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The Vice Chair Role: How to Write Your Own Job Description

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vice chair

I currently serve as vice chair of a board. It’s a gig I love, perhaps more than I ever expected.

In truth, my expectations were pretty vague on my first day on the role. Most boards define the position in terms of what it isn’t, rather than what it should be. Not quite the chair, I’m a lady-in-waiting without a job description.

Given that this is my second turn as a vice chair, you might think I would have it down cold. The role is tricky, however, carrying responsibilities that vary with circumstances. One vice chair I know recently noted that he even played different parts under two different chairs of the same board. So much of a vice’s opportunity for impact depends on subtleties that a policy document can’t summarize.

With that said, a vice chair can’t throw up her hands and drift through the next board meeting. If you are new to the role or looking to boost your performance, consider 5 contributions you can make as you write your own job description.

Sounding board for the chair

Just as CEOs find it lonely at the top, so too do board chairs. Fortunately, a strong vice can listen and respond to a chair who likes to test her ideas before committing. When planning a board offsite or appointing new committee leaders, many chairs lean on the vice chair for feedback.

Reader of the room

Even the most attentive chair misses important cues in a meeting. Between managing the agenda, tracking the speaker’s list, and synthesizing progress, it’s only natural to overlook directors’ body language and side glances. The vice chair can serve as a second set of eyes on the room, highlighting moments in the discussion that deserve more time or a follow-up conversation with an individual director.

Coach of new directors

I’ve written previously about the benefit of working with a “board buddy.” There is no rule against that buddy being the vice chair. In fact, the vice often has the most informed perspective on how a director is perceived by management and other directors. If you see an opportunity for a colleague to raise her game, consider initiating a conversation. And then keep it going; coaching relationships tend to become more productive over time.

Special projects

When a chair’s plate begins to fill, the vice can step up to share the load. Doing so becomes an imperative in the event of a CEO search, an M&A opportunity, or some other event outside the norm. As an added bonus, these times of stress allow us to show our colleagues the kind of chair we may one day become.

Servant to the board

Rank-and-file directors tend to act alone, seeking answers to their personal questions and protecting their individual perspective. In contrast, a vice chair has the opportunity to become a servant to his colleagues. If the board appears hesitant, the vice can ease the tension. Later on, he may synthesize a discussion in a way that allows another director to advance the analysis. And if a line of inquiry drifts off track, the vice chair can call for a much needed break.

 

When I joined my first board, I assumed that the most tenured directors had the game figured out. There is a good chance, however, that my early vice chairs were unsure of their roles. Fortunately for them (and all of us), it is hard to fail a test that has no answer key.

Question: How would you describe the contributions of your most effective vice chairs?

Please share your response via Twitter, LinkedIn or e-mail.

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The Vice Chair Role: How to Write Your Own Job Description

by Tamara time to read: 3 min
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