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Trustees: How to get the best from your most expensive member of staff

Establishing a robust framework for managing and enhancing the performance of your staff is crucial for any employer. A well-designed performance development framework not only ensures that individuals are meeting expectations but also fosters motivation and alignment within the team. It serves as a mechanism for acknowledging and rewarding high performers while also addressing and rectifying instances of poor performance. So, why should the Chief Executive be any different? Some charities have really clear frameworks for managing their CEO. But plenty don’t. Being a volunteer trustee can be hard. There can be pressures on time. And when there’s high levels of trust it can be easy to think that ‘performance management’ is only for when things go wrong. But that’s a mistake. Good CEO management isn’t just for when the roof is leaking. Why does good performance management of the CEO matter? There are lots of reasons why it’s really important to have a clear and transparent framework in place for the management of the CEO. Not only does it set the tone for the full team, but it ensures accountability, collaboration and a working relationship, where feedback can lead to better decision-making and overall organisational success. It's all about creating a structured approach to ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards a common vision. By getting this right you will be helping to ensure that your Trustees are meeting their obligations around charity oversight, and you will also be supporting the CEO to succeed and develop.

Five top tips for building a robust framework Part of the answer is about putting the same time, energy and discipline into the process that applies to all team members in your organisation. These five suggestions are based on the areas where we sometimes see gaps with our clients:

1. Ensure there is ownership

In most cases, the responsibility for managing the CEO will rest with the Chair of the Board. Occasionally it can be delegated to another Board member, and in some charities, we have seen a small CEO Performance Management Group or Committee. This can work well in spreading some of the workload. There is no right or wrong answer around who leads the process on behalf of the Trustees, but it is important that whoever is responsible takes genuine ownership. It’s reasonable to expect the CEO to be proactive in ensuring they are accountable to the Board, but the Board should drive playing their part, preparing effectively and investing the time to ensure that it’s done well. 2. Establish a clear and agreed meeting structure

A good performance management framework does not equate to one annual appraisal meeting a year. This myth was busted a long time ago for other staff. The same should apply to the CEO. The right structure will very much depend on your context, but it’s worth thinking about the balance between informal catch ups, 1-2-1s and structured review meetings. I was recently acting as Interim CEO of a small charity that had been through some recent challenges and significant change. I was speaking to the Chair 2 to 3 times a week. This was partly to act as a sounding board, partly to update her on where the charity was at and partly to ensure I was being accountable for my work. In a different scenario, this might have seemed unnecessary or intrusive, but given the circumstances we were facing, it proved beneficial for both of us. It is worth having open conversations with the Chief Executive about what they would find useful and what you feel that you need to fulfil your responsibility for managing and supporting them effectively. 3. Measure success well

NCVO provide some excellent guidance for trustees on managing and developing staff, including tools around setting objectives and behaviour standards.

Work with the CEO to establish clear priorities and objectives. Sometimes this can be challenging, as their objectives are often directly aligned to the organisation’s strategy. However, it’s worth digging into the personal contribution that they will make and the areas they will prioritise to ensure they are adding the most value to the organisation and drawing on their individual talents. Try to establish clear measures of success (or KPIs) that will help Trustees to understand the progress that is being made and agree on the reporting mechanisms to ensure that there is accountability for results. Will they be discussed at quarterly review meetings? Are they included in the CEO’s report at Board meetings? Whatever the agreed approach, it’s often useful to ensure that there is good visibility and transparency about the CEOs priorities and KPIs with the Board (and across the charity).

4. Take a balanced view of performance

Objectives and KPIs are important. But they’re not the only measure of good performance. One of the most common pitfalls that we see is when managers take a one-dimensional view of performance. Great performance is about what has been achieved. It is also about how it has been achieved. Is the CEO’s approach and behaviour in line with the values and desired culture of the organisation? Are they working in line with their job description? Are they growing and developing in the role? And role-modelling a positive approach to learning and development? Make sure that your performance conversations with the CEO allow them to reflect on all aspects of performance, not just whether they’ve ticked a KPI box. Also, give yourself permission to give feedback on things that are subjective. Whether someone is ‘visibly displaying your charity values’ is unquestionably more subjective than whether they have ‘increased corporate fundraising by 20% year on year’. That’s ok, as long as you’re conscious of your biases and approaching situations in a fair and reasoned manner. Effective performance management should be both comprehensive and holistic. Gathering 360 feedback about the Chief Executive can also be a useful way of ensuring that you’re taking a balanced viewpoint. Whether this is through a formal 360 review process, or simply by taking the time to gather informal feedback from different stakeholders, it can really help in ensuring that feedback is insightful and well thought through. 5. Have honest conversations, early

In the vast majority of charities that we work with at Atkinson HR, there is a great relationship between the CEO and the Chair. More often than not, it’s underpinned by a shared passion for the work of the organisation, a mutual respect of roles and high levels of trust.

This is fantastic. But no leader is perfect, and every CEO has opportunities to develop. In genuinely outstanding organisations, there is always a culture that empowers colleagues to give and receive honest feedback. Sometimes things will go wrong and, it’s important that when they do, you’re able to give direct and honest feedback to the CEO to ensure that learning is captured, and the right interventions are in place to prevent the same mistakes in the future.

On the sad and frustrating occasions when things do go very wrong and there’s a breakdown in trust between the CEO and the Board, there were often warning signs. You may have heard the story before… At first, there were some minor frustrations and annoyances. These were never raised. Then they became slightly more serious concerns and issues. They still weren’t addressed. Then it’s too late and the relationship has reached breaking point.

In the best management relationships between Chairs and CEOs, there will often be a genuine sense of radical candour. Both parties will relentlessly give and receive feedback in a way which challenges directly but shows great care. It’s worth exploring with your CEO how you build this environment and level of trust in your relationship.

It’s often said that ‘this relationship between Chair and CEO is vital for the success of the charity’. It’s hard to argue against this.

Being a charity CEO can feel like a lonely role, with a lot of responsibility. Having a great Chair and attentive Board really does make a difference. By taking the time to put in place a good framework for performance management and development it can help create the high support; high challenge environment that will really empower your CEO and enable them to have the biggest impact possible for your charity.

If you’d like to talk more about this topic or would like support in developing your performance framework for your CEO, feel free to get in touch here.

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