Is Your Board Chair the Right Person?

According to the Great Boards 2016 Fall Newsletter, half of all Board Chairs have no training or mentoring; nineteen percent learn through board progression experience. Most trustees don’t have any healthcare background and an unspecified number of hospital senior leaders think new trustees without healthcare experience take approximately three years to gain confidence in their ability to collaborate effectively.  


Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster and colleagues define the medical culture as “the language [slang], thought process, styles of communication, customs and beliefs,” which is used to describe the informal and highly specialized nomenclature and vocabulary used by the healthcare industry. Trying to understand the hospital’s cultural language becomes one of the primary challenges for Trustees when managing their conversations and coming to consensus on decisions.


In a national study on the perspectives of nonprofit board chairs, Nonprofit Quarterly’s fall 2016 edition explored what preparation was done by board chairs and how they see their relationship to the board and other key stakeholders. What they found was a glaring picture of neglect with 51% of respondents doing nothing to prepare to become board chair.

Previously held board officer or leadership position in same institution, i.e., committee chair, vice chair / chair elect has some promise and limitation in preparing an incumbent for the role of board chair.

The majority of board chair respondents relayed that observing the prior chair and asking the CEO for advice was helpful. Coaches, consultants or outside resources were least likely to be considered.

Boards labeled least effective are “rubber stamped” for management recommendations, which provides basic oversight to ensure compliance; boards labeled standard effectiveness requires some thinking regarding proposed prepackaged management recommendations; the highest board performance label requires a governance leadership model that raises critical questions and requires critical thinking from its membership and reporting CEO.


The board chair leadership phenomena has intrigue to it… in the spirit of governance and organizational effectiveness, especially in rural healthcare, how can half of all board chairs assume their role with no or minimal training?

With healthcare changing very rapidly, accommodating long grace periods for board leadership positions is unacceptable. Rural Healthcare key stakeholders, medical staff providers, patients and communities expect their boards to have the skills and competencies to make timely high-stakes decisions, as well understand the best ways to shape and meet their community needs.

Boards in all sectors are being held to a higher standard of performance and accountability. They are expected to be more actively involved in setting organizational strategy, resource allocation, capital financing, investments, conflict management, executive performance, management and succession planning, clinical quality and external relations. It can be quite overwhelming.

Dennis D. Pointer, governance expert, offers this insight, “Boards are as high up in organizations as one can go and still remain inside them. They bear the ultimate fiduciary responsibility, authority and accountability for their organization’s affairs.” A fiduciary is an individual in whom another has placed the utmost trust and confidence to act for their benefit.

Many board development assessments I have conducted conclude that board members are good citizens who don’t have a clear sense of what their obligations are and what type of work needs to be accomplished. Board members role expectations, as well as, their board chair, committee chairs and their CEO roles have not been collectively discussed, understood or agreed on.

Bruce Stickler, Board Chair at the Illinois Department of Public Health, said that expectations for boards and their chairs have changed dramatically, “Board chairs have to be much more active today in every aspect of healthcare change, including collaborative arrangements and community services. They can’t leave the work to the staff; they must provide leadership and direction and be involved.”

What causes board and board chair failures? It’s a board’s tapped out choice in selecting someone who doesn’t understand what governance means and how to exercise it. In my next post, I will cover how this phenomenon can be corrected.  

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