lead position when the time came to elect officers.
This question from our board chairs survey offers an interesting snapshot of how that process actually takes place for many serving in that role, describing a more complex picture.
Many respondents described somewhat purposeful steps into the role. There were structural mechanisms for some that put them on the path, e.g., nomination through a defined process, serving as vice chair, being “groomed” for the position. If we were to group them together, collectively, they would represent the more common phenomenon.
Other sets of responses offer hints of that reluctant service in responses to the choices offered – being volunteered by another member (though we have no way to know if that was a positive or negative event) and stepping up because no one else would. But note that percentages choosing one of those options are individually or collectively fairly low.
More common than that group were two sets of responses that indicate something beyond stepping into some process that propelled them toward the chair role and being dragged kicking and screaming: the “natural progression” (the second most commonly-selected response) and “I actively sought” responses.
My first response revisiting this question is “what does ‘natural progression’ mean and why did we word it that way?” My second response is to add this to my list of future research agenda items. Understanding motivations for leadership, understanding what supports and inspirations and experiences fostered that motivation, all could go a long way to creating more attractive, rich, and affirmative board leadership for everyone.
“Other” responses accounted for 8.4 percent of the total on the question, with 62 submitting comments. As with the other “other” comments shared so far, some are more revealing and potentially useful to the question than others.
Some of the “other” responses describe unusual situations or crises within the organization:
“The board chair and vice chairs just quit one day and I was left. The ED begged me to take it because she needed a Board Chair for grant applications.”
“There was a vacuum of leadership after the CEO left for medical reasons and then the board president resigned. This also occurred during a financial crisis. I was already a board member for many years and “stepped up” without assuming a title. After a few months, the board elected me president as much for what I was already doing as for the fact that no one else wanted the position.”
“Eight years ago, all the members of the Board of Trustees, with one exception, indicated that they were resigning. I was not on the Board of Trustees: I was a volunteer.”
“Took over in a time of crisis that threatened the organization when no one else was either stepping up or had the skill sets or will to save the organization.”
I can say that that also was a theme in comments offered elsewhere in the survey. Even when we have plans as a board, life happens and people must step in to fill the leadership gap – willingly or not.
I initially wrote above that I saw no clear themes in the comments. I backed off of that statement when I reviewed again, looking for the above quotes, and saw how many respondents indicated that the CEO/executive director either asked directly or played a role in the request to serve. One of the quotes above includes that reference. But there were many others, along the lines of these:
“The ED and the outgoing board chair asked me to consider serving in the position.”
“I was asked to return to the Board Char position by the Executive Director. I had held the position during a critical phase of the organization.”
“Asked by the executive directors”
“The outgoing Executive Director also asked me to serve.”
“There was no clear board member interested or best suited to take on the role. I was asked specifically by the new ED and Development Director to consider the position.”
“I was solicited by the ED to apply for the role.”
“I replaced a person who had served 8 years and was looking to step down. The CEO ‘volunteered’ me and I was quite willing to serve.”
That is a far more familiar scenario in some of my interactions with boards (and in my own board and staff experience). I have my biases and my consultant counsel on that that are not particularly germane to this research-focused post. Instead, I’ll just say that it affirmed for me that my research teammates and I probably missed another option for this question, covering CEO and other staff encouragement or involvement.
The mixed-bag nature of responses to this question overall was interesting, particularly in the context of the mixed-bag preparation (or not) described in other questions covered in this series. Still processing this. For the moment, I’ll say that maybe their lack of preparation that has been bothering me as a board educator makes a tiny bit more sense, at least for some.
NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I’m generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.