I have learned many things in my career, but this has to be one of the most important. The charity you work for will be more successful if the CEO and Board work closely together and there is alignment between the Board and senior team – and everyone will be happier! This is why governance has to be a major responsibility for any CEO. It may be stating the obvious for some of you, but I have encountered first time CEOs and others who underestimate quite how important this is.
My first CEO role was almost 20 years ago now, and it was formative. I was the first CEO of a new charity, working with the founders to bring it to life. The founders were both chair and vice-chair, as well as donors and volunteer executives, so being clear on roles and responsibilities – what “hats were being worn” at different times – was key for all of us. Of course it wasn’t always plain sailing, but what I do remember is some fantastic open discussions and debates as we worked on forming the initial proposition and ways of working, and the respect we had for each other’s contributions.
Subsequent CEO roles have only confirmed to me the importance of achieving a real partnership between CEO and the Chair and Board, one that is open and honest and underpinned by transparent communication and mutual respect. I have been saddened on occasions joining charities where that relationship has not existed in that way. For me, I have gained an enormous amount from the wisdom and experience of Chairs and Board members, as well as their support and challenge.
Now, not all Boards are perfect, but by far the majority I have worked with have been good or excellent. In fact in a couple of cases, I had been told the Board was not good or even “dysfunctional” – when in fact the only thing that was dysfunctional was the relationship between Board and CEO. Boards can be poor for many reasons – poor leadership, inappropriate membership – or simply lack of communication, awareness and support. The CEO however has a key role to work with and support the Board to be as good as it can be – which will benefit everyone.
We all know that stuff happens, there can be a breakdown in relationship between Chair or Board and CEO, and in that circumstance the usual outcome is someone has to go. I have known some excellent CEOs caught up in such a scenario and, while we don’t often talk about it, it may happen more often than you think.
And of course not all CEOs are perfect and Boards have a really important role to play in dealing with a situation where the CEO is not performing – or worse. I am full of admiration and respect for Chairs (particularly) and Boards who have had to deal with difficult situations, but are really clear their responsibility is to do what is best for the charity. And they have stepped up and dealt with really challenging issues, sometimes at some personal cost. This highlights the role of the Board in ensuring the continuity, sustainability and success of the charity.
The Board may on some occasions determine the charity should not continue, perhaps through merger or closure depending on circumstance – not an easy decision to take. This is also important – a charity has to demonstrate its impact and viability to continue, and if it cannot, it is perfectly legitimate – and justified – to discontinue or continue differently.
Leading on governance matters in support of the Board is therefore central to the CEO’s role – and most importantly establishing a positive and productive relationship between the CEO and senior team and the Board. This means ensuring mutual respect and understanding of the roles and responsibilities of all involved, communicating transparently and being able to have open discussions and debates about key issues. Such a partnership will really make a difference, will be rewarding for all, give your charity its best chance of success – and help achieve a more positive and productive culture for everyone.
Thank you Chairs and Trustees for all you do.