How well do you know your fellow trustees? Do you know what they all do for a living, what they care about, what their skills are? Well, you should do! Because how can you function effectively as a governing body if you are making joint decisions with folk about whom you know very little?
The honest truth is that many trustees don’t know each other very well. And are often too embarrassed to ask, especially if it’s someone they’ve sat on the board with for some time.
When you think about it, it’s not that surprising. If you have the typical four board meetings a year and a strategy/planning day, you could be together for as little as 18 hours a year, so without focusing explicitly on developing and deepening relationships with your fellow trustees, it can be pretty easy to work alongside them for years without ever really getting to know each other.
In my experience, many board members rarely communicate with each other beyond ‘hello’ at a board meeting. Many sit quietly and listen to what goes on in a meeting without saying anything, so no-one one knows what they actually think. And they rarely engage with each other via electronic means.
I’m always baffled by this. You’re a legally accountable member of a governing body. If anything goes wrong in the charity you will be held responsible, whether you knew anything about it or not. So it’s pretty important to know what your fellow trustees think about stuff and what decisions they are influencing.
Not least because sure as eggs are eggs something will go wrong. Our sector is vulnerable to crises: loss of funding; changes in government or local authority policy; risks due to dealing with people in vulnerable situations. The list is endless. And if you are not operating as a cohesive body, who knows where colleagues are coming from and what they think, then you are more likely to take missteps or wrong decisions.
But it is hard when you’re a volunteer juggling other parts of your life and you don’t come together very often. But there are some relatively easy things you can do. Here’s my advice:
Turn up to board meetings, both physical and virtual, early so you can chat with fellow trustees. Prioritise time for building connections, it will help you work better together as a team.
Make sure the agenda is informative
Ask your exec to include on every agenda the full name, job title and organisation of your fellow trustees so you remember who they are and where they come from. Also, include on the agenda the sub-committees and their membership so you know who is supporting what work in the charity.
Make time on the agenda for a ‘catchup’
If you’re holding virtual meetings, it’s easy to lose the pre and post-meeting chat that you would normally get before and after an in-person meeting. At DSC, we always have 30 minutes or so of “social time” at the end of our virtual board meetings – it’s not mandatory and sometimes people have to go as soon as the main business is concluded, but it just creates a space for those trustees that want to chat and catch up in the way they would do naturally if they were meeting in person.
Don’t be the silent trustee who no-one hears from. Even if all you have to say is ‘I agree’ say it so that your colleagues have some idea of what you think. Comment or use the emoji function in the chat in virtual meetings if you don’t want to interrupt the flow but want to indicate your view or agreement to another’s point. Respond to emails with your thoughts – even if it’s just a 👍.
Reply all, always
Not letting others see what you have said is (I think) the equivalent of whispering secretly to the Chair or CEO in a physical board meeting. It’s annoying and unhelpful. In charity law, all trustees are accountable for everything. It’s no defence if your chair or another trustee makes a decision that you knew nothing about. You must cc all so that thinking is shared and understood.
Share your thoughts and your experiences and listen to others with an open mind
Don’t let your ego or fear of looking foolish stop you from asking a question or commenting on something you’re being told. Listen with an open mind to others, especially if they see things differently to you. Easy to say hard to do of course. Listen to understand not to respond.
Try to talk outside of meetings
Remember you can talk to each other outside of the meetings. Make time (at least) once a year to have a catch up with each of your fellow trustees. Over coffee, on Zoom, or however it works best for you, spend some time just chatting and getting to know each other as people and not just as trustees.