How to avoid over-reliance on the chief executive

20 Nov 2014 Voices

Tesse Akpeki has some top tips for trustees on how not to become dependent on one member of staff.

Tesse Akpeki has some top tips for trustees on how not to become dependent on one member of staff.

An ICAEW review project warned recently that we must avoid over-reliance on a single chief executive or single trustee. This suggestion is not new, but it is important. 

One problem is that boards tend to follow similar patterns. But Albert Einstein warns us that "The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results". So how do we generate a different result?    

One issue is that board members have a limited amount of time to dedicate to an organisation. It is only natural that the chief executive takes the helm on executive and operational affairs.

Boundary management becomes all important in ensuring that the board macro-governs rather than micro-manages.  A key is that the chief executive and the board are strategic partners supporting the wellbeing of the organisation.

So what are the key performance indicators for success?

  • The board, led by a competent chair, proactively take the lead in developing itself, shaping the strategy and attracts adequate skills and competencies to the board.  This bench strength is nurtured and efficiently utilised.  Essential to the skills set is access to financial skills and general experience to devise strategies that work.
  • There is a strong relationship between the chief executive, the trustees and management to avoid the breakdown that we witness much too often.
  • There is a regular appraisal of the chief executive, competently undertaken and linked to targets and impact measurements the board has approved.
  • A regular review of strategic plans is undertaken which clarifies the entry points for the board in shaping the strategy
  • Board members understand the business the organisation is in and how it is run.  Trustees must be clear about their roles and what is expected of them.
  • The quality of information supplied by the management team to the board is high. The old adage, garbage in, garbage out applies
  • The old chestnut – the dependence on one dominant individual - is addressed head-on.  The board is equipped with relevant policies to ensure less dependence before problems or conflict emerges.
  • The board utilises guidance from resources such as the Good Merger Guide.  Charities consider mergers, partnership working and collaboration as part of the strategic thinking process.
  • The organisations know where to go for help and consider the high cost of getting things wrong. The board invests in developing its capacity to govern. Organisations like The Institute of Chartered Secretary’s, ICAEW, ACEVO, NCVO, and CFG, Councils for Voluntary Action, the Chairs Association and the like can come into their own.
  • The Principles in the Code of Governance are brought to life. Good practice is scaled up by engaging renewing, refreshing and energising the board. Be committed to shedding dead wood.  This requires courage, but it brings much needed transformation.
  • New technologies are used to smarten up meeting practices.  Great governance happens in between board meetings as well as at board meetings. Tablets, portals, video conferencing and collaboration tools modernise interaction and encourage engagement at all levels.

The bottom line

Boards must committed and invest in the delivery of better leadership. Each organisation, each board and each trustee has to take the bull by the horns (metaphorically) and grapple with building a better board and not leave the vacuum that chief executives or dominant trustees perceive the need to step into.

Tesse Akepeki will be speaking about digital governance at Trustee Exchange, organised by Civil Society Media, next year. Book tickets here. 


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