Career coach: War and peace in the boardroom

Fighting fire with fire might not be the best way to deal with difficult trustees.

Are your trustees collaborative and supportive, or people who cause you to grit your teeth when you meet them? Trustees are there to consider the big picture and take a long-term view of organisations. That's something of which chief executives and trustees themselves can lose sight. If your board is being too up-close and personal about operational detail, boundaries are being breached. This can make you anxious, and the activities themselves can become messy. The running of the organisation is the chief executive's responsibility, full stop.

Chief executives and trustees are bound together in a unique way. Even trustees who scrupulously attend every board meeting won't know the day-to-day goings-on of organisations for which they have responsibility, and that creates interdependence.

Recently, I've supported chief executives whose trustees interfere, make unreasonable demands and are contradictory and erratic. The chief executives have to make sense of the chaos this causes. Some trustees are so rigid in their attempts to manage the pressures of their roles that they create an atmosphere of fear in which it is difficult to make decisions and chief executives don't feel safe in their jobs. I am particularly wary of trustees who are so past their sell-by dates they are almost growing cobwebs - the Miss Havershams of the sector.

The marriage of a chief executive and a board is as complex and multi-layered as any relationship. Sometimes the relationship needs the advocacy of a marriage-guidance counsellor. However, a simple suggestion if you are struggling with your board is not to mirror its behaviour. Relax rather than tighten up when you encounter challenging behaviour. Firm up your boundaries when others are inconsistent and messy. Lead by example. And press for a change in the constitution to ensure that board members can serve only for a reasonable length of time. You might find that your Miss Haversham is just waiting for permission to shed her burden, open the heavy curtains and step outside into the fresh air.

- Amanda Falkson is a psychotherapist who runs monthly Tough at the Top groups for voluntary sector chief executives. amanda@psychotherapycity.co.uk

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