Where Should the Board Chair, the ED, the Staff Sit?

Sounds like a trivial question, but where everyone sits not only reflects organizational philosophy, it sends a strong, visual message to everyone about authority, participation, and the role of the board.

How is a board meeting affected by where the board chair and the executive director sit? Where each sits, particularly in relation to each other, sends a message and influences how the meeting may go. Some board chairs and execs make a point of sitting next to one another at the head of the table: a clear signal about their authority and their partnership.

Reader M.K. Wegman of the National Network is even more detailed: "The board chair sits between the CEO and the COO at the top of the U." And executive director Roger L. explores the idea but rejects it: "Most board presidents have wanted me to sit right next to them so that I could provide tidbits of information as necessary or write a brief note regarding another member's comments. I have always found these activities a bit disconcerting. . . I prefer to sit directly across from the board president: this gives an opportunity to send body messages to show where I am standing on an issue, and vice versa. This way we can convey nearly the same messages without appearing obvious."

Tennis match?

Many board chairs and executive directors choose to sit at opposite ends of the table to encourage participation from other board members. But Garry Owens notes that if the chair and ED sit at opposite ends, the board members "feel as though they are at a tennis match looking back and forth."

We like executive director Darrel Wilson's thoughtfulness: "I sit at mid-table at a right angle where I can see the president. Some board members always sit in the same place, so I move a bit to sit next to different people."

Should staff sit at the board table?

We were surprised at the apparent lack of thought given to where the staff should sit or whether they should even attend the board meeting. Reader Mary Lynn noted that "most staff come only when they 'have to.'" Reader N.F. commented that the staff never attends board meetings and, as a result, they "never have a chance to express an opinion or hear first-hand the board's opinions and ideas."

Where should staff sit? "Wherever" was what more than one reader responded, or "at the table." But if too many staff are physically at the table, it may be much harder for the board to feel as a cohesive group. It may also be a challenge for board members to remember who are their fellow board members and who are staff. Yvonne Hudson suggests that board members cluster at one end of the table opposite from the end where the chair and the ED sit. We also like Bryan Smith's suggestion that staff who will be giving reports or participating in a discussion should sit at the table, but others should "retire to the gallery" to strengthen the board's sense of self.

Net net

The takeaway? If thoughtful seating can help you get a leg up on achieving a particular goal at a board meeting, why not be strategic about it. So think about what messages you want to send, and sit accordingly. It's not a trivial question after all.

Jan Masaoka is editor of Blue Avocado, and a frequent speaker and author on nonprofit boards. She is former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and currently on the board of New America Media. She wrote Best of the Board Cafe, now in its Second Edition, available here.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (21)

  • I agree with Bryan Smith's recommendation that staff should sit in the 'gallery' unless they are presenting to the Board. This is first and foremost the Board's meeting. Staff are present to either provide information to the Board or to listen to the discussions and decisions made by the Board. When staff are simply invited to 'sit at the table' it is too easy for the boundaries between Board Members and staff to become blurred. Staff in particular need to clearly understand their role at Board meetings and seating can be an effective way of reinforcing their role. Bryan Nelson, President Vista Management Solutions, Inc.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'd like to answer this from the perspective of one particular staff member - the ED's assistant who is taking notes on the meeting. If I were to sit in the "gallery" in our meeting space, I'd be looking at the backs of about 1/3 of the Board members present. It's important to me to be at the table so I can hear what the soft-spoken Board members say, and watch faces and body language to catch the nuances for my summary of a discussion. Plus, it helps Board members to know where to turn, literally, for a copy of the Bylaws and the other background docs I always bring. It seems to work well for me to sit at a corner of the Board table, at the far end from the Chair, and close to the door for the benefit of late-arrivers.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Good point. And thank you for doing this work. I know that taking notes in meetings is a very unappreciated, difficult job.

    Don't forget what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once pointed out: everyone talks and argues in a meeting, but then if you are the note-taker, you can put what you want in the notes and hardly anyone will even notice. :)

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Coming from a rather small nonprofit, the idea of sitting at a table at all made me laugh. The six board members and I (the ED) sit on couches in a circle, with no regard for who has the "head" of the table. It is difficult to be disrespectful of someone when you are sharing a couch (and personal space) with them. So in this regard we have better discussions than if we sat at a table. We still argue and debate, but it never gets out of hand. (How can it, when you have a purring cat on your lap?) Larger groups might not find this feasible (or professional enough), but it works for us.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This is why I love this publication. Lots of discussion, widely varying styles and humor to boot.

    In my organization our Ad Team (4 staff representing departments) attend all board meetings, with an additional staff attending for a 3-5 minute "Educational Presentation." In addition, Board and Staff together have a full development day each year, targeting topics that are current and important for that year. (i.e. SWOT analysis and strategic planning, development, client services, etc.) It builds a much stronger "TEAM". I personally feel that directors that keep their staff and board entirely separate are more interested in keeping their job and controling all possible outcomes, than building the organization.

    CEO

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This is great -- really exemplifies collaboration, inclusiveness and using the full human resource capacity available to the organization.

    So I'd like to ask some advice.

    I am a staff professional (for communication, community affairs & education) at a nonprofit where I am the only person other than the CEO with experience at a senior level. Yet until very recently, the tradition has been that staff almost never attended any board meetings at all. Over our half-century history, there has been significant leadership turmoil at least 4-5 times, usually due to poor communication. In fact, until about a decade ago, staff were not even informed who the board members were!

    Now, we're facing potential encroachment from another local organization and the need for outreach is particularly keen. The CEO does occasionally consult me for professional counsel but despite my having given her several "plans in progress" when she was hired two years ago, I don't think she fully grasps all I'm capable of contributing. (Maybe she never read the plans?) The board also doesn't appear to know my capabilities -- I've been on staff about four years and have been invited to all of two board meetings.

    Having served as a board member myself with other organizations, I find this extremely frustrating. I don't feel that I need to be at or participate in every single meeting, but for purposes of strategic communication (my expertise), it feels strange not to be included when organizationally we should be expanding our two-way communication efforts.

    Any suggestions how to convince my CEO and our board chair to clue me in with a more frequent seat even in the "gallery"?

    Mar 16, 2011
  • I agree. In the non-profit world, to be our most effective and to have the greatest impact, we need to first create a sense of Community. When people feel they belong to the community, they take more responsibility. I have seen non-profits crumble and die because they adopted a form of exclusion, either to the community at large or their own staff. To begin creating a community, you start with yourselves, which includes all staff, board and other paid participants. Exclude someone at the "table" and they remember. Include someone, and you will light them up. It is time for everyone to get over the ability to "exclude" or behave in a way that divides your community. If you can't include everyone in your own organization, you won't succeed. BJ Osborne CFO (because money matters)

    Jan 17, 2012
  • Ten years ago, I joined the board of a nonprofit which seemed to make no distinction between staff and board when it came to who sat at the table. My first meeting was deeply confusing -- I came from the corporate world where staff would wait outside the board meeting room to be summoned in, a process surely designed to be intimidating and to reinforce power structures. (That's what Anonymous CEO also suggests, in essence.)

    I don't think it had ever occurred to anyone at the nonprofit that there could be anything wrong with staff and board sitting at the table. "We're all in this together, aren't we?", seemed to be the approach. After the initial surprise, I came to like the system, although it became less useful as the organization grew. At that point, aside from the ED and the CFO, staff generally had better ways to use their time than by sitting listening to us waffle on.

    I prefer it if the Chair and the ED sit apart. Not at opposite ends of the table, because it can indeed then seem like a contest, but apart. This tends to suggest that there is some independence between the two and that the board has some influence in proceedings. Which is what we want, surely. (Why else have a board?)

    Possibly more important that where the Chair and the ED sit is who is going to defuse those who tend to ramble or obfuscate. (See the cartoon!) The Chair can do this very well by making sure she sits beside to the ramble-cator at the next meeting. This often can, mysteriously, change the tone of things for the better.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • I like all these comments from different points of view. To me, the biggest danger in a board meeting is for staff, especially the executive director, to dominate the meeting. If the board doesn't see itself as a coherent body, it's hard for them to act. I know that as a board member if there are too many staff at the table I feel like we board members are a little lost.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Interesting article and comments about an issue little appreciated for its impact on board productivity. I have been on both sides of the staff/board member "divide", and the critical issue seems to be the preparedness of the board as a whole. To a great extent, preparedness depends on the working style of the chair, the relationship between the chair and executive director, and the level of focus and committment of the individual board members. Periodic board retreats provide opportunities for senior staff and board members to become more knowledgeable about the individuals, exchange ideas, and strengthen working processes designed to address organizational priorities. I find that this helps the dynamics in the actual board meeting, ultimately making each meeting more focused and productive.

    Lloyd

    Mar 16, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Our board Chair sits at on end of the table and, as the CEO, I sit next to them and our COO sits next to me. If other division Directors or staff have presentations to make to the board they come in at a scheduled time, make there presentation and leave after Q & A. Our board meetings are taped by a third party via teleconference so we have to remind the members that they are being recorded. the transcription is reviewed and edited by the CEO, COO and board Secretary who has the final say regarding what constitutes the official version of the minutes.

    Mar 16, 2011
  • Your organization must be quite large, so perhaps there's a need for such formality. (That's the polite term for what you describe.)

    Have you ever wondered what your set up looks like to new board members? Are they comfortable with the strong hierarchical signals you're giving? Do you have relatively fast board turnover? Are those things related?

    What would you and the Chair do if a staff member asked to stay after their presentation and listen to the rest of the meeting? Would there be something wrong with that?

    Last thought: surely it's the board members who have "final say regarding what constitutes the official version of the minutes," not the Secretary. Of course the Galbraith Effect comes into play and the Secretary can generally get away with promulgating the 'official' version, but attentive board members will be alert to that.

    Mar 16, 2011
  • As board president for our non-profit I prefer to not sit in the same spot at the table if at all possible. I feel it gives my board members more of a sense that we are working all together rather than them focusing on me at the head of the table. My ED tends to move around as well. If we have guests, they are invited to attend at the first part of the meeting, do their presentation, have dinner with us,and then leave. All board members sign up to provide dinner...gives us a little time to connect and relax before we get down to business. Is it really necesary for there to be a set seating format?

    Mar 17, 2011
  • Anonymous

    How do folks feel about the seating issue at events? As head of our dev department at a npo medical center I worked for, my department was responsible for throwing a STAFF appreciation event. Being a direct service org, there were many staff and we were in a tight picnic area...the board, led by a particular member who made even my somewhat abrasive NYC blood curdle, quickly took all the shady tables. Even though there was extra room at the tables, they made no effort to be inviting to staff, leaving many of the staff to sit balancing their plates in their laps on rickety chairs instead of enjoying a relaxing afternoon of, uhm, appreciation.

    I brought it up later in a management meeting and there were mixed opinions: some thought the board should get priority no matter what, while others (including myself) felt that honoring our dedicated/underpaid staff as intended was more important...and really I feel that the board should have taken initiative to show their gratitude and been busing tables or serving food instead of sitting like royalty.

    Change of venue in the future and better seating planning aside...what do people think?

    Mar 18, 2011
  • So why are the board invited? Don't they get enough perks as it is? Do you have enough status to approach the board chair and explain the situation and ask her advice? At least then she'll know what happened -- and that it upset a number of staff members, who now think that board members, including the chair (and, by extension, the CEO) are selfish little shits.

    Mar 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'll never forget the board meeting I attended where there were so many staff of this organization sitting at the table, that the few trustees who arrived late, found that there were no available seats! When I saw those tardy trustees take a seat around the perimeter of the room - not at the board table - I spoke up and asked some of the staff to change positions with them. That meeting was a turning point in the governance model for that organization; we moved very quickly out of the over-reactive version of the Carver model we had been operating in! Where people sat at that board meeting clearly had an impact and conveyed a strong message!

    Apr 11, 2011
  • Responding to the where should the board chair and ED sit at the board meeting question. I think the board chair and ED should sit next to each other. If other staff are at the meeting, I think they should sit with the board member they support/work with the most.

    Sep 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Where should we all sit? Really, do we need to waste time treating people as if they were in grade school? I hope not. I have a small board and a small non-profit, so maybe I just don't "get" it. We all sit wherever we are most comfortable! Staff join us for lunch but not the meeting.

    Dec 06, 2011
  • I feel that it's not about grade school, it's about making meetings work. If your board works well regardless of who sits where, I'm happy for you. It's just that it doesn't always work out that way. Illustration: I once served on a board where there was a very antagonistic board member. I found myself often rising to the bait he threw out. We'd squabble & then others would join in. Then I discovered that if I sat next to him in board meetings, not only did we not fight (& waste everyone's time) but we actually started to get along & be productive.

    Dec 06, 2011
  • Anonymous

    If the board meets at a long conference table, I like the chairperson/ president to sit in the middle, rather than at one end. It allows for better contact with everyone around the table. From my experience as both a board chair and an Executive Director, I like the Ex Dir to sit next to the person chairing the meeting.

    Dec 06, 2011
  • From Mindy Berkowitz At our small (14 member) board meetings we found that it was much easier if the exec director and president sat among the rest of the board members at round or roundish table. This way no one was separate, and no one could hide!

    Dec 06, 2011

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