In our first instalment of ‘Trustees in Conversation’, we chat to Elaine Lilley who joined the Edge Foundation Board of Trustees in April 2020. With an extensive background in Board & Leadership roles, Elaine was awarded an MBE in 2019 for her work building links between education & business.
Elaine is a specialist in the field of education business partnership with 30 years’ experience. Elaine currently works as a freelance consultant, specialising in leadership, strategic & team growth and socially responsible organisations.
How did you become a trustee?
Working as a Chief Executive for 18 years gave me a good understanding of what I wanted from my Board.
I eventually left to have more time for myself, but quickly realised that I still wanted to be able to utilise the skills and experience I had to contribute to causes I care about.
I approached three organisations I’d worked with, one of which was the Edge Foundation, and over the course of some informal conversations, learned how I could support their work through becoming a trustee.
What interested you in becoming a trustee?
When I approached the Edge Foundation, I was very interested in the role of governance within an organisation. To me governance is such an important factor — there is a responsibility attached to being a trustee.
You’re not an employee nor a volunteer, but something very different. Trustees have a clear role in supporting the organisation to achieve its aims and objectives, to help it thrive and grow.
It’s not about being critical of what the organisation is doing, nor trying to impose your views to change the direction it’s taking. It’s about supporting the organisation, the CEO and the staff to achieve their objectives.
The opportunity to become a trustee of Edge was a perfect fit. I wanted to be involved with an organisation that was exciting and future-facing, and particularly an organisation whose work I was really interested in. For me, Edge ticked all the boxes and I think that’s absolutely key for anyone thinking of becoming a trustee — you must have a real commitment to what the organisation is about and what it does.
What qualities do you think are important for those in a trustee role?
I’m going to start with some things that might not be ‘qualities’ but which I think are vital:
- Ask yourself why you want to be involved as a trustee.
- Understand what you can bring to the role and how that will enable you to support the organisation.
- Be clear about what you can commit to, particularly in terms of time.
Being a trustee because it looks good on your CV isn’t enough — you need to care about the organisation and be committed to helping it thrive. I think you also need to have an understanding of what governance is — as I said before, it’s an important and responsible role. Some trustee roles may need much more direct experience of governance, but all trustees need to understand what they are committing to.
I believe that a good trustee has objectivity — they provide strategic support, not hands-on operational support. Being in a position to take a step back, to see the bigger picture, to be able to ask the right questions at the right time in the right way — all of these are central to a trustee’s role.
A trustee also needs to have or develop a good understanding of the organisation and particularly get to know the CEO and the staff and how they work. That way the Board, the senior leadership team and the staff are all pulling together in the same direction, with a clear operational purpose as well as an eye on the wider environment and external issues.
What challenges do you face as a trustee?
Well, I became an Edge trustee in April 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit — so my biggest challenge was how to get to know the organisation and the staff when suddenly everyone was working remotely. I had been a trustee for almost 18 months before my first face-to-face board meeting, and that was hard.
I believe it’s crucial for a trustee to be really engaged with the organisation and care about what it is doing, and building that strong sense of engagement was hard in those circumstances.
But the upside was a huge sense of relief and connection as soon as I walked into the Edge office for that Board meeting — and to be able to meet my fellow trustees and the Edge staff in the flesh for the first time.
What is your favourite part of being a trustee?
For me, it’s seeing the organisation grow, change and develop.
Despite the extraordinarily challenging circumstances of the past 18 months, the Edge Foundation has done so much. To feel that as a trustee I’ve contributed in some small way to the purpose and development that the Foundation and the staff have shown during this time has given me a real sense of achievement.
I also think the true value of an organisation shines through when it is seen as an acknowledged expert in its field, and when it is consulted and listened to. This is fantastic to see developing at Edge.
What tips would you give to those looking to find the right trustee position?
I’d say five things:
- Be sure about what you want from the role;
- Know what you can bring to the role;
- Be open and clear about both of the above. Have an honest and open conversation with the Chair and the CEO so everyone has clear expectations to avoid any misunderstandings once in the role;
- Look for an organisation that you are really interested in supporting — an organisation in a field or sector that you care about and can commit to;
- Understand how you fit into the Board, where your particular skills lie and how your commitment to the Board will work. Boards are like jigsaw puzzles — you need the right pieces in the right place to see the whole picture.