Analysis: Chief executives feeling the pinch

Acevo's helpline Chief Executives in Crisis has experienced a steep increase in calls since 2011. Ian Griggs talks to the woman who runs it and to others with experience of the problem

Chief executives under pressure
Chief executives under pressure

Jenny Berry, director of leadership development at the chief executives body Acevo, has a vivid image for the predicament of chief executives as they struggle to run their charities in a time of change, pressure and economic hardship.

"I would compare it to being the pinch point in an egg timer," she says. "On one side of the egg timer is the board; on the other side are the beneficiaries."

Berry runs an Acevo service called Chief Executives in Crisis, set up three years ago in response to an upsurge in calls for help. She gives general governance advice to some callers; some are referred to a legal helpline that gives four hours of free advice, with more available at discounted rates; and others are referred for unlimited free counselling.

The statistics for the past two years show an alarming rise in the number of calls, with between a third and a half of those who make contact ending up either resigning, being sacked or coming to a mutual agreement that they should leave.

In 2011, the service received 42 calls for help, of which 30 were referred to the helplines and 17 ended in the departure of the chief executive; calls nearly doubled in 2012, when 76 Acevo members got in touch, of whom 42 received support and 30 ended up departing. Berry says one of the most common reasons for the departures of chief executives is the breakdown of their relationship with the chair or the board: 36 of the calls in 2012 - nearly half - involved such a breakdown.

"Often they will begin a call to the emergency service saying 'I thought we had a good relationship, but it's all gone wrong'," says Berry.

"I say 'don't count on it being OK - you have to work on it like a marriage'."

A breakdown in the relationship often occurs when the chair has either been in post for a long time or for less than a year, says Berry. "If they have been in post as chair for nine years, they joined at a time when the charity world was in a different - and much happier - place. In cases where the chair is new, the relationship with the chief executive has not had time to gel.

"Chief executives tell me that chairs who come from the private sector are often high flyers who exhibit strong, even bullish behaviour in their careers and they think they can act the same way in the charity world."

If the board is not taking its fair share of the load by agreeing and developing a strategy, Berry says, extra pressure is piled on the chief executive. Equally, some boards can be too rigid about enforcing an existing strategy that is out of date and does not suit the current climate.

Another cause of pressure on chief executives is having to make staff redundant, which can leave them with few allies. "There is a sense of isolation in that they feel they can't talk to staff and they are also under pressure from the beneficiaries," says Berry. "These enormous pressures can be what forces a chief executive out of their job."

Evidence that many chief executives are working in a climate of fear emerged from a recent consultation by the Barrow Cadbury Trust of 40 chief executives who received grants from it last year.

"There is far more fear, which can be an inhibitor to action as well as a spur to it," says Sara Llewellin, chief executive of the trust. "Chief executives are suffering in organisations where the staff and trustees are more fearful than before. Dispirited staff teams means fear and blame in what used to be a happy workplace."

Like Berry, Llewellin found that pressure from above is matched by pressure from below, with disaffected staff less willing to give their all to the charity and more likely to leave it for another job.

Results from the 2013 Charity Pulse survey, featured in Third Sector last week, illustrate this point: 63 per cent of respondents who considered working relationships at their charities to be unhealthy cited the leadership at their charities as the main cause of dissatisfaction, and 77 per cent of that group named management as the main reason for wanting to leave their jobs.

Llewellin acknowledges that many organisations did not take steps to become sustainable when times were good, but she thinks the current pressure from boards on charity leaders to come up with quick fixes puts them in an unenviable position.

"Chief executives are under pressure to come up with long-term strategies that are based on short-term imperatives, which is both paradoxical and impossible," says Llewellin. "It is difficult to do any strategic thinking when you are fire-fighting all the time."

The constant 'noise' of advice from consultants and professionals "who do not actually do the work" on everything, from mergers to becoming a social enterprise, is also less than helpful, according to Llewellin.

A 2011 study called A Marriage Made in Heaven?, written by Penelope Gibbs, a fellow of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, examined the relationship between chief executives and their chairs through 16 in-depth interviews.

It found that the ingredients of a successful working relationship included a flexible understanding of the roles and responsibilities of both, the ability to challenge and accept challenge, and interpersonal skills such as empathy and communication. Where relationships broke down, it found, the reverse was the case.

Llewellin echoes Berry's theme that maintaining the relationship with the board is key to the survival of the chief executive. "In the end, it comes down to good governance and trustees being there to assist," she says.

"But it doesn't always work out that way, and chief executives feel they have to look after the board when it should be the other way round."


Katherine Gorbing, the former chief executive of Glastonbury Abbey, raised concerns with the board about how the charity's assets were being managed, alleged bullying by trustees and alleged conflicts of interests among trustees.

Gorbing says she made numerous attempts to resolve the problems she says she discovered at the charity, but the board did not act. She began a grievance procedure that led eventually to her dismissal.

Gorbing contacted Acevo's crisis service and was given legal and emotional support. She made a claim of unfair dismissal to the Bristol Employment Tribunal in March this year. A scheduled five-day hearing ended on the second day when both sides agreed on a settlement.

The charity paid Gorbing £55,000, gave her a reference and made a statement of her achievements in the board's official minutes.

Gorbing says she spent more than £100,000 on legal fees and was forced to sell her home because of the loss of income.

Glastonbury Abbey says its trustees conducted a fair and detailed process in accordance with best practice and being a good employer. It says they sought legal advice and specialist HR support on all aspects and gave Gorbing every opportunity to make representations. The settlement agreement with Gorbing, it says, contained no admission of liability and was the most beneficial route for all parties.


The chief executive of a mental health charity had worked for the organisation for three years when her relationship with the board was soured by a disagreement over policy.

A lack of openness between the chief executive and the board led to a breakdown in trust. Then a senior member of the charity's staff made a complaint about the chief executive directly to the chair of the board.

It was two months before the chief executive received notice of the complaint in an email from the chair, and she in turn complained that the charity's internal procedures had not been followed.

The chief executive began to feel stressed, isolated and lonely at work and was later signed off as sick by her doctor. She sought advice from Acevo's crisis service and received practical and emotional support. The chief executive and the charity reached an agreement earlier this year. She received six months' pay and a reference.


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