Peter Stanford: Chairs and chiefs can get on famously - can't they?

The relationship between the two roles is the dynamic at the heart of an organisation, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

I heaved a sigh of relief after I read the recent Third Sector article about Tom Henderson, founder of the disaster relief charity ShelterBox, who was dismissed as its chief executive for gross misconduct. Not because I was taking sides in this dispute, but because I thought "there but for the grace of God go I".

The relationship between a charity chair and chief executive is the dynamic at the heart of the organisation. When it goes wrong, the charity stalls - or worse. But the two roles, and the interaction between them, contain so much potential for strife, which might end up with a chief executive who wants to run the show without interference from irritating 'amateur' trustees, or with a chair who crosses the line between strategic leadership and day-to-day involvement. It doesn't help when a chair switches roles at the same charity to become chief executive, or vice versa.

I've tried both roles, albeit in different organisations. For the past decade I have been director of the Longford Trust - chief executive sounded a bit grand, because for long periods I have been the only executive at this small prison reform organisation. As director, I work with a board of trustees; to add to the potential for flare-ups, some of these trustees are members of the Longford family.

By and large, we get on famously. But despite a shared determination to do just that, there have inevitably been times when the chairman and I have disagreed on policy - times, indeed, when that disagreement had the potential to become more serious. This was not because either of us are especially combative, nor because there is a flaw in our work, nor (I hope) because of any personal animosity, but simply because it is what happens. Indeed if it didn't, that really would be cause for concern. Two people, both keen to help the charity to thrive, are bound occasionally to want to sing from different hymn sheets; the trick is to find a way to accommodate this and to channel the energy it creates into something positive.

Perhaps the ability to sound so grown-up about it is the result of knowing how the other one feels. I wouldn't advocate a trading-places arrangement for chairs and chief executives at any particular charity, but it might help if chairs brought to their role some knowledge of what it is to be a chief executive elsewhere in the third sector, and of having to deal as such with a board of trustees.

I'm not holding myself up as an example. I'd clocked up a decade as a chair before I fell into being a chief executive. But I hope that, in my second decade as a chair, my performance was improved by the fact that I had also been a chief executive and had answered to a board of trustees.

I can't answer that, of course. You'd have to ask the chief executives with whom I worked in different organisations. A few were short-lived and one left after what was effectively a face-off between us. As chair, I said he wasn't working out and that the charity was suffering; he said that I was the problem.

One proposed solution was mediation, but that seemed to me to prejudge that it was a personality clash, which wasn't really the case. It was about facts that could be weighed. So the solution we came to - and I don't necessarily recommend it because, at the time, it felt painful - was for me to step aside temporarily, thus removing any suggestion that it was down to personalities, and leave the other trustees free to focus on the facts.

The wait was a bit like sitting in the classroom as an eight-year-old when the teacher was keeping us all back until someone owned up to breaking a window. I hadn't done it, and didn't know who had, but I could almost physically feel my arm wanting to creep up into the air and confess. Probably as a result of a Catholic upbringing, I am always prepared to believe the worst of myself. So surely, I told myself when I lay awake at night during my temporary absence, the trustees were bound to decide I was the liability.

But they didn't. Terms were agreed, the other chap left and the charity moved forward in a way that it could not have done if the two of us had remained in post. It caused disruption, but at least this was limited and was quickly put behind the organisation in the years that followed. But that hasn't stopped the potential for chaos caused by a chief executive-chair dispute haunting me ever after.

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

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