Governance is becoming more fraught in these tough times

Good governance is rather like eating All Bran straight from the box – we all know it’s supposed to be good for us, but it’s never a particularly appetising prospect. That’s particularly true when the ‘rubber’ of board accountability hits the ‘road’ of a chief executive’s right to manage.

My experience, both as a chief executive and a charity trustee, is that when everything is going well and the figures look good, no-one really thinks about good governance. Stuff just happens and the CEO is left to get on with it. No-one worries about accountabilities. Ironically, I can find myself hankering after those times even though I know that’s not how things are supposed to be run. To continue the metaphor, it’s a bit like pigging out on Rocky Road ice-cream in front of the TV – we know it’s not good for us, but it makes us feel better.

The current situation, however, is very different for most of us.  Things aren’t going well and the figures don’t look good. As a result, we are now operating in a highly anxious system. Trustees are feeling the weight of their responsibilities and senior managers are feeling under pressure to perform in a far more difficult operating environment. Now, everyone worries and governance is becoming more fraught.

In anxious systems the temptation is to get emotional – to stress how much we care – rather than to deal with the facts.  What I’ve had to learn over the past few years is that we shouldn’t let ourselves be diverted from dealing with the facts by the strength of other people’s emotions. And the natural corollary to that is that I shouldn’t get in the way of my trustees holding me to account for those facts, just because it can make me uncomfortable.

So pass the All Bran – but can I have just a little Rocky Road with it too?

Alan Fraser is chief executive of Birmingham YMCA and vice chair of the St Martin’s Centre for Health & Healing