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What Makes an Excellent Chairman? A conversation with Ram Gidoomal CBE

To help us think about this question, we recently had a conversation with Ram Gidoomal CBE. Ram has chaired multiple organisations, including Stewardship, Traidcraft plc, The Lausanne Movement, Imperial College Student Union and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education for England and Wales. We wanted to listen to the wisdom that Ram has developed over many years of chairing boards both in the profit and not-for-profit sectors. What follows is a summary of parts of our conversation.

What Makes an Excellent Chairman? A conversation with Ram Gidoomal CBE

What are the qualities of a good chairman?

“The chair of the first board I joined had a number of the key qualities: he knew the industry, he treated everyone with respect, he listened to everyone, he was very welcoming and very generous.

“I’ve learnt that listening and communication is so important: the ability and desire to listen and speak clearly, and sensitively; the ability to pick up on nuances through body language. This is what I seek to do when I am appointed as chair - I make every effort to listen. Before I take on a role, I meet each board member and the committee chairs, because it’s so important that I really understand and know the committee. Knowing them enables me to support them which is my role as chair. But the most important person to get to know is the CEO, as this relationship is critical. I can’t stress this point enough: you must understand the CEO. In my first chair role, I had either a weekly phone call or monthly lunch with the CEO, and I took every board member out once a quarter for a coffee.

“Another key feature of a good chair is the ability to delegate. The ideal is that I do nothing other than manage the board’s function. This goes alongside being a team player and respecting the confidences of the trustees and CEO. Finally, a good chair will think carefully about succession planning.”

What are the most difficult parts of being a chair?

“Understanding the organisation’s politics is one of the hardest parts. Every organisation has politics, cliques and hardened views, and risks of polarisation.

“Therefore, as chair, having the support of the board is key. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been offered the role as chair and was told that my appointment had the approval of the entire board of trustees. But when opposition to my appointment came from elsewhere in the organisation, it turned out they were not giving me the backing I’d need, so I didn’t take the job on.

“The other thing is the CEO. They must be the one doing the heavy lifting, along with their senior team. The chair is there for leading the board in its strategic thinking and to help build external relationships. When this expectation isn’t clear it can be hard. This is also a challenge for chairs: I bring the experience of many years, and have a short learning curve, so I need to come in and grasp the nettle very quickly and not be phased. Chairs don’t have the luxury of mentors, it’s a sink or swim situation.”

How do you facilitate fruitful and efficient board meetings?

“It’s great to see a united board coming to a decision well. I love a good discussion. To help encourage this, as the chair I say very little and ensure that everyone speaks, and that everyone knows that they won’t upset me as the chair. This experience of iron sharpening iron is essential so that the CEO and senior team leave better informed. Some chairs want to speak all the time, to give their thoughts on every item, but to me that betrays insecurity. I introduce the item, summarise previous discussion, and then go round each trustee. The company secretary sits next to me and keeps track of whose hand has gone up first so that there is an unbiased running order. I listen and make notes whilst people speak. If there is consensus then that’s great, but if not, I’ll lead a vote. Occasionally if the board isn’t coming to conclusion, I’ll intervene to park it on flip chart and come back to it later, but that is very rare.”

What is best practice when it comes to trustee recruitment?

“Getting trustee recruitment right is hard – it’s hard to achieve gender balance, for example. It’s a costly process, which needs all the resources that can be afforded to it. The benefit of using executive search to find new trustees is that the search firm brings independence and they don’t just bring in the usual suspects.”

How can a good trustee support a chair?

“By respecting the lines of accountability. A good trustee will understand the link between the CEO and the chair. Trustees cannot go behind the back of the chair to the CEO, as it breaks the trust. It’s important to go to the chair first if there is any issue that arises, and not to undermine the CEO role by going to the senior management. I often say the rule for trustees is ‘nose in, fingers out’.”

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