Peter Cardy on how to deal with a dysfunctional partnership

Our columnist also advises on third-party relationships, the loneliness of the chief executive and apparent poor morale

Peter Cardy
Peter Cardy

Q. We have been working in partnership with one of the big not-for-profits in our sector. It takes a lot of effort and I'm afraid we're losing the will to go on. It takes all the credit for our joint efforts, pushes its own profile and creates so much media noise we can't be heard. What can we realistically do about this?

A. The partner might not realise the effect it's having. One problem of size is you can't see what's under your nose, rather like the captain of a supertanker who can't see a yacht half a mile away. So the yacht needs to make a big flash and bang before it is seen. Try a knock-down, drag-out row in private with your opposite number. What is a big deal for you might just be a dot on its radar screen – you need to make it bigger.

Q. Our charity helped to set up a limited liability partnership to pursue community projects outside our own objects. We are the principal funder through loans with guarantees. But our partner has participated in other community interest companies, LLPs, partnerships and less formal arrangements. Late in the day, we have realised that we have no control over third-party relationships that could be a risk. What should we do?

A. Get out! Those other partnerships might have aims, obligations and partners that you can't see, control or influence, regardless of the worthy goals of your main partner. If one of them goes sour, a smart lawyer will go after the participant with the deepest pockets – that's you and your charity. There is a lot of unwinding to do. The original loan should have barred participation in other contracts without your agreement. You'll know better next time.

Q. I'm new to being a chief executive, and I feel I can't share problems and test out my ideas with anyone. The senior team and chair all have vested interests and positions, which makes me reluctant to be open with them. In all my previous jobs I've been able to discuss things with colleagues, but here it's as if I have no colleagues. What do you suggest?

A. You're correct – you have no peers in the organisation; they are all outside. You could set out to identify someone with a similar job elsewhere with whom you could have an occasional drink or meal, who would also like to share their problems and challenges. If you can fund it, you could engage a mentor or executive coach. Events run by the NCVO, Acevo, the Directory of Social Change and Third Sector are excellent for this kind of dating. Don't lie awake chewing the pillow: get out and meet someone.

Q. I inherited an annual staff survey of a very large and sprawling organisation. Every year the results are depressing – morale is said to be at rock bottom, confidence in management has slumped and staff don't feel valued or properly rewarded. I feel cornered by staff representatives and the media every time the data come out. I feel depressed about this.

A. And yet you have less than 4 per cent annual staff turnover; pay is well above the sector median for your sector; you have a high proportion of women in management; your ethnic mix is unusually diverse; internal promotion is the norm; sickness absence is trivial; and separate surveys show your volunteers feel valued. So actual behaviour dramatically contradicts the survey data.

It seems that the survey is not a genuine reflection of your organisational health and wellbeing. Stop doing it, save money, outface the critics and use more of the data you gather through other channels to describe the real state of the organisation. And if you can figure out who the grumpy people are, invite them in and listen to their unvarnished views.

Sector veteran Peter Cardy offers answers to your workplace dilemmas. Contact him at

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