Careers: how to be a chairman?

Charisma, patience, an ability to listen and an ability to be supportive.
These are the key attributes a chairman needs. And the step up from chief
executive or finance director into a chairman’s role requires a very different
approach and mindset. It is not an automatic career move.

Earlier this year we carried out research with 430 directors who sit on more
than 900 boards, to find out what makes an outstanding company chairman.

We asked them to nominate a chairman whom they considered to be outstanding
and whom they had worked with. Worryingly, eight out of ten say they had worked
with an ineffective chairman ­ but they also nominated 132 outstanding chairs.

We went on to interview 30 of them and asked what advice they would give
others moving into a chairman’s role.

When structuring a board, a good chairman needs to understand the different
personalities around the boardroom table, recognise the contributions that each
board member can make, and acknowledge the range of agendas of each. They need
to engage everyone at a board meeting, and know when to let the conversation ebb
and flow. They need to know each board member on a personal level to do this

Outstanding chairmen ­ according to the directors they work with and by their
own admission ­ are good all-round communicators; they listen in a
non-judgmental and non-condemnatory way, taking views from all the board members
while remaining impartial and effectively drawing together the differing
opinions around the table. Perhaps most importantly of all, they listen.

‘Chairmen, in theory, shouldn’t have a view,’ says Jeremy Hamer, chairman of
Access Intelligence Plc and Glisten Plc. ‘The chairman is the collector of
everyone else’s views. He’s a co-ordinator, a facilitator ­ not the fountain of
all knowledge.’

A chairman without these skills, or one who is arrogant, aloof or who fails
to maintain impartiality, is, essentially, not a good chairman. In addition, i
nfluencing skills, the ability to diffuse conflict and a certain amount of
personal charisma and flair were also deemed important.

At Directorbank a significant number of the corporate chairmen we place were
finance directors in their executive careers.

While it is difficult to generalise, on the whole people with accountancy
backgrounds tend to be strong on the business focus and direction, but may not
have such a natural set of people skills as those who have come up through the
sales and marketing route.

As our research shows, important attributes of an effective chairman include
strategic vision, broad experience and charisma but a strong finance director
often has to take a hard line, particularly when guiding a business through
rocky times, which doesn’t add to his popularity.

If you aspire to becoming a chairman, you need to find a way to round out
your experience ­ taking on a non-executive role, becoming chairman of a
subsidiary company board or undertaking a leading role in an industry or
professional body can be a great help and it also gets you on the radar of
companies looking to recruit non-executive directors.

Where are the women?

Directorbank asked why there are still relatively few women chairing boards
in the UK. Most felt this was a matter of numbers – because there are so few
women on boards in general, there are not yet enough coming through to become
chairs. There was a strong feeling that women add value to boards – but no-one
wanted to see positive discrimination to get there.

Nigel Whittaker, former chairman of B&Q Plc, says: ‘If you haven’t got
women on the board then you haven’t got a proper mix of the talent that is
available in the world today.’

Most acknowledged that women are intrinsically different from men, and
therefore undoubtedly do bring different qualities to the board table. These
perceived differences are varied and some perhaps controversial. David Fletcher,
former chairman and CEO, Sheffield Forgemasters International Ltd, commented:
‘Women are better at empowering people beneath them’ while Jeremy Hamer,
chairman, Access Intelligence PLC & Glisten PLC, adds: ‘Women are way ahead
on EQ [emotional quotient] … and you need EQ in order to pull on the right
strings to get the best performance out of people.’

The overall view was that companies should focus on what is best for the
business, and that selection of a chair, or indeed any position, should be
gender-blind and based purely on competence and what the candidate has to bring
to the role.

The perfect chairman

Directors stressed the importance of understanding a company and its culture
in order to be a successful chairman. They need to take a proactive interest in
the activities of the organisation, rather than being a passive onlooker. The
most common piece of advice for first time chairmen was that they should take
time to immerse themselves from the outset in the company, learning about how it
functions from ground level all the way to the top.

One tip was to spend the first couple of months talking to everyone and
getting deep into the business by working through the shop floor staff and
management structure as well as the board. Also having the courage to ask
seemingly obvious questions, to be inquisitive and to challenge people
continually about where the company is heading.

In terms of skills and experience, the most important was to run an effective
board – while providing the drive for the business was seen as the least
important skill.

Elizabeth Jackson is chief executive of the

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