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“So who runs this show?” Shared leadership and good governance

Lynne Berry, OBE, is Chair of Breast Cancer Now and becomes Chair of Sustrans in January 2018. She is Vice Chair of Cumberland Lodge, a trustee of UnLtd and was until recently deputy chair of the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways) and a trustee of Pro Bono Economics. She is a visiting Professor at Cass Business School, City, University of London.

Who would have thought a musical about charity governance would pack in the crowds at London’s Donmar theatre? The play about Committee Proceedings in Parliament concerning Kids Company did. I even spotted the board of the Association of Chairs there, on their summer outing. Governance is a hot topic.

So too is leadership, and whilst (nearly) everyone knows that trustees are responsible for governance, their role in leadership is less clear. It ought to be obvious: after all they are the people who are legally responsible for the charity and, in smaller organisations, the ones who run them and do all the work.

However, what about where there are paid staff? Do trustees still have a leadership role? Are they still leaders when there is an expert CEO and a skilled senior executive team, employed for their capacity to inspire and to make things happen?

It used to seem so easy: the CEO ran the organisation and the Chair ran the board. However, with a renewed focus on governance and accountability the relationship between the leaders of an organisation needs to be both more nuanced and more overt. The new Charity Governance Code, together with the renewed focus on safeguarding and fundraising, mean it is vital to have an honest conversation about what the shared leadership of trustees and senior executives really looks like, and who is responsible for what.

Once, looking at my Chair and me (when I was a CEO), the Queen asked: ‘which of you actually runs this charity?’ I suspect we each thought we did. And in reality, Chairs do much more than run the board and CEOs, so much more than run the organisation. Where it works well, there is also a shared leadership role based on a joint vision, agreed values and clarity of roles.

This shared leadership seems to me to be vital because it sets the dial about fundamental issues like behaviours, attitudes to risk and approaches to innovation. This isn’t about undermining good governance and I think some of recent complaints that boards are turning into risk-free zones are unfounded. It doesn’t feel like that on the boards on which I sit, but then, the trustees and executive spend a great deal of time together thinking both about governance and grasping opportunities.

For great leadership, both trustees and executives need to be innovative and to think about accountability. For any charity to change the world, there must be a sense that taking risks is acceptable, that it’s ok to try, and maybe not get it right every time.

However, when it comes to governance, if it comes to the crunch, trustees are responsible for the charity and that must affect what they do when things go badly wrong. Because, although trustees and executives both have leadership roles, they are not actually both ‘running the show’. Their responsibilities are different. And it’s vital to be very clear about that.

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