The last article I read on trustees was a bit like a ‘Spotter’s Guide’ to rare birds.  There were descriptions of the pecking ‘Critic’, the deafening ‘Know-it-all’, the shy ‘Quorate’ (just-making-up-the-numbers) and the ‘Looking-Backer’ with a memory like an elephant. You get the idea. Lots of fun, but not that helpful really. Perhaps becoming a trustee myself, a few years ago, changed my point of view.  Suddenly, I became a lot more tolerant and understanding of my own trustees, when I was back on the day job.I now had the advantage of knowing what if feels like having to make life-changing decisions, with scant information. Or to be more honest – having scan-read an excellent report by the CEO moments earlier in the car park!

The mode trustees operate in can and should flex from meeting to meeting and moment to moment, based on need.

For example, they may need to play the role of

  • the ‘Border Guard’ enforcing boundaries,
  • the ‘Ambassador’, pressing the flesh at the Gala Dinner, or
  • the ‘Inspector’ holding the executive to account.

But the default position, in my view, should be:

  • the ‘Cheerleader’.

Close your eyes and imagine your trustees with pom-poms in hand, going rah-rah-rah on the touchline – nice isn’t it! I am not saying trustees should give the CEO and staff an easy ride and praise them unceasingly. But their highest calling should be to encourage and support.

How do you bring these qualities to the fore in your board?

What’s the driver?

So, how to bring out these qualities in your board?  Understand what really matters to them, what motivates them to give up all this time. Just like ‘normal people’, trustees have an ‘iceberg’ quality to them. Most of what there is to know is way below the surface. People become trustees for a very wide range of reasons. Getting to know your trustees outside of formal meetings is an essential way to unpack some of that. I don’t mean down the pub, although there’s nothing wrong with that. It could be visiting a project. Long drives can be great time to talk honestly; less need for eye contact. You might be surprised about their true motivation (for better or worse!).  Knowing what they really care about helps you to frame your communications with them, written and verbal.  There is no point focussing on topics that mean nothing to them. You must find shared interests.

Managing expectations

Clearly defining what is expected of trustees goes a long way to avoiding bad habits developing.  The Charity Commission have some excellent resources on the subject.  Beyond the clear legal obligations, the battleground then becomes what sits under the ‘executive’ responsibilities and what sits under ‘governance’. Sometimes it is black and white, but more often there are shades of grey, and collaboration is essential. I have a useful diagram about that. I can send you a copy if you ask nicely.

Read body language

Lastly, here is a really useful bit of advice I have been benefiting from for years. It’s a tell-tale bit of body language that lets you know someone is flexing their authority – Resting Hands Behind the Head with Elbow Jutting Out. I call it the ‘Cormorant’ (Google for a picture). It’s usually interpreted as a sign of superiority or bigheadedness, but it’s not quite as simple as that. It’s certainly more common from middle-aged male chairs than any other category of person I’ve ever met.  When spotted, I wouldn’t quite say that you should disregard everything the person then goes on to say, but it certainly should set off alarm bells. If the chair and the CEO start doing it at the same time, best to duck for cover!

Poor relations between the CEO / executive team and the trustees can be the quickest way to ruin an otherwise fantastic organisation.  Don’t let things fester. Get expert support.

Some recommended further reading:

Get expert support to help build a culture of cooperation and cohesion and have your ‘overlords’ waving pom-poms and supporting you every step of the way…