When Leadership Means Stepping Back

portrait from behind of businesswoman walking down stairs alone in the office

Is it time to welcome a new board chair?

Are you board chair because you have goals for the organization that haven’t been met yet or because you keep getting asked?

I was once working with a nonprofit board where the board chair had been the same since the year I was born – and I’m not a preschooler or even a recent college grad. It takes dedication to serve an organization that long, and I want to preface this post with a round of applause for all board chairs, knowing firsthand how demanding that role can be.

However, this particular board was struggling to get folks engaged. The board chair knew something needed to change, but they didn’t have the skillset to make it happen. They had a valuable historical perspective on the organization, but struggled with envisioning what a different future might look like or how to get there. They also had a hard time imagining how new members might contribute to co-creating that future.

If you’re in a similar place as a board chair – your nonprofit has moved onto a different lifecycle, the community the nonprofit is serving has shifted demographics, your board is looking to bring in different perspectives and lived experiences, there’s a new executive director, or your own life circumstances have shifted – it might be time to consider your next leadership move: passing the baton.

Here are six helpful questions to ask to help determine if it might be time to help welcome in new leadership:

  1. Am I being successful in this role?
  2. Am I delegating enough?
  3. Has something shifted? This may be a shift in the organization, in the external environment, or in your own life.
  4. What am I doing to cultivate the next board chair?
  5. Have there been challenges lately that you felt you weren’t able to meet or that you didn’t have the skills to overcome?
  6. Are you board chair because you have goals for the organization that haven’t been met yet or because you keep getting asked?

If you’re the executive director or a peer board member, you also have some obligation to reflect on what leadership is needed for where your nonprofit is at and where you want to go. One helpful practice that we recommend for all nonprofits is to have board term limits. Be clear about what they are, if they are renewable, and up to how many times. You could also consider if an executive committee may be a better fit than a board chair. Note: executive committees have their own drawbacks, such as the potential for an in-group/out-group dynamic.

Because it can be hard to start the conversation about moving on if the board chair themselves isn’t bringing it up, you may want to ask them, “Where do you want to build a new muscle? What other areas are interesting to you?” Maybe you have a new board committee that could benefit from experience and long-term insights, or maybe they could help revive a committee that has atrophied. Perhaps they could serve on an advisory committee. These all open up new opportunities rather than thanking a person for their dedication by saying “get out!”

No matter your tenure as board chair, self-reflection can help ensure you’re still the best fit for the job. In a recent success story, I was working with a client whose board chair discovered through our Board Boot Camp training that they didn’t have the right skills (or leadership passion) for the organizations’ current life stage. This board chair was instrumental in getting the nonprofit started and loved doing the programmatic work. However, when the board role shifted from a working board to a policy board as the nonprofit grew, they realized it was time to step back – their passion didn’t meet what the organization needed in the current chair. That board member continues to be involved, but in ways that leverage their love for the programming, while a new chair with different passions and skills stepped up. It was a win-win.

At the end of the day, if you’re the board chair, the real question you must ask is: Is this about me or is this about the organization? And remember, one powerful way to lead is to create space for new leaders.

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