Is the chief executive on the ball or over the hill?

There are contrasting views on how long a leader should stay in the top job at a charity, writes Patrick McCurry

Chief: should I stay or should I go?
Chief: should I stay or should I go?

The problems of Kids Company and its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, have shone the spotlight on whether it is a good idea for charity chief executives – whether founder-CEOs like Batmanghelidjh or outside appointments – to stay in post for so long. Batmanghelidjh had been chief executive for nearly 20 years.

Some in the voluntary sector – and, it must be said, in the corporate sector – argue that chief executives should not usually stay in their jobs for more than 10 years.

Others say there should be no hard-and-fast rules and stress that it is not the length of tenure that is important but the personality of the individual and the nature of the organisation.

"Sometimes an organisation needs a change agent, but it can also benefit from someone who sticks around," says Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, who has been in post for 21 years. "I like to see things through and see the impact of what I've done."

In the corporate sector there are many who believe that the period of maximum effectiveness for a company chief executive is between five and 10 years. The academic Manfred Kets de Vries said in the Harvard Business Review last year that many chiefs are in decline after 10 years, but they don't always recognise it.

Oliver Parry, senior corporate governance adviser at the Institute of Directors, says that it is hard to be prescriptive and the UK's corporate governance code requires non-executive directors to step down after nine years. When it comes to the chief executive, however, the important thing is that the shareholders, or trustees, are confident in him or her, says Parry: "You might have a long-serving chief who is still flexible, forward-thinking and innovative."

He adds, however, that if a chief executive is in post for more than 15 years, it might be time to go, and in listed UK companies it is increasingly rare for CEOs to stay for more than five or six years.

Mark Flannagan has been chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer for five years. He says: "When I was appointed, I said to my chair that if I was still here after 10 years they should probably take me out and shoot me."

Flannagan does acknowledge that there are some long-serving charity chief executives still doing great jobs, but the longer the tenure the more tempting it is to become grandiose and see oneself as master rather than servant.

"That's when you begin to think you own the charity, that you're the only person who really knows what the beneficiaries need," he says.

Heather Wood, who has been chief executive of the Rainbow Trust Children's Charity for 16 years, agrees that it is crucial a long-serving chief does not become complacent. She says she is still passionate about the job and highly motivated.

Having external input is an important factor in keeping a chief executive focused over the long term, according to Professor Maury Peiperl, director of the Cranfield School of Management. "Leaders, whether in the corporate or charity sector, really benefit from outside support such as mentors," he says. "A lot of people assume that the chief executive always knows what to do, but that's not the case, and a mentor can help them stay grounded."

Wood agrees. "I'm aware of what is happening elsewhere in the sector, through my trusteeships in other voluntary organisations, and I maintain strong links to the business world," she says. "I also have a professional coach, who works pro bono, and get 360-degree feedback from my leadership team. All this keeps me on the ball."

She also highlights the fact that because the charity has grown so much in her time there, her role has been evolving, which is something that has kept her motivated. "When I started, it was a small organisation and I had a hands-on role in areas like finance and HR," she says. "Now we have directors for those functions and it's my job to oversee all that."

Breast Cancer Care's al Qadhi agrees that the challenges facing organisations are constantly changing: "The outside environment is always shifting - whether that's to do with recession, changes in government policy or what other charities are doing. This changing landscape helps to keep me focused."

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