Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

Getting ready for your first meeting with the board chair

As soon as you have accepted the CEO position, you should plan to have a conversation with the person who is responsible for good governance and sets the tone for the board — the board chair. A key question to ask is why you were chosen over the other candidates who were interviewed for the position.

We usually assume that we were picked because we were better than the other candidates, but it may be that we were just different. It is useful to understand that difference, so ask. First-time CEOs, in particular, may feel too awkward or too grateful for having been chosen to ask the question directly.

Usually a search committee selects a candidate for the CEO role because the committee believes that the individual will be able to provide the type of leadership the organization needs at that moment in time. In other words, it is valuable to know what kind of leader the search committee expects you to be. Equally interesting is to find out what kind of leaders the organization did not choose. Were the other candidates perceived as being too conventional? Too risky? Or did they not demonstrate enough of a vision?

You know this from hiring your own staff. You do not necessarily hire the candidate with the best resume, but the person you think best fits the specific job requirements.

Another useful piece of information is why the previous CEO left the organization. Is your hiring a distancing from the past, or is there an expectation that you will continue the work of your predecessor? Is the organization hoping to enhance and maintain the same course of action, or does it see this as an opportunity for a considerable shift from the status quo? What was the relationship like between the CEO and the board, and between the CEO and board chair?

At this first meeting with the board chair, it is also helpful to ask again some of the questions you posed during the interview process. Ask the chair to elaborate on a few of the answers, and address any issues that were too sensitive to deal with during the interview. You will want to ask, again, who will have the final say on important organizational decisions, and who the most influential stakeholders and donors are. Who holds the trump cards?

At this meeting, you may also want to ask the chair about the background of the board directors and his or her thoughts on their performance. You want to know what are the two or three key issues that the board is dealing with, and which critical issues need to be addressed immediately.

You may also want to let your board chair know of your intention to consult stakeholders and ask who, in his or her opinion, the key individuals to meet with are and why. You should also set a regular meeting time with the chair in the next few months to ensure you get to know each other and to keep him or her informed of your initial plans.

Here’s Franca Gucciardi on her first meeting with the board chair:

I definitely made this mistake when I was offered the job at the Loran Scholars Foundation. I was so excited to be given the opportunity that I never asked our chairman these questions. I found out months into the job about the other candidates, and I must admit that by that time it was not that useful. For example, I learned in an indirect way that one of the candidates became one of my board directors. This person had extensive fundraising experience, which the board thought I lacked. I had learned in a more painful indirect way what the expectations were. I should have asked our chairman why I was chosen, and what the other candidates had that I lacked.

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