How to Avoid a Nightmare Trustee Board


Trustees form a vital part of good governance, but it can be difficult to get such appointments right. Craig Dearden-Phillips and Iain Hasdell consider the steps charities should take to find the ideal candidates.

Dream Trustees are emotionally intelligent people who have great commercial acumen in their DNA.

As advisers to third sector chief executives, it’s unfor­tunate for us that our conversations with chari­ties about trustee boards are often negative in tone. It is the job of a trustee to add value and, ideally, sprinkle some “magic” into an organisation, but many trustees are actually nightmares and can become an unaccepta­ble drag on the chief executive’s time and the organisation’s mission.

Nightmare Trustees fall into one of four types:

· 1. Defensive Trustees interpret their role with an audit-and-compliance mentality as the guardians of risk. They over-emphasise rules, procedure and governance, and prefer to attend meetings than to provide insights. Defensive Trustees can also morph into attack dogs when external advisers suggest changes to the charity’s strategy and become roadblocks to socially entrepreneurial chief executives.

· 2. The Trespassing Trustee is a trustee who is deeply uncomfortable with strategy. Their actual experience of providing advice to anyone, about any­thing, reveals itself to be limited. Instead, they migrate to their own comfort zones by invading the day-to-day work of the chief executive. They tell and teach using a directive style, regularly citing insights that are from a generation ago. Before long they become a burden and offer no added value at all.

· 3. Always quick to agree with the chief executive, the role of the Sycophant Trustee is to be non-challenging and conspicuously applaud all the significant decisions that are made. They are the ultimate “uncritical friend” to the chief executive. But, as deeply political operators, they also carefully manage their own risk by scrupulously avoiding being on any audit trail for decisions and will cut and run at the first whiff of trouble. Generally, these trustees are long stand­ing acquaintances of the chief executive or friends of friends. The sycophants are in it for themselves and for the networking and career opportunities that a position on the board provides.

· 4. The Drowning Trustee is the trustee who is out of their depth. Schooled in traditional line management approaches, they celebrate outputs, not outcomes. They have no experience of complex and fluid forms of modern leader­ship in organisations and, because they do not remotely understand the fast waters the business operates in, they have little value to offer.

In the worst cases, we are witnessing the dysfunction these roles precipitate playing out in the third sector, as the scandals and insolvencies pile up around us.

So what do the opposite of these people – Dream Trustees – look like? For a start, they are a world away from the typologies we have listed above.

Dream Trustees need to be aligned personally with the mission of a charity: really on board, as opposed to simply on the board. They bring brilliant, relevant experience and fantastic contacts. A Dream Trustee does not row back from making major judgement calls in the face of incom­plete information, and they aren’t afraid of putting their name to a decision.

Nor does the Dream Trustee want to compete with anyone in the executive arena – they have taken the position to give, not to get, and are in it to give, not take.

The Dream Trustee is challenging but collegiate, offering coaching and mentoring, not lecturing and instruc­tion. They consciously, subtly, help a chief executive to enhance their own skills, are available when you most need them and are always willing to listen.

Perhaps above all, Dream Trustees are emotionally intelligent people who have great commercial acumen in their DNA.

“The Dream Trustee brings relevant experience and fantastic contacts. They are there to give, not get.”

Getting it right

So, as the chief executive of a charity, how do you avoid the extremes and help to get trustee appointments right?

We have seven top tips for mak­ing this happen.

First, set the bar high. Never budge from the “must-have” qualities and skills you need from a trustee. And if a trustee isn’t making the cut, move them on. There isn’t time in your day to develop them: they need to be the finished article right from the start.

Second, avoid big-name recruitment agencies. You need applicants who are independent of a relationship with a large agency, which will just send you people on its lists. If you need help, use a specialist recruiter who is working for you, not for its lists.

Third, steer clear of the trustee “chumocracy” approach to board recruitment. Appointing friends of friends is not accept­able in full-time employment, so why should it be that way in trusteeship? Not only does this approach reduce the chance of forming a diverse board, but it also means that the usual establishment suspects get top trustee roles while the most talented people are overlooked.

Fourth, ask shortlisted trustee candidates to formally pitch to you on why you should appoint them to your board. If they can’t or won’t do this, they don’t really want the role.

Fifth, have shortlisted candidates go through a facilitated roleplay in which you as chief executive need their support, chal­lenge, advice or judgement on a key charity dilemma, then assess their acumen and their behaviour.

Sixth, follow due diligence. Always take at least three in-depth references for each of your final candidates before you make a final decision. Speak to people.

Seventh, offer annual terms. Make trustee terms annual on a renewable-by-perfor­mance basis. If they aren’t adding value, they should go. Change your legal constitu­tion to facilitate this if necessary.

The good news is that there are many success stories out there, with chari­ties getting increasingly serious about who they ask to be trustees. But despite this we still spend a worrying amount of time helping charities fix the various problems of nightmare trustees and finding dream replacements.

Taking the time to carefully consider trustee appointments to the board can save charities a lot of work in the long run.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is founder of Social Club and its new advisory business Social Minds. Iain Hasdell is an independent business adviser and a non-executive company director in the UK and Europe.

This article was written by Craig Dearden-Phillips and Iain Hasdell for Third Sector.

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