Good leadership is important in any organisation, and the relationship between the Chair and the Chief Executive is pivotal to success. When it works well things can fly, but when there are problems life becomes very difficult. This is a particular problem for small organisations as so much is riding on getting this right.

Chief Executives of small charities often don’t have another senior member of staff to turn to and Chairs may not have a sufficient skill base amongst their board to provide sufficient support. When times get tough the pressures can mount and it may then only take something small to trigger a crisis.

At Charity Mentors we find that whatever the presenting problem, mentees often have issues and tensions with this relationship, sometimes because someone is new to the role and lacks experience or understanding of the sector, but also when there are challenges on the horizon that increase the risks or require a different approach.

This made me interested in looking at how people made this relationship work in a practical sense and I used this as the focus for some research as part of my recent MSc. Past studies have tended to look at the components of good relationships or the way the roles are split but there is relatively little about what is actually going on under the surface and I was keen to glean tips from others’ experiences.

I interviewed a range of experienced Chairs and Chief Executives and many themes were common to all, for example the importance of trust, mutual respect and good communication but what was more interesting were some of the things that don’t normally get included in checklists of good practice.

These include the importance of getting to know how the other person ticked and being willing to accommodate them in a climate of mutual respect; finding ways to understand each other’s (often unspoken) expectations before something blows up and, on both sides, really understanding the balancing act that the other is carrying out.

The underlying dependencies on both sides were about trust and the things that get left unsaid. In many senses this goes to the heart of the unwritten psychological contract in any relationship and if there is a mismatch or misunderstanding in this unspoken ‘deal’ then there will be trouble ahead. Working with a mentor can help to unpick some of these issues, and as ever, once things are out in the open they become much easier to deal with.

Top tips for Chairs include:

  • Make sure that you invest time in really understanding the organisation – this may take much longer than you expect
  • Be prepared to flex your role over time
  • Think through your values and assumptions and make these clear early on, and recognise the potential impact of your Chief Executive’s unspoken feelings about the role

Top tips for Chief Executives include:

  • Be prepared for your next Chair to be different to your last one
  • Recognise that your chair is a volunteer and you need to go some way to accommodating him or her too
  • Think through what pressures you are under that aren’t in the job description or those where you think the Board doesn’t understand them and try and make these explicit

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