Expert view: A change can do your board good

Avoid trustees becoming tired and jaded by regularly reviewing and rotating their roles.

One of the most important lessons I've learned in my role as chair of the Special Needs Active Partnership (Snap) is the importance of trustees retaining enthusiasm. How do we do this? Unfortunately, there's no magic solution. We're all motivated in different ways. Some trustees are interested in certain aspects of the governance of the organisation, whereas others will be turned off completely by certain issues.

Trustees should select the areas they wish to lead on and the board should then identify the gaps, if there are any. People naturally want to do things they are good at and that they enjoy. The role of chair is to ensure fairness, that the work is spread around and that the organisation is making progress.

Unpopular governance issues cannot be overlooked if nobody wants to lead on them. All governance issues have to be led.

When we get all trustees in the right position doing what they are good at and what they enjoy, what can go wrong?

First, they can become jaded, tired and disillusioned. Dull and tired trustees can lead to a dull and tired organisation.

I am currently in the process of winding up Snap, which, after losing a major contract with its local authority, was facing exactly this problem. We had a board of six trustees, the majority of whom were poorly motivated for different reasons.

Three of the trustees had been involved since the charity was founded 10 years ago. They had a strong emotional connection with the organisation and I felt they were suffering a sense of loss. They found it hard to find the passion to carry on fighting what they perceived as a never-ending battle with the local authority. Trustees agreed unanimously at a board meeting that there was insufficient energy to start again from scratch, and we decided to start winding the charity up.

In order to prevent trustee burnout, I suggest making time to get to know each other without a formal agenda. Consider holding team-building sessions with an outside facilitator at least twice a year. Make sure you are clear about trustee roles and review them at least twice a year.

Think about trying a 'trustee buddy system', where you appoint a lead and a support trustee in each topic area. Make time to discuss as a board the pros and cons of trustee role rotation.

Finally, aim to recruit at least one new trustee every year. As Bill Shankly, the late manager of Liverpool Football Club, said: "Always change a winning team."

 - Trevor Gay is a leadership consultant and author

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