Are you a charity CEO or Chair trying to navigate the tricky waters of your partnership? This blog is for you. I’m going to explore the challenges that can arise between these two roles and provide practical tips on how to build a positive and rewarding partnership.
A thriving charity relies on effective collaboration and alignment of thinking between its CEO and Chair. But it’s not without its challenges. The intricate balance of responsibilities, authority, and vision can sometimes lead to tensions. However, by establishing clear roles, fostering open communication, building trust, and effectively resolving conflicts, both parties really can create a powerful partnership that strengthens the charity's impact and pushes forward its mission.
Understanding Roles and Responsibilities
I speak to a lot to charity CEOs and boards. It’s clear that one of the primary reasons for tensions between a charity CEO and Chair arises when there is a lack of clarity surrounding respective roles and responsibilities. If you want to work together effectively, these need to be defined. In writing, and as early as possible. Ask yourselves these sorts of questions:
Are you on the same page when it comes to mission, vision and values?
Is your charity’s process of trustee induction working effectively?
What are the values and guiding behaviours you want to see at board meetings?
Are you clear about where accountabilities lie?
With reference to the Charity Governance Code, what measures do you have in place to ensure your organisation meets the standard?
How do you ensure trustees focus on the big picture and avoid becoming embroiled in operational matters?
In terms of communication, what boundaries do you want to set?
Have you agreed a board meeting schedule and workplan for the coming year?
To ensure a smooth working relationship, it starts with both parties having a shared understanding of their roles and to communicate openly about expectations. Establishing clear lines of authority, decision-making processes, and regular communication channels goes a long way in preventing misunderstandings and conflicts.
Open and Transparent Communication
It's become a cliché, but effective communication truly does lie at the heart of any successful partnership. And so it is for a charity CEO and Chair, where regular and open dialogue is crucial. Getting together on a one-on-one basis, as well as part of board meetings, provides opportunities for dialogue and collaboration. Just be careful to respect each other’s time and availability.
There are still a few Chairs who are surprised and perhaps offended to learn that ‘dropping by for a quick catch-up’ (that goes on for two hours) is not something their CEO especially welcomes. And some CEOs who complain unfairly when their Chair (who may well be holding down a full-time job elsewhere) is not immediately available to give them support.
Getting the best from each other starts with respecting each other’s space and being sensitive to competing priorities. One Chair I worked with did drop by regularly, but always on a Tuesday morning, on the dot at 10am, and never stayed longer than half an hour. We built a brilliant rapport within the welcome regularity and limitations of these meetings, where he felt valued by the openness of our informal one-to-ones, and I came to value him as a trusted sounding board.
Shared Vision and Strategic Alignment
A shared vision and strategic alignment are vital for your charity's success. To achieve this, you need to establish a shared understanding of your organisation’s priorities and ensure that all decisions and actions are consistent with the overarching vision. Regularly reviewing and updating the strategic plan will enable you to adapt to evolving circumstances and seize new opportunities.
The strength of a good Chair and CEO relationship built on productive discussions and strategic alignment benefits everyone at at the formal environment of a quarterly board meeting, because you are already on the same page and that unity shines through to other trustees. It doesn’t squeeze out debates; on the contrary, it creates a positive environment in which everyone is comfortable to share opinions. When you get on, you are more likely to actively listen to each other's perspectives, appreciating the value of diverse viewpoints.
Building Trust and Mutual Respect
Trust and mutual respect are the cornerstones of a successful partnership between a charity CEO and Chair. But we should acknowledge they don’t always come easily.
I once had a call with a young charity CEO, who felt at the end of her tether trying to establish a position of authority when dealing with a board of trustees, all of whom were at least old enough to be her parents. They behaved like they were too. She was frequently called in the evening or at the weekend, because that was a more convenient time for the Chair; and more than once she was accused of being ‘too sensitive’ by the Chair after complaining about being ‘barked at’ by the board as if she was a child.
We worked on a strategy for this CEO, which included setting (and keeping to) clear boundaries for her availability, as well as one or two little tips she could use to feel less personally attacked and establish her authority for a more equal footing with the Chair and the whole board.
In fairness, though, when trust and mutual respect are missing, reparation almost always needs to come from both sides. The charity sector is not made up of saints (CEOs) and villains (trustees). Both parties need to honour commitments, respect confidentiality, and operate with integrity. We all need to earn trust and respect.
In addition, both CEO and Chair need to go out of their way to foster a collaborative environment between the senior management team and the board, so innovative ideas can thrive. You also need to celebrate successes together and demonstrate appreciation for each other’s contribution to collective achievements. All of these things go towards strengthening the bond between board and staff, and inspiring a sense of being on the same side rather than a sometimes pervasive 'us and them' attitude.
Conflict Resolution and Mediation
When disagreements occur, it is important to address them promptly and constructively. This is also where mediation or using a third-party facilitator can help facilitate discussions, promote understanding, and find common ground.
Occasionally, I have been brought in too late to turn things around. In fact, one time a CEO on the verge of a mental breakdown had already resigned and submitted a formal complaint against the Chair. Only then was I brought in to pick up the pieces with the board. The other trustees were shocked at the CEO resignation and professed a lack of awareness that the relationship between CEO and Chair had sunk so low. The Chair, feeling aggrieved by their finger pointing when, as they felt, the board shared accountability, promptly resigned too.
To lose both the CEO and the Chair in such a short space of time was an almighty mess for the charity to have got itself into, and deeply upsetting for individuals at a personal level. I felt an overwhelming sense of how, with earlier help, the crisis could have been avoided. And how much better off the CEO, the Chair, and the charity would have been as a result.
Learning how to resolve conflicts in a respectful, collaborative and timely manner should be at the heart of the CEO and Chair relationship, and this happens when it is built on a firm foundation of understanding, a commitment to the organisation's mission, and a will to put the charity’s interests first.
The relationship between a charity CEO and Chair is pivotal to the success of your charity. By establishing clear roles, fostering open communication, aligning strategic vision, building trust, and effectively resolving conflicts, both parties can create a dynamic partnership that strengthens the charity's impact and drives its mission. It can take time and effort to establish and maintain that kind of bond. The rewards are immense, because as a successful team you will ensure your organisation continues to move forward with ever greater efficiency and productivity, that it will thrive, and best of all make a meaningful difference in the world. Truly, it's worth the effort.
Jenny Hopkins is the founder of The Boiling Frog. Having spent the earlier part of her career in publishing, she switched to the charity sector and became CEO of a local deaf charity. Over a period of ten years, she is credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She has since stepped back from that role to embark on a PhD about the impact of marketisation on deaf charities, alongside mentoring other CEOs of small charities. She uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She also volunteers as a trustee for two charities.