Chairman's Corner: A chair lies on the couch

Chairman's Corner: A chair lies on the couch
Chair issues

Chairman's Corner: A chair lies on the couch

Governance | Cedric Frederick | 1 Jan 2007

Regional anarchy Stephanie Jacobs, Cedric Frederick and Dame Gillian Wagner respond to a conflicted chair who doesn't know where she should stand.

Dear Chair,

Not long ago I was slightly bounced into being chair of a small charity, just as we were about to recruit a new chief executive. Although I think we have now made a good appointment, the recruitment process was very difficult and emotional and I feel that my lack of experience, in part, contributed to these difficulties. In particular, some slightly insensitive communications (from me) contributed to misunderstandings that upset some staff members. This has, I think, been resolved but although other trustees and some members of staff have been very supportive, I am feeling slightly resentful at having been left with a such difficult task, at the time it has taken, and at having to smooth over such complicated emotional situations.

I also think there are some significant changes that need to be made in preparation for the new chief executive’s arrival, but I don’t feel as if other trustees fully understand or agree with me. I worry that I am sometimes overly critical of the way things are run at the moment, when in fact things are really quite well run. Or perhaps what it needs is more time and training for the trustee board to develop better practice. But that would again take more of my time, and I’m feeling worn out by my involvement (I have a relatively new and demanding full time job as well as being a trustee).

And now, perhaps because of my lingering resentment, I think I have again been slightly too open about my opinions to a member of staff. They haven’t actually said anything, but I am concerned that I have just caused more difficulties than I have helped with, and I’m not sure whether I should apologise, which might just make an issue where there is none. I waste huge amounts of anxiety and emotional energy worrying about whether I am doing the right thing. I am very committed to the work of the charity, but I don’t want to stick around if I’m not doing a good job. I have wondered if I should try to find a more experienced mentor. I’m worried that if I continue, I may make other, more serious, misjudgements.

Perhaps I’m just particularly fragile today, and I’ll feel better if I talk about my concerns to some of the other trustees.

Yours sincerely,

A chair who wants to do her best for the charity


Dear fellow chair,

You are extremely committed to the work of your charity, you have just overseen a good new appointment to the role of chief executive and you sound self-aware enough to be able to realise your mistakes and want to do something about them. Believe me, these are all great attributes for a chair!

You say, however that you are ‘worn out’, and I am not surprised as you are trying to do everyone’s job as well as your own. It is not for you to manage the organisation. You have employed a chief executive and you should now step back and let them get on with it, and that includes making any necessary changes. In preparation for their arrival you could, however, help to plan an induction programme for them which should include time with you and with the other trustees.

As for your relationships with the staff, people do care what is said by the chair and a few words of appreciation go a long way. You could perhaps send a joint communication to everyone, looking forward to the new chief executive, acknowledging that it has not been the easiest time for the organisation but saying how much you appreciate their support and all that they do. Keep it simple and move on.

Remember, all the trustees are equally accountable, so confide in your colleagues and agree to invest in trustee training and board development. Get it right and you will save both time and emotional energy. As part of your review, ensure that you have sound recruitment and election processes in place. Having done that, you could suggest that you put yourself up for re-election in twelve months time so that you can then move forward with a proper mandate and full confidence.

Good luck!

Stephanie Jacobs is chair of Breast Cancer Care

Dear chair,

I can understand the challenge of being the chair of a small charity and the perceived need (or perhaps the wish) for trustees to get involved in the detail of management and as a result getting too close to individual members of staff. My advice would be to resist this temptation at all costs! No matter how small the charity, trustees should stick to governance and leave the management of the organisation to the paid staff. The fact that you feel the need to make ‘significant changes’ before the new chief executive arrives, suggests to me that you may be muddying the governance and management waters! My strong advice to you is ‘For Pete’s sake, don’t make any changes’. Allow the new chief executive to tackle these issues when he or she starts. Not only will it give them confidence in a new job to come in and make a difference (as a new chief executive, you can’t beat a ‘quick win’!), it will signal that the board recognise their key responsibility was to appoint the chief executive and then support him or her to tackle the challenges you mention.

As far as your indiscreet comments to a member of staff are concerned, my suggestion is that you now leave well alone, do not refer to it again and move on. This particular issue will die down in due course.

I think seeking the support of an experienced chair will help you and they (assuming they’re good!) will be able to support you to work through these issues. It’s easy for trustees to be critical as they will really want the best for the charity, but please remember the effect this will have on the staff. It’s good that you recognise that things are quite well run in the charity. Have you told the staff? They’d love to hear that you recognise that.

All chairs have not-so-good days, when like you, they feel fragile. It’s a judgement call as to how much you discuss with some of the other trustees. Do you have a vice chair? Maybe start with them? There is no doubt that the role of the chair is second only to the that of the chief executive’s in terms of loneliness, but be careful who you confide in! 

Hope this helps!

Cedric Frederick is chief executive of Adepta


Dear fragile chair,

It does not sound to me as though you had a very easy start to your chairmanship. Recruiting a new chief executive (CEO) is one of the most important duties that a chair has to perform. You assumed that responsibility at short notice, and you should feel pleased that you and your co-trustees have made a good appointment and have a new CEO. The effectiveness and efficiency of a charity does depend on there being a good relationship between the chair and the CEO and I very much hope that you feel you will be able to work constructively with him. 

It was unfortunate that there was a change of chair and chief executive at the same time. As well as being difficult for you this must have been very unsettling for the staff and may well have led to the misunderstandings that upset some of them. Now that decisions have been taken there should be a renewed sense of direction among staff and trustees.

Having congratulated you on managing the appointment of the new CEO I must say that if you are to continue to lead the organisation you must stop feeling resentful. Your feelings will quickly be picked up by staff which will lead to lack of trust. You accepted the chairmanship and you must try to build up your own confidence. It might be helpful if you could talk to another experienced chair and get them to give you the support that you need.

You talk of making significant changes before the CEO comes and that the other trustees don’t understand or agree with you. I think it would be very much more constructive to make the significant changes with the agreement of the CEO, after all he will have to implement them.

Yours helpfully, I hope.

Dame Gillian Wagner is president of Abbeyfield Society UK


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