Oftentimes, the role of a board chair is misunderstood. People see board chairs as having phenomenal power. In practice, however, most chairs have little control as they do their work. What they do rely on, though, is the power of trust.

Bosses hire and fire but chairs almost never have “boss” authority over the CEO. That’s the full board’s duty. Chairs don’t have a boss — a person who interviewed, hired, welcomed, saying, “Congratulations, you’re hired as chair!”

Chairs have nothing more than influence. They’re not genies with three wishes. Their only source of personal influence is trust.

Take trust away from any relationship, and you knock the legs out from influence.

Trustee of the Trust-T

Chairs rely on two key “axes of trust” to influence. The first (vertical) runs between the chair and the CEO. The second (horizontal) is trust between chair and board peer directors. These two axes, needing constant, simultaneous management, form the “Trust-T.” It is the chair — and only the chair — who is “trustee” of the Trust-T, responsible for the integrity of these two axes.

Developed from The Great Chair www.greatchair.ca

Whether it is horizontal or vertical, the chair is not “boss.” But that doesn’t mean the chair exercises personal influence (through trust) the same way across both dimensions.

Board peers dealing “horizontally” see the chair as a conduit — collecting advice and opinions from board members. But the chair can’t tip that unsorted wheelbarrow of diverse opinion onto the CEO’s desk. It must be organized into a clear, concise message and passed “vertically” to the CEO. The chair summarizes what they think is a fair view of what board members are saying and feeling, creating a collective view of the entity called “the board.” The chair forms one message, one opinion from various facts and opinions.

Creating “the view of the board” is a solitary act of the chair. The world and board members (and their opinions) change often enough. So, this “collective view” is fluid. It frequently changes.

Most chairs do not cultivate deep “personal sharing” relationships with others on the board. The trust between chair and peers is professional trust.

There are only a few professional trust “table stakes” items. Integrity is at the top of the list. Nobody wants to serve on a board where directors mutter among each other or privately wonder if the chair is dishonest, conflicted or has a personal agenda. Board members want to trust their chair knows the organization, challenges and opportunities. Directors want their chair to be a canary in the coal mine, involved enough with management to chirp if something looks off base.

Two-way personal trust between chair and CEO

The personal trust creation between chair and CEO relies on different leverage points. The vertical axis is the spine of an organization. It supports other structural “bones.” The CEO and senior team must trust the chair’s judgment of the “collective view.” Disarray results from a situation in which the CEO (and team) are blindsided by a chair who tells the CEO, “I’m confident the board will fully endorse X,” only to have X dropped in the garbage during a board meeting. Worse still is a situation in which the chair runs for cover, denying that he ever said X, letting the CEO swing in the wind, trashing trust and (perhaps) permanently damaging reputations.

Sometimes CEOs need to poke around the boundaries to understand limits to freedom to operate. For instance, a CEO might ask the chair about the board’s view of taking on new debt. The chair can’t run to the phone every time the CEO asks a question. So, there is a deeper element to the chair–CEO relationship. The CEO must have confidence in the timely and sound judgment of the chair — that the chair has a solid track record of being materially correct.

To the extent the chair offers thoughts of the “collective view” of the board, they are making a judgment call on how a collection of personalities will interact and engage in discussion, on facts they do not yet know at a meeting that has yet to occur. So, this also involves risk to the chair. The chair isn’t boss and can’t tell the board what to think or do. Boards have been known to react very badly when the chair wrongly interprets the “collective view.” A chair who blows line calls in the tennis match of board deliberation is not a great chair and probably will not be any kind of chair for long.

So, the vertical axis between the CEO and chair is two-way personal trust. The CEO must trust that the chair has an ability to consolidate the views of board members, including of hypothetical situations. The chair must trust that the CEO has the integrity, competence, and leadership skills to move the organization in the direction the board expects.

It goes further. The chair is responsible to develop personal trust to the level where the CEO has full confidence to disclose just about anything. That includes screw-ups or situations where the CEO does not know what to do. A CEO may be experiencing personal challenges — for example, family members with cancer. Or the CEO is challenged with an addiction. Or an intimate relationship with a subordinate. Or the CEO may be struggling with symptoms of depression.

In a perfect world, the CEO needs to have enormous trust to self-disclose to the chair — and have confidence that the disclosure will be accepted and dealt with in a fair, compassionate, responsible and understanding manner. For their part, the chair must judge if, when, what and how to share the information with peer board members.

Vertical trust is, therefore, a genuine two-way street. One-dimensional vertical trust — where all that exists is a CEO who trusts how a chair summarizes “the view of the board” is the sound of one hand clapping. The chair must also trust in the diligent judgment of the CEO. If a chair updates board colleagues with information from the CEO that is later seen as wildly improbable, there can be wholesale organizational degradation of trust.

How to bake trust

Trust. It is a short word. It is not a trendy word, like “selfie.” Yet, for all its brevity and power, we grip the concept of trust as well as we grip water.

Along with concepts like “wisdom,” trust has been a long-standing focus of study. Searching for insight into “trust,” there is perhaps no better universe to blast into than marriage. This is where “trust” is “all in.” Marriage, in theory, is forever. John Gottman is a psychologist who worked for more than four decades on predicting divorce, earning him a spot on Psychotherapy Networker Journal list of “Top 10: Most Influential Therapists.”

In his clinical practice counselling married people with real trust issues, Gottman advocates focusing on five trust criteria. The general principles he espoused are eminently transferable to the boardroom.

There’s no Joy of Cooking with step-by-step recipes to bake trust. You can’t check Gottman’s list, one to five. Each of the five criteria reinforces the other four. Dishonest people aren’t transparent. Ethical people will fall on a grenade — they have your back. People who are accountable have your back — they will not transfer blame. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you an trust somebody is to trust them.”

Where does a chair go with all of this? Let’s deal with practicalities. There are common themes from business schools and psychology that point a practical way forward.

To build trust, start by avoiding the safest road. Then, look for five guideposts.

  1. Look for openings to be transparent, to take personal risk through disclosure.
  2. Be vulnerable first.
  3. Communicate your experience — focus on instances of accountability, positive and otherwise. Listen, empathize and be compassionate.
  4. Support others as they choose to take risks to build trust. Have their backs.
  5. Let go of past incidents to sustain trust.

Look, initiate, communicate, listen, support, sustain. Creating trust is not a sprint. It is an endurance event. It must infiltrate your very being, become who you are, how you talk, how you move, how you carry yourself. You are the sole owner of your “brand” of trust.