As part of our Chairs in Conversation series, Philippa Fabry sits down with Emma Scott, Chair of World Book Day, to explore the role and responsibilities of a Chair, and how it is possible to do the role more effectively with increased engagement from the board.

What are your biggest challenges in your role as Chair?

This is my first Chair position, but I’ve been a Vice-Chair before and a Trustee for many years. World Book Day is an amazing and well-established charity, but they only appointed their first Chief Executive two years ago, and I am their first independent Chair.

My biggest challenges have been the combination of supporting the CEO as she established herself in the organisation, while balancing and leading a change in governance at the board level. This has included understanding the lay of the land and what is there already, understanding where people are coming from and the different make-up of the board.

We are balancing a highly ambitious strategy from the CEO, while also coming out of Covid – I’ve been in the role for over a year now, and sometimes it can feel like things are going quite slowly, and then other times it feels like you’re going very fast.

There’s always the challenge or opportunity as a Chair in how you bring the trustees along and encourage them to play their role. Getting people to come to meetings rather than just showing up remotely will also be an important part going forward.

How do your board and executive team improve their collective contribution and governing skills?

Firstly, the executive team and board must be all aligned behind the strategic plan. Then it’s a case of making sure everyone is engaging on a practical level. I found that holding introductory meetings with every trustee one-to-one has helped to encourage an open door where trustees feel they can talk to me and vice versa.

Subcommittees are also useful in encouraging practical engagement. They allow specialists to interact in more depth, while ensuring that Trustees remain engaged beyond four meetings a year.

Whilst it’s harder to have an engaging meeting online, remote meetings can be very convenient. Remote meetings are more accessible, allowing for those who work or are further away to join – we do a combination of online meetings but also an away day.

360 reviews of the executive team members and board members are also useful as they allow everyone the ability to constructively feedback.

“I’m very protective of my time. I will only take on one pro bono at a time because I still have a full-time job and I want to give my full attention to the charity of my choice. I would strongly recommend pro-bono work to everyone, but you need to understand the amount of time involved in the role.”

What guidance and support have you found helpful in improving your Chairing skills?

NCVO run specialist courses that our CEO, Chair and Trustees to participate in. I found that not only was the Chair course insightful, but it was a great opportunity to share experiences with the other Chairs.

I always reflect on the chairs that I’ve admired in the past, and I’ve noticed that being a good chair is not necessarily about your style and how you hold a room but how you take contributions from others.

How can you make the chair role less onerous and more rewarding?

It’s important to appreciate that the role comes with its swings and roundabouts, and there are different times of the year when more things are required of you than other times. Personally, I find it helpful to map the year out, so I know when I’m going to be more needed.

Having a lot of structure with the CEO also helps with this, so we have a fortnightly routine where we put in some time together, and if she needs more time then we schedule that in.

With things like paperwork, ambassadorial work and so forth, it’s about having the right structures in place and making sure there is a rigour around it.

I’m also very protective of my time. I will only take on one pro bono at a time because I still have a full-time job and I want to give my full attention to the charity of my choice. I would strongly recommend pro-bono work to everyone, but you need to understand the amount of time involved in the role.

I also think if charities are particularly looking to diversify their boards, they may have to be more flexible about what they need. I think the role of Vice Chair can be helpful. At times I was Vice Chair at Ovarian Cancer Action, and I did this for a set period to provide a governance framework. If chairs are not keen about bringing in Vice Chair roles, then they should delegate to trustees.


Philippa Fabry is the Director of our Not for Profit Practice. She has been recruiting transformational leaders to third sector organisations for over 15 years, which has focused on arts and culture, social justice, start up, social enterprises and social care. To learn more about how we can help you make the swap from the commercial sector to focus on purpose-driven work, you can email Philippa or connect with her on Linkedin.