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Leadership at the top: the chair-chief executive relationship

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In a previous blog Carol Jacklin-Jarvis advocated the value of a collaborative approach to leadership in the voluntary sector. In this and subsequent blogs, Chris Cornforth, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Governance and Management and board member of the Association of Chairs looks at leadership at the top of voluntary organisations, and argues that the triangle of relationships between the chief executive, chair, and the governing body or board and how well they collaborate and work together is crucial to the success of the top leadership team.

In this first blog post he will focus on the relationship between the chair and chief executive, while in subsequent blogs he will look at the relationship between the chair and the rest of the board, and then the relationship between the chief executive and the board.[1] 

The Chair-Chief Executive relationship

The chair and chief executive are at the heart of many crucial relationships within any voluntary organisation. A good working relationship is one prerequisite for an effective board, and for developing good relationships between the board and the executive team, staff and other key stakeholders. Conversely a poor working relationship can damage the working of the board, organisational performance and the accountability of management.

Tensions and sometimes conflict can arise between a chair and chief executive because their roles tend to overlap. For example, who is responsible for representing the organisation externally, or for setting the agenda of board meetings? Is it the chair or chief executive, or do both have a role? While formal role descriptions can help clarify responsibilities, they are often not enough by themselves. For example, it is often stated that the board should be involved in strategy, leaving operational matters to management. However, the dividing line between strategy and operations is not clear cut. Problems can arise where the chair (and board) get too involved in operational matters, or conversely are too distant form what is happening in the organisation so they can’t effectively contribute to strategic discussions or hold management to account. Where ambiguities or difference arise between a chair and chief executive about their respective roles there needs to be some discussion and negotiation over who does what and how they can best work together.

Another reason why it is important for the chair and chief executive to periodically reflect on and discuss how they are working together is that the relationship will need to evolve over time as circumstances change. For example, when a chair is new the chief executive may need to spend more time helping the chair get up to speed with the organisation’s strategy and with the challenges it faces, and coming to grips with their role. Similarly, a chair is likely to need to spend more time with a new chief executive, particularly if they have been recruited from outside the organisation, making sure he or she has a thorough induction to the organisation and are aware of the expectations of the board. As well as these life-cycle events, internal and external organisational challenges can mean the relationship has to change. When problems or crises arise that may threaten the organisation and the fulfilment of its mission then it can be necessary for the chair and board to be more directly involved in operational matters until the issues are resolved. For example, a funding crisis, conflict between senior staff, or poor performance may signal that the executive team are not performing well and the chair and board need to intervene.[2]

Research suggests that establishing mutual respect and trust is crucial in developing a successful working relationship between a chair and chief executive[3]. Openness, honesty and sensitivity are important in developing trust and mutual respect. If there is defensiveness, withholding of relevant information or interference in the other’s role, there is a danger of distrust and a negative relationship developing or even a power struggle.

If this persists a vicious circle can develop where the relationship deteriorates, sometimes to breaking point, with damaging consequences for the board and the organisation.

However, developing a trusting relationship between chair and chief executive does not mean blind trust. If a chair is too close to the chief executive there is a danger they may not have sufficient distance to question or challenge proposals from the chief executive. This danger may be particularly acute with a strong and charismatic chief executive. There have been distinct suggestions that this was a factor in the failure of the charity Kid’s Company[4]. There is also a danger that the two may become a dominant coalition making it difficult for the board to question their proposals and hold both to account. However, conversely being a chief executive can be a very demanding and lonely position and a crucial role of the chair is to provide support and encouragement when needed and to act as sounding board for the chief executive. So, a chair needs to strike a delicate balance between challenge and support in their relations with the chief executive.

Finally it is useful to link this line of inquiry back to the discussion of leadership, and in particular CVSL has been concerned to think about CE-board relationships in the context of current debates about collective leadership, this will be discussed further in a forthcoming briefing paper and at a number of conferences in 2018.

If you would like more information on the crucial relationship between a chair and chief executive the Association of Chairs has produced an excellent booklet ‘A Question of Balance: A guide to the Chair and Chief Executive Relationship’, which can be downloaded from their website’ www.associationofchairs.org.uk .

 

[1] In this article I’m assuming the voluntary organisation has a paid staff who are led by a chief executive, although they may be called something else such as director or manager. For simplicity I will refer to a voluntary organisation’s governing body as its board, although again it may go by other names, such as board of trustees, or management committee.

[2] Mordaunt. J. and Cornforth, C. (2004) ‘The role of boards in the failure and turnaround of non-profit organizations’, Public Money and Management, August, 227-234.

[3] Robinson, R. and Exworthy, M. (1999) Two at the top: A study of the working relationship between chairs and chief executives at health authorities, boards and trusts in the NHS, London and Birmingham: NHS Confederation.; Roberts, J. and Stiles, P. (1999) ‘The Relationship between Chairmen and Chief Executives: Competitive or Complementary Roles, Long Range Planning, 32, 1: 36-48.

[4] House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (2016) The collapse of Kids Company: lessons for charity trustees, professional firms, the Charity Commission, and Whitehall, London: The Stationery Office Limited. (Downloaded from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmpubadm/433/433.pdf )