Gander International Airport Authority Chairperson Des Dillon will never claim to be a governance guru, but he does have a lot of experience in the chair’s seat. In fact, he has chaired a dozen boards and committees over the last half decade, everything from health boards to government committees on rural development. Beyond that, he serves on ten volunteer committees. His civic service has earned him the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Canadian Order of the Red Cross, among other honors.
Des has served on the GIAA board for almost six years and has served as Chairperson since September of 2014.
“Every Chairperson brings a different approach to the job,” he explains. “I’m not saying my approach is any better than anyone else’s, but I have learned a lot along the way, most of it through trial and error. We have a high performing board at the GIAA with great, committed people. It makes the chair’s role a lot easier.”
We tapped Des to provide his top tips for productive meetings and strong governance.
1) Understand why you are there and get a good grounding. It can take a new board member years to get versed in the business of the board. At the airport authority, we have a comprehensive orientation program which helps build the first few rungs up the ladder. The big thing is that directors have a sense of purpose. The airport board is a policy and oversight board. We chart the course but it is the staff who that does the rowing. Good orientation and clear terms of reference for directors are crucial. It can also help to appoint a seasoned board director as a mentor to a new appointee.
2) Understand the line between board and management. Board creates the policy. Management operates the airport on a day-to-day basis. No board understands the business to the level of management, nor could it be expected to. It’s an important segregation of roles. If you do this long enough, you’ll understand when it’s time for the board to lean in and when it’s time to step back and entrust staff to do the work. The chairperson runs the board. Our CEO Reg Wright runs the airport with his team. There’s an important difference and those lines need to respected and protected. Many board problems arise when board members try and run the business. It’s not their job.
3) Involve the entire board as much as is reasonably possible. Every board has a different model that works for it. Many have an active Executive Committee to do the heavy lifting. I’m sure Executive Committees have their place, but I try very hard to avoid using them. In my view, an Executive Committee is to attend to emergency business or situations where the full board can’t be convened. If you aren’t careful, an executive committee can fast replace the board. Board decisions in the hands of too few people can be unhealthy, in my view. I know it works for some organizations, but we haven’t had an Executive Committee meeting in my time as Chair. It’s the same with board committees. We have three active committees that will tackle specific items. However, the committee chairs bring detailed reports back to the full board and explain their thinking on any given recommendation.
4) Make it a priority to get and keep top board talent. Airport authority boards usually seek out directors with a few coveted traits – finance, governance, engineering, aviation, law, communications, labour relations. Those are the skills you look for collectively. Any one person with all of those skills at a high level is probably running a country somewhere. It’s important to review your board composition and see where any holes might be. From the airport authority perspective, there are a few gaps we are working to fill. We also strive for gender and geographic balance – the airport is a regional asset. You should also never dismiss prospective board members because their experience and skills aren’t perfectly aligned with criteria. Some of the best directors I’ve worked alongside are people from broad backgrounds who aren’t specialists in any specific discipline.
5) The chair shouldn’t dominate. In my opinion, the chair is there to facilitate productive discussion and direct traffic. It can be easy for a chair to wield power at the expense of the board. Invite opinions, listen very carefully and keep things on task. You can provide good leadership without taking over.
6) Take time for a deep inward look. You go in for an annual medical, and the Doctor will probably ask how you are feeling. Boards are no different. Every so often, you need to take a critical look and do your own health check. Do we have the right people around the table? Is the information flow good? Are board discussions at the right level? What could we do better? What do we need to do less of? At the GIAA, we did an anonymous board survey where every director answered 35 questions about our governance structure and performance. We took those findings and discussed them as a group. That information helps shape how we run the board and how we recruit for the board. Even if the findings are positive, it’s a worthwhile exercise.
7) Find time for the big picture. It’s easy for boards and committees to get tied up with the mundane business of a board meeting. The danger is losing sight of the big picture. Who are we? Where are we trying to go? Have we charted the right course to get there? We devote a full day a year to the big picture strategic issues. This lets us think broadly and long-term. The challenge, especially in aviation, is always to see up and over the horizon.
8) Get it on the table. Questions and concerns are useless if they are bottled up in a board member’s brain. You have to get them on the table. If you have something you want addressed, raise it. If we don’t have an immediate answer, we’ll get one. No one should leave the board table with a nagging sense something has gone unaddressed.
9) Get around the table. Whatever organization I’m involved with, my wife Jeanne and I always try to host offsite functions. We’ve started a tradition where we host the board for a social at our cabin or house once a year. Jeanne and I have done this for just about every organization we are involved in. I believe that the relationships you build around the dinner table mean the board table is a more productive place. At day’s end, it’s all about the relationships between people.
10) Let no voice go unheard. We end every meeting the same way. I go around the room and ask every attendee individually if they have any thoughts or issues to add. Sometimes they will, often they won’t. The key is that you have provided the opportunity.
11) One voice at a time. This goes back to elementary school values, but it’s an important Golden Rule for all committees. At the board table, only one person speaks at a time. While someone else is speaking, listen attentively, even if you disagree with their perspective. It’s a simple form of respect. Don’t speak over people, allow them to finish their thought before responding. Don’t carry on sidebar discussions with your neighbor at the table.
12) Use meeting time wisely. There’s a time to let discussion breathe and a time to cut it off. Keep your meetings tight and productive. Unless we are tackling a major issue, our board and committee meetings typically run an hour and fifteen minutes. Productivity wanes in long meetings. If you can’t deal with an issue on a timely basis, park it, defer it for further study and make sure you circle around to it at the next meeting.
13) Chairing an organization is highly rewarding. I’ve really enjoyed the privilege of chairing boards and committees. To people new to the role, the chairpersonship is not something you get into lightly. There is a fair amount of work and responsibility between meetings that will require your time, full attention and best effort. People expect you to be available and there are a lot duties and responsibilities that come with it. If you believe deeply in what your organization is trying to do, chairing a board or committee will be a deeply rewarding experience.
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