Chair sits on chief executive

Chair sits on chief executive
Case studies

Chair sits on chief executive

Governance | Dorothy Dalton | 1 Mar 2007

Dorothy Dalton responds to a frustrated chief executive.

Dear editor,

My chair of trustees has made enough money not to work and spends all his time at the charity. He has an office in the building and secretarial support. He interferes in management, issuing instructions not just to me but also to other staff without my knowledge. Employees and volunteers have become confused and no longer know to whom they are responsible; and are unclear about how to deal with the situation when they are given conflicting instructions from the chair and from me.The chair quickly takes credit when things are going well and even more rapidly blames me as the chief executive when things go wrong. The chair has forgotten that he is responsible to the board and that authority resides collectively with the board and not with the chair. The board which was initially pleased at the commitment of the chair now feels disempowered and marginalised. I care deeply about the charity. Can I change things or should I move on?

Yours sincerely,
A frustrated chief executive


Dear frustrated chief executive,

There are no quick solutions. The best way to attempt to deal with this situation is on a number of fronts: 

  • Work hard to build up a relationship with the chair and build his confidence in, and respect for, you. Use all your people skills and charm in order to find common ground from where you can start to alter the chair’s behaviour. Try to identify the chair’s strengths and encourage the chair to move into areas that he can do well but which keep him out of management; 
  • flatter the chair into getting involved in activities that are unrelated to the charity so that there are more external demands on his time;
  • persuade the board to have a briefing session or seminar facilitated by an outsider who, can remind the trustees of their role, responsibilities and personal liabilities and who can strongly remind them that ultimate authority and responsibility lies with the trustees collectively and nowhere else; 
  • make sure that through the agenda and briefing papers that the trustees are aware of the big issues and how they are being addressed by you and your executive team. Where appropriate and whenever possible try to arrange the need for major decisions to coincide with the times of board meetings. At board meetings, ask directly for trustees’ advice and ensure that decisions are made by the board; 
  • explain to the chair the difficulties faced by staff getting contradictory instructions and persuade the chair that except for you, his secretary and the company secretary, his instructions should be given through you. Together, let staff know about this decision; 
  • build strong relations with each trustee especially key trustees such as the vice chair or treasurer so that at an appropriate stage you can discuss the issue with them and seek their advice. Develop trust, confidence and mutual respect. Do not be tempted to be economical with the truth or to give everything you do an unmerited positive spin; 
  • try to identify a chief executive who has had similar experiences and who lived to tell the tale. Learn from their experiences; and try to be as patient and as calm as possible reminding yourself that this is going to be a long haul.

If everything fails, seek a comparable post elsewhere.

Dorothy Dalton is the editor of Professional Fundraising and a trustee of International Students House


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