To build a brilliant board, you must start with the foundations – recruitment and induction.
Recruiting trustees is often talked about as being difficult and a lot of good articles and resources address this. I don’t fully subscribe to the ‘it’s hard’ narrative, but I do relate to the fact it needs time and effort to get right. To me, the hardest bit in building a brilliant board is retaining good trustees.
Beyond recruitment, the board has a key role in bringing a new trustee onboard well. Good induction matters, but it’s not just for new trustees. It’s important the whole board reflects and consciously adjusts to the new team dynamic. As the team changes, so do the ways we need to work together. This is even more important when a board is trying to diversify.
This blog explores some of the foundations that will ready the board for success.
The Groundworks: (Prepare):
There are several questions that you should ask yourselves as a board before starting the recruitment process:
- Who are you looking for?
- How will you find new perspectives or reach fresh audiences?
- How ready are you as a board to welcome new and different perspectives?
- What conversations does the board need to have before new people join?
- How will the Board make itself a welcoming safe place?
I worked with a charity a couple of years ago that did a lot of internal staff team-building training. We began to look at how this could be used to build a more effective board. They now know so much more about each other’s styles, strengths, and blind spots. They have an annual team development day for the board to check-in where they are and think about how they need to change, and they do this again as new board members are recruited – they have become a lot less rocky!
Pouring the Concrete (Recruit well):
Plan your recruitment. Be clear on the skills, perspectives, and experiences you are missing, and which gaps are most important to fill right now. Focusing on filling gaps rather than repeating what you have will mean a fresh approach to your succession plan.
There are different ways to frame these gaps in your board. For example, if you identify that you will need a treasurer a year or two down the line, the traditional route would be to bring in a new trustee with finance skills to learn in post. Another way to approach this would be bringing in a member of the Finance Committee – a Board Apprentice if you like – to shadow the current Treasurer. Now you have a clear succession path for the Treasurer vacancy, and you’ve freed up a trustee vacancy for someone with a different skillset – adding diversity to your board. You’ve also created a development path for an individual with potential but who may not have the experience.
Recruiting openly matters too – advertise in good charity job spaces and on more general job sites where a wider range of roles and people look for roles. Use your charity social media and LinkedIn, but also post in local community Facebook groups and consider how YouTube or TikTok can help you reach a fresh new audience. Use professional networks and look at specific networks that exist for the people you are seeking, for example, women, black or Asian networks, geographic locations away from London etc. The new Action for Trustee Racial Diversity database of black and Asian networks is a great source of ideas.
Possibly the best guide to recruiting trustees I’ve seen is the Trustee Recruitment Cycle website. Small or large, local or international, £200k or £20m turnover the guidance is relevant, practical and clear.
Levelling the Concrete (Induct and re-induct):
New trustees need to know about the role of a trustee, governance structures, the context of the charity they’re joining, organisation policies and the like. Added to this standard trustee induction, I advocate refreshing this knowledge for all trustees at least bi-annually.
One trustee I spoke with recently reflected on his first year as a trustee and how his perspective has changed. He joined an induction session for new trustees to help their transition but found he hadn’t been putting into practice what he’d learnt a year earlier:
“The problem when I started was that it was all so new, I didn’t take it in. Now I know a bit more I can see I am still working at a surface level – hoping the chief exec has things covered. I see that’s my job, and after that session, I have a fairly good idea of what I need to do.”
The other challenge I see in nearly every board I work with is that the chief executive is the person who runs induction. While I agree they have a key role, a brilliant board should be responsible for its own development. They must be accountable for understanding and executing their role and this means giving time to induction and ongoing development.
Another pitfall in many charities (one I’m dismayed I fell into while I was clerking with one board through Covid) is to send out lots of reading but not take time to discuss the material. We assume learning but don’t check it. With the role of the trustee being so responsible this is a risky strategy, especially as people have such different learning styles.
Particularly as we seek to diversify our Boards, induction needs to be an active, supported process. We know people hearing or reading the same thing will often take away different things. Creating a common understanding between individual trustees through dialogue, questions, listening, and exploring gives boards a greater chance of being an effective leadership body.
So, to get the right foundations in place, my three takeaways are:
- Prepare for succession and the change that will come from new trustees joining the Board
- Recruit consciously, openly, and probably differently
- Take a team development approach to induction.
Next time, I’ll explore the next stage of building a brilliant board – the structures that need to be in place. Meantime, I’d love to hear how your board has laid its own good foundations.
Sarah Gosling is our Board Audit and Development specialist, having had sat in each seat at the charity board table, as Trustee, CEO and Chair. She has also worked at a national level supporting the development of excellence in governance practice. To keep up with all of her wonderful insights and advice, you can follow her on LinkedIn.