Français

Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program


Module 15 — What Makes a Great Board Chair?

Last updated in September 2019

What Makes a Great Board Chair?
Arrow LeftPrevious Module
Next ModuleArrow Right

IN THIS MODULE, TRUSTEES WILL EXPLORE:

  • the skills and knowledge that contribute to being an effective board chair
  • a chair’s role and responsibilities
  • key aspects of leadership

INTRODUCTION

This module is intended to be a resource for chairs and vice-chairs, and for trustees considering undertaking the role of chair.

The Education Act [s.218.4] requires boards of trustees to elect a chair from among its members for a one-year term. The chair of the board of trustees is an individual trustee chosen by the board as a leader who represents them. As an individual trustee, the chair has no greater rights or powers than any other member of the board. However, the members of the board, as a whole, in electing one of their peers to be the chair of the board, confer on the chair a leadership role. The chair is responsible for fulfilling specific duties as outlined in the Education Act as well as setting the tone for a collaborative working environment in which all trustees have a voice.

The board’s efficiency, effectiveness and creativity, as well as its ability to successfully resolve conflict and solve problems, are often directly related to the chair’s leadership skills and style. The chair’s communication and interpersonal skills can also significantly contribute to high levels of trustee and staff morale.

Through relationships with trustees, the director of education and the community, an effective chair approaches the role with a belief that the chair is first among equals rather than an all-powerful ruler. They understand that the chair fulfills the same role as other trustees, but has the additional responsibility for managing the board’s work. The selection of chair is important and should never be taken lightly.

Great board chairs demonstrate the ability to be strategic thinkers, expert facilitators, and clear communicators. They step into their one-year term with the ability to develop and nurture positive working relationships with the director of education and their peers around the board table. They assume a shared responsibility with the director, for achieving success across the system. The partnership of board chair and director serves as a portal through which communication is passed to trustees and to the system.

GREAT BOARD CHAIRS:

View the big picture

Effective board chairs help trustees stay focussed on the ‘big picture’ without becoming involved in day-to-day operations. When issues that relate to the actual running of the school system are raised, the chair reminds trustees of the direction they have already provided staff through policy and the multi-year strategic plan, and the importance of leaving the solution at that level. They challenge trustees to remember their role as strategic leaders of the system.

Facilitate dialogue

Boards conduct their work through discussion, debate and decisions made at the board table in a public meeting. Chairs need to remember that trustees cannot get together to discuss or otherwise deal with any matter in a way that materially advances the business or decision-making of the board.

While one of the jobs of the chair is to preside over meetings, a characteristic of a great chair is the ability to facilitate the process in a way that encourages meaningful dialogue that explores all sides of issues. When the chair presides, they ensure that meetings are conducted in accordance with legislation, bylaws and policies of the board, and that meetings run on time. When the chair facilitates, they create a setting where different viewpoints are raised, are listened to and are questioned with the goal of promoting understanding. Chairs who are great facilitators lead the board by making comments like “perhaps we might consider…” and “what viewpoints haven’t we considered or voiced?” as it is the chair’s responsibility to ensure that trustees hold discussions that result in well-thought-out decisions, and that they do so in a climate of trust.

Demonstrate strong interpersonal skills

The job of a board chair is not an easy one. The chair is an equal among their peers, yet may need to address disruptive behaviours and challenge trustees when their individual actions conflict with others. Chairs need a high level of self-awareness, recognizing when they have become so engaged in an issue that they have lost clarity and need to step back. They must be great listeners, not just for the words that are being spoken, but also for the unspoken concerns raised. They need to demonstrate empathy, recognizing the good will of everyone they work with, even when the behaviours they encounter are abrasive or unruly on the surface. Trustees become known as being great board chairs when they can relate to people in a way that addresses important issues while building relationships. They communicate the message that says, “I don’t have to agree with you to ensure that your voice is heard.”

Communicate effectively

Unless the board of trustees assigns someone else the responsibility, the chair is the spokesperson for the board and represents the board to the community and stakeholders. This means that the person who assumes the position of chair must be an articulate and clear communicator and be able to represent the system well. It also means that sometimes the chair will have to respond to challenges to the board’s decisions. It will always require the chair to communicate in a way that demonstrates confidence in the system.

UNDERSTANDING THE ROLES OF THE BOARD

In defining the roles and responsibilities of the chair it is essential to consider the roles and responsibilities of the board of trustees as an entity and of the trustees as individuals. In addition, since the chair and the board must work very closely and harmoniously with the director of education, the roles and responsibilities of the director must be clearly understood. A strong and effective board chair understands the distinct roles of board, director and staff and, in leading the board, can assist trustees in maintaining the distinction among these roles.

For more information about the role of the board of trustees, director of education and individual trustees, please refer to Module 3 – Roles and Responsibilities.

Chair of the Board – Role and Responsibilities

The chair is chosen by the board of trustees as someone they are proud to have as a leader who represents them. Due to their extra responsibilities, chairs may receive additional honoraria.

The board chair and vice-chair (if a board chooses to have a vice-chair) are appointed for one-year terms at the first meeting in December each year. School boards may choose to have elections for the position of chair and vice-chair by secret ballot or by recorded voting (public). If there is a tied vote, the Education Act requires that it shall be decided by the drawing of lots. The Act does not indicate the number of times that the same person may be elected as chair, however, boards may create a by-law with term limits (for example, 3 consecutive 1 year terms).

As outlined in section 218.4 of the Education Act, the chair of the board shall:

  • Preside over meetings of the board
  • Conduct the meetings in accordance with the board’s procedures and practices
  • Establish agendas for board meetings, in consultation with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education
  • Ensure that members of the board have the information needed for informed discussion of the agenda items
  • Act as spokesperson to the public on behalf of the board, unless otherwise determined by the board
  • Convey the decisions of the board to the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education
  • Provide leadership to the board in maintaining the board’s focus on the multi-year strategic plan
  • Provide leadership to the board in maintaining the board’s focus on the board’s mission and vision
  • Assume such other responsibilities as may be specified by the board
Role of Vice-Chair

According to the Education Act, trustees may elect a vice-chair to act in the chair’s absence. As a member of the board, the vice-chair has the same roles and responsibilities as other trustees and assumes those of the chair in their absence.

Serving in the role of vice-chair offers a valuable opportunity to learn and be mentored about the role and responsibilities of the board chair. Serving as chair of board committees also offers experiences, insights and skill-building that contribute to readiness to take on the role of board chair.

Additional information about the roles and responsibilities of the chair and vice-chair is available in Module 3 – Roles and Responsibilities.

THE BOARD CHAIR AS LEADER

While each individual trustee is a leader and contributes to the smooth functioning of the board, leadership is a key feature of the chair position. The characteristics of effective leadership that a chair would model include empathy, positive outlook, determination and resolve, objectivity, a talent for team-building and motivation, a capacity to build trust, communication and presentation skills, and resourcefulness.

Strong leadership is crucial to effective board performance. Characteristics of excellent leadership may also include:

Character and Integrity
A leader’s character plays a vital role in determining the effectiveness of their leadership. Trustworthiness and honesty are the two important aspects of a leader’s character. Integrity and adherence to strong moral principles are also important features of strong leadership.

Vision
Everyone who runs for office as a school board trustee does so for a reason beyond themselves. As a leader, their challenge is to articulate the vision, describe how it will bring improvements and, through sincere dialogue, find ways to improve it and inspire their colleagues, board staff and the community to share the vision. Vision helps a leader develop goals, chart a direction and inspire others.

Positive Outlook, Determination and Resolve
Presenting a positive attitude even in the worst of situations is a characteristic of a good leader. The attitude and resolve of a leader are important determinants in successfully overcoming challenges. An effective school board chair is, like all trustees, passionate about student success and well-being and public education. Effective leaders believe that their efforts will have a positive effect.

Trust and Respect
A good leader does not demand or command respect, they earn it. Respect must be reciprocal and mutual. A strong leader sets the tone for a working climate where respect is built on a foundation of the kind of social discourse that takes place across the school community, genuinely listening and valuing the opinions of others. Respect and trust are nurtured through honest and open dialogue.

Trust among team members fosters organizational conditions that encourage individuals to initiate and sustain activities that lead to meeting the goals of the board and improving student outcomes. Trust is sustained in relationships where respect, personal regard, competence, and personal integrity are valued and practiced.

Objectivity
Objectivity is an important aspect of leadership. Despite personal opinions, there may be situations in which a leader may need to set their own beliefs aside in the interest of supporting the decisions of the board and presenting a unified front to the media and the public.

Resourcefulness
Managing resources effectively, thinking outside the box and finding solutions to unforeseen problems are all important functions of a leader. Creative thinkers believe in their own abilities to meet challenges effectively and efficiently. Creative thinking is the ability to develop original, diverse and elaborate ideas that open doors and create opportunities. In times of budgetary restraint or short timelines, for example, resourceful leaders will find innovative ways to continue to do an excellent job with less money, fewer staff or less time.

CONCLUSION

Great Board Chairs:

  • work well with individual trustees, the board as a group and the director of education
  • achieve openness and transparency at the board table
  • keep the agenda focussed on student achievement and well-being
  • work continuously to improve school board performance
  • run a flexible process
  • have an open leadership style
  • have a broad range of experiences and expertise
  • prepare for the role
  • balance legislative requirements and board strategy

Board chairs, whether new in the role or with years of experience, strive to strengthen their leadership capacity and further develop the skill sets that allow them to be effective in their service to the school board, staff, students and their families.

There are many ways that board chairs can develop these skills. Attending conferences can deepen their knowledge of the leading education issues affecting their school boards. Participating in workshops related to governance and leadership can enhance their skills in running board meetings, managing public relations, engaging communities and resolving conflict. Networking with other chairs and undertaking formal or informal mentorships will provide practical insights into the day-to-day challenges of their role. Taking advantage of membership in provincial and national school board organizations opens access to a broad range of resources specifically developed to support the governance role.