The breakdown of relations between a chief executive and trustee board is a common complaint in the charity sector, so how can this be prevented?
The source of many charity ailments is the painful breakdown of the relationship between charity chief executive and board. But many get it right.
What are the signs of a healthy board/chief executive relationship?
The chief executive fesses up when something isn’t going very well, when they don’t know the answer to a question or when they need help.
The board accepts that the chief executive is a human being who might sometimes make mistakes, and recognises that the road to charitable impact can be bumpy.
This requires a certain lack of formulaic stuffiness in meetings. The onus is on trustees to discourage this because it's hard to be honest about mistakes if the chief executive is trying to put on a good show the whole time.
The job of a board is to challenge – this is governance 101. It might feel more pleasant and harmonious to never question the chief executive, but the board must hold the chief executive to account.
But challenging constructively takes practice, diplomacy and the ability to put yourself in the chief executive’s shoes. Helpful challenge does not include the following:
“There is a typo on page 4 [of this internal board report].” “Can I ask why you have totally and repeatedly failed to deliver this programme on time? We must have answers.” “I discussed our situation with a friend [who works in a wildly different industry, sector and organisation] and he recommended that we [do something so out of sync with the capabilities of the organisation that the chief executive doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry].” “Well I think we all agree that [a huge decision that has not been discussed, and which is contrary to the direction the chief executive thought the organisation was going in].”
Duty of care
Great boards take good care of their chief executives. They check in with them. They ask how they can help. They buy them Bounty bars.
Trustees also take care of each other, and chief executives and chairs take kind action if they see a trustee is struggling to undertake their duties, whatever the reason. The action might just be to ask them if they are okay.
Mutual respect and trust
Trustees respect the chief executive, and the chief executive respects the trustees. Their starting point is to assume the best of each other.
The board understands that the chief executive, like the majority of sector leaders, is over-stretched, underpaid, a jack-of-all-trades and hugely committed to the organisation. And that they probably have a problematic biscuit habit.
The chief executive understands that trustees have other stuff going on in their lives (jobs, caring responsibilities, hobbies, a life) and that being a trustee may not be their main focus all of the time. Shock horror.
Understanding of roles
Many relationships between boards and chief executives fail because there is disagreement on trustee vs chief executive roles. Some of this is written in stone (your governing document, the law). Some of it depends on your organisation. These grey areas are where danger lies.
Something that feels like trustees meddling to a chief executive is likely to be a trustee trying to be helpful.
Effective relationships are built on clear role descriptions, an understanding of the legal responsibilities of trustees, and agreeing (then writing down and regularly reviewing) who does what.
Mission above all else
Chief executives and trustees are there to fulfil the organisation’s mission. So why do arguments get so personal? Why do trivial disagreements (the new font, the pictures that will go on the wall, whether Michael dissed Michelle) take over?
Great chief executives and boards are focused on mission. They think hard about how they are going to leave the organisation in a better state than they found it. They are self-aware and self-effacing. They actively want to hear each other’s opinions, and they relish the respectful debate that paves the way to better decisions.
So, are your board and chief executive happily married or on the rocks?
Bounty bars and biscuits can be sent c/o Penny Wilson, chief executive of Getting on Board. This article originally appeared in Third Sector Magazine.
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