Governance, Leadership

CEOs - It’s not your charity – don’t forget that

Debra Allcock Tyler reminds CEOs of their duties.

I’ve been at DSC for 23 years. I love it! I love my job, I love the work that we do and I really believe that we make a difference to the charities that we serve.

I’ve been here longer than any trustee so have had several different iterations of boards over the years. And the main thing I have learnt is that the charity does not belong to me. My length of service does not supersede the right and duty of the board to make decisions about what they think is right, regardless of my advice, because they are the legally accountable body.

Of course, it’s not always easy to accept what they decide if I disagree. But ultimately my job is to provide them with guidance, advice and information so they can make decisions in their role as governors of the charity and then accept what they decide – or leave if I can’t live with it.

So essentially our job is to advise and then deliver. Their job is to listen to the advice and then decide. And if they go against our advice, that is their right.

I frequently speak with CEOs who are really frustrated with their boards, who think they interfere in operational detail, who don’t listen to the advice of the Exec and who behave as if they know it all. And that’s tough to deal with, I’ve been there.

But the minute we start taking it personally is the minute relationships start to break down.

And we have to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes when there is conflict with the board we might well be part of the problem. We may have forgotten the distinction in roles. It is hard not to take their questions or criticism personally and instead view it as an attack on our competence, instead of remembering that this is a collective of volunteers who carry the weight of legal and fiduciary accountability and whose reputations and even day jobs can be at risk if they get it wrong.

And who are completely reliant on us to give them the right information at the right time, to be honest about failures and challenges and where we and the organisation may be struggling.

So, of course they sometimes get over-anxious or over-involved. And if it feels like we, as CEOs, are resisting their input or preventing their right to decide then the relationship between them and us is going to suffer.

And because we probably don’t know each other that well as we don’t work together closely on a day to day basis it is easy to see them as the enemy.

So some tips built up over years of working with terrible boards and really good ones:

  • Frame your proposals as advice and always remember to give rationale for why you’re suggesting what you are; be honest about the pros and cons and take your emotional commitment out of it.
  • Listen to them when they say it could be done better or differently. They might be right. And if they’re not, prove it in a calm, evidenced way.
  • Manage your emotions. The criticism or befuddlement they are exhibiting may well be down to the fact that you didn’t explain things well enough rather than that they think you’re rubbish.
  • Be a pillow, not a wall. If they attack, absorb the blow and bounce back by acknowledging their point or offering to provide further information to help clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Get your paperwork and information right. If you give too much detail you are begging for unnecessary interference in operational detail. Frame information in the context of performance against strategic objectives.
  • Never, ever give financial information without an accompanying narrative and graphs showing trends over time, both historical and forecast. If you just present a full set of management accounts without narrative you can only blame yourselves if they start arguing about how much you’re spending on coffee!  Management accounts are an appendix for reference – the narrative and graphs telling them what the accounts are telling them is the information they really need.

Finally, never forget that it is NOT your charity – it is theirs.