Arguably one of the most important relationships in a not-for-profit organisation is the one that exists between Chair and CEO. These two figures represent the interface between governance and management so it is crucial that the relationship is a healthy one. A poor Chair/CEO relationship will seriously undermine good governance and has potentially disastrous consequences for the organisation as a whole. Here are a few helpful suggestions for both Chair and CEO to ensure that a healthy relationship prevails.

A careful balancing act.

No Chair/CEO relationship is perfect, problems will inevitably arise and disagreements will be had. Whilst perfection is unattainable, the CEO and Chair must be able to foster a relationship that can bear the brunt of any hitches that will undoubtedly occur along the way. For the Chair, fostering such a relationship with his/her CEO calls for a careful balancing act. He/she must be supportive of the CEO but must also be willing to give constructive criticism whenever appropriate. A useful reminder for this is what Dorothy Dalton in her guide Good Governance: the Chair’s Role terms, being a ‘critical friend.’ For both, a relationship built on mutual trust and respect is essential.

Communication is key.

Having good lines of communication between the CEO and Chair is essential for the well-being of any organisation.

It must be remembered that it is the responsibility of the Chief Executive to present the board with all relevant information on the current state of the organisation in terms of both progress made and challenges faced. Whilst it may not always be good news, it is vital that information is presented in an accurate, balanced, timely and succinct way. Keeping the board in the dark is counterproductive and will create an air of mistrust.

Together the Chair and the CEO stand at an important intersection. It is essential that they communicate clearly and openly with each other so that all relevant information can be passed on to either the board or staff.

Walking the management/governance divide.

In order to avoid a situation where the board moves into management territory or the Chief Executive into governance, it is advisable that the Chair and Chief Executive take time to set out an agreed framework which clearly delineates their respective roles and responsibilities. Whilst this is advisable, things are also never that clear cut and although one might hope for an absolute separation to exist between the two, realistically this is not always the case. There will always be occasions where overlap is unavoidable. As Richard Chait in his book ‘How to Help your Board Manage Less and Govern More’ writes,

“…we do not wish to portray the distinction between management and governance as being absolute, nor do we wish to suggest that trustees and Chief Executives must endure a relationship in which one never enters the others primary domain. Governance is too complicated and too dynamic to be reduced to some inviolable division of labour. We mean to suggest only that, on the whole, boards should be more concerned with governance than management”

Moreover, it must be remembered that in addition to playing leadership roles in their respective domains, the CEO and Chair must also act as a partnership, providing joint leadership to the organisation as a whole.

Although by no means an exhaustive list, we hope that these three pointers will help steer CEOs and Chairs in the right direction. The well-being of the organisation is very much premised on the relationship that exists between Chair and CEO as it is they who must work together to provide joint leadership. Of all the relationships that exist within an organisation this is the most important one and the time given to ensuring that the relationship remains healthy should reflect this.