The role of the chair

The role of your group’s committee or management team (or whatever term you use to describe the group of people who volunteer their time to run your group) is to organise and facilitate the activities of the group, whilst supporting and protecting the reputation of the group and ensuring that legal responsibilities are met.  The role of the chair within this, is to oversee the work of the committee and the everyday activities of the group to ensure that these aims are achieved.

Everyone chairs in different ways – there is no right or wrong way of doing it. Some chairs get stuck in and are very ‘hands on’, others prefer to delegate as much as possible. What is important is that you choose a style that is best for you, your fellow committee members and your group. This guidance aims to give you an overview of the role of the chair, so that you can consider your best approach.

We will look at four elements of the role:
1)    Legal status of the role
2)    Leadership and strategy 
3)    Fostering constructive relationships
4)    Supporting decision-making

1)    Legal status of a chair

Legally speaking, a chair does not have more power than the rest of the committee - your committee shares responsibility collectively for decisions that are made. As chair, you only have a casting vote or the ability to take ‘chair’s action’ (when you make urgent decisions without consultation) if your constitution explicitly says this.

However, whilst the responsibility lies collectively with the committee, it would be usual for the chair to take the lead in matters of governance and compliance. 

Related resources:
•    Trustee handbook
•    Policies overview


2)    Leadership and strategy 

The chair of an organisation is almost always seen as the leader, and by taking on the role you should be willing and able to lead. However you choose to lead, you will have influence on the rest of your committee and your wider membership, and you will need to build and keep the trust of your colleagues.
•    Get to know your fellow committee members, their strengths and weaknesses, and support them to work in a way that is most effective for them
•    Learn to recognise that people react both rationally and emotionally, and how to respond in both cases
•    Don’t hold grudges
•    Don’t judge or make assumptions
•    Be self-reflective and open to learning
•    Be willing to make mistakes and to admit to them
•    Recognise the work and successes of your team, and encourage celebration of these when appropriate
•    Recognise when your team needs external help, whether that be from other volunteers, your membership organisation or another professional , and help that to happen

But leadership does not mean:
•    Asserting your status or imposing your view – allow everyone on your committee to have their say, try not to make decisions alone unless immediate action is what is required, and be prepared to accept that you may be outnumbered on some decisions.
•    Being involved in every process or decision – recognise that it’s ok to delegate, and trust other people to make decisions or to take action by themselves.
•    A post for life! Be open to the possibility of change and allow others to take over when the time is right. Read more on this subject in our succession planning resource.

As the chair, you will be seen as the leader not just of the committee, but of the group as a whole. This means that you should also have an eye on the bigger picture for your group. A good chair should be thinking about the medium and long term strategy and direction of the group - we have a number of resources you can delve into for further ideas.

Related resources: 

•    Running a committee
•    Creating a strategic plan
•    Succession planning

Appointing an external chair 

The vast majority of our groups appoint internal chairs (i.e.  someone from their wider membership). There are lots of good things about this but sometimes it can mean they are too close to the action, and it will be harder to make objective decisions. 

Something you might consider to counterbalance this, is appointing an external chair (i.e. someone who is not personally involved with the group) on either a temporary or permanent basis. An external chair offers a fresh perspective and can help you discuss divisive issues and reach difficult decisions more easily. You will need to consider the governance side of things, as often a constitution will say committee members must be members of your group; but you might be able to offer an honorary membership to help navigate this.

Related resources:
•    Trustee board composition and structure (external link) 
•    Finding new trustees (external link)


3)    Fostering constructive relationships

Relationships are vital to any organisation. Some relationships take time to grow, not everyone will get along, and disagreements will happen – these are part of human nature. How your committee manages and resolves them is something that as chair, you can influence and develop, by keeping an eye on the overall picture, helping people to manage their workloads and recognise their own strengths and weaknesses. Though the work of building and sustaining relationships will be done as a committee, the chair needs to have an eye on the success (or otherwise) of them, be able to recognise when things are going wrong, and step in to help resolve the issue.

The success of your committee depends on the relationships between those who sit on it, and between your committee and the wider membership. Not everyone on the committee will be the best of friends, but everyone will be working towards the same goals and will want to see the group thrive. As chair, you can help your committee to create productive relationships with each other whatever their similarities and differences, and create an environment for an efficient and co-operative committee.
•    Ensure that you are clear about the purpose and remit of your organisation, and that you and your fellow committee members all agree on your priorities, your values and the difference that you want to make. Ensure that these are re-evaluated on a regular basis.
•    Ensure that the views of everyone on your committee are heard and represented, don’t give undue weight to those who are the most vocal.
•    Be clear about boundaries, know who is responsible for what (role descriptions may help here), ensure that the tasks are fairly distributed, and that no-one is struggling is deliver what is expected of them.
•    Pay attention to conflicts that are not immediately resolved: take action before they can take root and/or cause division.
•    Ensure conflicts of interest are managed appropriately.
•    Invest time in the development of your committee as a team.
•    Ensure that your wider membership have a way to express their opinions and give feedback, and that their voices are heard and taken into account.

Your committee also needs to build useful relationships with other partners, not just with the local community as a potential supply of new members and audiences, but also with suppliers (equipment, music etc.), professional musicians, sponsors and funders.
•    Decide with your committee which of your external relationships are a priority for you, and how you will manage those relationships.
•    Be prepared to invest time and effort into sustaining external relationships.
•    Ensure that external partners are regularly thanked for their contributions in an appropriate way.
•    Ensure that your committee looks outwards and forwards, rather than maintaining an inward focus.

Key relationships for a chair

You may find some of your internal relationships will require more input than others. In particular, you can expect to work with your secretary and treasurer (or whoever is in charge of the money) more closely than others, and also you will very likely be the main contact point on the committee for your Musical Director. 

Your key relationships are important because any discord between you will be felt throughout the committee and possibly the wider group. Some degrees of tension are inevitable, but if you take the time to get to know each other; understand each other’s values, strengths and weaknesses; agree responsibilities, boundaries and a regular form of communication; then even when you disagree with each other you are much more likely to be able to negotiate your way to a satisfactory solution.

Related resources:
•    Running a committee
•    Committee role descriptions


4)    Supporting decision making

The chair oversees the decision making process, ensuring that all voices are heard, that the process is fair, and that decisions are sound and in the best interests of the organisation.
•    Ensure regular meetings take place with suitable agendas: make sure there is enough time to devote to weightier topics and consider having a meeting focused on just one topic if it seems necessary
•    Ensure that decision making processes are robust and efficient – don’t allow any periods for discussion or consideration to drag on
•    Help others to stay on topic during discussions, so that people stay focused on the decision at hand
•    Likewise, ensure that operational issues and details do not cloud or displace strategic discussion
•    Ensuring that decisions taken fit the purpose and aims of the organisation, and where applicable are within the limits of your constitution and other legal or bureaucratic requirements
•    Don’t be afraid to suggest that targets and timescales are reset as needed: recognise when something needs more time or when a more urgent decision is required
•    Ensure that decisions are carried out once they have been made, with appropriate resources and support in place
•    Have a clear idea of the environment your organisation operates in – what are the influences and demands on your group from your members, your audience, your suppliers/venues; what are the challenges you may need to overcome? Remember to relate these back to your organisational aims if necessary.


5)    A final thought:

Remember that as with all things that involve people, at times your own patience will wear thin and your temper will get frayed, and you may feel overwhelmed. Think about how you will deal with pressure if it arises, and what support you can put in place for those situations. Remember that you can always get in touch with Making Music to discuss issues if you need to.

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.