Elizabeth Balgobin: A chair should never cover as director... or so I thought

There are challenges in wearing both hats at once, says our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

Peter Stanford's column last month looked at the relationship between chair and chief executive. This month I am going to look at the peculiarities of being both chair and director - at the same time.

I have been a chief executive/director - whatever you want to call it - and a chair. My consultancy work has been to support both to carry out their respective roles, provide guidance at times of change and use my best experience to advise on a course of action. When boards have asked me whether the chair or another board member should cover a senior vacancy at a time of crisis, I have always advised against it.

At the end of last year, V4CE faced the same dilemma. The interim director left us sooner than expected and we had begun the process of recruiting a permanent director. We looked at all of the options available to us - one of which was for me to carry out the role temporarily in an unpaid capacity. It was not an easy decision but, just this once, it was the best thing to do for the organisation.

V4CE is a small organisation, so there isn't much slack to be picked up if someone is absent. The board and I agreed on how we would adapt our systems to maintain a double-check on finances and decision-making, and I had to ensure that I kept the board in the loop much more than normal. Modern technology made it all possible. The treasurer and I already had remote banking access, and email enabled decisions to be discussed when we could not get together.

So what of the staff, me and the reality of this duality? Before making a final decision on taking this on, I had spoken to all of the staff. They wanted as little disruption as possible, they didn't want to spend too much time getting someone up to speed and they wanted to know that things would get done and decisions would be made. Their preferred option was for me to provide day-to-day management. Our finance officer even went so far as to point out the benefits to our dwindling reserves position.

The experience provided me with a good opportunity to get to know the V4CE staff as colleagues, to see their strengths and identify where individual talents could be developed and honed to improve the organisation as a whole. The experience also gave me a chance to have a good nosy around the system, to look into the files and to have first sight of the issues coming into the office. I also had the chance to experience first hand the reality of an afternoon without IT access. All of our data is held on a cloud system, so when the patchy internet service in our building couldn't cope we were hampered in all of our work.

It was also very useful to carry out the full induction of two new staff members because I looked at some of our less interesting procedures and got the chance to tweak and improve things to my satisfaction.

There are challenges in wearing both hats at once, not least the temptation to just go ahead and do what you want. Issues that would have come to me as chair for a final decision were presented to me and I had to remind myself to think about it both as a director and as a trustee. The decision I would take in each role was not always the same. As a director, you might want to follow a particular path to meet the needs presented by staff or for the sake of expediency.

As a trustee and chair, you might see a different outcome and suggest a different path - one that might take longer. I am grateful to my fellow trustees for keeping me in line, responding to my queries and supporting my decisions.

Our biggest worry was the external message it sends for a chair to take on the director role. We kept funders informed but did not announce that the organisation would be temporarily run in this way. Instead, the focus was on keeping the work going, delivering to members and partners and completing the recruitment process.

I am pleased that my split personality moment is over - but it has strengthened my understanding of what we do, why we do it and what is expected of us. I am sure that as I return to my non-executive chair role I will reflect on what I have learnt and how I can use these lessons to improve my practice as chair.

The next time I am asked whether a chair or trustee should cover, I will take a moment to really explore that option and I might even advise that it would be the best option - but only for a short stint.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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