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Who will be the Chair of the future?

What skills, capabilities and experiences will be required to be a successful Chair in 10-plus years’ time? How will boards operate and what will be their priorities?

Much has been written about the development of the role and responsibilities of the CEO and their executive team. However, there has been far less debate around one of the other most influential roles driving the impact and future success of businesses: the Chair of the board.

Through a series of interviews with some of the most experienced Chairs within British business, we have explored how the role will evolve to address the new demands and complexities of the job in our new paper – Chair of the Future.

From those conversations, it’s clear navigating an increasingly greater pace of change and uncertainty is at the heart of the Chair’s role; we see the emergence of five key themes which are influencing the board agenda:

  1. The rise of inclusive capitalism and the need to become a purpose-led organisation
  2. New technologies and new ideas: managing disruption
  3. An upsurge in stakeholder management and balancing conflicting dynamics
  4. The mounting burden of regulation
  5. Capital shifts from West to East and increasingly from public to private.

These themes are challenging traditional thinking around how the board operates, and consequently the role of the Chair. On the face of it, some Chairs may now appear less formal and more accessible. In reality, operationally there has been a fundamental shift towards the professionalism of boards, led by the Chair. Chairs of today find themselves in a significantly more demanding role.

Who will a future Chair need to be?

As our conversations turned towards the future, some of our interviewees reflected that the frame of reference for Chairs has changed. The more traditional descriptions of the role and responsibilities of the Chair considerably underestimate the demands and complexities of the job. With the evolution and professionalisation of boards, there is strong recognition that the role of the Chair has changed over the years.

Based on their comments, we have designed a new framework for thinking about the role of the Chair of the future.

While the terms of reference reflect elements of the role as it stands today, the areas outlined in the framework will significantly grow in importance over the next five to ten years.

It shows a profound shift underway in the boardroom mirroring the changing role of the corporation in society. Underpinning this is the overarching concept of the Chair, described by one interviewee as ‘The Chief Reputation Officer’.

With all these demands to orchestrate an effective board, Chairs of the future will need to be increasingly willing to flex their behaviours and personal style. There are a number of vital skills, characteristics and success factors that will continue to be relevant, regardless of circumstances. Strong emotional intelligence, being innately curious, humility and an understanding of the business and competitive landscape the organisation operates in will always have a place in the role of the Chair.

Deloitte’s leaders are constantly speaking with senior business leaders, board members and Chairs, and a recurring topic that we have heard again and again has been the opportunities and challenges for business brought about by the rapidly increasing pace of change in the world. This has led to a poignant question, what will be the future implications of this disruption for the Chair and the boardroom? How will they need to evolve and adapt in the coming years to be able to lead, operate and govern in this new evolving business landscape?

Nick Owen, Chairman, Deloitte North West Europe

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