It is now over 15 years since I first became chair of a charity, and nearly 30 years since I first became a trustee of a charity. Over that time, I have been chair of 6 different organisations and trustee of quite a few more. I have heard a lot of different things talked about as the role of a chair, as well as the broader role of trustees. As much of the received wisdom doesn’t chime with my experience, I thought I’d set out my experience of what a chair actually does.
1. Strategy - big picture, direction and values
Perhaps the most common role ascribed to a chair and the wider board is that of strategy. While this is undoubtedly true, its greatly exaggerated in my experience. This is partly because taken to its logical conclusion – trustees do strategy, staff do operations – trustees would only be needed for 6 months every 3 or even 5 years. Secondly, while trustees, and particularly the chair, are intimately involved in strategy, in all but the smallest organisations staff do most of the legwork on strategy: presenting a plan that is to a greater or lesser extent approved by trustees. So chairs are key on strategy, but it’s far, far from being the dominant part of their role.
2. Backstop - when the unexpected happens
I have come to realise that one of the most important roles may never even be needed, but it’s a back stop when things go wrong. At one charity I chaired, the organisation was running out of money, I had to make and carry through the decision that we needed to make the CEO redundant or we would be bankrupt (the organisation has worked successfully without a CEO ever since). At another, the CEO went off on long-term sick leave and I had to work out how we dealt with that. In both of these situations, it took huge amounts of time to bring trustees and staff along, both where they didn't agree or wanted more discussion about which direction. The chair’s role in these types of situations is to shepherd people towards a decision, or in some cases just making things happen, when deadlines are too tight. A chair’s key role is to pick up the pieces when for whatever reason, things go wrong.
3. Pre-digester & Sounding board - for ideas and developments
One of the most interesting roles as a chair is to hear about the ideas and developments that staff are thinking about, and to give feedback, support and wise counsel at an early stage. I have been on boards where staff have adopted a ‘British Bulldog’ approach to get trustee approval – rush ideas at the board, accompanied by exhortations of how urgent and critical a decision is, and hope that some proposals get through. It works much better if a chair is on board with the big decisions before they even get to the board. My litmus test is that I don’t ever want to have to speak out against a paper that comes before the board.
4. Scrutineer in chief – help the board hold staff to account
Part of the nitty-gritty of board work is to hold staff to account – are they doing what they said they would do. What is going right? What is going wrong? What plans are being made for things that might go wrong – based in part on the risk register? Many boards have a wealth of wisdom, and it’s part of the chair’s job to try and harness that wisdom to improve the plans and activities of the organisation. Even the most qualified of boards, may be unable to predict what might go wrong or put plans back on track. It’s worth remembering that the Kids Company trustee board included the Finance Director of a major PLC when it went bankrupt. And which organisations had the Covid pandemic on their risk register, and had prepared for it. So spotting problems early, and acting on them early. is a key part of the scrutiny process. Though its rarely foolproof.
5. Gracious host - and thanker in chief
When I was chair of my children’s PTA, one of my most important jobs was to thank everybody who made things happen, whether it was the summer fete or looking after the finances, or the teachers who helped with the fundraising events. In the other chair roles, the role of thanker-in-chief is often as important, if not as obvious: thanking departing trustees and senior staff, and even donors. Thanking people for their time, their money, their commitment, their loyalty and their energy is a small, yet critical, part of what makes charities thrive.
6. Manager of the CEO – just like any other role
A CEO needs managing just like any other job. I have always thought that a chair’s job is to agree objectives, provide feedback (from the board and staff) and review progress for a CEO. How much time and energy this takes will depend on the organisation, the CEO and the chair, however it is important that it happens. CEOs are not above the normal laws of people management.
7. Manager of the board – utilising roles and skills
One of the most difficult parts of being a chair I have always found is to keep all trustees fully engaged and their skills used to the full. There are typically 3 types of trustee: those who actively contribute come what may, those who can be fully utilised with good support and guidance, and those who it’s a struggle to engage come what may. The challenge in particular is for what I call trustee no 8 – somebody who isn’t an honorary officer or a committee chair, or doesn’t have specific skills, such as legal – and how to engage them. A portfolio approach, giving trustees a particular role or part of the organisation to take interest in, is really important to this end.
8. Nudger/nagger - for trustees and staff
Through meeting notes, WhatsApp messages, emails, phone calls, personal conversations, the chair needs to make sure that staff and trustees do what they said they would do. This applies whether its visit a service, write up a proposal, produce some data, or come to a meeting. However, the real art of giving people a nudge, or a nag, is doing it without being really annoying, or pious!
9. Meeting maestro – on time and inclusive
There is nothing worse than going to a trustee meeting where the agenda isn’t followed, or a few individuals dominate the conversation, or in which all decisions are fudged. The Chair’s has a key role in making sure that meetings are the right length, include all those who want to speak, and more the organisation’s work move forward.
10. Ear to the ground – to find out what everybody thinks
One of the biggest mistakes I ever made as a chair, was to only listen to a new CEO. When after a few months, one of the few staff I did have contact with asked if I was going to give staff the chance to give probation feedback I thought ‘good idea’. The feedback I got on the CEO was scathing. The staff were not happy - at all. I had failed to have communication channels with staff across the organisation. As a result, I had failed to have any sense of what staff were feeling, while the CEO just told me how well everything was going. Bad mistake. Some governance experts in the US say that the chair and the board should funnel all communications just through the CEO. I cannot think of anything more foolish, or more likely to be a recipe for a board being out of touch.
11. Brutus – despatching colleagues
On occasions, a chair’s job is to usher people out of the organisation, whether gently or brutally. Making the CEO redundant I mentioned above was one of the hardest things to do. They had bought their whole family south, who weren’t settling in well. I had headaches for the week before I told them. Equally despatching a colleague can be as simple as encouraging somebody to apply for a job, or ensuring that term limits for trustees are kept, or restructuring committees to lose a poor committee chair.
12. Cat-herder – moving boards forward on important decisions
One of the roles of the Chair is to try and move the board forward on big or important or difficult decisions, particularly where there isn’t consensus. These might be about the appointment of a new CEO, or a new strategy, or a rebrand, or a host of other things. Boards don’t always find decision-making that easy, particularly in a culture when one or two board members disagreeing can be treated like a veto. The Chair is there to firmly guide the board towards a decision.
Being a chair is much more about soft power and authority, than a clear-cut set of decisions that the chair has the authority to make. In my experience, the role of the chair is about persuasion and diplomacy, with an occasional burst of more executive-style decision making when the need arises. Let nobody tell you it’s is a straightforward job, nor one which is solely about strategy.
13. Meritocratic succession – keeping to the rules of term limits and governance
Too many charities neither do open recruitment, nor stick to the rules of term limits. Both matter hugely and are crucial for keeping a board diverse, inclusive and vibrant. Few organisations would recruit a new CEO without open competition. In my view, the same applies to trustee and chairs (for all but the smallest charities) where open recruitment brings diversity and new blood. To set an example, a chair should depart when their term is up, and should ensure they are replaced through an open and inclusive process.
Originally written in 2019 and updated in 2022.
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