Mel Hewitson's Blog - Governance & effective chairing
Our second blog on governance is from CSI’s chair, Mel Hewitson. Mel’s current governance roles include being deputy chair of Foundation North, and an independent non-executive director of Simplicity NZ, Trust Investments Management Limited, Heritage Trustee Company and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Maia. In this blog, Mel looks at some the approaches a board chair can use to run effective meetings.
I believe the principles of good governance are transferable across all organisations. Whether you are on the board of a not-for-profit, a crown entity, or a corporate, you are there to be a prudent steward of someone else’s purpose, capital and reputation.
The best chairs make sure that the skills and experience of all members of their board are unlocked to fulfil that stewardship role. Some examples of effective chairing I’ve seen that inform my own practice include:
Unlock the whole person: Chairs must be able to get a range of people working together effectively. If the board is full of like-minded people who bring similar ways of seeing the world to the table, consensus is easily reached, decisions are made and meetings are efficient – job done, right? However the quality of the decision-making is unlikely to be as optimal as when there is a diverse board reflecting a spectrum of backgrounds. Board discussions can be more challenging, the chair’s role can be more difficult and board members have to work hard to understand perspectives that may be quite different from their own.
Therefore it helps when board members know each others’ background, personal stories, and what experiences have shaped their thinking. When chairs make time for board members to get to know one another in this way, it can create a safer environment for robust debate . Jo Brosnahan covered this in more depth in her blog post.
Listen to what is being communicated – not just what is being said: A chair needs to actively facilitate quality conversation around the table, by managing air time to create space for all who want to have their say and for brave discussions to be had. If someone is being shut out or shut down (by silence or being talked over), the chair needs to role model a healthy dynamic by slowing the pace down, show active listening and questioning skills to unpack what the person is trying to say, and crack open the conversation to the room for respectful contribution. Chairs can use language such as “let’s explore that some more because it’s a relevant factor we haven’t considered yet.”
Levelling power and knowledge imbalance: It’s not unusual in the NGO world for a board to have one or two members with significantly greater experience or subject matter expertise than other board members – whether it be finance, health, digital etc. They jump in confidently with their view which can create pressure on a chair to try and wrap up a discussion because the ‘expert has spoken’ and move the agenda along, leaving less expert board members behind. The chair needs the ability to assess whether there has been the right level of discussion for board members to be decision-ready or whether the discussion should be allowed to develop into a ‘teaching moment’ – creating an opportunity for the knowledge holders to share their expertise such that other members can participate more fulsomely in future. Or perhaps set aside a little time at the beginning of a meeting for training cameos.
Expect the unexpected – and be prepared to change your mind: Good board members are both persuasive and persuadable. It’s the chair’s job to enable that environment and be agile enough to allow great debate from diverse angles. Just as board-only time before a meeting can be valuable, the end of a meeting can also be a useful time for a ‘how did we do’ reflection while it’s still fresh.
Governance is a process of continuous learning, and I am glad to see the Centre for Social Impact make a contribution towards improving the governance of New Zealand’s community organisations. Just as quality governance is critical to the success of companies, community organisations also need and deserve to be enabled by quality governance to be the best that they can be.