A connection on Twitter considering becoming a trustee for the first time asked his community – ‘What qualities make a trustee shine?’ After some thought, I dived into five things that I think can turn a trustee into a pearl.
So what is it that sets a great trustee apart from other charity board members?
Good trustees read and re-read meeting papers. Great trustees plan their input into the meeting. They think about how they need to contribute and what they and the board need to know to enable a decision to be made.
They understand how valuable meeting time is and ask questions before the meeting to check their understanding or to fill gaps in their understanding and in turn allow senior staff to prepare.
A great trustee considers the aims of the charity, the content of the meeting, and the dynamics which might affect discussions. An exceptional trustee reflects on how their personal perspective may help or hinder good decision making and is fully transparent about it.
I have learnt it takes a lot longer to prepare to be a great trustee for each meeting. As I consider my next trustee application, I am thinking about how I plan in more time to role model that learning.
Many trustees attend Board meetings and then disconnect for three months until the papers arrive for the next one.
The great trustees I’ve met engage thoughtfully beyond the Board meeting. They know what the charity does and why, stay alert to internal and external news about the charity, make themselves available to senior staff as a sounding board and perhaps visit projects.
They take time to be clear on key messages and support content on social media.
The balance between being engaged and getting involved in operations can be tough to navigate. One trustee recently talked about their breakthrough moment when they moved from ‘you’ to ‘we’ in a Board discussion. Previously they had seen their role more as a consultant, standing on the outside advising and correcting, until an induction session on the role of a trustee had reminded them of their legal responsibility but, more than that, had reignited their passion for the purpose of the charity. To be effective, they had to reframe their contribution and become accountable.
Many trustees find that the length of time between meetings can create a challenge of keeping track of previous information and conclusions. Great trustees put additional time in to take notes and retain the key points and decisions from previous meetings. One trustee who used to frustrate me with their attention to grammatical detail in my draft minutes turned out to be exceptional at keeping track. Their way of doing this was to read previous minutes with a view to what had been and what was to come. The audit trail in this charity was superb and instead of the chief executive or me as clerk prompting people’s memory, this trustee would be active in that process.
A good supporting practice is for the introduction or covering sheet to a board paper to include reference to previous board discussion and what is required at the meeting. This acts as a refresher and a prompt for trustees. A practice I love from my students’ union days is pre-engaging a trustee for each agenda item to explore the issue in advance and the best trustees made themselves readily available.
Good trustees are on time for board meetings. Great trustees are early whenever possible. They chat purposefully with other trustees and senior staff before a meeting and take an interest in the people around them, rather than just sharing their own thoughts.
This applies just as much in our new Zoom world – there is nothing worse than people turning up and sitting waiting in silence. So many Boards talk about missing those personal connections and conversations over the pre-Board coffee, and there’s no reason why this can’t work online too – it just takes a little thought.
The best trustees I have met attend in the deeper sense through being fully present. They are attentive to what is being said and what isn’t, to who is participating and who may feel excluded.
In our new online meeting world, great trustees keep their cameras on, use the chat to support or add to a discussion, and are visibly attentive. Being present online can be tiring, yet it has a true impact on the way the board functions.
I recently watched one trustee modelling these behaviours over several meetings. The quality and inclusive nature of discussion and decision making were so clearly enhanced that the Board spent some time reflecting on what had changed!
On the other hand, there are some more distracting and disappointing behaviours I’ve seen increase in the age of video calls, including trustees leaving meetings to let an IT update install, voice calling in while they are driving and clearly not able to access papers.
A new Chair facilitating her first Board meeting recently asked trustees and the senior team to respond to a brief survey reflecting on the meeting. Another trustee I met a few years ago encouraged the board to ask itself at the end of each meeting ‘What went well? What could be even better?’ Both used that feedback to reflect and propose changes at the next meeting.
The impact of Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement has added a new focus – how can a Board act to be more inclusive, support healthier discussion and create the conditions for better decision making? A great trustee will push the board to reflect on these more challenging matters too.
Reflection is a good practice for all Boards, not just in an annual discussion on board effectiveness but embedded in regular practice through Chair/trustee 1:1s. The Charity Governance Code takes this idea of reflection further advocating that every board review its own performance and that of individual trustees, including the chair each year, with an external evaluation every three years.
Good trustees listen. Great trustees actively listen. They summarise and build on other people’s contributions. They don’t feel the need to repeat points, but they will acknowledge their support and ask appropriate questions.
Online facilities allow trustees to show support for a point raised through a thumbs up or comment in the chat, allowing the meeting to move along positively.
Using the chat functions for questions can allow the chair to capture more insights. It gives time for deeper, more complex discussions, reduces the repetition of ideas, and suppresses dominant voices so that more perspectives can be heard.
As part of a board that applied this approach, it took just three meetings for a clear shift from ‘hear me, I have something to say’ to ‘I am interested to hear your view’ to take effect. A positive outcome from Covid protocols!
And one of my colleagues recently shared this thought: ‘Listening without intent to speak is a key tool in the practice of inclusion’.
As I approach a new trustee role for the first time in a while, I want to be a great trustee — one who Prepares, Engages, Attends, Reflects and Listens. I think I’ll be starting with the last one!