Agony: Peter Cardy says you should value wisdom

Our columnist also advises on how to deal with your own errors and a board gone wrong

Peter Cardy
Peter Cardy

Q. Our founder is in her late 80s, still sharp as a razor. As chief executive I visit her about once a month, bring her up to date with what's happening and ask her advice. She is always reticent about offering it, saying that she's out of date, doesn't get out much, most of the people she knew are dead... but her observations are always spot-on. The current hierarchy is quite dismissive of her, however, and I am cautious about admitting that I still have a close relationship with her, in case I get treated dismissively as well.

A. She is your mentor and evidently that is widely understood. You don't have to mention her name very often, do you? Value the wisdom she still offers you and make sure she knows how highly you think of her, while she's still around to hear it.

Q. I have been our chair for a year; I had no previous experience and it was a surprise to be elected by a big majority. But I have fumbled my way so far and often feel inadequate. Longer-serving board members know much more, understand the jargon, the structures and the processes, and I have committed a few blunders. The worst part is that the chief executive treats me like a child, is patronising, forgets to introduce me at events, talks over me at meetings and leaps in to correct my errors in a way I find humiliating.

A. Courage, mon brave! My long career was founded on never knowing too much or pretending that I knew more than the experts. You might lack technical expertise, but you have two advantages: a new democratic mandate and plain common sense. Don't be over-sensitive about the chief executive: she's probably trying to help you through the maze and protect you from accidents. Try asking her for a chat over a coffee and explain frankly what you are experiencing. Tell her you need her to help and educate you, and to ensure your leadership role is properly delivered. My guess is that she will be horrified her attempts to be supportive are having the opposite effect and will be anxious to help you more. And if I'm wrong, well, you are the chair of the board whose main job is to hire and fire the chief executive.

Q. Our board includes, by constitution, four local councillors. It looked like a clever idea after the last local elections, but it has gone very wrong. They use the board meetings as a playpen in which to rehearse their politics, and a couple of the recent meetings have been totally hijacked. They are in a minority on the board but they are all forceful people and can completely overwhelm the more reflective members. I am particularly worried that our chair, who is excellent, will end up resigning in despair.

A. Your situation is particularly difficult because of your dependence on the council for funding and its vulnerability during local government spending cuts. In the medium term you will probably want to change the constitution to limit council representation to only one councillor, but doing that with no preliminaries could threaten your funding anyway. Perhaps the leader of the council or one of their predecessors is sufficiently respected for you have a word in private with them and ask for help in negotiating a truce that would give you time to plan a change.

Q. My chair has recently adopted the title executive chair and started to attend senior management team meetings. He's welcome, of course, but some of the team seem to be uncertain about whether they should be taking direction from him or me. As chief executive, should I be worried?

A. Very much. The confusion of roles is already apparent: he wants your job. Start working on your claim for constructive dismissal.

Sector veteran Peter Cardy offers answers to your workplace dilemmas. Contact him at

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