Clean Break’s previous Co-Chair Tanya Tracey and current Co-Chair Alison Frater share insights from their two years of sharing leadership of our Board of Trustees
What does it mean to co-chair an organisation? What are the benefits, the challenges, and how does a co-chairing model help bring lived experience to the front and centre of governance? Read insights from Tanya Tracey and Alison Frater below.
Holding the vision and mission of Clean Break to the heart
Co-chairing for us was about connection, ensuring that the process of governance activated lived experience, that it reached back to the company’s founders, bringing their experiences to the current context, making sure that Clean Break’s Members were in control of the story. Our Co-chairing relationship was one that embodied learning, one from the other. It came with reflective practice baked in, an ongoing 1:1. Notwithstanding our shared love of theatre, our passion for social justice, our commitment to making a significant difference to the lives of women affected by the criminal justice system, we came to recognise how even similar experiences in our lives could be felt differently.
We wanted to honour the legacy of Clean Break, to bring the weight of what had been lived through and what had been learned together into an integrated model for chairing the organisation. Experience, diversity and compassion being the underpinning model for good governance.
Chairing: the role
Chairing or being chief executive of any organisation comes with both power and responsibility. In whatever way it’s practiced, the individual(s) occupying the roles are set apart from the Board of trustees. The role requires leadership skills, familiarity with charity governance, being comfortable in representing the charity. Chairing involves building a supportive board of trustees; working with the senior team to deliver objectives; acting as an ambassador reaching out to all stakeholders; offering advocacy for the needs of women caught up in the criminal justice system; delivering the mission and values of the organisation.
There are no doubt many women who could hold this role singly. For us, working together as Co-Chairs provided the best response in an organisation that holds listening, sharing and collaborating as a central tenet of its working rhythm. With two of us, power and responsibility came with an intrinsic accountability. From the outset what lay between us was always checking in, dialogue, questioning, discussion, challenge, negotiation. There was always an ‘I hadn’t thought about it like that…,’ or sharing what had worked for us elsewhere, or the unintended consequences of something learned the hard way. It led to a broader perspective combining the expertise and experience we had, the whole always seeming to be greater than the sum of the parts. And, it was also far easier to see, grasp, and address the gaps in our collective knowledge. Between us we covered a wider canvas, a breadth of understanding.
The magic we found in this relationship worked for reaching out across the organisation. We hoped and signalled that there should be no barriers in the way of contacting us. Members, staff, trustees and freelancers were always welcome to discuss issues, raise ideas or concerns with us. It’s not always easy to make an approach, but we found that as Co-Chairs, there were fewer reasons not to. Most people could always reach one of us easily and comfortably, and both of us through the link we had, the friendship, hands held together.
Are there downsides?
If there was a downside to being Co-Chairs, we didn’t really experience it. Time - always short in all our lives - was needed to build our own relationship, but for us this was countered by being able to share the load of attending subgroups, getting to grips with the papers, going to training or stakeholder sessions and chairing meetings. Plus, we enjoyed spending time getting to know each other.
The deeper meaning of Co-Chairing
For us, the deeper meaning of co-chairing was relational. It gave more weight and power to the practice of co-production in Clean Break’s artistic activity, to oversight of the work of staff, freelancers, Member and trustees by, for and with the Board. It brought stronger empathy and sympathy into decision making, greater alchemy for advocacy and campaigning. Co-chairing meant a stronger governance for delivering the power of theatre to transform lives.