WORKSHOP: Personal Trainer - How can I clarify the boundaries between the roles of the directors and the chair?

STEPHEN BUBB, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send your questions to:

Striking the right relationship between the chair and chief executive of a third-sector body is one of the biggest challenges either faces.

Successful leadership between these two is crucial to long-term success.

Getting it wrong can be catastrophic.

As with all relationships, discussing and agreeing boundaries is the way forward. Last year, the Royal Society of Arts conducted a major study of corporate governance in the public and voluntary sectors. This concluded that the relationship between the chair and chief executive was "frequently a wary one". And yet it need not be. The vast majority of third-sector bodies do enjoy the benefits of a successful relationship between the chair and chief executive. But it is still not uncommon for this relationship to flounder.

My own experience as head of ACEVO has taught me that there is a lot of bad practice around and, I regret to say, it is often the chair's poor understanding of their non-executive role that is to blame. Because of problems over these roles, ACEVO set up a working group in 1996 of chairs and chief executives to develop a guide to the relationship. Indeed, we updated the guide, Leading the Organisation - The Relationship between Chairs and Chief Executives, in January 2002. The purpose of this study is to offer advice on the concerns which have been found to unsettle the relationship and practical advice on setting boundaries.

John Carver, the well-known American writer on not-for-profit organisations, wrote that: "The board and its chief executive constitute a leadership team. The contributions are formally separable, and once clearly differentiated, the two roles can be supportive and respectful of each other."

These positions can be neatly divided into a non-executive and executive role. The chair needs to distinguish and concentrate on strategic decisions and leave the essential management of staff and operational direction of the organisation to the chief executive.

Clearly this is not always an easy distinction and there will be cases where there can be friendly disagreements. But the chair should not be taking a hands-on role in operational issues or getting involved in discussions with staff and volunteers. That is the role of the chief executive and any blurring of this line confuses staff and undermines operational effectiveness.

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