Monday, 21 October 2013

Guest Blog: Selecting, Training and Developing Trustees: A Different Perspective

Patrick Dunne, Chair of Leap Confronting Conflict and Founder of Warwick in Africa reflects and poses a challenge.

I don’t think you ever stop learning about chairing, or “trusting”, as one of my friends who is a trustee calls his role. Just when you think you might have seen everything, a new dilemma emerges to provide a fresh challenge, or someone on the board provides a completely different perspective to a generally perceived wisdom. This is especially true when it comes to the art and science of selecting, training and developing trustees. 

One of the highlights of this week was meeting up with Peter Olawaye, one of Leap’s young trustees, to discuss how he is going to lead our latest governance review. Leap is focused on youth and conflict, and has built a strong reputation for the quality of its work in helping young people in challenging situations to transform their prospects and futures. We have three young trustees and Peter was appointed a few months ago. As chair I believe it is critically important that our young trustees have an early opportunity to take responsibility for something that matters and that we give them the support required to succeed.  

Doing a review like this when you are at an early stage in your career is both daunting and exciting. It’s a great way of getting to know the other trustees as peers, as well as to consider the fundamentals of what boards are for and how they work. Peter will need to think about “Purpose, People and Process ”; he’ll need to do some research, ask good questions, listen well and synthesise what he has heard to produce well-balanced conclusions. Then he’ll have to communicate his insights clearly, manage any conflicts of opinion and gain the buy in to any changes he thinks we should make. Daunting, maybe, but I am sure he is up to the challenge. 

These are all useful experiences for him to gain on his path to becoming a high performing and experienced trustee. Doing this job well means that he will also further increase the respect and influence in which he is held by the board. I also sense that he will remember more about good governance from this than he might from a lecture.   

This approach to trustee development combined with more classic knowledge gathering, mentoring and other experiences, such as committee work, is as relevant to more experienced board members as it is to those starting out. New trustees, no matter what their age or stage, are usually keen to make a difference as soon as possible. Yet all too often when people talk about trustee or non-exec training and induction they confine themselves to the knowledge corner of the golden triangle of training and development (“Knowledge, skills and behaviours”). Gaining the requisite knowledge is necessary but it is nowhere near sufficient. 

Any thoughts on selection, training and development for trustees should be rooted in what makes for outstanding performance. They should also take into account the environment and the challenges that trustees are likely to face, as well as the nature of the transition that they are making.  It’s tough out there and it doesn’t look like it is getting easier any time soon. In part that’s what makes it such fun!

So what does it take to be an outstanding board member? We will all have our own favourite ways of describing our role models. For me three things always seem to underpin the success of the finest board members, no matter what the nature of the organisation:
·         * Great judgement driven by deep integrity.
·         * Superb interpersonal skills to enable them to bring those judgements to reality and;
·        *  Finely tuned antennae so that their judgements are well informed.    

I’m not saying that these are the only things you need, but from my experience of boards in business, charities and Universities, they seem to me to be what often makes the difference between good and outstanding. 

In my experience these qualities have been overwhelmingly more important than any technical skills or knowledge. It is however, implicit in someone who has great judgement that they use their antennae and interpersonal skills to make sure that they have relevant knowledge and that their judgements are well informed. 

Many selection processes place strong emphasis on these characteristics, but not all do. Some seem more focused on ensuring that the appointment looks right rather than actually being right. For example, I think it is appalling to appoint a young inexperienced person to a board just because they are young. You have to believe, as we did with Peter, that they can play an active part as a board member in and outside of the boardroom and provide the necessary support to help them achieve this.  

Through working for 3i investing in start-up, growth and buy out businesses around the world across a broad range of sectors, I had to learn the art of building boards and developing boards as the businesses moved from one stage of development to the next. It was clear that boards were teams and that the selection of the team leader, the Chair, was central to success. So was being clear about the role of the board.

Every new trustee needs to know what the chair and the rest of the board think the role of the board is as well as what their own role is envisaged to be. However, it is not uncommon for it to be assumed rather than discussed or discussed purely in terms of legal responsibilities.  

My own favourite shorthand for the role of the board is “Right Strategy, Right Resources and Right governance”. Agreement on the vision and purpose of the organisation is integral to this. In picking a board you need to have confidence that collectively they will pick the right strategy, ensure that they have the resources to implement it, and will govern the organisation in an appropriate manner.  

There seems widespread agreement that the role of trustee is becoming more demanding and that the range of knowledge and skills required is increasing. Alongside this, as many organisations become strategically and financially complex and challenged, the personal pressure is rising. As a consequence the ability to manage conflict and challenging behaviour is another important talent for a trustee to possess.

I have always loved working with difficult people and tricky situations, and it was this passion for bother that led me be given responsibility for a number of challenging investments with difficult boards. This then resulted in responsibility for an activity which selected Chairman, non-executive directors, CEOs and Finance directors for portfolio companies.

As an efficient and fun way of getting to know people and also to see if we could improve performance, we started to develop a series of case study events where directors could come together to discuss and to role-play common board challenges. The themes ranged all the way from selection challenges such as “How do you know a good FD when you see one?” to ejection challenges including “The art of removing directors” and covered a range of knowledge, skills and behaviours.

The chance to have a go in the 'boardroom simulator' was really valued by people, no matter what the level of experience of the pilot. They valued the peer group learning aspect, the fact that the sessions were highly participative and the opportunity to meet kindred spirits. They were engaging, memorable and we learnt a lot from each other. We never called them training sessions, and never felt that they were replacing knowledge based programmes on topics such as legal duties.   

The success of these programme has led to helping to establish courses for Cranfield, the British and European Venture Capital Societies, the Institute of Chartered Accounts, the FT and others. A t a recent event for The Entrepreneurs Fund I picked up a great tip: “ A decision list is more useful than a to do list!”. The one I am working on next is for the FT and called “So you want to be a charity trustee?”, a course which is aimed primarily at aspiring trustees. I am sure that, as usual, I will learn more from the participants than they learn from me. 

About Patrick Dunne:Chair of Leap Confronting Conflict, Founder of Warwick in Africa and a member of the General Council of The University of Warwick and of the advisory boards of The Entrepreneurs Fund, Bridges Social Entrepreneurs Fund and the FT NED club. Patrick is also a visiting professor at Cranfield School of management and Chairman of the Board of Companions of the Chartered Institute of Management. His executive career was in the chemicals and private equity industries.  

About Leap Confronting Conflict:Established in 1987, Leap prevents the escalation of everyday conflict into destructive behaviour and violence by giving young people and the professionals that work with them the skills to understand the causes and consequences of conflict. 

About Warwick in Africa:Warwick in Africa transforms the teaching of maths and English in township schools in Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania. Since start up in 2006 over 150,000 children have benefitted.

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