Insights & Ideas

6 practices of outstanding board chairs

A board chair is one of the most strategic and impactful roles in an organization. With intentionality and dedication, board chairs can be extremely effective in assisting CEOs to grow their businesses. But being a board chair requires different skills than many other high-profile roles. Great board chairs are facilitators, communicators, mentors, and trustworthy advocates for their CEOs. So how do they do that? The best board chairs succeed by establishing these six practices:

1. They build trust-based relationships with their CEOs 

When board chairs and CEOs establish relationships based on trust, the CEO knows the chair is laser-focused on their success (as well as the organization’s success). These chairs and CEOs can ask each other questions that elevate both roles. For example, they can ask each other:

  • What does success look like to you?
  • What are the top two things I can do to make you successful?
  • What are your biggest concerns or risks?
  • What could I do to support you better?

While trust is imperative and foundational to a great chair/CEO relationship, Paul Ayoub, chair of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, says a trust-based relationship “does not mean collaborative tension does not occur. It does.” Collaborative tension based on trust allows the best ideas to come forward, be debated, and optimized.

2. They prioritize open, honest communication—even if things get rough  

Frank Bisignano, CEO of Fiserv, once said, “Bad news is not like wine, it doesn’t get better with age.” He meant you have to be proactive, not reactive, while communicating tough and disappointing news.

There are myriad issues, challenges, and problems that come up in running a business. A great chair creates an environment that encourages the free flow of information, allowing the chair to communicate good, bad, and really bad news without fear of a reactionary or emotional response.

Open and honest communication ensures the chair, CEO, and the rest of the board are fully informed of one another’s positions, priorities, and concerns at all times. Great board chairs are intentional about communicating thoroughly and respectfully, especially when the going gets tough.

3. They develop emotional intelligence and facilitation skills  

Great chairs have the ability to read people and build effective relationships with all stakeholders. They are excellent facilitators who make everyone feel confident and safe enough to share their views, challenge the views of others, and reach joint decisions. An emotionally intelligent chair hears not just what is said, but also mines for what is not said.

Sometimes relationships with the CEO, c-suite, and board can become strained. An emotionally intelligent chair can identify when conflict leads to more effective challenge and more robust decision-making—and when it might be detrimental.

4. They unlearn being a CEO (because they probably were a CEO) 

An INSTEAD Corporate Governance Centre survey found 85 percent of corporate board chairs studied were current or past CEOs. While this might seem appropriate, it makes for an oddly narrow vitae among chairs. These are people who know how to set a strategy, give orders, hire and fire staff, and take responsibility for results.

As a board chair, however, they’re no longer in charge of these matters. Instead, chairs are there to advise, guide, and support the CEO and the organization’s leaders. Great chairs unlearn being a CEO—training themselves to lead by suggestion and recognizing they aren’t the ones captaining the ship this time around.

5. They create role clarity 

Role clarity is foundational to a great chair. It helps them consider how they can add value through the larger board, what the boundaries are between the chairman and the CEO, and how each board member can (and should) contribute to the success of the board and organization.

Great board chairs—who make role clarity a top priority—know that solidifying roles from the get-go will create smooth channels of communication and effectiveness.

6. They seek feedback and hold the board accountable  

A 2016 McKinsey study found that fewer than one in five boards regularly engage in formal evaluations or have board chairs who ask for input after meetings. Feedback is a gift, but only when it’s constructive, timely, and well-meaning. Board chairs who ask for feedback demonstrate that they are open to change and that the board members’ input matters.

Soliciting feedback can happen in many ways. Chairs can leave time at the end of each meeting for questions, thoughts, challenges, and direct feedback. Or they can leverage surveys—both regularly and annually. It’s important to have a few ways to share feedback and provide anonymous opinions (especially for new board members), so that people feel safe in sharing their true thoughts.

Great board chairs who ask for and listen to input from their team learn to talk less and let others shine. While this may involve unlearning attributes and behaviors that drove their previous success, it allows chairs to build boards that are true strategic assets for their organization.

Are you looking to make your board more effective? Salo Advisory can help you succeed—whether you’re a board chair looking for guidance or a CEO wishing to improve your relationship with the board. We have the experience, tools, and processes to get you to the right candidate for your organization’s future. Contact us to learn more.


  1. Harvard Business Review, How to be a good board chair
  2. McKinsey, The Board Perspective: A collection of McKinsey insights focusing on boards of directors (pdf)