I’m taking a break from house renovation this month to have a bit of summer holiday fun and pose the question: what type of trustee are you? 

Trustee 1: The Scout

Are you always prepared? Do you read (and re-read) meeting papers thoroughly, ask questions and clarify anything you’re unsure of before the meeting?

Does your preparation allow senior staff to be prepared too – so they can bring their flashlight to the meeting to illuminate things rather than leave you wading about in the mud in the dark (yes, I know, I have a strange idea of what scouting entails!!).

Do you rock up slightly early to chat purposefully with other trustees and staff, taking an interest in them as people and their perspectives? If you can’t attend a meeting, do you still prepare by sending your reflections, questions and an indication of your view on a decision?

Trustee 2: The Champion

You may not be a Wimbledon champion (guess what I’ve been watching this month) – and with some of the behaviours we’ve seen on court over the years that may be just as well – but if I think instead about sports champions who stand for something, it strikes me that being a champion within the Board room is hugely important.

People like Billie Jean-King, Marcus Rashford or Jake Daniels come to mind and make me wonder how their example can influence us as trustees. Perhaps you are a champion advocating for the cause of your charity or a group of people within your organisation? Are you a role model, an ally, a visible advocate?

Great trustees continually think deeply about things like delivering on purpose of the charity or creating the space for lesser-heard voices to participate actively and equally. They speak from a place of knowledge and empathy, doing so at the right time and with thoughtful preparation. They can build people up, give them confidence, back them up when things get uncomfortable. This often takes energy and courage, and a lot of thought to do it well. How could you be a real champion in the Board space?

Trustee 3: The Student

In four years of clerking, governance advice and undertaking Board reviews, I have recognised the importance of continuous learning – of being a student of governance and charity practice.

Some people – even me at times – will see governance as being dry but speaking with a 28-year-old trustee recently – who has an amazing 10 years’ experience in a board setting already – raised some interesting questions. How often do we think about what we have gained from a board meeting, or how we can learn from others? When did we last actively engage in a refresh on the role of being a trustee and consciously thought about how to be better?  In the last 3 months, what have I done to make myself a better trustee?

That last question really challenged me – so this summer I am being an intentional student giving an hour a week to stretching my brain a bit. It’s certainly started well – I was introduced to the gradients of agreement approach to support democratic decision making – my brain is still popping with how this could transform Board conversations. I hope to try it out with a small group in September.

How have you been a student and invested in your own learning to be a better trustee?

Trustee 4: The Mirror

Self-reflection is a powerful tool.  We can do it as an individual trustee, and as a whole Board.

The Charity Governance Code is a great tool for discussion and reflection.  A discussion at the end of a Board meeting on what went well and what could be better is a good reflection practice, particularly if it leads to honest conversations on how the Board can perform better.

I’m a fan of trustee performance reviews, while also knowing when I was a Chair they gave me sleepless nights. A good way to make it a safe, positive experience is to have an open conversation as a Board before starting the practice, and as my 28-year inspiration pointed out, make it a two-way learning process too.

An external board effectiveness review can hold up an even clearer mirror, a bit like those unfiltered selfies which show up more of the wrinkles or poor choice of shirt colour – it’s still the same you, but the new perspective allows you to see things with fresh eyes. A few adjustments and hey presto – things are so much better.

This summer, consider how trustee self-reflection and board team reflection can make you a better trustee.

Trustee 5: The Listener

My 16-year-old nephew is a huge fan of podcasts. Telling me about his favourites, it was clear he engages with a vast range of voices and perspectives, and they make him think.  We chatted about several ideas they’d raised for him from big questions to little details. I was struck by the way he distils the things he’d heard – without judgment, just getting the context out there – and then considered what he thought. I was a bit in awe to be honest!

It reminded me of the best meetings, where people really hear what others have to say, invite others to speak before stepping in, build appropriately on the points others make and won’t repeat what’s already been said. The listening trustee will summarise the range of perspectives and show that listening. When the listener is in full swing, board meetings become active, and boards can address the elephant in the room or ask the tough questions.

So what type of trustee are you?  Is that a good thing – how might you be more intentional?

I’m off to the Commonwealth Games for my summer break and will be using the time between events, wandering through Birmingham, to draw inspiration from the athletes and their stories.

How will you use a summer break to let your mind drift and think about how you might return to the Board space and be more thoughtful, more engaged, and more effective?

Sarah Gosling is our board development specialist, and has written a number of blogs on becoming a great trustee, and how to build a brilliant board: the foundations and the building. You can also connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.