CEOs on Chairs

Leading Governance brought together a group of eight CEOs of organisations ranging in annual turnover from £100K to £20 million to discuss their views on governance. We wanted to find out how CEOs felt about their governance practices, and how their boards could really add value to the work of the organisations. In the first of a two-part blog, we look at views on the relationship between executive and board, with a particular focus on the crucial Chair/CEO relationship.

The Role of Board Chair

Clarity about what the role of board Chair involved was agreed as essential, and the Chief Executives agreed that a model Role Description and Person Specification for the Chair should be developed. All agreed that those documents for board members in general, and the Chair in particular, were extremely useful to ensure clarity, including where the line between Chair and Chief Executive lay.

When asked what the ideal board Chair would look like, participants felt that board Chairs were at their best when they were fully informed, decisive and confident in their role. Chairs who didn’t show these characteristics left a void, where it was unclear who was running the organisation, with the board, Chief Executive and funders all having overlapping, confused roles.

Chair and CEO Relationships

All of the Chief Executives recognised the ideal Chair/Chief Executive relationship as being one of ‘critical friend’, and welcomed a balance of challenge and support from them.  However, there was a feeling that often Chairs saw their role more as one of challenge than support.  One Chief Executive described their experience of having an external coach for tailored support, and it was agreed that this was a good way of meeting the support needs of Chief Executives.

Participants felt that co-coaching for Chairs and Chief Executives would be useful. There was a general recognition that it tended to be the most effective board Chairs that show up for events on how to improve in the role, while weaker Chairs tended to avoid helpful training and development opportunities. Participants agreed that all organisations would benefit from training and development for board Chairs, recognising how important the role was for leading an effective board and supporting the Chief Executive.

There was general support for the idea of paying board members of non-profit organisations, and Chairs in particular.  Payment was seen as having positive impact on the Chair / CEO relationship – enabling an expectation of higher quality input, and enabling the Chair to be held accountable for their work in leading the board.  “You wouldn’t feel so bad making demands of them if they were paid.  It’s really hard for a volunteer to give the time needed to really do the role well”.


The Impact of Modern Governance Requirements

Modern governance requirements, including Board Member Review processes were acknowledged as time consuming, and while valuable and agreed as best practice, often suffered when the Chair’s time was in short supply. The organisations that paid their Chairs felt it was money very well-spent. There was general agreement that payment would not be a deciding factor in attracting an effective board Chair, but it did provide token recognition of the real value of the role.

Those Chief Executives whose board members had reviews reported that there was general appreciation of one-to-one time with the Chair, although it took real investment of the Chair’s time. Participants also felt it would be useful for the Chair to provide some appropriate feedback from the Board Member Review process to the Chief Executive, with a current feeling among some of exclusion from the process, and lack of awareness of any outcomes arising from it. There was strong support for a 360° appraisal of the Chair, with the Chief Executive providing input in addition to board members.

The CEOs with whom we spoke respected and valued their boards, and their Chair in particular. There was a genuine willingness to work together with trustees to develop their organisations. In the next of the series, we will discuss the CEOs’ views in relation to developments in governance, and their suggestions on how it may be improved.

Joy Allen, Leading Governance

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