Case study: building the CEO and chair of trustees partnership

How do you get the dynamic between the CEO and chair right? Tiffany Beck describes how she built a successful relationship with her CEO to achieve their vision for the MAT

Author details

Tiffany is co-founder and chair of trustees of Maritime Academy Trust and a National Leader of Governance (NLG). She is senior governance advisor for REAch2 Academy Trust, the largest primary trust in the country. She was previously chair of...

For better or worse, the relationship between a chair of trustees and CEO can have a dramatic effect on the entire organisation.

When it’s dysfunctional, the relationship can include issues such as:

  • lacklustre ambition or cosiness that doesn’t move anything forwards 
  • lack of trust which leads to problems being swept under the rug 
  • friction that seeps out of the boardroom throughout the organisation 
  • collusion or lack of oversight that leads to disaster.

When it’s at its best, the relationship between the two leaders can:

  • set the tone, pace, and level of effectiveness for the entire trust
  • drive a vision, ambition, and culture that results in fantastic outcomes for children and a working environment that people want to be a part of 
  • shape the strength and resilience of the organisation
  • be an exceptional source of both support and challenge for each other. 

How do you go from being mere termly colleagues to a partnership of leaders who inspire, drive, challenge and support each other, creating a thriving, responsive organisation in the process?

Honesty and trust

Everything that drives positive impact comes down to these two elements. Ideally there is a commitment to openness and honesty from day one about problems, how things work, and having a thick skin to enable truly fierce conversations. 

If you’re already struggling to get it right, then you must have the difficult conversation about resetting the relationship to fulfil both roles effectively and move the MAT forward.

It takes time and you must be on the same page. Meet regularly. Share challenges, ideas, experiences. Develop plans and figure each other out. 

I remember planning for a looming inspection and having a breakfast meeting at a restaurant which offers free coffee refills. The CEO, Nick, and I ended up working all day having paid for only two coffees which were probably refilled five or six times. 

We emerged with several of his biggest headaches alleviated, new ideas scribbled into his notebook, and a plan which helped me build a board which would later win an award.

Building trust

When I think back to day one with Nick (at the time I was the new chair of a single maintained school and he was the recently appointed executive head), he sat down with me and gave me the entire picture of the school.

He told me the history, what had gone wrong and why, the impossible challenges he had to overcome in a tight timeframe, the strategies he was using and the impact those would have, and what the school could be.  

I had no idea what he was talking about. Everything education was entirely new to me. I told him I didn’t know anything about schools or governance or what I was supposed to do. 

He said he’d never seen effective governance before, but what mattered was that I asked questions that got him thinking in a different way. 

I asked him what he needed from me. He took a deep breath and stared at me. ‘What I need, is someone to talk to.’

He needed someone to unload on, who would listen and coach him through. Someone he could trust who would help him stay on track. 

He needed someone to tell him when his ideas were too crazy, or when they might just be crazy enough to work. He needed someone who would figure out education enough to help him become a better leader.

The next day I was enrolled in every training offer I could find. 

Building a partnership

We had to learn to work together. I learned education and leadership alongside him, and together we created a whole new organisation around a bigger, broader, and even wilder version of that vision from day one.

Ask us about our entrepreneurial curriculum, learning to measure what we value, and our innovative school improvement model and we won’t stop talking! 

Because of the honesty and trust established from the start, he knows any crisis, any challenge, anything that keeps him up at night, he can take to me and we deal with it together. 

He also knows he can bounce any idea off me. Sometimes I think it’s brilliant, sometimes I take it off in some wildly ambitious direction. 

That dynamic also means I can take anything to him. He might say I’m thinking too far ahead, or he might say ‘this could work if we do it like this’ as he takes off with it. 

Because we have a firm foundation of trust and safety, we aren’t afraid to challenge each other, and we don’t hold back. 

That brutal honesty and vulnerability means no stone is ever left unturned. It also means we know when the other is struggling and needs support.

Everything that drives positive impact comes down to honesty and trust

Shaping the board 

That openness has transferred to the whole board, and our trustee meetings are no holds barred. I’ve never had the privilege of working with a more forward-thinking, innovative group of people. 

Sometimes there is solemnity, other times stress, often laughter, but always there is flow. We take immense pride in openly admitting our mistakes and learning from them. 

We are all united towards a vision we embrace, we are all in it together, and we are all trying to find the best way forward. 

At our last board meeting I knew of an issue that was worrying Nick, and I brought it out into the open by asking him a simple question and letting him explain it. 

Because we operate with trust and safety, he laid it all out. I watched as one of our trustees gave him the inspiration he needed and got him thinking in a different direction. 

I saw his face shift as he realised the challenge he’d been dealing with was an opportunity to do something meaningful. We’ve learned how to work together, and how to create and develop an entire organisation from big ideas.

Keep working at it

We certainly aren’t par for the course, but our personalities have pushed and pulled until we’ve figured out what works for us. 

My texts and emails contain countless words of what is no doubt thoughtfully considered brilliance; his are rarely longer than five words. 

But we’ve also laughed a lot and we are always driving each other to be better leaders for our MAT. I’ve helped him shift his mindset from executive head to CEO, which is a massively difficult transition. 

He’s helped me come into my own as a leader, giving me confidence and a firm kick when needed. He taught me a growth mindset, a completely foreign concept to a recovering perfectionist.

Shaping the MAT

People and relationships mean everything. Realising the culture we had developed as chair and CEO had transferred to the board, we came to understand the importance of shaping and modelling a culture that creates the environment for our vision to happen. 

This isn’t a realisation we came to naturally or easily. I happened upon it when researching growth management and organisational development. 

Nick said I was focusing on the wrong things and forgetting how schools work. Very long story short, he then accidentally read a book I gave him. He took the idea and ran with it. 

Over the past few terms Maritime has worked towards defining and embracing our culture and vision. 

Being part of Maritime means something now. We believe we can positively disrupt education and spark something great in our schools, together. That’s what being part of Maritime is.

Last Updated: 
21 Jan 2019