Lessons from a co-chairing model – one year on

In over twenty years of working with charity sector boards, I’ve seen the roles of trustee and chair evolve. It’s been a joy to watch boards diversify, modernise and become more active and effective in supporting charities. Recruiting an external chair is increasingly difficult, so it’s also good to see more practice in the sector around succession planning. 

If you want to deliver the chair role well, it is a significant time commitment, often several hours every week, whether the board is made up of engaged and motivated trustees or not. Both will draw on your time for different reasons.

When the Chair of Getting on Board announced his decision to stand down, I couldn’t consider it. I already had two trustee roles and was running a growing business. What little spare time I had needed to be divided between my family and the football team that I manage.

As the weeks went by, it niggled at me.

I loved Getting on Board. It was a chance to take a leading role in growing a small organisation in a subject area I was passionate about. I had relevant experience to add value and history as an existing trustee. I understand the theory of being a good chair, having recruited and advised many chairs over my career – but I’d never actually done it myself.

Surely, there would be better candidates with more chairing experience?

A meeting with Julie Nerney, a wonderfully skilled and highly experienced chair who I knew I shared values with, and who was looking for a new board role, gave rise to these questions:

  • Could we co-chair together?
  • Could I take this opportunity to learn from her in a safe way for the charity?
  • Would the time commitment be more manageable by sharing the role?

Thankfully, Julie’s preference was also to co-chair. We made our applications separately but declared our preference to share the role and, after a competitive process, we were appointed in December 2021.

As we approach a year in post, I want to share our insights:

Meetings are easier with two (and we learn more)

We rotate the chair role at each meeting, which means only leading two meetings each per year and saving time on the time-consuming prep. Some co-chairs share the agenda at each meeting and, although that may work well for others, I do wonder whether they are duplicating effort.

With one in the chair role, the other can support from within the board at meetings, which can be very useful in moving discussions forward and ensuring inclusion.

We feedback to each other on performance as chair having experienced the meeting from different perspectives. This honest and supportive debrief with each other is so valuable, particularly in helping me to refine my craft and grow confidently into the role. Julie is an experienced chair who will often pick up on subtleties neither I nor the other trustees noticed, but once realised are such valuable nuggets.

Things move quicker

One of us is usually available to support the CEO so a lack of availability when seeking a view, advice or a decision doesn’t become a frustration. We share all communications so that the other can catch up via email, and a WhatsApp group allows all of us remain fully informed. Our CEO finds it is helpful that we are always clear when a yes from one is a yes from both, and when she needs to wait for an explicit yes from both of us.

Debate and decision making is improved

Think about a Chair / CEO discussion, which usually only has two voices. Then introduce a third view. When the co-chairs have different opinions, we explore a subject from a greater range of perspectives. I love the conversations when Julie and I share differing views and opinions, yet we always arrive at an agreed position. They are brilliant and promote more open and positive dynamics in the CEO / chair relationship.

One plus one equals more than two

The charity gets two sets of skills, experience, knowledge and networks to draw on, where usually there is only one. This can only benefit the CEO and board.

We are actively succession planning and smoothly managing future transition

Imagine turning your chair role into a co-chair role right now. Then ‘promote’ a trustee with a longer term of office than the current chair has. This new co-chair, who probably has little or no chairing experience, learns the ropes over the next couple of years. When the first chair moves on, a new co-chair can be appointed from the trustees and so on.

Now we’re actively succession planning and safeguarding against unnecessary disruption. We are also providing development opportunities for trustees with aspirations to become chair and easing them slowly into the role and greater time commitment.

A wider perspective is that we are also increasing the supply of future chairs for the sector and increasing diversity by helping younger people from more diverse backgrounds access the chair role.

Whilst co-chairing isn’t the role halved, it is certainly not the full-time commitment of a sole chair either. If the chair role was potentially too time consuming or felt like it could be too much pressure (sharing responsibility has many benefits), this is a great solution.

So, what are the considerations and risks to be managed?

  • At least one person must be an experienced chair, and both need to be open to critique and willing to support each other’s development.
  • Both people need to be active and willing to share the workload. We clearly have different strengths which helps, but I feel that we are both conscious to share the workload as equally as we can. The progress we have made in this short time is testament to that.
  • The chairs need a level of understanding and appreciation to know when to decide on behalf of the other, and when it’s important to make decisions together. We are lucky to have built this understanding quickly and having worked together previously so that we understood each other’s working style and preferences has helped.
  • Communication, respect and shared values sit at the heart of the relationship being successful.

If either of us had an ego, were lazy, or not putting the interest of the charity first, the success of a co-chair arrangement would be severely compromised. Co-chairing gives the charity more than one chair could, but we do need to work harder on our relationship, communications and consideration for each other.

That all said, this experience has been wonderful, and I’m pleased that we’re demonstrating the opportunity to chair to people who have less time, haven’t chaired before and might not otherwise put themselves forward.

Co-chairing could just be the future for charities.

High-performing trustee boards and governing bodies are essential for organisational success. Learn more about how Peridot Partners can help you recruit the best trustees and governors for your organisation.

Grant Taylor is both our Managing Director and Peridot Partners’ sensei. He is passionate about governance, boards and better leadership, and has worked tirelessly over the years to support improvements in these areas. Not only does he oversee the development of our growing workforce, Grant lives and breathes our core values and inspires each and every one of us to do the same. You can connect with Grant on Linkedin or send him an email.