Navigating the tricky path of charity CEO supervision

How do you supervise the leader of a charity effectively?

If you’re a CEO or a Chair, chances are you’ve had to find your way along this challenging path.

Many Boards and CEOs struggle with getting this right. Of course, some form of appraisals and supervision is essential for ensuring everyone understands what’s going on and shares a view on targets and priorities, but attempts to do this successfully often go wrong.  

There are two main problems that tend to arise:

First, overreaching. In this situation, Chairs take over the entirety of managing the CEO, implementing operational style supervision templates and generally behaving like an operational manager of a more junior staff member. This can result in the Chair moving too far into operational priorities and the CEO feeling resentful and micromanaged. It can also alienate the Board which is then not adequately involved in holding the CEO to account.

Second, underreaching. In this situation, Trustees as a whole are reluctant to even challenge the CEO as they respect their authority and leadership, but the lack of supervision and appraisal means that the CEO and the Board aren’t on the same page about what is expected, and the CEO is unlikely to have the opportunity to develop or learn from feedback. This can end up going horribly wrong if the CEO is not delivering what the Board expects.

How to get it right

Here are five things to keep in mind when setting out an oversight system for a charity CEO:

1.     Clarity on expectations is paramount. It is essential that the Board and CEO agree on what is expected to be delivered. This means using something like a business plan structure – most likely developed by the CEO – that ideally can be updated easily (such as using a RAG rating), as well as clear budgets and financial plans that the CEO is expected to report back on.

2.     Review progress at the right place and in the right way. Your Board meeting is your best opportunity to hold your CEO to account on operational progress, such as the implementation of the business plan and reporting on the budget, so do that there and not in Chair-CEO one-to-ones. Make sure you avoid spending too much time at the Board meeting delving into the detail of what has been done if everything is on track – you are not there to get into operational decision-making (no matter how interesting it might be).

3.     Recognise that, while they do need to be held to account, the CEO is the operational leader of the organisation. The Chair leads the Board but they are not the figurehead of the charity – the CEO is. It is their expertise and skills that led the Board to appoint them to take the organisation forward. While the Board should absolutely hold them to account on implementing the business plan and otherwise delivering their role effectively, the Chair should not try to enforce a traditional management role over the CEO and posit themselves as the leader of the charity. My experience has been that developing a partnership relationship based on trust and respect between the Chair and CEO is far more effective than trying to use a more hierarchical system.

4.     Think carefully about your Chair-CEO one-to-ones, both in terms of regularity and content. Somewhere between fortnightly and monthly is sufficient for these meetings, unless the charity is going through intense change or crisis. In my experience, I’ve found that a fairly unstructured approach to these meetings is best, enabling both the CEO and the Chair to raise questions and issues to discuss, rather than following any formal supervisory process. Of course, if there are performance issues, the one-to-one gives a private space to discuss that, but the usual supervisory systems are too operationally focussed to be effective here.

In my opinion, the best use of Chair-CEO one-to-ones is to provide the CEO with a trusted source of guidance, a second opinion, a safe space and access to support. The more the CEO trusts the Chair, the more open they’ll be with them and the more the Chair can support them to succeed. This is a far better structure to enable constructive feedback and generate effective solutions than a more traditional up/down management approach. If the CEO loses trust in the Chair or begins to resent them, the information flow slows down and the whole relationship can end up at risk.

5.     A formal annual appraisal is essential. An annual appraisal process is essential, although this should be tailored to the role of CEO rather than repeat operational level processes. This should involve consultation with the full Board, 360 degree feedback from key staff, and a scheduled meeting between the Chair and the CEO to discuss feedback and the prior year. It’s also strongly recommended that the Trustees – and especially the Chair – undergo a similar process each year to ensure they are also held to account for their contribution (see As with all effective supervisory processes, nothing should come as a surprise in the annual appraisal.