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The chief executive's relationship with trustees

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About the relationship between the chief executive and the trustees.

When it works well the relationship between the trustees and the chief executive can be a generative, even creative partnership.

The development of the relationship is a crucial part of the chief executive’s job. Their role makes them the leader of the staff body and the point of contact between staff and trustees. They are also the senior professional in the organisation, better placed than anyone to support the trustees in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Relationships are complicated things, and the relationship between staff and trustees is no exception. A range of elements come together to determine whether the relationship works well. The chief executive has to work with those elements he or she can.  Some of the most important are:

  • clarity about the trustees’ role
  • the chief executive’s attitude to the trustees
  • the relationship between the chief executive and the chair.

Clarity about the trustees’ role

The roles taken by trustees are countless: founders, advisors, experts, specialists, fundraisers, providers of contacts, networkers, ambassadors, donors, and more. (In small charities, trustees often also act as managers and even doers, which can cause confusion and sometimes considerable problems.) It is striking, when you ask people, how low down the list the legal role of trustee appears, that is, being a member of a group of people with ‘joint and several’ accountability for the running of the organisation – otherwise known as governance.

Surprisingly many trustees are unaware of that role and even more misunderstand it, often including the chair. As the senior charity professional in the organisation, it is the chief executive’s job to understand the trustees’ role and to help them to do so as well.

Because trustees take on so many roles, especially in smaller organisations, the challenge is to help them recognise those different roles and to ensure that in the midst of all the other things they do the tasks of governance are not undervalued or neglected.

The chief executive’s attitude to the trustees

Much hangs on how the chief executive views the trustees.  Many senior managers, chief executives included, see trustees in very negative terms – I have heard them described as ‘a nuisance’, ‘useless’ or worse. That attitude can only lead to unhelpful behaviours towards the trustees, which will in turn breed distrust, suspicion and even hostility.

It is more helpful to think of trustees as stakeholders – which they unquestionably are – or even customers, in the sense of someone to whom you deliver a service. That leads to a very different set of assumptions and behaviours. Working with trustees becomes simply another example of relationship management and several questions come to mind, for example:

  • How do the trustees see their role?
  • What do they want from me and the staff?
  • what do I want from them?
  • What kind of relationship do I want with the trustees?  How can I achieve that?
  • How can I influence their views – of the organisation, their role, my own role, of other staff etc?

As with any relationship, it helps to be able to see things from the other person’s perspective. Trusteeship is in fact a very difficult role to do well – and it is particularly hard as a trustee to know how to genuinely add value to the organisation (hence so many trustees’ desires to get involved in other roles).

The relationship between the chief executive and the chair

For the chief executive, having a skilled and supportive chair is a great gift. The reverse is also true – a poor chair can create significant problems. 

Just as much hangs on a healthy relationship between trustees and staff, that is itself built around the relationship between the leaders of the two groups. 

It follows that the chief executive is well advised to do everything in their power to build a strong and positive relationship with the chair. And that is a matter of building trust, respect and understanding in exactly the way you would with any important colleague or partner. There is no guarantee that the chair wants the same kind of relationship – there are too many stories that prove otherwise – but it is the only option for the chief executive who wants to succeed.

The Association of Chairs' have produced a Chairs Compass which might also be helpful for chief executives.

Page last edited Dec 10, 2014

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