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Why every board should have a Vice Chair

illustration: close up of two hands put jigsaw pieces together

Our Vice Chair, John Williams shares his view about the role.

Vice Chair is not a required role but it is one I personally see as helpful on any board. I come across quite a few charities that haven’t got one, haven’t thought about it, or see no need or value in it. I would urge those charities without to think again.

A Vice Chair brings added skills, experience and perspective as well as helping to share the leadership role. Here are just a few of the important roles a good Vice Chair can play.

A critical friend

We hear constantly that chairing is lonely and Chairs feel isolated. A good Vice Chair is someone a Chair can trust as a sounding board to give them support, giving informal feedback, honest advice and a fresh perspective. A Chair cannot read everything that’s going on, and an extra pair of eyes and ears is a real help.

Someone to share the load

Chairs have to carry a big load and cannot always ask other trustees to step up. In practice, Vice Chairs will be willing to do more to share tasks, for example chairing a sub-committee, leading on strategy projects or a governance review. It is useful to have a deputy if the Chair is juggling several other commitments, or travels a lot, and therefore has limited availability between meetings. Of course, every Chair should ensure they are not overloaded – an inaccessible Chair is ultimately an ineffective one.

An informal lightning rod for the board and beyond

If there are tensions among the board, or between Chair and CEO, a Vice Chair potentially has the informal authority to mediate, see the issues more dispassionately and help bridge the gaps.

In my professional life in consultancies, the Vice Chair was seen as someone to raise issues with who was out of the formal hierarchy of management. It might simply be to let off steam but if it reduces tensions and provides early warnings of relationship issues, that’s not a bad thing. A Vice Chair can be a recognised intermediary with key stakeholders as well.

It goes without saying that VCs should not use their authority to undermine the Chair, or become the focal point of a faction of the board, which can happen unwittingly.

A formal appraiser

There is increasing recognition and guidance that boards should conduct regular appraisals, evaluating their skills, effectiveness and trustees’ contributions. This is a role that a Vice Chair can naturally lead on, particularly appraising the Chair themselves.

Potential successor

Of course, not all Vice Chairs want to be (or are suited to being) Chair but in some cases, having a Vice Chair can make succession planning easier. Some organisations will appoint a Vice Chair with the clear understanding they will one day succeed the Chair. For others, the Vice Chair position is a specialist role with no progression.

It pays to be clear about expectations, whether the Vice Chair is expected to inherit the role or not. However, I have known at least one person whose experience of being Vice Chair led them to realise they’d would like to be Chair after all.

A deputy

If the Chair is away, indisposed or ill, it’s good to have a clearly designated person the board can turn to first, someone to pick up the slack, chair the meeting, keep things rolling.

Vice Chair or SID?

What is the right role for your board? One alternative to Vice Chair, is the role of Senior Independent Director. This title is taken from the corporate sector and is similar to many of these functions although considered more critical friend and lightning rod than traditional deputy. Whatever your need, when recruiting it is important to be clear and explicit about the role so that everyone knows what to expect.

Recruitment

There is no set pattern for appointing a Vice Chair. The role may not be mentioned in the governing document and it’s even less likely that a selection process is set out.

In my experience, it is more common for the Vice Chair to come from within the board, formally appointed but often the choice of the Chair. However, with a strong field, recruitment can be done through open competition within the board. Or you may choose to have two Vice Chairs. Or if there are no interested trustees, recruitment can be done externally. This may attract strong candidates to your board who are looking for a bigger role than trustee.

Chair / VC relationship

Key to success is getting the chemistry right and respecting the complementary roles, in the same way as the Chair-CEO relationship. A good pair may forge a close working relationship, but they should not get too cosy, or appear an indivisible double act to the rest of the board. A good Vice Chair needs to keep their detachment.

A new Chair may inherit a Vice Chair who could be a good support in the early months. However, it can be more helpful to allow an incoming Chair to choose their own Vice Chair to complement their strengths and weaknesses.

Next steps

A Vice Chair can be a really helpful addition to your board, whatever its size. A VC can be a valuable partner to you as Chair.

If you are an AoC member, and want to find out more, please log in to our members area. Go to Chair's briefings and download our PDF guide > The role of Deputy or Vice Chair.

Not a member? Find out more about membership.

 

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