18 Sep 2014
Chairman's Corner: Feeling dominated and excluded by an impressive new chief executive
This is the first in a new series in which chairs of trustees can seek advice from 'The Chairman' on issues they are tackling.
Six months ago we appointed a new chief executive and whilst in many ways he is having a positive impact on the charity, (improved organisational structure, new fundraising initiatives, and strengthened staff resource), my fellow trustees and I are beginning to feel dominated and even a little excluded.
I enjoyed a very close and inclusive working relationship with our previous CE over a period of seven years but she had a different style of working. How should I approach this situation to allay my concerns and those of my fellow trustees without diluting the effectiveness of our chief executive or, worse, causing him to look to pursue his career elsewhere?
Yours sincerely, JB
Your letter acknowledges that your new chief executive has already had a positive impact on certain operational aspects of your charity, that he is proving 'effective' and that you do not wish to lose him. However, you and your fellow trustees are feeling dominated and excluded in a way that clearly was not the case in the context of your relationship with the previous chief executive.
You say that the former chief executive had 'a very different style of working', without describing that style or detailing how it contrasts with that of the current chief executive. However, given that you describe your previous working relationship as 'close and inclusive', it would be reasonable to assume that the current situation is somewhat distant and exclusive; hence your concerns.
It seems to me that there are two key issues here: one is the impact of a new, keen, effective chief executive who is likely to be a strong, confident, individual with firm ideas about how to enhance and improve the success of your charity and the ability to convert those ideas into actions, (perhaps some of the reasons why you appointed him?); the second is communications.
Addressing the first issue requires an awareness on the part of the new chief executive of the impact of his approach and method of working on those around him, in particular the trustees and you as chair; but equally, a realisation on the part of the chair and the trustees that the new chief executive is not simply going to carry on, in the same way, as his predecessor. That is not in any way to imply criticism of the previous post-holder; but there does need to be a conscious recognition of significant change, a willingness to embrace and adapt and an acknowledgement that there can be facets of an individual's strengths that need to be effectively managed, perhaps reined in a little, if they are not to have an adverse effect on an organisation.
The second issue, communication, is the key to resolving this situation and allaying your concerns. You do not say to what extent you have shared your concerns with the chief executive; but that has to be the first step. In the spirit of developing an effective and constructive working relationship between the chief executive and the board of trustees, you need to articulate your concerns.
What is it exactly that the chief executive is doing to make you feel 'dominated and excluded'? Is he not sharing his ideas and proposals with you at the developmental stage, does he not invite frequent, informal chats with you as chair, does he treat board meetings as rubber-stamping exercises? Whatever it is, it needs to be explained with a view to agreeing actions that can be put in place to resolve the issues. Your letter suggests that the appointment of the new chief executive has generally been a positive experience and that he has the potential to succeed in the post. It is entirely possible that he is completely unaware of the difficulties you are experiencing and that, far from being the result of a deliberate plan on his part, they are no more than the unintentional consequence of focused, (if a little blinkered), enthusiasm. If I am wrong, and you find you have appointed a power-hungry dictator, then, of course, you will have to consider an entirely different plan of action!
One final point, you mention that your working relationship with the previous chief executive spanned a period of some seven years. In the context of good governance, a further topic for discussion with fellow trustees and the new chief executive might be that of appropriate preparation and process relating to your succession as chair.
Attending our one day courses is a highly effective way of ensuring new and existing trustees fully understand their role, responsibilities and liabilities.