Guidance for your first chair role

The Association of Chairs has released a report highlighting that there less guidance for chairs than there is for trustees. If you’re making the leap, where do you turn for advice?

Guiding a charity to success can be a daunting task, so we sat down with several chairs of leading UK charities to ask what guidance and support they have found useful – here’s what they had to say.

‘Being a chair is not about how much you know; it’s about how well you get others to engage and perform for the good of the charity and the objectives it has.’

Draw on your board experiences and actively use your networks.

It is important that you gain experience on a board before becoming a chair. Ideally, you will work with a variety of chairs to benefit from seeing other chairs in action. You can emulate behaviours and practices that you admire and avoid the ones you don’t.

Having a professional mentor is a great asset at every point in your career. While there are several official networking programmes you can join, an extensive network comes with the benefits of having a range of casual mentors on tap. Do you ask for their support often enough?

If you are new to chairing, can you find or instigate a co-chair arrangement where you can work with a more experienced chair? They will help you grow into the role and appreciate your circumstances more than an external mentor.

Get the governance right, then focus on performance.

As a chair, there are clear legal and statutory responsibilities as well as the responsibility to provide leadership to others.

You should come to the role with a level of leadership experience and understanding of how organisations run — as well as practical knowledge and experience of good governance in action.

Soft skills are the magic ingredient though. Much of being a chair is about enabling others to perform, whether it be your board members or chief executive. Running effective meetings, whether 1:1, a working group or a full board is the key to great chairing.

Learning how to facilitate high performance in others is the key to being an effective chair. Good governance provides a solid foundation, but having a compliant organisation is only half the job!

Make sure that you have everything in place to support your personal development as a chair. This means being able to lead and develop others, run great meetings and always ensuring the inclusion and engagement of all.

Keeping up with change.

Boards have a life cycle and the requirement of the role changes over time. Similarly, the support you need will change with the needs of the board throughout this life cycle —sometimes your focus is more on motivating / developing the people on the board and other times it is focusing on your relationship with the CEO. As with all leadership roles, you need a broad skillset and you must keep up with changes. Looking externally, governance evolves all the time and you have to keep up.

Proactively ask for feedback.

Seek feedback from the rest of the board, the CEO and other stakeholders on what is going well and what’s not. It is critical to foster a culture of openness where people can speak up and voice their thoughts and feelings on a regular basis.

Take the time to schedule more formal annual appraisals based on 360-degree feedback, as well as create spaces so that feedback is also continual and embedded in the culture.

Dr Stephen Ladyman, Chair of the National Autistic Society, recounts a time where his expressive face caused a misunderstanding with a fellow board member. He wasn’t aware that his facial expressions were conveying the message that he wanted his board members to stop talking, when he was trying to encourage them to expand on their thoughts. Without a culture of open, honest and continuous feedback, he never would have known.

Don’t let trustees underperform.

Volunteer trustees have committed their time, yet sometimes they may not meet the expected commitment fully. It’s important to understand why, so be kind, listen and support where possible.

At the same time be cognisant of the charity’s governance needs and the high standards we have, and if people cannot deliver consistently then conversations must be had to resolve the situation.

Be kind to yourself.

Finally, be kind to yourself. You don’t know what you don’t know. As long as you seek out information, understand the organisation and environment you’re operating in, and commit to your role as chair, you can make an impact for the causes you care about. Being a chair is not about how much you know; it’s about how well you get others to engage and perform for the good of the charity and the objectives it has.


Becoming the chair of a board is wonderfully rewarding. We want to put the right people at the heads of the right charities. If that sounds like something that appeals to you, please get in touch with Grant Taylor who can help you find your next chair role. You can connect with Grant on Linkedin, or why not send him an email.

In the meantime, check out our latest open chair and board committee roles.

Where to go to find out more