Building a partnership - the chair-CEO relationship

It's important to pay attention to the key partnership between the chair and chief executive - especially when pressures arise, says Tony Nickson


This year is going to be a challenging one, probably even more challenging than the last. We will need to be creative, agile and prepared to change, and we need to hold our nerve and not lose sight of our vision as community-led organisations.

We talk about partnership a lot. One of the key partnerships in a charity or non-profit is the one between the chair of trustees and the chief executive. When this goes well a charity can be a powerful force for the community. When it goes badly it can sap the energy of the organisation, cost money and even lead to its breakdown.

The Association of Chairs has drawn on research and the direct contribution of chairs from different types of organisation (including our own Chair) to provide a guide on how to build and strengthen this partnership, and what to do when things get tense. 'The relationship of the chair and the CEO is pivotal the functioning of your charity or non-profit organisation,' says A Question of Balance – a guide to the Chair and Chief Executive relationship, which shows us that this relationship is unique for each or our organisations. Each chair-CEO relationship is 'moulded by their particular personalities and histories as well as the particular context of their board and organisation.'

This relationship is not a static one; situations change, people change and respond to pressures in different ways, new challenges arise. It's an opportunity to stretch ourselves. This is what keeps it fascinating, but demanding.

It's never plain sailing, and a key message from this guide and also from Tesse Akpeke’s video is: Talk it out, don’t tough it out. There are a lot of ways to do this before things get so broken they can’t be fixed. Tesse is Onboard Consultant with Bates Wells Braithwaite’s and her video on ways to deal with conflict between chief executives and the chair is part of the LawWorks series of free videos. Among her top tips, she offers this:  ‘Attitude is everything when it comes to leadership. The chief executive is a partner, not an adversary'.

For my part in building the partnership I try (not always successfully} to follow the ‘no surprises rule': 'A chief executive who constantly surprises his board may end up losing trust and confidence.' Both the chief executive and the board should model leadership. I don’t always get it right - especially when things are moving fast, making it hard to keep everyone in the loop, or even to keep up myself! Tesse offers a case study on ‘No surprises’ which is really helpful in getting that tricky ‘operational-strategic’ decision-making role right. 


Further support on governance issues for local charities and community groups is available from Chris Wykes Driver our Development Support Officer with responsibility for Finance, Governance and Social Enterprise. Contact her by email