Board Leadership: Preparing the Chair

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In a recent survey of nonprofits, 51% of board chairs said they “did nothing specific to prepare” for the role of chair. That’s a pretty staggering number. The survey “Voices of Board Chairs” from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management reported on the experience of 635 nonprofit board chairs from across the United States. throneOf course, this survey isn’t specific to credit union boards and chairs, but we fit in the nonprofit area. And the results of this report align with what I see anecdotally across the credit union industry.

The survey reported familiar and common scenarios of people becoming chair due to emergency vacancies, CEOs “begging” someone to take on/stay in the role of chair,  the unwillingness of any other members to take on the role. I have to tell you that it felt pretty bleak. And again, if felt common to what I see in the credit union industry. It doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t feel right.

The other day I was talking to a board chair of a credit union, who will remain nameless, whom I’ve known for more than a decade. He told me his tale of being chair for over 15 years, and of how he has repeatedly encouraged his board colleagues to take on the role of chair. None will take him up on it. “You’re doing a great job,” was what they told him, and “they just don’t want to do it,” is what he told me. He’s a good board member, and a good chair, but he is looking for a break. He also talked about his lack of training and preparation for the role of chair.

It’s no wonder that the survey also revealed that 70% of chairs feel frustrated some of the time, and 9% feel frustrated all of the time.

Now … don’t get me wrong. There are scads of dedicated, well-trained, thoughtful board members out there. I know hundreds of them, and hear about hundreds more.

None of this information is surprising to me, but it is dismaying all the same. Board service is difficult and requires preparation. It’s service that it most often not already within the skillset of those who are taking it on. Then it’s a skill that is learned very slowly, over the course of years. Think about it. A board may meet for 2-3 hours once a month, which adds up to 24 – 36 hours of active board meeting time in a year. Less than a week of full time work.

Do our credit unions have the time for this kind of learning curve, while the world moves at a faster and faster pace?

Chairpersons, and directors of all kinds and sorts, need support in their roles, specific training for the job at hand, presented in ways that are just in time, and available right when the questions arise. And the board itself, with the help of the full organization of the credit union, must create a culture of learning and development to insure that no one steps into a new, critical, and unfamiliar role without getting the support needed. It’s too important. Mentorship and training can solve these issues for the betterment of our members and our credit unions.

And directors can take intentional approaches to board service, particularly in the role of chair, seeking out needed advice.

I would love to see this survey replicated in the credit union industry. Perhaps one of the trades will take this on. Let’s not let the word “Volunteer” cloud and diminish the value and significance of the role of board members within this cooperative movement.

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