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CEOs and the board: a portrait of a busted bond

Does Penny Wilson's pen portrait of a CEO gone rogue, and a board ill-equipped to cope, ring true for your charity? Or do you know how to keep the bond from breaking?

Mike wakes suddenly from a fitful sleep at the sound of his children arguing over breakfast. He feels the anxiety slithering deep in his stomach before he pinpoints its cause. Then suddenly: a more piercing dread. Tonight is the trustees’ meeting.

Mike is a charity CEO. He works long hours. He feels acutely and personally the stress of working with people with complex needs. He carries this stress – along with the strain of running a multi-faceted, under-funded organisation – with him into all corners of his life.

He has got into a bit of a corner with his board. Talking to other charity CEOs, he knows it’s not uncommon but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

In Mike’s opinion, his charity’s board is a legally required nuisance. Just one more group of people, along with funders and commissioners, making parts of his working life a living hell. Life would be easier if he could just crack on without them sticking their beaks in.

He hauls himself out of bed and the day is punctuated with the kinds of crises which would make other people’s toes curl, but which have become fairly typical for Mike.

A longstanding funder sends an impersonal email to say that they won’t be funding the charity any more. A corporate partner still hasn’t paid a large long-promised donation and Mike is starting to worry that it may never come. A critical member of staff is signed off with stress. The water supply isn’t working in one of their buildings. A member of the public has complained to the Fundraising Regulator about one of their communications. Worst of all, a service user shares their suicidal thoughts with one of the charity’s volunteers. And this is all before lunch.

This is combined with the ongoing issues of income being down 45%, reserves being depleted to close to zero, staff being made redundant, and the number of service users going up by 60%.

At noon, the chair of trustees gets in touch to discuss tonight’s meeting. Mike sent the papers only yesterday, having not consulted the chair. The agenda is formulaic: the minutes from the last meeting, a written report on some projects and a finance update.

The chair asks if there is anything more meaty to discuss and Mike brushes him off. He needs more time to consider what to do about the impending crises and the trustees breathing down his neck won’t help. He’ll get his ducks in a row first and go back to them at the next meeting in three months’ time with a proposal. Mike ignores the nagging feeling that this might be too late.

At 5.55pm Mike logs onto Zoom for the trustee meeting. From his perspective, it starts well. The trustees nod through the minutes and the first report. Mike thinks “great, we should be done by 6.30.” Then the first killer blow strikes.

“Mike, I see that helpline calls are up 75% but we’ve had the funding cut. We need to shut the helpline.”

“Mike, you need to do more social media to build up your profile.”

“Mike, I met Sarah (a member of staff) the other day, and I told her that we ought to be expanding the project into Lancashire.”

“Mike, I read about a new app which can support people with their mental health. Let’s develop one.”

“Mike, you need to get more funding in. How about AstraZeneca? They must be rolling in it at the moment. Why don’t you email their CEO?”

“Mike, how are we going to deliver the same level of services with reduced staff?”

“Mike, Sam’s project report is full of typos.”

“Mike, I saw you in Tesco on Friday afternoon. Are you working your hours or do we need to reduce them to part-time?”

Mike feels under attack. He dodges and dives. Some comments get right to the heart of the organisation’s problems. Others, in his opinion, are laughably peripheral.

Because he hasn’t actually shared the things which keep him awake at night, the trustees are on the whole shooting in the dark. The meeting is all over the place.

And because there isn’t a constructive relationship between trustees and CEO, the trustees’ questions feel like personal attacks which need to be repelled.

The meeting ends and Mike dials off. He sits with his head in his hands, exhausted and utterly deflated. Then he weeps.

Don’t think this is far-fetched. It isn’t. I know for a fact that there will be CEOs reading this article for whom this is all too real.

And it could all go so differently.

So, how did Mike and his board get here?

  • The trustees aren’t clear on their responsibilities, including that of their duty of care to Mike.

  • There is no scheme of delegation, which means that the board swings between being overly operational and having no real ownership of the organisational strategy.

  • They haven’t agreed on a trustee code of conduct, and the chair isn’t fulfilling their role. Therefore, no one is trying to fix what is clearly a dysfunctional relationship. (Most haven’t even realised it’s dysfunctional).

  • No effort has been spent on building relationships, and therefore there is little trust. This leads to Mike keeping too much from the trustees for fear of attack, and leads the trustees to jump to worst case scenario conclusions.

  • The board doesn’t assess its own or Mike’s performance in any formal way, and neither trustees nor CEO think of their own development needs. They haven’t accessed any of the support available from organisations like ACEVO or the Association of Chairs.

It takes purposeful effort, diplomacy and self-awareness to build a functional relationship between board and CEO. Without those, the best you can hope for is muddling through.

From a CEO’s perspective, interactions with trustees (and not just in meetings) should feel hopeful and constructive, taking a weight off their mind as problems are discussed and ways forward agreed.

It will be impossible for Mike to turn the relationship around by himself. But after this awful meeting, when the chair emails to ask how Mike is (which no trustee has ever done before), and he decides to answer honestly, he thinks they might have made a start.

Penny Wilson is Getting on Board's CEO. This article is shared courtesy of Third Sector where it was first published.

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