Why it’s time we stop using the term ‘critical friend’

Two people sit at a desk working, they look stressed and frustrated.

Here’s a secret it’s time I reveal: I loathe the term ‘critical friend’.

As a term, its intentions are pure: it aims to reflect the balanced approach between challenge and support that a charity Board is supposed to demonstrate towards its CEO.

But we all know where good intentions lead.

On this issue, it fails. Big time.

It’s constantly misunderstood, misused, and is often referenced to justify quite astounding behaviour in the Boardroom.

Just the other day, I did a short governance briefing to a group of Trustees, and one of them called me aside afterwards.

“I criticise everything” she said. “Isn’t that my job?”.

Well no, actually. It’s really not.

While she was definitely well-meaning, criticising everything simply isn’t helping the charity. I tried to explain to her that her approach wasn’t likely to be constructive, and the examples she gave sounded like she was wading far into operational territory – most likely at the expense of her actually delivering on her charitable governance role – while also significantly undermining the authority and confidence of her CEO. It was also pretty clear to me that this behaviour was not generating a positive relationship between her and the CEO. It was a great opportunity to actually talk to one of these kinds of Trustees, as she is far from being alone in misunderstanding her role, but she did have the self-awareness to check whether she was on the right track.

A lack of understanding of the role means many Trustees may have a quick glimpse at some briefing material and launch forth. They think that their role is to scrutinise, challenge, criticise everything put before them – most usually delivered by experienced, professional staff. This doesn’t work – or end well. It’s absolutely essential that we have diverse backgrounds and skillsets on our boards, and that Trustees bring their expertise with them. But this is not the same thing as being constantly critical.

So what’s wrong with the term?

Well… Trustees should neither be a constant critic of the CEO, nor their friend.

Think about your own managers in your own careers. Remember any that were particularly ‘critical’? How did you feel about them? Respect them? Value their leadership? Or think they were negative bullies with whom you are thrilled you no longer have to work? Is that what we’re asking Trustees to be? Why would we undermine the sector with such unhelpful expectations? And why we would set up all these volunteers with an approach that isn’t going to be welcomed?

But then think about the great managers you’ve had. The ones who added value. Who challenged you in a constructive and supportive way. Who helped you develop and learn without ever making you feel you were incompetent. I can still remember the best manager I ever had – very early on in my career but already a couple of horrific managers down – and he never once ‘criticised’ me. But at the same time I knew exactly what my weak areas were and what we were doing to help me develop. I’d call that ‘constructive’, not ‘critical’. And that’s what I think the sector needs from its Trustees.

And as for the friend part – some Trustees and CEOs do become friends. Or come in as friends. I’ve had some wonderfully positive relationships with my own Chairs and have become really quite fond of them… But that’s not the purpose of the role.

The role is to support, guide and advise in a positive way. It is particularly helpful if you recognise that – in almost all cases – you as a Trustee or Chair are less qualified than your CEO. You couldn’t get their job, or do their job. This makes for a very unusual relationship that is not like traditional management. I prefer to see it as an equal partnership. And, hopefully you have skills and experience that will help them. That will add to their skillset and make them almost superhuman with their access to the hive mind of the charity Board. Like the HR-experienced Trustee who can help the CEO bounce around how they’re going to deal with that tricky staff conversation. Or the empathetic one the CEO can turn to when the stress levels are too high to help them figure out how to work it through. Or the professional accountant who the CEO can ask to explain something difficult the auditors are communicating badly about. These skills are so important on a Board, and they are enormously valuable to CEOs when given in a constructive and supportive way.

Being a charity CEO is an extremely tough gig. They need supportive challenge, not friends criticising them. I’d be prepared to argue that our sector puts the most expectations and pressure on our leaders – far more than the average corporate or public sector organisation. What charity CEOs need in that context isn’t a friend. What they need is an adviser, a supporter, an ally, a hive-minder, an add-valuer (yes, that’s a word now)…

So, personally, I prefer the term ‘constructive supporter’.

It brings with it so much more useful information about what the role is, and the two terms work together much more effectively.

Because let’s face it – as soon as you decide one of your friends is a ‘critical friend’, you sure as heck aren’t likely to count them amongst your friends any longer.

The charity sector is based on archaic hierarchical concepts that don’t work well anymore, so running charities in the modern world takes huge effort from everyone involved. It’s extremely difficult. We need everyone to understand what they’re supposed to be doing, and not to make wrong assumptions that undermine our sector.

For me, I believe that starting off with using simple, effective language that doesn’t set us off on the wrong foot is a good place to start.