Dr Stephen Ladyman joins Philippa Fabry for this edition of Chairs in Conversation.

Dr Stephen Ladyman has led a varied career as a scientist, Health Minister and Minister of State for Transport and chief executive of a retirement development company, before starting his own business managing extra-care properties.

His has also served on the boards of Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and Wiltshire Health and Care.

Stephen first became involved with the National Autistic Society as an MP in 1998, setting up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism. Stephen has advocated for the needs of autistic people and their families, promoting a society that works for autistic people.

What do you find is the biggest challenge in your role as chair?

One of the biggest challenges I have is remembering that trustees are volunteers.

You can have a certain expectation of paid non-executive directors, but volunteer trustees are juggling a lot in their lives and this balance can be difficult to manage.

Most volunteer trustees will take their board role very seriously but equally, there’ll be times when they must give more attention to their day job. You have to be prepared to cut them a little slack and understand that they may have other priorities.

How you do you support your board to improve their collective contribution and governing skills?

You have to be an active listener at all times, through all discussions, listening to all contributions from all members of the board. By taking everyone’s comments and concerns seriously and providing encouraging yet constructive feedback, you create an open and trusting board.

Of course, one of the reasons you’re a chair in the first place is because you have the experience and knowledge. However, you must remember that you’re only one individual – and that you can be wrong. Trustees might have the best ideas about the way forward, so you need to encourage them to share their opinions.

It’s also important to be constructive. You have to learn to communicate misunderstandings in a way that doesn’t come across as judgemental or that shuts them down.

Naturally, certain members of the board will be familiar with some areas over others, and often stick to speaking out on these points that they are comfortable with. As chair, your role is to encourage these trustees to speak out on other responsibilities and contribute to the wider debate.

How do you ensure there is balance in the range of voices on your board?

Having a balance of voices on a board can only be achieved if everyone makes time for one another.

This can mean having conversations with trustees outside of board meetings to chat about their strengths and weaknesses and provide guidance around where they can contribute by virtue of not knowing much about a subject.

Trustees must understand that there are no silly questions. Sometimes wider discussions can come from someone asking what may seem to an expert to be a simple question.

Be open to trying new things based on trustee ideas – they must feel confident to speak out and trust that you are listening to everybody.

All of this goes towards fostering an environment where members feel comfortable and understand the value in sharing their opinions.

Having a balance of voices on a board can only be achieved if everyone makes time for one another.

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

I have found reflecting on my own time on boards and committees to be hugely useful. Thinking about what was good and what was bad, and how dynamics changed over time. Identify times you were uncomfortable or where the dynamics were off and make sure you don’t follow that same behaviour.

Conducting appraisals and receiving feedback from other board members will only improve functionality. Encourage trustees to express themselves. The opportunities provided by 360-degree appraisals far outweigh the potential discomfort.

I once received feedback that I have a very expressive face and that people would only need to look at me to know when they thought I needed them to stop talking. I had no idea that this was the impression I was giving off and I was giving the wrong impression entirely. This was clearly an aspect for me to learn from!

What key things do you do to make sure you are doing your job as efficiently as possible and with less demand on your time?

I think it’s best to have that face-to-face meetings at least a couple of times a year. People in the same room can communicate more effectively which presents a greater opportunity to ensure all voices are heard equally, and ideas can be shared.

However, given that most people on a board are coming from different parts of the country, having online calls means their lives don’t have to be spent travelling anymore. So, online meetings are one of the key things to take advantage of!


Thank you to Dr. Stephen Ladyman, for taking the time to speak with us and share your story on what it is like to be chair and how to effectively lead a board.

To see more interviews with board chairs, visit our YouTube channel.

Philippa Fabry is our Director, Not for Profit Practice. She has been recruiting transformational leaders to third sector organisations for over 17 years, which has focused on arts and culture, social justice, start up, social enterprises and social care.