Debra Allcock Tyler: The board/executive relationship is like a rocky marriage

If you get into trouble, get some counselling, our columnist says

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Over the past quarter century, I've spent a lot of time with boards and executive teams. Some I've been part of; many more I've facilitated, trained, coached or mentored. Guess what? The skills you need to work with boards are more similar to those needed by Relate counsellors than by charity advisers. The relationship between the executive and the board is often akin to a rocky marriage, where both sides know they ought to make it work for the sake of their progeny – the beneficiaries – but don't actually get on that well.

The relationship is essentially long- distance. Both sides tend to rely heavily on email to communicate and meet up for what you might call conjugal visits only once every few months. As a result, expectations are high on both sides, but the reality is often disappointing and ends in frustration and dissatisfaction.

One partner is bigger and therefore perceived as the more powerful. This means that one of you, the chief executive, is often overwhelmed by the weight of numbers that leads to feeling, at best, alone and unsupported and, at worst, bullied: the relationship then becomes a struggle for superiority. As soon as something goes awry, the bigger partner tends to point the finger of blame rather than work with the smaller partner to get it right.

Then the little time you have together is wasted in petty squabbling over minor issues, mostly about the past. Finance is usually the biggest cause of arguments. When you consider that the average board meets for only about 10 to 12 hours a year, is that really how you want to spend that precious time together?

Many consultants and advisers to boards follow conventional wisdom and whiffle on about how both sides are culpable. Sometimes, maybe. But – and I can imagine the howls of outrage echoing around charity boardrooms when some people read this – it is, in my not inconsiderable experience, almost always down to the behaviour of one party, the board, when the relationship goes wrong; it is rarely the fault of the executive team.

It's not that those who make up boards are terrible people. They are nearly always intelligent, experienced, skilled and committed folk who genuinely want to make a difference. Nor is the executive ever without fault. But something strange happens when trustees gather in a collective. There are some basic secrets to a happy marriage that should be adopted by boards.

First, communicate. Respond to emails. Turn up to meetings. Communicate in between meetings. Listen, listen, listen! Your team are the experts in the charity, not you – allow them to use their expertise to guide and advise you in the service of your beneficiaries. Second, support them. Don't seek to blame or nag about money. Focus on what you can do together for the future. Third, and finally, don't act as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Act like an equal partner who is working alongside them for the sake of the beneficiaries. And if you get into trouble, don't rush into ending the relationship – get some counselling first!

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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