Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Office of Chief Executive

What is a Chief Executive? Lets try

The responsibility of the chief executive officer is to align the company, internally and externally, with their strategic vision. The core duty of a CEO is to facilitate business outside of the company while guiding employees and other executive officers towards a central objective. The size and sector of the company will dictate the secondary responsibilities.

Here are a few situations where I feel it is reasonable and right for the incumbent to call themselves or to be called Chief Executive or Chief Executive Officer.

  • The employed head of a FTSE quoted company.
  • The employed leader of a Regional Council. For Ceredigion, this is Bronwen Morgan
  • The employed most senior executive director of a national or international charity. In the case of the Citizens Advice Bureau this is now Gillian Guy.
  • no doubt there are other cases where the title is most appropriate.
However, I have noticed a trend for small charities (or local branches) to make give their most senior employed member of staff the title of Chief Executive. This is no doubt very good for the incumbents moral initially. Longer term, I have only seen it be destructive to staff and volunteer moral and service delivery.

The reason for having a title is to create an impression of gravitas and authority on 1st meeting. In the IT business the same happens, we have a mix of senior/principle/executive/consultant/director/manager/officer/engineer/staff/vice/architect/president (though the most impressive job title I ever saw was Rabble Rouser). Its a game which also applies in within large companies where "there person I report to is more important than the person you report to" game is played to remove(or in put in place depending on your disposition) roadblocks. Indeed, how seriously some groups take previously unknown individuals is inversely proportional to how many lines of reporting are between them and the boss. You see this play out in many organisations I visit.

For small charities I have seen a trend for boards of directors or trustee's (same thing) to suggest the most senior staff member is titled "Chief Executive". This probably does impress in some situations such as meeting government and when meeting other charities, it levels the playing field of every one else at the table has the title of C.E. When I was acting chair of Aberystwyth C.A.B. (great title, it means people sit on you and you have a personal financial responsibility if it goes bust) I went to a meeting (I was wondering round meditating on how to keep the place open) and meet a number of people who were the most senior member of staff in a Bureau no larger than ours and while our most senior employed staff member was titled "Bureau Manager", the equivalent post in some other C.A.B. centers was "Chief Executive".
I got a chance to talk to a few rank and file members who deliver the actual service and their comments were that it was OK when the manager became the C.E. for a few months, but then they started becoming inaccessible and treated people differently.

I was involved for a number of years with a charity as a volunteer. The previous most senior member of staff had the title "Project Leader" which very well described what he did. He was very approachable and the team spirit which included volunteers was inspirational. The "Project Leader" left (very sadly indeed) and a business manager was promoted to "Chief Executive" to run the charity. From my point of view as a volunteer it was fine to start with, little changed. Over the next year the C.E. became less approachable, and the staff had the same experience. The charity became a mediocre run business rather than a team of people all pushing in the same direction with enthusiasm. Given that the charity employes less than 10 people full time, it makes little sense for staff or volunteers to have to make an appointment to discuss matters with the decision maker. The decision maker will then miss opportunities and lack information about what is happening. Staff moral also drops through the floor and good staff leave.

As an example, I am an examiner for one of the I.S.E.B. exams. I get paid for this, but my contract with Sun and now Oracle means I can't take the money. However, I can donate it to a charity. I was unable to meet with the charity's C.E. to arrange for I.S.E.B. to be invoiced (we are talking about 1400 quid a year, so worth 10 minutes of most small charities C.E. time). Such was the difficulty in getting an audience, I ended up talking to the Aberystwyth C.A.B. manager who set the wheels in motion and it just happened with no hassle or need to make an appointment. While my 2nd choice in terms of where I wanted to the money to go, with hind sight I am now pleased it did.

It would take a strong character not to be changed by being given the title of Chief Executive, so in my view over time, it is bound to create a division and alienation between the C.E. and staff and volunteers. The responsibility for this lies with the board of directors/trustees in each instance. A simple fix for this would be to prohibit any government funding for organisations of less than 100 people which have the a member of staff titled "Chief Executive". Important? It probably is a small part of the reason that David Camerons "Big Society" is going to be a rock pushed up a steep hill.

Personally, my decision to give(money,time,expertise) to a small charity in future will be influenced in some part by the title of their most senior employed member of staff. Why? Because I know it has a significant effect on the ability of the charity to engage with its staff and volunteers, keep them happy and delivery an effective service over the long run.

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