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Essential actions of a chief executive

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Four activities that must be done by the chief executive of an organisation.

Delegation is a vital skill for the chief executive – as for any leader or manager – but even that has its limits. Some things can only be done by the chief executive if the organisation is to succeed. My list would be:

Trustee relations

The relationship between the board and the staff of any organisation is a critical element in the way the organisation operates. This can be a complicated area, especially in smaller organisations where board members often have several roles in addition to being a trustee. However, if the charity has reached the point of appointing paid employees, it is important to clarify roles and to manage the relationship between trustees and staff. 

The chief executive, as the point of contact, must make it a part of their job to foster a productive relationship. The chair also has a key part to play, but this is one task the chief executive cannot delegate; no one else on the staff can do it.

Relationship with trustees - further information

Stakeholder relations and ambassadorial tasks

Every charity has a wide range of stakeholder groups with whom they have to maintain relationships. It is not the job of the chief executive to look after all of these groups directly or to be the only person acting as an ambassador. 

There will be some, however, that are so crucial to the organisation that the chief executive will want to oversee the management of those relationships. There will be some groups – for example, staff – and some issues for which the only valid spokesperson for the organisation is the chief executive.

In some organisations the chair is the main external ‘face’ of the organisation. Sometimes a patron takes on that role. Even so, there will be other groups, especially internally, for whom the chief executive is the only appropriate lead figure. And there will be few audiences who do not need to see and hear from the chief executive from time to time, regardless of who else is acting as spokesperson.

Making decisions

In this era of empowerment, it would be easy to believe that the role of any leader, chief executive included, is solely to enable other people to do things and make decisions. In reality, taking decisions is an inescapable part of the job – often in difficult circumstances and under a lot of pressure. The decisions made by chief executives on a wide range of issues shape the organisation and its effectiveness.

There are many models available that provide a structure for thinking through decisions. They involve steps such as:

  • clarifying exactly what you want to achieve – what are the criteria the outcome must meet?
  • gathering data and views
  • generating and considering options
  • selecting the option that best meets the criteria

This kind of structure provides a valuable discipline to ensure that decisions are well informed and thought through, and don’t fall prey to the kind of bad habits to which we are all susceptible.

However, sometimes methodologies such as these still leave a range of options on the table – because the information available isn’t sufficient, because some elements are unknowable or because it isn’t possible to be absolutely clear about the desired outcome. And sometimes there isn’t time to be so methodical.  So it falls back on judgement – often the judgement of the chief executive.

The reality is that all chief executives rely on ‘gut’ judgement – they have to. With experience, confidence in that kind of decision making grows, but it is part of the job from the start.

Leading the organisation

The heart of the role of chief executive is leadership. Everything about leadership in general, which is covered extensively on this website is relevant to the chief executive. Leadership is not restricted to the chief executive; success depends on people at all levels in the organisation acting as leaders.

However, there are certain elements of leadership that must rest with the chief executive. My list, in no particular order, is: 

  • establish direction
  • ensure the ‘big picture’ is understood
  • motivate the staff and volunteers
  • build a senior team
  • put in place the right structure
  • model behaviour and values
  • review, learn, redirect
  • hold to account
  • monitor key indicators.

Some of these are tasks which only the chief executive can do, eg building the senior team. Others may well be shared, for example, motivating staff and volunteers. But the chief executive cannot delegate the entirety of any of them; to do so puts at risk a key factor in the success of the organisation.

Focusing on the role

The demands on the chief executive’s time are enormous in any organisation, and many of those demands do not relate to these tasks. Many chief executives find themselves spending some or even all their time on management or even implementation – in other words, doing a different job. 

This is unavoidable in many organisations, especially small ones.  The danger is that these un-delegatable tasks get neglected because the others appear more urgent.

The challenge for the chief executive is to ensure that these crucial tasks, which only they can do, are given sufficient time and attention. In the short term, failure to do so may not cause problems. In the longer term you can be sure they will.

Page last edited Jul 20, 2017

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