The Chairman of an arts organisation is not a figurehead – they play a crucial role that comes with personal repercussions if things don’t go well. Fundamentally, the Chair and Directors are there to take legal and fiscal responsibility for the organisation and, quite rightly, this sets a tone of accountability from top to bottom.

But besides shouldering these responsibilities, what makes an effective arts Chair?

We asked Susan Oliver who understands the nuances of leadership and governance in large and small organisations. Susan is a professional non-executive director, director of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and teacher of strategy and risk modules with the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

She has observed a tendency in Australia to nominate people for arts boards because we know them, like them, or they have a good address book. But for such a serious position, these attributes are simply not adequate. She recommends organisations do their due diligence and treat the appointment as they would any key staff position.

“What Australia needs is an army of great arts leaders,” Susan told us. “Governance leaders and executive leaders.  And we should reward people for being good at it.”

We asked Susan what sets a good arts Chairman apart from the rest? And why it’s so important to choose your chair wisely.

Here are her 7 characteristics of successful and effective arts chairs:

  1. They demonstrate ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership demands consistency between the character of the individual, the values of the organisation and the compact it has with its community. Ethical leaders communicate and uphold expectations of how people ought to act in the different situations in which they find themselves.

Ethical leaders are role models.  They achieve alignment between what they do, what they say, the systems and processes they endorse, and the culture they allow to exist in an organisation.

  1. They understand artistic excellence.

Without necessarily being an artistic expert, a good arts Chair will build rapport and trust with key artistic staff.  They will fill in their own knowledge gaps by seeking the expert counsel of the artistic director, executive director and artistically-qualified others.

They know that arts organisations strive for balance and a healthy triple bottom line – artistic excellence, community contribution and financial sustainability.  Of these, artistic excellence underpins the organisation’s reason for being – and the mission is meaningless without all three.

  1. They are concerned with organisational culture.

This is fundamental to ethical leadership. Culture determines how people will behave, the experience they will have, how things get done, and they way important relationships are stewarded. It really matters if the culture is askew and team is not working well together. A good Chair will take steps to understand and set the situation to rights.

The Chair knows that monitoring and maintaining culture is the responsibility of the board because arts organisations achieve excellence and competitive advantage through talent and commitment of their people.

  1. They value the outliers.

Successful Chairs look for those who see things differently.  They seek colleagues who will challenge and reshape ideas, jump over the sacred cows, find new ways to combine resources and see patterns where others don’t.

  1. They know what to insist upon.

The best Chairs know what makes their organisation tick.  They know what really matters: what success look like; and what it looks like when things are going wrong.  They have their finger on the pulse of the things that make a difference. They know the data, the deal breakers, and what never to let go of.

  1. They retain a low power distance.

A successful arts Chair knows they’re not heading an ASX200 company. They are committed to building capacity inside their organisation and are available to the CEO as a sounding board, companion and counsellor.

A good Chair welcomes intelligent questions and different points of view, but knows how to make a hard decision. They understand their many roles in facilitating, guiding, harnessing the capability of the board, mentoring and demonstrating ethical leadership by walking the talk.

  1. They are great audience members and advocates.

Alongside the Artistic Director and CEO, the best Chairs are the greatest advocates for their organisation. They inspire others by talking about the mission, its work, impact and exciting developments.  Most importantly – they turn up.  With appropriate briefing, they’re always ready to roll up their sleeves and do the organisation’s bidding. They have a good relationship with the chief fundraiser and have no qualms about asking ‘what can I do to help’?

For an arts CEO, working with a good chair can be a formative experience and you and your organisation will gain great deal. So Susan urges organisations that are succession planning or recruiting a Chair to invest the time that this critical decision deserves.

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