Friday, 16 August 2013

Heaven or hell, or maybe somewhere in between? The crucial relationship between Charity CEO and Chair.

I'm going to put to one side my continued frustration about the highly distracting and damaging public debate about about senior executive salaries in the charity sector. I, like many others, have said their bit. 

This week I wanted to focus on the crucial relationship between a Charity CEO and her or his Chair of Trustees. 

Why have I chosen this subject? Well, I have just been elected as Chair of Trustees at the charity at which I have been a trustee since 2009. It is a wonderful international children's charity called ChildHope and I am proud and very honoured to have been given this opportunity. After our last trustees meeting, where my election as Chair was formally announced, my CEO Jill Healey emailed the outgoing Chair and I a paper entitled 'A Marriage Made in Heaven. The Relationship Between Chairs and Chief Executives in Charities' by 2011 Fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme, Penelope Gibbs. This coincided with me having read the previous week an article in Third Sector entitled 'Chief Executives Under Pressure'. So I thought this would be a good subject for my weekly blog.

I was struck by the statistics quoted by Jenny Berry of ACEVO in Third Sector, that almost 50% of the calls to the ACEVO CEO crisis helpline were from CEOs who had a problem with their relationship with their Chair. Penelope Gibbs' paper helps to provide a really good explanation for what can go wrong with the relationship and what can go right, as does Jenny Berry's frequent recommendation to CEOs that they need to work on the relationship 'like a marriage'.

It seems like there are some key factors to the relationship working. The first is a 'flexible understanding of roles and responsibilities'. Now this for me is crucial. The relationship with my CEO will change from how it is now as a trustee to how it will be when I am an experienced Chair. The fact is I have never chaired a board before, so this will be a massive learning curve for me. I am quite clear about my role and how it differs from that of the CEO, but we will need to agree these roles early on in our relationship. My CEO will also have to accept that the way I want to run the Board will be very different to the way it was managed by the previous Chair, as will the way I want to manage her. Note to self: agree the ground rules, roles and responsibilities and keep them flexible.

The second factor is the 'ability to challenge and accept challenge'. Again this is crucial. Going back to my own situation, I am confident that Jill will allow me to challenge things where appropriate and likewise I would expect her to challenge me. We have different backgrounds and areas of expertise and experience, and we need to make sure that the way we lead the organisation takes full advantage of these differences. I look forward to this dynamic greatly and will enjoy the learning I gain from it. Note to self: challenge! If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got!

The third factor Gibbs identifies is 'skills of empathy, communication and managing the board'. Well I would like to think I have these qualities and skills. I use them every day in my life as a senior manager, and feel I can transfer them to my role as Chair. The bit I have no prior experience of is managing a CEO. Yes of course I have managed CEOs 'upwards' but never in a formal relationship. Again, I am looking forward to the learning this will give me and I am hoping that my learning will benefit me in my day job as well as as a volunteer.

The fourth factor is 'skills of  on the part of the CEO'. I would have thought this applied to the Chair too. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a Chair who is passionate about the cause they represent and wants only the best for the organisation to be faced with a CEO who does not have these qualities and skills. What this can cause is conflict between the CEO and their staff team and the CEO and the Board. One hears about these so-called 'psychopathic leaders' and I can only sympathise with the organisations that have to work with them. I am grateful that in my first role as Chair I will not have to face such a situation, and that my CEO has humility, communication and self-awareness!

'Commitment to the cause' is the fifth factor and this goes without saying. I would be surprised if commitment is the issue, but a mutual understanding of the vision and mission might be. I can think of organisations where the CEO and Chair have a differing views on the mission of the organisation, and this can cause issues for both meeting beneficiary needs and trustee and staff morale. A similar situation might exist where the Chair and CEO disagree over vision and mission. Note to self: Make sure we have a common understanding of the vision and mission (I am sure we do, but useful to check!)

The final factor is the rather hard to describe issue of 'getting on'. Now this is about personal chemistry. Do you get on as individuals? You don't need to have anything in common but the organisation itself, but the CEO and Chair need to get on as individuals, and as we saw at the start of this blog, one needs to work on this 'like a marriage'.In my opinion, and that of some that Gibbs interviewed, you don't need to be friends although you do need to be friendly. In fact being friends can make it harder, because at some point as a chair you will have to make a difficult decision or say something that your CEO will not want to hear.

In addition to these factors I would like to look briefly at a couple of things that I think will help make the relationship work. Firstly the Chair should have a good induction. They should meet key staff members to learn about what they do, and what their priorities are. This should at the very least include the entire Senior Management Team. Secondly there should be formal 1:1 meetings between Chair and CEO; action points should be agreed and minuted. Thirdly there should be a formal appraisal process, providing the opportunity for the Chair to collect feedback on the CEO from their team and also for the CEO to give feedback on the Chair. Finally I think there should be a clear 'contract' between the CEO and Chair; this will clarify respective roles and responsibilities and also clarify the level of support the Chair is able and/ or expected to provide. 

I'd love to hear from you if you have any hints or tips about how I can be a better first-time Chair!

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