Penny Wilson: A portrait of a busted bond

An exploration of dysfunctional chief executive-board dynamics and advice on how to make them better

Mike wakes from a fitful sleep at the sound of his children arguing over breakfast. He feels the anxiety slithering in his stomach before he pinpoints its cause: tonight is the trustees meeting.

Mike is a charity chief executive. He works long hours. He feels acutely and personally the stress of working with people with complex needs. 

He carries this stress – along with the strain of running a multifaceted, underfunded organisation – into all corners of his life. 

He has got into a bit of a corner with his board. 

Talking to other charity chief executives, he knows it’s not uncommon, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

In Mike’s opinion, his charity board is a legally required nuisance. Life would be easier if he could just crack on without them sticking their beaks in.

The day is punctuated with the kinds of crises that would make other people’s toes curl, but are fairly typical for Mike.

A longstanding funder sends an impersonal email to say that they won’t be funding the charity any more. A corporate partner still hasn’t paid a large, long-promised donation. 

A critical member of staff is signed off with stress. The water supply isn’t working in one of charity’s buildings. 

A member of the public has complained to the Fundraising Regulator about the charity’s communications. Worst of all, a service user shares their suicidal thoughts with one of the charity’s volunteers. And this is all before lunch.

This is combined with ongoing issues of income being down 45 per cent, depleted reserves, staff made redundant and the number of service users increasing by 60 per cent.

At noon, the chair of trustees gets in touch to discuss tonight’s meeting. Mike sent the papers yesterday, having not consulted the chair. 

The agenda is formulaic: the minutes from the last meeting, a written report about some projects and a finance update.

The chair asks whether there is anything more to discuss and Mike brushes him off. 

He needs more time to consider what to do about the impending crises, and the trustees breathing down his neck won’t help.

He’ll get his ducks in a row and go back to them at the next meeting in three months’ time with a proposal. Mike ignores the nagging feeling that this might be too late.

From Mike’s perspective, the meeting starts well. The trustees nod through the minutes and the first report. Then the first blow strikes.

“Mike, I see that helpline calls are up 75 per cent, but we’ve had the funding cut. We need to shut the helpline.”

“Mike, I met Sarah (a colleague) the other day, and I told her that we ought to be expanding the project into Lancashire.”

“Mike, you need to get more funding in. How about AstraZeneca? They must be rolling in it at the moment. Why don’t you email their CEO?”

“Mike, how are we going to deliver the same level of services with reduced staff?”

“Mike, Sam’s project report is full of typos.”

“Mike, I saw you in Tesco on Friday afternoon. Are you working your hours or do we need to reduce them to part-time?”

Mike feels attacked. He dodges and dives. Some comments get right to the heart of the organisation’s problems. Others, in his opinion, are laughably peripheral.

Because he hasn’t actually shared the things keeping him awake at night, the trustees are largely shooting in the dark. The meeting is all over the place. And because there isn’t a constructive relationship between trustees and chief executive, the questions feel like personal attacks that need to be repelled.

The meeting ends and Mike dials off. He sits with his head in his hands, exhausted and utterly deflated. Then he weeps.

Don’t think this is far-fetched. I know for a fact that there will be chief executives reading this article for whom this is all too real. And it could all go so differently. 

So, how did Mike and his board get here? 

  • The trustees aren’t clear on their responsibilities, including their duty of care to Mike.

  • There is no scheme of delegation, which means that the board swings between being overly operational and having no real ownership of the organisational strategy.

  • They haven’t agreed on a trustee code of conduct, and the chair isn’t fulfilling their role – so no one is trying to fix what is clearly a dysfunctional relationship. Most haven’t even realised it’s dysfunctional. 

  • No effort has been spent on building relationships, so there is little trust. This leads to Mike keeping too much from the trustees for fear of attack, and leads the trustees to jump to worst-case scenario conclusions.

  • The board doesn’t assess its own or Mike’s performance in any formal way, and neither trustees nor chief executive think of their own development needs. They haven’t accessed any of the support available from organisations such as Acevo or the Association of Chairs. 

It takes purposeful effort, diplomacy and self-awareness to build a functional relationship between board and chief executive. Without those, the best you can hope for is muddling through.

From a chief executive’s perspective, interactions with trustees (not just in meetings) should feel hopeful and constructive, taking a weight off their mind as problems are discussed and ways forward agreed.

It will be impossible for Mike to turn the relationship around by himself. 

But after this awful meeting, when the chair emails to ask how Mike is (which no trustee has done before), and he decides to answer honestly, he thinks they might have made a start.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment

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