What makes the relationship between chair and chief executive successful? Andrew Wall describes how a series of interviews with some of these 'couples' revealed the importance of personal compatibility

Get any chair and chief executive talking about their relationship and within minutes they liken it to a marriage. Of what kind, we might wonder: arranged, one of convenience or perhaps even a love match?

But why the metaphor at all? Clearly they are trying to describe something that all the job descriptions in the world fail to do. They are alluding to the intimate and non-tangible aspects of their relationship.

Is it important to talk about this? Or are these aspects best left private? Might some of the revelations be personally embarrassing? Both Simon Baddeley, lecturer at Birmingham University's school of public policy, and I are convinced that these less visible aspects of the chair-chief executive relationship are important.1 Simon Baddeley had already studied the relationship of leader and chief executive in local government, using videos of discussions. I am a former chief executive and I felt that this method would be equally revealing in the NHS setting.

Helped by a grant from the then NHS women's unit we videoed 10 pairs, trying to make them broadly representative of different types of health authority or trust, and different gender combinations. The participants had absolute power - which none used - to reject the 50-minute video if they didn't like it.

The videos were made in the university's television studio. They were not edited. They have since been used educationally with other chairs and chief executives, postgraduate students, and management development groups.

One aspect of the videos explores whether women managers - executive or non-executive - manage in different ways to men. A tentative conclusion is that women may be prepared to use a far wider repertoire of behaviours, from macho management to tears. Men appear to value consistency of behaviour more than women do.

What else has been learned from the videos? Do we have a closer understanding of leadership, of what makes a successful relationship, of how others see this pair and what leads to disaster?

Leadership

The Department of Health advice on the chair's role says that they lead the organisation. What does this mean in practice? Some pairs say that the chair leads in external affairs and the chief executive leads the organisation internally. But this is not the picture that emerges. It is most common for the chief executive to lead public relations and deal with the press. This is practical, given that they usually have more detailed knowledge of the matter being reported than the chair does. But it also suggests to the general public that the chief executive is really in charge.

The chair does have one unassailable duty and that is to lead the board itself. Similarly, the chief executive is just that - the chief of the executive team. But between these poles there is a great deal of overlap, and who does what has to be negotiated. And it is important that everyone in the organisation knows who is doing what.

Some chief executives are nervous of letting the chair have a free run and may want to act as their minder. Chairs will resent this, feeling that they can never really penetrate the heart of the organisation. How this is resolved will depend on the level of trust between them.

Nearly all the pairs have stressed that trust is paramount, and one way of showing this is that neither party should be embarrassed publicly. 'We have a no-surprises rule,' say one pair. So a great deal of mutual briefing is important. The chair must not give things away when waylaid in the corridor by medical staff, but equally the chief executive must make sure the chair is not caught on the hop out in the community because a piece of vital information hasn't been passed on.

Mutual briefing takes a lot of time. Wouldn't it be better to have just one person at the top? In 1992, Cadbury was quite clear that this creates more problems than it solves and that public accountability is better served by two people working as a team.2

Mutual expectations

A potential problem is that this relationship is often forced on the two participants: one inherits the other already in post. Where the chair is already in place this is not such an issue because they will have a pretty free choice about who to have as chief executive.

But the chief executive has much less influence - sometimes none - on the appointment of a new chair. Bureaucratic purists will say that this should not matter: it is one of the skills of the chief executive to get along with a chair. But that is easier said than done.

How are different value systems or spontaneous antipathy to be dealt with? The chief executive could leave, but would it be worth it when the chair may only be serving one four-year term? Better perhaps to find a way of getting along and hope the next chair is more agreeable.

But it helps if the two respect one another. In one of the video pairs, the chair had gone to a lot of trouble in recruiting the chief executive and this provided a sound foundation for their relationship. In another case the matter was resolved over dinner: they are no longer together.

Personal chemistry

Much is made of the 'chemistry' of the relationship, something we all recognise even though it's hard to define. One pair said: 'It helped being two women,' and another, simply: 'We like each other.' But even in these relationships, close observation shows constant negotiation between the two. The use of metaphors is revealing.

One chief executive says his chair was a 'dog with a bone' about an issue. This not only describes the chair's tenacity but also the chief executive's rather rueful response to it. Even on video they carried on with their tussle through nuance, tone and body language.

Viewers of the tapes tend to note the body language. Who looks at whom for confirmation, who fidgets, who smiles and when are all seen as the currency of discussion - and as significant.

So when the ebullient chair goes on at some length about his own style of management, his chief executive does not look at him once; no endorsement is forthcoming.

When she then speaks, she sums up what he has been saying as a mother might explain the riotous ideas of a wayward child.

Her personal presentation - what she is wearing, how she is made up - is, however, anything but 'mumsy', stressing again that women managers may enact roles more subtly than men.

A marriage or not?

Is the marriage metaphor really helpful? It does allow for a sense of personal commitment, of a contract between the two. It describes the intimacy which is an inevitable aspect of the relationship: the chair and chief executive spend a lot of time together in private. But ultimately it is perhaps misleading.

The contractual relationship is limited by the blunt fact that the chair can terminate the chief executive's contract with very little reference to anyone else. Indeed the lack of safeguards against injustice is a weakness of the system.

Second, the intimacy only goes so far. One chief executive marked this by never calling the chair by his first name, even apparently on the golf course. He was holding back something of himself just in case one day the relationship broke down, as in fact it did.

Most obviously, this is (presumably) a non-sexual relationship. The videos help break down some of the taboos around the sexual attraction (or otherwise) between these two intimates.Some male-female pairs do not promote any discussion about gender, others do. It depends how far the participants are prepared to use sexual aspects of language or behaviour as part of the repertoire. But it is unrealistic to deny that it is a component in the relationship.

Our conclusions so far

The chair-chief executive relationship is a formal relationship that works best when its informality is most acknowledged.

It is an intimate relationship with boundaries that are constantly tested but seldom transgressed.

When the relationship breaks down, it is usually for personal rather than formal reasons.

Successful relationships are characterised as trusting, but that trust has to be constructed.