Good Governance: Why Directors Are Chess Pieces, Not Checkers

chess board with chess pieces and checkers
Jennie Boden Photo
Quantum Governance L3C
Alexander Stein, Ph.D. Photo
Dolus Advisors

2 minutes

Every director should be ‘chair material’—even if they wouldn’t make a good chair.

We worked with $6.5 billion Hudson Valley Credit Union, Poughkeepsie, New York, on an extensive board renewal project. During that effort, the CU’s nominations subcommittee decided that every candidate on its slate of nominees should be “skilled enough to be board chair” or “chair material.” But what does that really mean?

Does it imply that you should only recruit people to your board who have the intelligence, experience, qualities, hard and human skills that indicate this individual could readily assume being chair of your board? Does it suggest you should raise the level of expectation that you and your colleagues on the nominations committee—indeed on your board—have for yourselves in terms of the type and the caliber of individuals you recruit and nominate to your board and supervisory or audit committee? Our answer to both questions would be a resounding, “Yes!”

What it doesn’t mean is that anyone or everyone on your board should actually become chair of your board. Remember, board members are more like chess pieces than checkers. They each come with their own unique skills, attributes and experiences. While you want to ensure that you are only recruiting individuals of the highest caliber, not everyone is cut out to be a board chair.

Some people are natural leaders and make excellent chairs. Others, while still amazing leaders, are more comfortable in positions with less authority and better suited for serving as vice chair or other important roles. Still others have a razor-sharp mind for numbers (a great treasurer, for example), but might be challenged when it comes to building consensus or running an efficient meeting—both requisite skills for any good chair.

So, remember, when you’re recruiting for new board members, ask yourselves these questions: Does this person embody the most desired skills, attributes and characteristics? Is he or she good enough for our board? Will he or she elevate the level of our discussions?

But, when you’re identifying your future chair, also consider these: Is this person a consensus-builder? Can they facilitate difficult decisions? Build a strategic agenda that delivers effective outcomes? Are they a leader who will inspire followers?

In other words, choose your chess pieces wisely, and deploy them strategically.

Jennie Boden is president of consulting services at CUES strategic partner Quantum Governance. She has 30 years of experience in the national nonprofit sector and has served as chief staff officer for two nonprofits. Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is founder of Dolus Advisors, a consultancy that helps leaders address psychologically complex organizational challenges.

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