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Guidelines on the chair/senior worker relationship

This short guide was produced for the Managers Support Group meeting in February 2012.


The relationship is referred to as ‘pivotal’ and ‘the most important linkage in the organisation’.

Fishel sums up what each party looks for in each other:

‘The CEO wants support and advice.
The Chair wants no surprises.
The CEO wants the space to get on with the job.
The Chair wants to be associated with a successful organisation’
.

A healthy Chair- senior worker relationship:
  • has good communication
  • is mutually respectful and productive
  • operates as a ‘partnership’
  • has openness and trust where both can admit mistakes to each other and learn from them but can also appropriately challenge each other and accept challenge

It is important that both parties have shared values and are commitment to the cause and the vision for the organisation. They also need to be able to personally ‘get on’ with each other.

SENIOR WORKERS SHOULD:

  • Use the Chair’s time considerately
  • Help the Chair to run the meetings well
  • Give the Chair the information they need and keep them informed of major developments including any developing problems

CHAIRS SHOULD:

  • Filter issues so that only those requiring board decisions come before the board (not operational issues that are the province of the senior worker)
  • Act as a sounding board for the senior worker and provide them with support when needed in-between board meetings (though the regularity of their contact should be worked out between the two).
  • Support the senior worker in their engagement with the trustees by acting as a ‘team leader’ to the board providing board leadership, organisation and motivation
  • Ask questions of the senior worker but not get too involved in day to day tasks
  • Support the senior worker in being a champion of the organisation in public

THEY BOTH SHOULD:

  • Be clear about their roles and responsibilities
  • Talk through their needs and aspirations to clarify their expectations of each other, and minimise areas of overlap or potential conflict.
  • Take the time to meet regularly to discuss progress and any problems
  • Prepare for and set agendas for board meetings together
  • Try to reach a common understanding on issues before taking them to the board to keep things clear for the other trustees
  • Once a year review their relationship and identify any potential improvements
How senior workers can get trustees on board when going through a change process
  • If the change the senior worker wants to bring about is due to changes in the external environment they should help the board to be informed about and understand those changes
  • At the beginning of the decision making process about the change senior workers need to be clear in their communication with the board about why they are suggesting the change and provide any relevant background information. They should work to make sure all the trustees understand the reasoning and are on board with and have confidence in the change.
  • Trustees need to feel ownership over a change process from the start. They should be the ones that have decided upon the change with the guidance of the senior worker, they should not feel that they are being pushed into it.
  • Senior workers should in discussions at board meetings help the trustees to have a clear and united vision of where the change will take the organisation and how it fits in with the organisation’s mission.
  • Senior workers need to make sure they update the board regularly with progress made in a change process. They should share any difficulties and welcome the board’s input into developing solutions. They should also encourage any questions from the trustees.
  • Any papers for the trustees relating to the change process should be sent in good time before board meetings and be succinct, clear and timely.
Final point:

Managing a major change process can potentially be stressful for the senior worker. Sometimes boards may not be fully aware of the extent of the pressure on the senior worker or understand they need to offer extra support through this time.

If the board does not offer much support senior workers can be left feeling isolated. They should express to the board from the start of the change process the support they need. Support from the Chair is especially key but it may be a good idea to also ask for external support such as from a mentor.


These guidelines were pulled from points in the following publications:

A marriage made in heaven? The relationship between Chairs and Chief Executives in charities, Penelope Gibbs (2011) ACEVO.

Boards that Work: a Guide for Charity Trustees, David Fishel (2003) Directory of Social Change.

Managing without profit, Mike Hudson (2009) Directory of Social Change.

Masters dissertation into local voluntary organisations engaged in merger (which included interviews with senior workers and Chairs), Siobhan Sollis, KCSC 

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