Leading people: A relationship full of difficulties

The dynamic between boards and staff is like that between parents and nannies.

I've been spending some time lately with staff who are disgruntled with their boards and with boards who are disgruntled with their staff. The dynamic between boards of unpaid trustees and salaried staff is often fraught with challenges and difficulties.

It's a bit like the relationship between full-time nannies and working parents. The nanny spends 12 hours a day with the baby. He or she knows what the child laughs at, what they will and won't eat, how often their nappy needs changing, when they're cross and when they're tired.

Then the parents come home and take over and make it quite clear that they know what's best for their baby - because it's theirs. It must be hard for the parents to walk away and leave the baby with the nanny and trust that they will do what the parents think is right. And it must be tough for the nanny to know that the baby doesn't belong to him or her, and that they are only taking care of it for the parents.

Charities are similar. At the end of the day, the staff are effectively in the same position as the nanny. They are not the ones who are ultimately accountable for the decisions over what is in the best interests of the organisation in the long term. Yet they feel intimately connected to the organisation because they live with it on a daily basis, and they probably love it as much as the parents do. It's inevitable that conflict and frustration will arise on both sides.

The answer? The parents (the board) need to understand that the nanny (the staff) knows the day-to-day needs of the baby (the charity) better than they do and that they simply must listen to what the nanny says. The nanny needs to appreciate that the parents have a right, indeed a duty under law, to be the ultimate arbiters of what's in the best interests of their child.

We need to give each other a break and understand and appreciate how hard it is for both sides in this relationship. Ultimately, both the nanny and the parents care about the baby, and that's all that matters in the long run. Focus on that and, trust me, the relationship will get better.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change 

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