Navigating the Chair/CEO relationship – 5 top takeaways

Navigating the Chair / CEO relationship

The most common response we got from the question we asked you to think about before the session ‘What one thing do you wish you’d known before becoming a chief executive’ is that it can feel very isolated being at the top. It’s a role that you are living all the time and one that no one else, expect perhaps your Chair, will ever experience or fully comprehend in many respects.

In what was a lively and honest discussion what came through strongly was that although you all face similar challenges, you have in fact all encountered a very different and diverse set of circumstances  – from inheriting trustees with no prior understanding of governance, to those who interfere beyond their remit, to taking over from a founder who can’t let go, or having to build a relationship with a chair who is also new to the role, navigating your way and establishing new rules of engagement whilst trying to gauge what the ‘right’ relationship is between you and your Chair and the Board, has been a golden thread throughout.

Our top five takeaways from the session, which we hope resonate with you personally are:

  • Avoiding blurred lines Don’t assume the roles and relationship between CEO and Chair are already articulated – in actual fact, people bring their individual interpretation of this critical relationship to the role. Talking openly about it ensures you can achieve clarity of role and responsibility and fully understand where you are both coming from. Take steps as a new CEO to define it, and set expectations, at the earliest opportunity. Avoided negotiated relationships where priorities and divisions of responsibility aren’t clear.
  • Great Chair / CEO relationships are founded on mutual trust and respect Investing time in getting to know your Chair, and where they are coming from, is a crucial step for a first time CEO in ensuring you are not working on shifting sands. Regular catch ups are an important part of working transparently and with ‘no surprises’, and being able to test out thorny agenda items that may arise now and again. Being honest and candid about what’s not going well with your Board is a strength; guests talked about the importance of being comfortable with their own vulnerability, for example when having to tell a Board that the organisation has challenges they weren’t aware of. The same openness helps to build confidence to push back if the Board starts overstepping boundaries.
  • Whose Strategy Is It Anyway? There aren’t any real rules, it seems, in terms of how Strategy is treated – whether it should be developed and driven by the Executive, or whether it should be developed and initiated by the Board. First time CEOs would possibly benefit from understanding where in the organisation accountability for developing the strategy lies, ideally before they accept the role. Roles with a higher degree of influence often come with the requirement to lead on strategy.
  • Unity is the secret of success Keep disagreements with your Chair outside of the Boardroom and avoid visible tension. Where you don’t agree on something, be sure to create proper space on your own to discuss the issues at stake and agree a reasonable way forward; you may sometimes need to create space with the whole Board for a full discussion.
  • It’s lonely at the top The world we live in presents a challenging and complicated set of circumstances for anyone charged with running a charity. First-time CEOs are getting to grips with their executive leadership role, with the requirement to be a public face of their organisation with partners and stakeholders, and with the new ‘upward’ focus on their Board. At the same time, the demands on charities to do even more and go even further to meet need adds additional pressure, not just in volume of work, but the need to think differently about solving problems in a different world. Establishing strong and trusted support networks with peers or mentors is essential.


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