posh dinner

Happy relations: Pay attention to the things we love

By Russell Hargrave 13 February 2015

As any two-bit guide to romance tells us, relationships need to be nurtured. Put aside time to make your other half feel special and your relationship will thrive. Neglect those closest to you and love could suddenly begin to fade. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and the time is ripe for reminders about paying attention to the things that relationships need to succeed.

Excellent relationships come in many forms, though, and this week NPC has its thoughts more on the boardroom than the bedroom—specifically, the rocky relations at the top of UK charities. Imagine for a moment that the relationship under scrutiny belongs to a charity chief executive and her chair of trustees: the all-important work of the person managing the charity’s day-to-day work and the head of its governance. Our new paper out today, Happy relations, ponders the opportunities and pitfalls when these two work together.

Drawn from a seminar and conversations with leading thinkers at the end of 2014, Happy relations gives six tips on how chief execs and their chairs can make this crucial relationship work—and when it is probably time to admit that it’s over.

  1. Make time for each other
    If the relationship is limited to stuffy meetings once every quarter, dominated by long agendas and spreadsheets, it will suffer. Effective working relations can be created much more informally and enjoyably, through occasional informal lunches and away-days.
  2. Take the future seriously
    The chair and the chief exec need a shared vision for the future of the charity, and they need to guide staff, board members and others along with them. So plan together—and don’t be afraid to review what has worked well and what has not.
  3. Be honest
    The chair and the chief exec should each be a critical friend to the other. There will always be tension around the different roles that a trustee board fulfils, and the board may in turn be able to help the chief exec steer the charity. Honest and open chats are important, even if they can be difficult.
  4. Don’t crowd each other
    Daily phone calls might work in some relationships, but they aren’t for everyone. Equally, giving your chief exec too much room in which to work might be interpreted as the chair being distant and disengaged. Our paper recommends finding that space between becoming too cosy and too detached.
  5. Don’t let your eye wander
    It’s helpful if a chief exec can rely on an experienced board, but ‘serial trustees’ who have relationships with many charities—and too little time for each—may be less helpful than they seem. There are potentially thousands of untapped new trustees who have never been approached, and who could be just right for the charity’s future.
  6. Stay for the right reasons
    If one thing should bond the chief exec and the chair of trustees, it’s a commitment to the charity. If that dwindles—if, for example, the relationship ends up focused more on personal reputation or even how to end up on the honours list—it’s almost certainly time to walk away.

As we note in our conclusion, ‘the relationship between governance and management is like a marriage; it requires a bit of effort from both sides to succeed’. And given attention and the right support, it can benefit everyone involved.