BLOG: CEO/chair relationship: What questions to ask when things are tense

In an ideal world, we'd all see eye-to-eye, whether it's at work or in our personal relationships. For charities, one of the crucial relationships is between CEO and chair, and organisations can sometimes succeed or fail on the back of it. Like all successful double acts, each part needs to be confident in its role and understand where accountability lies, as this relationship defines the direction of the organisation. However, what can you do when this doesn’t go to plan?
Having worked with more than 600 charities at Pilotlight, we have seen many occasions where this partnership needs a bit of work. As a project manager and impartial facilitator, I have been well placed to help defuse historical feuds and mediate a way ahead. The first step to understanding the sticking point is to start challenging assumptions about how well things are operating. Only then can effective change take place.

What is best for the charity’s beneficiaries?
The charity must fulfil its core purpose as laid out in its memorandum and articles, but when things get shaky you can get to a point when the two key people can no longer have a productive professional relationship. Bringing it back to the service users usually gets everyone back in the room talking, and keeping the values and mission in sight at all times is essential.

What should the role of each person be?
Ultimately, the chair line manages the CEO and has a duty to ensure there is sufficient support and challenge but must allow the CEO to do his or her job. In board meetings, the chair should challenge the trustees to contribute and ensure a participatory team ethic. Meanwhile, the CEO needs to focus on the operations of the organisation and present information to trustees in an appropriate manner.

Is the board being effectively run?
Often, the dispute is caused by difficulties with the wider board. Both parts of any double act make the performance, and while the CEO must run the operational side of the charity it is the responsibility of the chair to consider whether the organisation is well governed. Do trustees ignore emails between board meetings? Does the CEO select who sits on the board without challenge from the chair? Why, when there are major identifiable challenges, do they not talk about causes and solutions? In short, who is driving the bus and where is it going?

Do we need outside support?
If tensions still remain that can’t be talked out, it might be time for a significant change. Recognise the importance of getting this right – beneficiaries depend on the chair and CEO to do the right thing – so ask yourselves whether it may be time to reach out for external guidance.

The winners of the Weston Charity Awards were announced on 14 June. To date the Awards have supported over 50 charities to develop strategies to be more sustainable through the prize of a 10–12 month engagement with Pilotlight and funding. Find out more about the awards here.

Richard Moore is project manager at Pilotlight

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