Peter Stanford: You need steel to change the leader

The hardest thing I have ever had to do as a trustee is to sack a senior staff member. That I'm so reluctant might indicate that I'm really not up to the job of trustee because there is a certain steel required that comes with the role. In mitigation, though, I would plead that in charities such decisions involve not just the usual hiring-and-firing mentality of the workplace, but also touch directly and sometimes painfully on what is special about charities.

No names, obviously, but the toughest cases come when a chief executive is doing OK, but not brilliantly. If they are massively underperforming, it is more obvious and unavoidable. When it is a more finely balanced judgement, however, the strong temptation as chair is to let it rest, work with it, even around it, set targets, even chip in a bit of extra dynamism and energy yourself by getting more involved in new projects.

I've tried them all, but in my experience, that niggle never goes away and should not be ignored. There are two reasons that seal it for me.

The first is that if the chair-chief executive relationship is not functioning well - and if, as chair, you are trying surreptitiously to do some of the chief executive's work because they aren't, it is not working.

Dysfunction at the centre leads to dysfunction elsewhere. Your responsibility is to sort out the leadership question.

And the second is that, as a charity trustee, you are answering to a higher calling than your average board of directors. They are there to maximise profit, provide employment, grow the business and produce a good return for shareholders, which is laudable and important, but there is nothing very altruistic in there, which makes sackings more of a process.

By contrast, what you are all about in a charity is the services it provides, the research it funds, the advice and advocacy it offers and the funds it raises to make it all possible. The cause, in short, is much more important than any of the individuals who work there. We must treat our staff with more consideration and empathy than a commercial employer. If you allow sentiment to cloud your judgement when assessing their shortcomings, what you are doing is letting down the charity's beneficiaries, who are more important than any one person's feelings about being treated badly.

I'm not pretending it is easy, or that if you chant this mantra decisions suddenly become clearer, or that the pain caused by looking someone in the eye and saying goodbye can be removed. But when such moments arise - and thankfully they have been few and far between in my three decades in the sector - taking a step back to look at the bigger picture will help with getting it in focus.

In my case, I'd sit in on a service-delivery day, see the difference it was making and recognise how it could be done better. That is where I found the required steel.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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