Expert view: Chair vs chief: it's a delicate balance

Getting the relationship right takes tact, time and an awareness of our own weaknesses.

They're with us all day, at work and at play. You've got them and I've got them. What are they? Our internal authority figures.

They come from our past and could be our mums, dads, prefects, teachers, policemen or priests. They lurk inside us, tucked away in quarantine so that their wider excesses are usually neutralised. However, they have a habit of popping out unexpectedly in our dealings with contemporary authority figures, and they have some annoying habits. They can make us question our own authority and render us small and quiet, or they can over-inflate our authority and make us arrogant. Either way, they can take us headlong into conflict.

The relationship between a chair and his or her chief executive is a relationship where conflict can exist. We all know the responsibilities of each role, but how do we stay in charge of our internal authority figures when there is a delicately balanced level of shared responsibility?

Through my work supporting managers in crisis with chief executives body Acevo, I hear about chairs who turn up at the office unannounced and micro-manage their chief executives. At the opposite end of the scale are the chairs who give little or no support: no appraisals, no annual reviews, not even the odd "how are you doing?" over a coffee. Sometimes, chairs can be so worried they will be perceived as interfering that they back off too much.

The relationship between chair and chief executive can be a tricky one, because accountability and helmsmanship exist in both roles. Ideally, both parties need to be clear about their expectations of each other and create boundaries and ownership of tasks. It's not easy to get it right.

I often hear about strain, open conflict and arguments. Conversely, there may be no blood on the carpet, but no life in the relationship either, with both parties bunkered down and hiding. Occasionally, the relationship breaks down entirely, which is toughest of all.

With psychotherapist Amanda Falkson, I set up Chairtalk to give chairs and vice chairs somewhere to learn from each other. Governance can be a lonely place, so we decided to address that issue. We encourage people to explore how they wear the authority vested in them, own what is theirs and let some of those inner authority figures out for a walk and a bit of fresh air.

A healthy relationship flows from integrity, generosity, mutual understanding and the willingness to face challenges as they come along. Pause for a moment and reflect on your key professional relationship - does it match up to what you aspire to? If not, what conversations with others and yourself do you need to initiate?

Martin Farrell is the founder of virtual support network Get2thepoint.

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