The Chairperson—Part 1

Alex Macpherson, Chairperson of Octopus Ventures, with 30 years experience in Venture Capital; Alexander Asseily, Chairperson of Chiaro Technology Ltd and Jonathan Bryant from 360Leaders Executive Search and Talent Development.

Why would you need a Chairperson?

A Chairperson’s role goes far beyond effective Corporate Governance and managing the board. They may not show it, but a CEO can feel lonely and exposed. A good Chairperson will support and guide a CEO, occasionally offering push-back, even healthy opposition when needed. A solid sounding-board, removed from the action, can be invaluable to the CEO, and the wider team up to their neck in daily business. Lastly, a Chairperson will bring their own specific areas of expertise to the table, whether that be hiring, product, marketing or communications.

Of course, their role as manager of the board cannot be discounted either, the detached position of a Chairperson can stand for the bigger strategic policies often lost in intricate board discussions. Likewise, the board should benefit from a Chairperson’s ability to empower all its members to be heard, relate well to each other and even act as mentor to the team as a whole, testing and encouraging them. He or she will ask the right questions — possibly the difficult, or conveniently ignored ones — holding the team to account and (gently) pointing out areas of weakness, before they become gaping holes.

When is it right to bring a Chairperson on board?

A trusted source of advice, removed from the action, is a necessity for any CEO. But in an early stage company this role can be covered by a NED, reducing the need for a Chairperson. In this case a combined CEO-Chairperson is not only feasible but practical. Once a board is in place however, a stand-alone Chairperson is needed to ensure its smooth running.

Once your C-suite roles are filled a Chairperson may be required to make sure principles are leading over personalities, harnessing the management team’s varied resources to all pull in the same direction. Having said that, if the market fit hasn’t yet been proven, hiring a Chairperson may be premature. After Series A, with the company mission clearly cut, will be a more appropriate time.

What should you be looking for?

What does a great Chairperson look like? Certainly not a frustrated CEO. A Chairperson should be averse to daily detail and be willing to let the CEO shine. Trust and openness are crucial: if a Chairperson doesn’t speak openly, even bluntly at times, their contribution will be weakened. They should have experience with the business model, especially of early-stage operations, and a relevant live network of contacts. They will be great communicators but relentless positivity shouldn’t override an ability to say it as they see it.

You should be looking for someone who complements the team as a whole. For example, if the team is focused on the product then a Chairperson with experience in marketing would add more value.

How to make the most of your Chairperson?

How can a CEO ensure a productive relationship with a Chairperson? Communication is key. Talking through and around the business, communicating good — and bad — news as a priority and simply sharing ideas, help feed a productive relationship. An understanding based on candour allows constructively critical feedback to flow back and forth, along with the recognition that the situation is not competitive, but collaborative.

That’s the Why, When, What and How.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the three stages of the recruitment process.

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