Viewpoint: Step back before you move forward

The ideal trustee board strikes a balance between the minimalists and the micro-managers.

One of the joys of lacking what my father would have called a 'proper' job - in other words, being a freelance - is that contrasting areas of your working life can cross-fertilise. So after a newspaper had sent me to interview William Ury, a US self-help guru, I found myself road-testing his pearls of wisdom on my fellow trustees.

One of my favourite of Ury's bon mots is the concept of taking a 'balcony moment'. Translated, this means taking a step back from often fraught situations, looking down on how you're behaving and considering how you can avoid making a difficult situation worse. Taking a step back. Counting to 10. There are plenty of more familiar terms for it, but its popularity as a self-help concept may have something to do with the fact that it works.

From my balcony, I can see that there are essentially three types of trustees. First, there are the minimalists. They believe that charities have paid employees with detailed job descriptions, clearly defined objectives and regular appraisals. The staff should get on with the tasks in hand and the trustees should be there simply to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

At the other end of the spectrum are the micro-managers. Although volunteers, they are not content simply to offer guidance and goals. They want to roll up their sleeves and get active themselves, often in the belief that they are better suited to the tasks in hand than the paid employees.

One does too little, the other does too much. Both have their drawbacks. So my balcony moment is all about trying to achieve a balance between the two impulses. To keep a group of trustees functioning, it is necessary to have both minimalists and micro-managers. The chair's task is to strike a balance.

I am a mix of the two types. When a problem comes up, one half of me wants to say "oh, just pass it here and I'll sort it out". And another is thinking "well, that's in so-and-so's job description so they need to tackle it".

In the heat of a meeting - and my charity's meetings nearly always take place in the evening and regularly extend into the night - it is easy to lose perspective. So much so that one impulse grows stronger than the other, for dubious reasons. I want to get home, so it is easier to say "give it here for me to do", thereby ending discussion. What I should be doing, however, is taking a short stroll to the balcony.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust.

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