Peter Stanford: 'Mr Chairman - may I replace you?'

Sometimes there is jostling for position around the trustee board table, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

"If I may, Mr Chairman." That was how one of my trustee colleagues always interrupted me at board meetings. At first I thought he was just being polite. Later I suspected he was mocking me - like the porter at my university who had the knack of saying "sir" in a way that made me feel seven. Finally I decided it was because he thought he could do my job better: "If I may (tell you how to be) Mr Chairman ..."

You still get a bit of that jostling for position round a trustee table. "Would you be interested in joining us as a trustee?" I remember once asking a candidate that our board had identified. "Funny you should say that," he said. "I've been thinking I ought to give my services as chair of a charity board."

How to react? Well, I suppose it is all about context. There are times when you really do need someone ready and willing to step into the breach - as at the Wiltshire Community Foundation. Its chair of trustees, John Woodget, and his wife, were tragically killed in a car accident last summer. The charity and its board were therefore heartily grateful that John Adams, a local man with a long, distinguished record of public service, was willing to take on the role at short notice. They even sent out a press release celebrating their good fortune. It was reading it that set me thinking.

Should every board, perhaps, have a deputy chair as an insurance policy? I have always been a bit wary of that logic, especially when numbers are small. When there's only four of you round the table, it feels a bit self-aggrandising to have a chair and a deputy chair. Perhaps it's not the actual titles that we need to worry about, but the practicalities - ensuring the vital information that keeps a trustee board functioning and fulfilling its responsibilities isn't stored in just one head. If, for whatever reason, that person is suddenly no longer available, the risk is chaos descending.

And then there's succession planning. One of the hardest lessons many of us have to learn in life is that we are not indispensable. I've been guilty myself of thinking I couldn't possibly stand down as chair of the board because there was no one suitable to take my place. It was, I realise with hindsight, a form of arrogance, putting myself before the needs of the charity.

Founder Member Syndrome is, of course, well known in our sector - the inspired and inspiring individual who transforms a good idea into a thriving charity, but then overstays his or her welcome, becomes an obstacle to further progress and, sometimes painfully, has to be forced to let go of the reins. You can get chairmen and women who do the same. We must all beware.

I haven't, though, answered my own question about the candidate for trusteeship who would be chair. What was the right response? Well, we decided to concentrate on his willingness to serve, welcomed him on board, then made him chair of a sub-committee. If I may say, Mr Chairman, honours were even.

Peter Stanford is a journalist, was a charity chair for 20 years and is now a trustee of Circles UK

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