Chair and chief: a delicate balance

The chair of the board and the chief executive of a charity must neither get too close nor too far apart for their relationship to work successfully, writes Peter Stanford

The relationship between chief executives and chairs of charities has been likened to that of good neighbours: they are there for each other when one wants a cup of sugar, but they mustn't forever be in and out of each other's houses. If they cross that threshold too often, or too little, it can spell trouble for the charity and waste valuable energy and resources.

"If the chief executive and chair do not stay tightly aligned," warns a policy paper from the charity chief executives body Acevo, which continues to highlight just how crucial this relationship can be to the effectiveness of third sector organisations, "tensions can escalate into a complete breakdown in their working relationship."

Over recent years a number of high- profile organisations have painfully learnt the truth of that siren warning, with distracting clashes between senior executives and boards at the Poetry Society, the Royal Institution and Amnesty catapulting them into the headlines. In an anonymous comment earlier this year on a Guardian online forum about the sometimes tricky chief executive/chair dynamic, a contributor who had run a charity for 20 years likened the "conflicts, power struggles and agendas" they had seen to something that "wouldn't be out of place in The Sopranos".

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, some have suggested that part of the reason behind the spectacular collapse of Kids Company was a too cosy, and therefore unchallenging, relationship between its founder chief executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh, and its chair, Alan Yentob. It is, therefore, all about achieving the right balance.

"It's OK for the chair and chief executive not to be best friends," says Julia Oliver, head of not-for-profit at the recruitment agency Odgers Berndtson. "They can be very different personalities."

The old cliche of a marriage made in heaven is, she warns, over-ambitious.

"Mutual respect is sufficient, and each of them has to know what they are there to do so that they can get the best out of the people around them."

Role of the board

If this "mix of egos" is one element, another often overlooked factor, Oliver feels, is the role of the rest of the trustee board. If they are working effectively, the risk is significantly reduced of a spat developing between the chief executive and the chair that can affect the whole wellbeing of the charity.

There will inevitably be some issues about which both chair and chief executive are required to have strong opinions, and on which they might disagree. However well they understand the division between the chair's role in governance and strategic direction, and the chief executive's responsibility for running the show from day to day, questions will come up that don't fit neatly into one or other category.

And what arguably makes such situations more toxic at a charity, compared with any other boardroom, is the passionate commitment that drives many involved, at both executive and board level.

Such emotions are the reasons that charities can be so effective and innovative, but they can also, on occasion, mean that otherwise clear red lines between the responsibilities of the chief executive and chair get a little blurred. As the Association of Chairs' recent report, Managing Difficult Board Dynamics, makes plain: "Chairing a (charity) board involves much more than tending to the rational and dispassionate dispatch of business."

Perhaps that explains why there is a more substantial history than many would suspect within the third sector of chairs who switch to the executive - especially when things are going wrong at a charity - and of chief executives who go the opposite way, usually on the back of great successes. In both cases, though, it has to be handled with great caution and self-awareness.


James Strachan is a good example of someone who moved between the boardroom and chief executive's office with aplomb. The former managing director of Merrill Lynch joined the trustee board of what was then the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, now Action on Hearing Loss, in the mid-1990s, but in 1997 he became its chief executive, doubling its income over five years and cutting the cost of NHS hearing aids from £2,000 to £55, before changing roles again to take over as its chair for a further five-year period.

"Transitioning is always potentially tough," he acknowledges, "but I was blessed with a first-class chief executive, John Low, whom I had appointed (when chief executive) and worked with as one of my directors. So we had an existing working relationship. We both thought I might find it difficult to stand back from some projects that were close to my heart, but John had been involved in them from the start, so it was easy to shift to different but still complementary roles."

A good relationship between the chief executive and the chair, Strachan suggests, having worked on both sides of the fence, depends first and foremost on communication. "Never assume what the other is thinking or would do until you have really built up a great deal of shared experience and trust," he warns.

The key, then, is to identify and work through the inherent tensions. And for all those examples of where it has gone wrong, there are plenty more cases where it has worked productively, when done well and thoughtfully. A survey by Cass Business School has suggested that 88 per cent of chief executives think they have an "extremely good" or "very good" working relationship with their chairs.

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