Craig Dearden-Phillips: The relationship between chair and chief executive is always a tricky one

There has to be trust between them, says our columnist: the chair must not meddle, and the board must be effectively managed

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

A big day is coming up for me. I will shortly make a planned exit from the chair at VoiceAbility. This will end a rollercoaster ride that started in a hired room at Cambridge YMCA in 1994 and ended with a multi-million pound social enterprise that touches thousands of lives every year.

I ended up as chair following a merger that saw the other side's chief executive brought in to lead the new organisation. A good choice, as it turned out. He has performed brilliantly, along with his team. While we couldn't be more different as people, we have functioned well as chair and chief executive. In 18 months together, we have got the organisation growing again after the stresses and strains of merger.

So what is the secret to a successful chair-chief executive relationship? I would point to three key areas.

The first is there has to be trust - no skulduggery, no games. As chair, you are the chief executive's public champion and private cheerleader. But you are also the person who has the difficult conversations behind closed doors. There's challenge in both directions - but always in private. Publicly, you're a team.

The second, is letting the chief executive do his or her job. Too many chairs meddle: they fail to realise that their value comes from being above the action, not in the middle of it. Bad chairs think they are the experts when it is in fact the chief executive who is doing the 70-hour week, living and breathing it all. In my view, it is the chief executive's job to set out to the chair and trustees what a decent strategy should look like. The job of the chair - along with the rest of the board - is to make sure the proposed strategy is robust and on-mission.

The third key to success is managing the board. Most chief executives feel anxious, on some level, about their board - I certainly was. In our sector, boards are afforded a lot of power, so the board is never far from the chief executive's mind. Also, you often see a culture clash of sorts between the executive team, which is small, cohesive and professional-managerial, and the board, which is normally larger, highly diverse and often less purely professional-managerial in its world view. In what can be an awkward interface, the chair-chief executive relationship acts as a kind of airlock between two distinct parts of the organisation.

I make no claims to have got all of this stuff right myself. Indeed, my failings come to mind as much as what I got right. I am not surprised by the fact that the chair-chief executive relationship tends to be viewed in our sector as a problem rather than something to be celebrated. But I think I now know what makes it work: relationship, role and successful management of the interface between executive managements and trustee boards.

Am I glad to be going? Yes and no. Yes, because the time is right for me. No, because I know the charity's best years are still ahead.

Contact Craig at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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