As part of our Chairs in Conversation series, Jennifer Horan sits down with Michael Wood-Williams, Chair of Smile Train UK, to explore the challenges of chairing a charity in a post-Covid landscape.

Do you think the chair role has become too onerous?

Non-executive roles are expanding in scope and depth of responsibility, requiring a broad skill set to support an organisation effectively, but it is manageable.

The terms of the role must be accessible so that board is properly representative of the communities it serves. We have to ensure that raising the standards of non-executives doesn’t inadvertently create barriers to other valuable people.

It’s up to the chair to collaborate with the executive team and other board members, alongside balancing the skills and culture on the board while ensuring their contributions remain manageable.

How do you create safe spaces for challenge and collaboration on your board?

Leadership encompasses everything that makes working relationships productive.

Governance is most effective when conversations are open and transparent, focusing on creating a supportive environment that encourages challenge and scrutiny. Everyone should feel safe to contribute and bring their skills to the table, including the executive team.

My key priority as a chair is to ensure that leadership are able to evolve alongside a developing board, constantly anticipating and meeting new challenges.

“As a chair, it’s very easy to take on task after task, and sometimes it’s necessary if there’s a quick turnaround. Sharing the load can help the board to stay properly engaged and to contribute in a way that’s meaningful to them. In turn, this allows the chair to step back and offer the needed support.”

How do your board and executive team improve their collective contribution and governing skills?

There is a myriad of issues at play here. Leadership involves helping board colleagues understand different ways that they can work together effectively.

Values play a key role in keeping our beneficiaries front and centre of our strategy. Starting with the organisation’s values and collaborating with wider colleagues on the strategy is effective in creating a shared sense of purpose.

This clarity helps us make contributions that advance our strategic aims and maintain our vision.

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

It’s difficult to find a blueprint of what a chair needs to be doing at any one point in time.

I find it useful to speak to other chairs, and I sit in other non-executive roles where I benefit from seeing how other people approach their role. It’s useful to be able to apply this to my own role.

How can you ensure that the board and executive team remain engaged?

The chair needs to understand their colleagues’ needs and what support that need to contribute properly to the board. This will help share the work across the whole team.

As a chair, it’s very easy to take on task after task, and sometimes it’s necessary if there’s a quick turnaround. Sharing the load can help the board to stay properly engaged and to contribute in a way that’s meaningful to them. In turn, this allows the chair to step back and offer the needed support.

This also helps to make sure the chair role is manageable.

What advice would you give to anybody thinking about their first chair role?

If you have the time and feel you have the skills, I suggest anyone passionate about making change in a particular area consider a chair role.

While the chair role comes with challenges, it offers a unique opportunity to gain deep insight into an organisation’s work and support it meaningfully.

As chair, you can see the benefits of your efforts in how you support both executive and non-executive colleagues in their roles. Boards help set an organisation’s strategy, playing a key role in determining its direction and focusing on meeting beneficiaries’ needs.

It’s an incredibly rewarding opportunity, and I’m very pleased I took on the chair role at Smile Train—it’s something I truly enjoy.


Jennifer Horan is a Managing Consultant for our Board Practice. In 2022 alone, she found positions on charity boards for over 75 candidates, across disability and social care sectors, from health, addiction, animal welfare and community and LGBT+ groups. If you’re looking to join a board of trustees, you can register your interest here; or please contact Jennifer to start recruiting for your charity board.