Tensions that can result in the early exit of a chief executive

The departure of Tessa Ross, the first chief executive of the National Theatre, demonstrates the difficulties, writes Sam Burne James

National Theatre
National Theatre

Hiring a chief executive is among the most important duties of charity trustees, and when new appointments don't work out as planned, the decision to part ways can be tougher still.

In April, the National Theatre announced that Tessa Ross, who took up the newly created role of chief executive in October, was stepping down. In a statement from the charity, Ross said the NT's new management structure, in which she worked alongside a new executive director and its creative director, was "not right for the NT at this time".

John Williams, vice-chair of the Association of Chairs, says that NT trustees should be praised for having tried out a new and innovative structure. He also praises the charity's openness after the departure of Ross, but acknowledges that such frankness is often not possible because both parties have signed restrictive non-disclosure agreements. "It's to the benefit of both sides to be transparent and honest," he says. "The less you say, the more speculation there is."

Williams says that trustees with concerns about their new chief executive face a dilemma. "Is it something that is going to smooth out over time, or is it more fundamental?" he asks. "It's very difficult: you can be criticised for doing too much, or for not doing enough."

Both Williams and Kevin Poulter, an employment specialist at the law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, say that by the time boards discuss such difficult topics with a new chief executive, the situation is often beyond repair. But chief executives nonetheless tend to want the best for the charity, Poulter says: "In the majority of cases I deal with, even if relations might not be very amicable, there is no intention by the chief executive to bring any harm to the charity - usually quite the opposite."

Jenny Berry, a director of the charity leaders group Acevo, runs its CEO in Crisis phone line. She says there are two particularly frequent themes in calls from recently appointed chief executives. "The most common thing I hear early on is about finding something not quite right in the finances," she says. "The next is where senior management teams have come together and, for want of a better term, seen off the previous chief executive and are hostile to the new one."

A strong relationship between chief executive and board is key to ensuring such issues are resolved rather than constituting the prelude to a premature parting of ways, says Berry. "You need openness and clarity from day one," she says.

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