Secret charity CEO: ‘A board meeting feels like PMQs’

As part of a new series, a secret charity CEO documents some of their issues relating to charity leadership. This time, issues with a difficult chair lead to some unwanted tension.

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At a recent board meeting, after presenting my regular CEO report which, on this occasion, was full of positive news and exciting developments, the chair asked his usual: “Any questions or comments from the trustees?”

I’ve been to hundreds of board meetings in my time as either a trustee or a CEO. This question usually elicits silence from some trustees (not necessarily a good thing), a couple of helpful suggestions from others and some general praise and thanks from a few more.

Not this time. The first trustee to raise their hand – in this case the small yellow virtual Teams hand that pops up in the corner – had seven questions. Yes, seven.

At this point, I should make it clear that I think constructive scrutiny and informed oversight is crucial to the effective running of a charity. This is a board’s primary objective. ‘Constructive’ and ‘informed’ being the operative words. Not grandstanding.

One of the seven questions was what he clearly thought and hoped was what they call in politics a ‘gotcha moment’. Unfortunately for him, he’d completely misunderstood something fundamental about our organisation and the thing he thought we were doing terribly wrong was actually something we usually do and something we take great pride in.

Mustering all the magnanimity I could, channelling Michelle Obama’s ‘when they go low, you go high’ mantra and resisting the urge indulge in petty one-upmanship, I smiled and explained as politely as possible that he’d actually misunderstood.

I didn’t add what was on the tip of my tongue: that what he had misunderstood was pretty central to our values as an organisation and set us apart from others in our sector. Something he should absolutely be fully aware of.

There was a momentary flash of frustration in his eyes and then he shrunk ever so slightly in his seat. The manner in which he delivered his remaining three questions was a little less Leader of the Opposition trying to score points and little more backbench MP eager to use the occasion to champion a local cause. Sometimes in this role we have celebrate the small victories.

Readers will by now be wondering how we got to this point. This particular trustee has never quite moved on from when I respectfully challenged both the manner in which a board decision was reached and the decision itself. It was a poor decision taken without due consideration or process and it was my absolute duty to challenge it.

Penny Wilson, CEO of the wonderful charity Getting On Board, often writes compellingly in these pages about trustees. In a recent article she pointed out that “trustees should listen, be open to challenge and be able to change their minds”. Chance would be a fine thing. Instead, an opportunity to contradict me never seems to be missed which has made board meetings an increasingly joyless experience.

If you can relate to the issues mentioned in this article, or if you would like to anonymously document some of your own challenges, get in touch at editor@ charitytimes.com. All names will remain anonymous throughout.

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