I have just finished working with an organisation where the main focus of the work has once again been helping the CEO, Chair and the Board to review their effectiveness and assist with their ongoing development. Generally, I find that this sort of work is usually focused around three critical areas. 

  1. Helping ensure that Trustees/Boards are fully aware of and understand the breadth of their role and responsibilities so that they can carry them out to the best of their ability.
  2. Helping ensure the Board are concentrating their precious time and effort on the right topics, at the right time and at the right level of detail – and that executive teams are providing the right level of detail to effectively inform decision making.
  3. Helping Boards and CEO’s to reflect and review whether they have got the balance right in terms of Governance oversight vs Operational detail/delivery.

Since setting up Thrive last September I have worked with a range of individuals and Boards on a variety of interesting issues, challenges and opportunities. In all cases, one thing is clear, those Boards and individuals who have invested time in developing their individual and collective understanding and ability are better placed to develop stronger relationships and ultimately maximise their impact.

Getting the Balance right

Almost every discussion around Board development or CEO/Chair relationships involves views on how to get the balance right in terms of what the Board gets involved in (or actually does) versus what they don’t do or shouldn’t get involved in.

Governance oversight vs operational detail/delivery is an age old challenge – get the balance right and everyone benefits, get it wrong and it can be a disaster. One CEO recently told me that the inability to get this balance right with their chair was the key driver for them deciding to leave.

Sadly there is no text book answer to the question of balance but there are a number of good pointers outlined in the great resource ‘A Question of Balance‘ from the Association of Chairs.  

Helicopter or Deep Diver?

One of the questions I regularly put to Boards is to ask them to assess whether they are acting as helicopter pilots or as deep divers? Clearly there may be times when it is appropriate to be both –  but in the main the Board need to be confident and assured that remaining in their helicopter is the right place to be. 

Experienced Boards and CEO’s can be adept at getting this balance right – but even the most seasoned Chairs and CEO’s can still find it a bit of a roller coaster ride. The foundations for getting it right start with trust, mutual respect, openness and an ability to communicate well and build strong Chair/Board/CEO relationships. In some instances, just starting to reflect and talk about this area is an important start point.

Over the years a number of CEO’s have been quick to moan to me that their Chair and the Board get into ‘far too much operational detail’. It is only when I politely point out that in a good number of cases the main reason for this is that the CEO is actually the person who is drawing them into the deep and sometime murky depths of operational detail and delivery. I have been guilty of it myself on more occasions that I’d care to admit to!  

A few tips

So what can you do to get the balance right for you and your organisation?

  1. Discuss, understand and implement a way of working that constantly questions whether your Board need to be in helicopter mode or in deep diver mode. 
  2. Regularly critique your Board agenda and papers – are they handing Trustees operational detail on a plate and drawing them into unnecessary deeper depths? Or, are they providing a good helicopter view which gives the right level of detail to enable responsible and effective decision making?
  3. Discuss the question of balance regularly – and be open and honest when you feel that things are not quite on track.
  4. Take a look at some of the great resources that ACEVO and The Association of Chairs offer. As a charity CEO I have found their resources and events on these issues both practical and invaluable.

(N.B. For the sake of this blog I am referring in general to organisations that have a CEO/Staff team) Charities that do not have a CEO/Executive/Staff team (ie the majority) will obviously need to step between the two roles of deep divers and helicopter pilots much more frequently. 

Founder of Thrive Consulting and part-time charity CEO. Passionate about helping charities and not for profit organisations across the UK to Thrive.
With over 25 years experience I support people and charities to be the very best they can be.

I set up Thrive Charity Consulting in 2018 to offer a wealth of insight, experience and expert advice to charities of all sizes across the UK. We help people to solve problems, overcome challenges and maximise individual and organisational effectiveness.

Contact us to find out how we could help your charity.


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