Penny Wilson: How to manage the board’s relationship with the chief executive

The relationships between a chief executive and the board is one of the most crucial – and one of the most difficult to get right

Voluntary sector governance comes with a quandary built in. 

Officially, all the power in a charity rests with the trustees. In reality, much of the power tends to rest in the hands of the person running things on a day-to-day basis – the chief executive. 

The relationships between the chief executive and the board is one of the most crucial in a charity. And it’s one of the most difficult to get right, too. 

The goal is to reach a position where information flows freely, the chief executive feels supported and trusted, but any issues or problems can be readily and easily addressed. 

This is hard to achieve, and so this is a relationship the board needs to invest a lot of work in.

Balance of power

One of the most important elements is the level of contact and the balance of authority between the chief executive and the board. A successful board needs to challenge the chief executive and ensure that decision-making is robust and well thought through, without second guessing and micro-management.

This is not easy to do. Boards will frequently err too far in one direction or the other, and chief executives may find this difficult to manage as well.

Both the chief executive and the board need to understand what is not negotiable for the other side of the relationship, and both need to be consistent in their expectations and behaviours. 

This will be unique to the individuals involved, and will necessarily change slightly as the personnel on the board rotate, and the needs of the charity change.

The chair has an absolutely essential role here. The likelihood is that in most charities, the chair will have far more contact with the chief executive than a typical board member, and will be the first port of call if there are issues on either side.

The chair needs to listen fairly to all concerns and make reasonable decisions that everyone can tolerate. It can be a difficult balancing act.

Areas of strain

There are several areas where this relationship is likely to come under particular strain. 

One is around recruitment of board members, particularly the chair. This is a situation where ideally the chief executive should have minimal involvement.

The board is the chief executive’s boss, and generally speaking, recruiting your own boss is not considered good practice.

The other is around the chief executive’s own performance. 

When the board feels the chief executive may be leading the charity in the wrong direction, or has concerns over their behaviour or management style, trustees will need to step in – ideally at a relatively early stage.

Boards, however, are very part-time, and it can be difficult for them to gather good information on what is happening. Furthermore, boards are ultimately committees, and committees are famous for not making decisions quickly.

This combination of lack of information, and structures not well suited to rapid decision-making, cause major problems for boards.

Additionally, this is something which has to be handled with enormous delicacy. If the chief executive feels undermined or unsupported, it will be very difficult for them to do their job. But real issues will have to be addressed.

Hourglass reporting

Part of the solution to this – and wider good practice – is to ensure that the chief executive is not the sole conduit of information to the board. 

This process of “hourglass reporting” is problematic – it allows the chief executive to control the flow of information to the board and compromises board independence. 

A better practice is to have the board engage regularly not just with the chief executive but with all senior figures in the organisation – and arguably, with staff, volunteers and service users throughout the organisation – in order to get a truly accurate picture. 

Ideally, the flow of data should also not flow entirely from the chief executive, although this is often difficult to structure in practice. 

This is one of the most common complaints we hear from chief executives about their trustees – it can feel undermining if trustees are going straight to staff. And trustees might make a throwaway comment, like “we should improve our website” which staff can take as an instruction, even if it wasn’t intended as such. 

Sub-groups can be a good place for contact with other staff, but without undermining the chief executive or leading to misunderstanding – so, for example, the marketing officer attends the communications sub-group, and so on.

Make sure the chief executive is supported

While one of the board’s jobs is to scrutinise the chief executive, there is another side to the coin. Charity chief executives are often overstretched and under pressure, and need help and support.

If boards, as line managers, are often slow to step in when chief executives are not delivering, they are also sometimes remiss in offering professional support and development and pastoral care to overburdened chief executives.

Again, this is not easy to do. Being managed and supported by a committee – and one which is rarely on the premises – can come with considerable challenges. 

Does the chief executive always have a board member to whom they can turn for advice or simply to explain how they are feeling? Does the chief executive feel able to share with the board when they need additional support or help? 

Or will they be concerned that this “display of weakness” will undermine the board’s confidence in them?

It’s a different relationship

Most board members will have experience of successfully managing professional relationships in their everyday lives.

But the nature of the relationship between a board member and a chief executive is different from other professional relationships. It is difficult to gauge how to get it right, especially because so many different personalities are involved.

The best answer is communication – frequent, open, respectful and honest, in both directions – as well as thoughtfulness and understanding from everyone. 

Both the board and the chief executive need to make clear their needs and expectations, and what they feel is essential to do their job and achieve their goals.

Many different boards and chief executives make this work, sometimes spectacularly well, in many different ways. 

But it is a relationship which has to be worked at carefully and consciously, because it is essential for the wellbeing of the charity.

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