Focus: People Management - Coaching session with Stephen Bubb

Q. What steps can I take to improve the relationship I have with my chair and board?

Geoff Armstrong, the director general of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, puts it most succinctly: "The relationship between governance body and chief executive is the lynchpin of a successful organisation."

Many members using our 'chief executive in crisis' support find themselves in terrible situations. Alarmingly often I discover that, digging deep, the nub of the problem is the health of this relationship.

At the core are two key issues: to have clarity on roles and to reach agreement on a wide set of issues.

Are the roles of the board and executives clear and widely understood?

Running a role-analysis exercise can bring underlying issues to the foreground.

Members find our draft job descriptions for board roles useful as a first step towards establishing written agreement on roles and job descriptions.

Various organisations offer trustee training, which helps clarify the difference between the strategic and operational roles.

As the Cha'n master (a Japanese form of zen) Fuchan Yean says: "There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage."

With this in mind, make sure that your trustees are setting your mission and strategic direction; that there is agreement on responsibilities and the decision-making process; that a process for resolving disputes has been set; that the procedure for electing the chair is stated; and that a grievance procedure for the chief executive is agreed.

Communication is such a simple thing to get right, but it is also so easy to get wrong. Provide trustees with good, timely information - I provide mine with monthly updates on operational issues of strategic significance.

Furthermore, know what they want and how they want it. Have regular scheduled meetings, and make sure you arrange them at least six months in advance.

Does your board of trustees review itself periodically? Development of the board - including induction, appraisal as individuals, appraisal as a whole board and training - is very important.

We often assume we are beyond reproach, but look at your own behaviour and history. In short, make sure your own house is in order.

Working on these areas together with your chair and trustees will be a good way to unearth any hidden problems and subsequently set relations on a better path.

If relations are deteriorating fast, then it might be time to call for some outside help before it's too late. This could consist of a number of things, including facilitators, mediation, personal support through coaching or even counselling. This is too important to let drift, as calls to our 'chief executive in crisis' helpline testify.

Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send your questions to stephen.bubb@haynet.com.

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