Is there really a crisis in chair-chief executive relationships?

New study based on eighteen interviews is not necessarily representative of the full picture, say governance experts including Linda Laurance

Linda Laurance
Linda Laurance

A report published last week, based on several interviews with chairs and chief executives, found that many could recount horror stories of dysfunctional relationships between the two posts.

A Marriage Made in Heaven?, written by Penelope Gibbs, a fellow of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, was based on eight interviews with chairs and eight with chief executives, in which they were asked about their relationships with each other.

Gibbs found that stories of absenteeism or micro-management by chairs, and of breakdown in the chief executive-chair relationship, were relatively common.

She wrote that if her research typified the sector, then charity governance was in crisis.

Linda Laurance, a governance expert who provides a support service for chairs, says she does not believe charities face a crisis. However, she agrees the sector "certainly contains some horror stories".

Laurance says that the relationship between a chair and a chief executive is a hugely difficult one and needs a lot of work. When the relationship fails, she says, this is often because not enough effort has been put into it.

Tim Waldron, chair of the YMCA, says chairs and chief executives usually have a good relationship, but this is not always the case. "Usually, if a relationship breaks down, it's because of a lack of respect and trust," he says. "If that's the case, then most often the chair or chief executive must go.

"I do know of one or two horror stories that have turned into success stories after the two individuals have recognised they need to work on the relationship."

Mike Hudson, director of the Compass Partnership, who advises charities on governance, says that when problems in chief executive-chair relationships arise, it is often because of the appointment process. "Chairs are appointed in many different ways," he says. "Sometimes they are recruited. In the majority of cases they are selected from the existing board.

"It's the cases where they are elected by the membership that are most likely to cause problems, because the people choosing the chair are much less likely to be concerned about their ability to get on with the chief executive."

Waldron says problems can also arise when a chair has taken the job for the wrong reasons. "I've no time for trophy hunters," he says. "You shouldn't be a chair because it would look good down the golf club or you want to impress the mayor.

"Having said that, there must be something in it for the chair. It's a big job with a lot of responsibility, and it must have some benefit for the person who takes it on."

Laurance agrees that there is room for improvement in the recruitment of chairs, but says there is also a need for more training once people are in the job. "This sector hasn't invested enough in support for chairs," she says. "There's an assumption that, if you've taken the job, you can do it. But I talk to a lot of chairs and some of them feel very isolated. Some of them are drowning."

Gibbs recommends in her report that more deputy chairs should be appointed, and that chairs should not be appointed without some experience on the board; Laurance agrees.

Hudson concludes that it is important not to focus too much on the problems of the relationship, and to look instead at when it works well. "When chairs and chief executives get the relationship right, they can move mountains together," he says.

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