Where was the BP chairman?

By Jane Thomas 8 June 2010

If you’ve been following the recent BP disaster in the news you might have noticed there has been one person conspicuous by his absence: BP’s chairman. While the chief executive Tony Hayward has been in the firing line, I doubt many people could tell you what the company’s chair even looks like.

Now I don’t know what the relationship between the board and the executive team at BP is like, and I wouldn’t want to make assumptions. But it is surprising that in one of the biggest disasters to hit the company in recent years that the chairman and chief exec don’t exactly appear to be showing a united front.

The importance of a good relationship between chair and chief exec was one point highlighted at the second of NPC’s trustee seminars yesterday. The seminar, which saw 60 trustees come together at 8:00 on a Monday morning to discuss how boards can maximise their own contribution, was a great illustration of the ever-growing interest in good governance within the third sector.

The key message that came out of the day was that relationships and the behaviour of boards are as important as structures and systems. As Belinda Vernon, NPC’s Head of Research described it ‘It’s about getting the right people on the bus,’ quoting Jim Collins.

This message was backed up by the other speakers on the day, Dame Mary Marsh, Director of the Clore Social Leadership programme, Tesse Akpeki, governance expert and consultant for Bates Wells & Braithwaite’s OnBoard service, and Ken Olisa, award-winning chair of the homelessness charity Thames Reach.

Akpeki called for more candour and honesty from board members, claiming ‘It’s not just about the skills of the board, it’s about the quality of the interaction.’ Marsh described exactly what the role of ‘critical friend’ really means when being a trustee. And Olisa offered a first hand account of what he thinks makes a good chair, emphasising the need for ‘respect, trust and a shared sense of what the organisation is trying to achieve.’ He added ‘The human element of the role must be important or they would just get computers to do the job of trustees!’

With the final seminar in the series lined up for 1 July it will be interesting to see what other lessons will come out on ways that third sector governance can be improved. And who knows, maybe the private sector could learn a thing or two as well.

NPC’s third trustee seminar, which takes place on 1 July is sold out. We are however, publishing a briefing paper for trustees in July, which will draw on discussions at these seminars.