Becoming the Chairman

By Didier Cossin and Michael Watkins

The move from CEO to Chairman is a major role shift. Success requires a set of leadership qualities which few CEOs have exercised in their previous roles. In this article, the authors elaborate on the qualities of great Chairmen and how executives can prepare for this new governance role.


The qualities that make a great CEO do not make a great Chairman.1 The role of non-executive Chairman, long a fixture in European companies, is becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States (See below – The changing face of governance in the U.S. and Europe). The job of the Chairman is also increasing in importance and complexity, as companies grapple with more technological disruption, geopolitical instability, regulatory uncertainty and social transformation. These can be blind-spots for operating executives, who by design are incentivised to focus on shorter-term performance. As a result, non-executive Chairmen increasingly are leading transformations that go far beyond CEO removal. Shareholders and society at large look at the Board, led by the Chairman, as having ultimate responsibility for business failure or success, having picked the CEO and approved the strategy.

Moving from an executive to a governance role requires a different style all together, one of balance and controlled distance, that allows for support, supervision and co-creation while jointly setting high-level objectives.

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About the Authors

Didier Cossin is Professor of Governance and Finance at IMD. He is the Founder and Director of the IMD Global Board Centre, the originator of the Four Pillars of Board Effectiveness methodology and an advocate of Stewardship. He is the author and co-author of the book Inspiring Stewardship.

Michael D. Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at IMD. He has spent the last two decades working with leaders as they transition to new roles, build their teams and transform their organizations. He is the author of the international bestseller The First 90 Days, which The Economist recognised as “the on-boarding bible”.


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