David McGovern, Chair Designate at Manchester Pride and an experienced charity chair, joins us today to share some of his experiences of being a Chair, how he creates the space and time to make it more manageable and share his thoughts on how to make the role so rewarding.

What's your biggest challenge as a chair?

The biggest challenge I face as a chair is the misconception that my role involves running the organisation. It’s crucial to establish clear boundaries and delegate responsibilities early on, especially since many chairs in the charity sector are volunteers.

Collaborating with the CEO to define lines of accountability is key to avoid confusion among board members, but getting involved in that operational part just isn’t possible.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that CEOs are human beings with their own needs and to provide that shoulder to lean on and guidance when necessary. Being a good listener and offering critical friendship are really vital aspects of the role.

How do your board improve their collective governing skills?

I’ll try not to use the usual boring language that governance professionals use, but it really is making sure you’ve got the right team with the right skill mix around you.

People join boards for all kinds of reasons – they may have been service users or volunteers, they may have a passion for the cause, and some people just join boards because it makes them feel important.

I’ve made sure that any boards that I’ve chaired have a really good mix of skills. The worst boards are ones made up of 10 people who look and sound like me with my kind of background and my experience. The best boards have that cognitive diversity and some of that lived experience.

Then it’s up to you as the Chair to provide that support through annual appraisals, discussions of personal development, and a high-quality induction to set that accountability. You also have a foster a culture that allows people to make their voices heard in meetings, while also being able to have those difficult conversations if a Trustee isn’t committed enough.

What guidance and support have you found that’s been helpful in improving your chairing skills?

Speak to somebody who’s done it.

People putting their heart into an organisation, big or small, really need to understand the undertaking. That’s not only legal and statutory responsibility, but the responsibility of providing leadership within that organisation.

You also have to consider what you need as a Chair in terms of personal development. That means having trusted sounding boards around you, inside and outside the organisation, and acknowledging that there are some basic skills you need – things like how to run a meeting. People can often forget that the main point of boards is going to meetings, and it isn’t for everyone.

You have to know what that means, along with understanding what good governance is and how it operates. Then, you have to involve everyone and make sure the right rules of engagement are in place.

What can you do to make the role more manageable?

Keep it simple, stupid.

People overcomplicate things. Particularly when they think they have a good understanding of what decision-making or regulatory frameworks look like. They create these massive structures, even in small organisations, and you end up with about 12 meetings a year when you factor in all the sub-committees.

You have to make an effort to keep decision-making slick. I would suggest most boards don’t need more than two committees: an audit, risk and finance committee and a former remuneration committee that deals with some of that governance stuff.

Most of the rest of it can be dealt with at the board level, including how to engage customers and service users – which is often the really nice stuff!

If you do know someone who can provide some external support on setting up your internal governance, give them a call and ask them for some time – I’ll even come out and help you out!

Thank you to David for joining us for Trustees Week!

Philippa Fabry is the Director of our Not for Profit Practice. She has been recruiting transformational leaders to third sector organisations for over 17 years, which has focused on arts and culture, social justice, start up, social enterprises and social care. To learn more about how we can help you make the swap from the commercial sector to focus on purpose-driven work, you can email Philippa or connect with her on Linkedin.