Opinion: When to be a hands-off boss

Peter Stanford

So Michael Grade is the person to chair the BBC governors and steer the corporation through post-Hutton waters. I have to admit to preferring another candidate, David Dimbleby, as a surer guarantee of the Beeb's public service ethos, but at least the man in the red braces is not a Blair crony, so the BBC's independence is in safe hands. One question, though, has been asked about Grade's credentials that set me thinking.

Will he be too hands-on in his new role and, therefore, more director-general than chairman material?

This question comes up in our own sector, most notably when James Strachan went from being chief executive to chairman of the RNID. So what makes for a good charity chairman as distinct from a chief executive? (I'm all for inclusive language, but I've never quite been able to manage 'chair' or 'chairperson' after chairing a disability charity where most of the members were in chairs.) Well, let's start with the obvious - time. Chief executives work full-time - and more - whereas chairmen have another life, other concerns. Grade will do a four-day week and Strachan also chairs the Audit Commission. Second - detail. The CEO must live and breathe the detail of the organisation. The chairman can dip in and out of the intricacies of specific projects. While they must share the vision for where the organisation is going, execution is for the chief executive and maintaining an overview is for the chairman.

Perhaps the thorniest issue is that of authority. Ultimately it belongs to the chairman. He or she is legally - and in some charities financially - the one who carries the can. The chief executive can walk away to another job. But, for the relationship to work, the chairman must be willing to cede that authority on a provisional basis to the CEO, otherwise everyone will be deferring to a sometimes absent captain.

Failure to observe these simple rules can be fatal. The last thing any charity needs is a chairman who wants to be CEO, or vice versa. It is the biggest single cause of failing charities.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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