Peter Stanford: Your cause is greater than your CEO

That is what we signed on for when we became trustees, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Although trustees hardly need reminding of their duties when appointing a new chief executive, some of them allow things to drift in the time between the departure of the incumbent and the arrival of the successor.

I've tried two approaches, as chair of the board, in such circumstances. The first was to name an acting chief executive from the existing team. It's standard practice - but then the person in question wanted to stay in the top job. Naturally, she used her temporary appointment as a campaigning platform, creating a fevered and unsettling atmosphere.

But that was better than my other bright idea - to turn up myself two days a week as executive chair. Among the long list of drawbacks, which really ought to have been apparent from the start, were these: I had a day job that couldn't easily be put into quarantine for two days; the chair is meant to leave day-to-day management to the staff, but here I was wearing two hats; and it felt a bit like play-acting. I kept waiting for everyone to laugh at me as I issued instructions, which they probably did - behind my back.

Looking at another example, there is arguably some merit in Sepp Blatter remaining in charge of Fifa, as he insists on doing, until a successor can be elected. But he is not just keeping his head down at the headquarters of world football's governing body; he is also trying to rewrite the rules to bind his successors. It's as curious as it is confusing. When trust in the integrity of an organisation has been shattered by its leader's behaviour, the business of repairing the damage is hardly going to get under way while that leader remains at the helm.

Are there any lessons for trustee boards to learn from the Sepp Show? I have always liked the sound of managed transitions, but have found the practice a bit ropey. Either the departing boss is so anxious to get away that they hide all the difficult questions in the bottom drawer of the desk, or they are so eager to bequeath a "legacy", as the politicians like to put it, that they start all sorts of crazy balls rolling and create chaos.

As with most things in life, it comes down to personalities. Just as we will all have formed a view by now of Blatter's probity, most trustee boards will know what they think about their departing chief executive. Perhaps what we need to learn is not to pussyfoot around those judgements in order to save hurt feelings - either our own at being left or the chief's at being pushed out. We should say clearly what we think, even if it is bruising in the short term, and act on it when deciding on interim arrangements.

The golden rule when it comes to managing individual feelings - in these circumstances, as in all others at a third sector organisation - is that the cause is always greater than any one employee. Yes, this might sound heartless or ungrateful when said aloud, and tougher still to act on, but that is precisely what we signed on for when we became trustees.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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