Taking over as chief executive of ActionAid UK a few years ago, I was conscious that, as a first-time chief executive, it was important for me to build a strong working relationship with the chair of the board, based on the principles of mutual trust, respect and accountability.
How to do this well was one of the questions I asked my experienced peers at the time and often continue to ask, because this relationship can make or break organisations.
So why is this important? The chair is unlike any other "line manager" one might have in other sectors. For one, they are (more often than not) a volunteer with whom one has relatively limited contact. But despite often being unable to get into the details of the running of the organisation, the chair needs substantial assurances on how the organisation is run, in terms of delivering strategy, plans, external relationships and internal culture.
The chair also provides a steer to the board, who in addition to their statutory and ethical responsibilities, provide the strategic steer for the organisation. So although it is important for the chair to have strategic and operational oversight of the organisation, this needs to be balanced with the limited time they have to support and challenge the chief executive.
Speaking to my peers and based on my own experiences, these are some ways in which chairs and chief executives have maintained sound working relationships.
I would recommend scheduling a fortnightly call and a monthly face-to-face meeting, even when it doesn’t feel necessary. These are an opportunity to brief the chair, but also provide space for the chair to ask questions or offer advice. A catch-up just before any board meetings is crucial so that the chief executive can brief the chair on the expectations of each agenda item and the ideal outcomes.
Policy of no surprises
Long gaps between meetings or calls could leave critical issues falling through the cracks. Chief executives need to anticipate potentially problematic or controversial issues, which need to be flagged proactively and early rather than being sprung as a surprise in the board meeting. This could make the chair feel quite exposed, but, more importantly, would be difficult for the chair to steer discussions with objectivity and balance.
Agreement on agendas
I strongly believe in ensuring co-creation of agendas as much as possible. There are often standard items on an agenda depending upon the organisational calendar. But it is important to understand the expectations of the chair across the meetings in a year so that these can be factored in, while also working towards a better understanding of the expected outcomes of these meetings.
Giving and receiving feedback
Unlike a member of an executive team, it can be quite difficult for a chair to understand the implications of their engagement on other members of the team, mostly because they are not always physically present. For the chief executive, a meeting with the chair should be a safe space where problems can be shared and advice sought. It is also an opportunity for the chair to play the role of a coach or a mentor, as appropriate. There must be a good understanding of when and how feedback can be shared mutually, building greater trust and respect. This could also be about other senior members of the team or other board members.
Being part of a journey
I remember a chair once remarking: "I prefer my chief executive to help me bake the cake with her, rather than giving me a baked cake." I think that was a very insightful comment. Often, we make the mistake of just "selling" or "telling" the board on a range of issues we think they need to know, but sometimes don’t make the effort of bringing them on a journey.
The external role
It is really important for chief executives to identify opportunities where the chair can play the role of the organisation’s ambassador and leverage the networks they have. These are immensely inspiring opportunities and the chair would have the unique perspective of being part insider, part outsider, which can be hugely advantageous for the organisation. It is also great for others to interact with the chair and see the chair play such key representational roles.
The chair-chief executive relationship is a very important one and sometimes it can be difficult to get right. But as long as the chair and chief executive are able to agree on some first principles and get this relationship right, it can work only to the advantage of the organisation.
Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK