The first meeting of the autumn term is when most, but not all, governing boards elect a chair to lead, steer and guide the board over the next 12 months. If you're considering the role, experienced chair and governance professional Fee Stagg has some ideas to help you navigate those important first meetings.
Chairing a board is not just something that takes place around the board table. It is an ongoing and iterative activity that requires focus, a balanced approach, empathy, impartiality, conflict management, hard work, and time. On the other hand, it is very rewarding, often interesting and a great way to learn and develop new skills. Here are my top tips for anyone who's considering it.
In meetings try to listen more and speak less. One of the most important things to remember is that everyone has an equal voice around the table. Take time to listen but at the same time encourage conversations. During meetings make sure everyone has the chance to ask a question, offer an opinion and be fully informed in the decision-making process. In between meetings make time to stay connected, share information appropriately and in a timely fashion and try to be available.
Time is precious. It has both a value and a cost. As a chair, you need to respect the fact that the headteacher’s time is valuable and often limited.
It is a good idea to plan meetings with the headteacher or CEO (involve the vice-chair when necessary) into the calendar early. Try to find a rhythm to the meetings so that they:
Planning an agenda for your meetings together can be really helpful. If you are a new chair why not start with a getting to know you meeting and discuss some of the pressure points such as finance, policy approvals, training etc. As you grow in confidence, why not spend some time thinking, together, about some strategies to streamline the time spent by school leaders' governance activities – the headteacher’s report and policies are a good place to start.
Remember though to try to avoid making any decisions outside of the board meeting and always report to the governors when you do.
It is important that all chairs consider how to balance the operational and the strategic, between the thinking together and the doing separately, the planning ahead and the tackling of the immediate needs of the school and board. Make a plan!
It is really important that you develop a positive working relationship with your vice-chair. You need to be able to share and support each other as well as encouraging your vice-chair to challenge you, succeed you and stand in for you.
Take a moment to think about the boundaries between the leadership of the school and the leadership of the board. You may have to negotiate new ways of working – after all you are not the same person as the previous chair and will have different skills and interests. You will also have different commitments, interests, skills and time availability. If you do not live in the school community or are new to the board how can the school help you know and understand the school? Are you invited to school or do you have to ask? How do you engage with the school community? How are you going to communicate with the governing board?
Sometimes new chairs try to change everything at once – you may have been waiting in the wings for some time! Remember not everything needs changing and sometimes confirming the status quo is the most effective thing to do. Don’t rush but work at a pace; it is important not to let things drift. Your clerk will be of invaluable assistance.
It is important that chairs endeavour to remain slightly aloof, whilst at the same time making themselves available. Remember that you may be privileged to blue-sky thinking, staffing issues, concerns,frustrations and personal information. You must not share this with anyone – sometimes you cannot even share it with the vice-chair. This is not always easy and you may feel lonely at times. Try and find another chair to talk to – there are networks out there if you know where to look. Don’t be alone!
Too many emails are often worse than not enough so think about what you need to let governors know about and when they need to know. If you have a board pack platform such as GovernorHub why not explore all that it can offer to help you stay in touch?
Your clerk is there to help and not just take the minutes. A good clerk will help you champion the good governance practices all our governing boards deserve. Remember if possible to include them in your agenda planning meetings.
One of the most useful documents if you are a new chair is Competency Framework For Governance and is often overlooked. Read alongside your school or Trust’s governing documents, DfE publications the Competency Framework sets out the key activities for the chair. The National Governance Association publish a Chair’s Handbook which is an easy and useful read.
You cannot chair effectively if you are burnt out, can’t see the wood for the trees or take too much on. If you would like a mentor Independent Governor Support (IGovS) might be able to help. If you are in an Academy Trust your other local governing board chairs might also be willing to support you. Whatever approach you take to being the chair – do not be alone.
Fee Stagg is a former National Leader of Governance and is currently a Trustee and Governance Professional in a number of different academy trusts. Fee runs SBW Governance www.sbwgovernance.co.uk because she believes that Success Begins With …you.