Government and the Voluntary Sector, Governance, Leadership

When times are tough, it’s easy for executives and boards to meet as enemies

Charities will only survive when we remember that we are on the same side.

I am now a hearing person for a deaf dog. My beloved basset hound Arthur has gone profoundly deaf at just six years old and his behaviour has changed as a result. He is no longer the confident dog that he was.

Lately he has started shaking and trembling when other dogs approach him. And because he is scared he is more likely to snap at them.

We’re told that the reason this is happening is because he can’t hear whether the doggy language is friendly snoofs and snuffles, or a warning growl – and so he can’t easily tell if the approaching dog is friend or foe.

So, his default position is to assume foe.

I mention this because recently I have spent quite a lot of time with chief executives and their executive teams, and with chairs and their boards, who are dealing with crises in their charities and are finding each other quite challenging to work with.

Part of the problem is that when times are tough and there is difficult information to convey (cash challenges or funding holes for example) and difficult questions to be asked, it’s easy to default to viewing the executive or the board as the “foe”.

I have seen boards react to bad financial news as if somehow the executive team is at fault, rather than recognising that it is a brutal environment in which many charities are struggling to keep their heads above water.

So it is not surprising that the chief executive and executive team get defensive.

But I have also seen chief executives and executive teams bristle resentfully at questions that trustees rightly have to ask as part of due diligence (and to ensure that the minutes reflect that they are carrying out their governance duties).

It is easy for executive teams to forget that the jeopardy for the board is greater than that for the staff.

The worst thing that can happen to staff if the charity folds is that they lose their jobs (which is pretty bad of course).

But if a charity folds and a board of trustees can’t demonstrate that they were asking the right questions, then they could potentially be banned from being a trustee of any charity – and they could be barred from being a director of any organisation, so they could lose their day jobs as well.

It can feel perilous for them.

Ultimately, what’s happening is that we are not hearing each other.

In a crisis, it is too easy for each side to assume that the other is the enemy stopping us doing what needs to be done.

The charity only survives when we remember that we are on the same side.

When we appreciate the pressures that each person is under and work together to deal with what we are facing as partners.

In scary times we need to understand and forgive each other if we growl and snap from fear and frustration. And we also need to ensure that we are not the ones doing the growling.

We must not default, as Arthur does, to automatically seeing each other as a foe.

This article was first published on the Third Sector website, see it here.