OPINION: Trustees need to know the flip side of the coin

Geraldine Peacock, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

People often seem surprised if they discover that, as a chief executive, you are a trustee of another charity too. I don't know why because, as far as the day job is concerned, it is an immensely valuable experience. It gives you a real insight into the other side of the coin.

So often we agitate about the crucial, but tricky, interface between governance and management - what better way to tackle it than to experience it from both angles? If your day job is as a senior manager, you realise how hard, and yet how important, it can be to separate that role from one of governance. I say this with feeling, as a trustee of one large, one small and one international charity.

I would always encourage staff to undertake trusteeships as an important part of their personal and professional development.

It is harder to create a similar opportunity for trustees who come from different sectors and who may have little, or a very different, experience of governance. Of course, it is tackled through things such as codes of conduct and role descriptions, but it's not the same as first-hand experience.

However, there are ways of being experiential which should be encouraged.

For example, shadowing a manager for a day or creating "portfolio" trustees who "buddy" a senior manager or connect with a particular area of the organisation's work. Recently our new vice chairman spent nearly three weeks of his time with me, participating in stakeholder meetings. He found it an invaluable experience and it gave staff, users and supporters the chance to meet him and see that trustees and senior staff are all part of the same team.

Underpinning this is an understanding by trustees that the function of trusteeship is governance and that this is different from representation and membership. Irrespective of how you become one, as a trustee you are there in your own right to set the vision and strategy for the charity.

The Strategy Unit's report offers a real opportunity to address these issues, including the fundamental one of trustees and executives being equal in the law and in accountability, but having clear and separate roles. Were this to be addressed many of the other tensions would disappear. One more for the Bill?

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