Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Advice for Aspiring Trustees from Second Careers

How could a pro-bono Trustee appointment enhance your career?
Some of the senior executives on our outplacement and career management programmes are considering leaving conventional employment to embark on a plural or portfolio career.  This is usually fuelled by a desire for more variety, freedom and control over their time.  Of course there are pitfalls to the portfolio option: the difficulty in finding suitable roles, the amount of networking and marketing involved to identify them, and the financial cushion that might be necessary when off the corporate payroll.  Ideally they should look to find lucrative Non Executive positions before they leave their executive roles.  A perceived stepping stone to this is to find a pro-bono Trustee role in a charity.   Is this the right strategy?  What are the drawbacks?  Could a Trustee role enhance a corporate career as well as a portfolio one?  Should HR Directors encourage them for the experience they bring to an organisation?   I asked Trustees, charity executives and recruiters for their opinions.

The role of a Trustee: Boards and Committees

There are around 180,000 registered charities in the UK generating an annual income in the region of £50 billion.  Robin Nye, Chair of the Arthritic Association, told me that even though 84% of registered charities have less than 5% of this income, there are still thousands with greater income and operating costs than many SME businesses and far stricter rules regarding their governance.  All charities rely on the services of a Board of Trustees which is ultimately responsible for the way the charity is run.  Trustees are responsible for ensuring compliance with ever-increasing regulation in the not-for-profit sector as well as managing substantial investment portfolios in order to ensure the best return on the capital generated by fundraising.  They approve annual operating budgets and have the final say in grant allocation.

Many charity Boards now function with a structure of specialist committees such as finance and audit, marketing, research, HR and nominations.  These provide support for the operations teams and the development needed to achieve the charitable objectives.  Usually each Trustee is involved in at least one of the working committees.  Robin sees this as providing Trustees with a deeper knowledge of the overall working of the charity. He says it is a huge step change from the previous perception that Trustees only existed in order to "rubber stamp" operational initiatives.

What's the real time commitment?

'Far more than anticipated' is the consistent feedback from everyone I spoke to. The time needed as a Trustee can come as a shock to both you and your employer, if you are still in paid work.  As well as around four Board meetings per year, Trustees may need to attend eight or nine working committee meetings and be available for consultation on any project that embraces their specialist experience.  They can mentor members of the senior management team, participate in away-days and fundraising events and respond to email discussions and papers.  Sarah Illingworth is a Trustee of Breakthrough Breast Cancer as well as Director of Executive Search - Not for Profit at Veredus.  She says, 'In the last two weeks I've attended a full day board meeting, a two hour sub-committee meeting, two full days of interviews for a new senior leadership appointment and a half day meeting fundraisers at our research centre...... but I do it because I love it and I've learnt to manage my time really effectively.' It seems that the largest charities are run like large corporations and so may offer more limited opportunities to get involved.  The smaller ones, (where your first Trustee appointment is more likely to be found), will do a lot for very little and so will expect you to really roll your sleeves up and contribute.

How do you benefit?

As well as fulfilling your desire 'to make a difference', what else do you get for contributing all this time and energy? David Lale, Managing Director of Charity People, sees a Trustee role as providing useful experience both in governance and in running often large and complex organisations with a strong social purpose.  This helps you develop leadership skills and may be helpful in moving to an executive role within a charity.  David has noticed that Trustees discover a new found zeal for their day job too - a fresh perspective and something else beyond the grind of corporate life.  (He runs a programme to introduce people in the corporate sector to relevant charities and social enterprises with a view to becoming trustees, www.smartcareers.org.)

Clearly you have to believe in what you are doing and do it well too. You will be recruited for your expertise and committee working in particular is where you will put these skills to the test.  Betty Thayer is an expert on Non Executive Directorships - she founded exec-appointments.com and non-execs.com and has extensive Trustee and NED experience of her own.  She says that excellent networking opportunities can come from sitting on large Boards as well as  working effectively on committees.  These might lead to other paid or non-paid roles, although she warns of caveats to this which we will explore later.  Sue Harrison was Director of Business Strategy at the House of Commons and has been a Trustee of Hospitality Action since 2004. She feels strongly that you get out what you put in and sees it as a 'privilege to work with, learn from and be heard by some of the legendary leaders in my own profession.'

While being personally responsible for contributing your skills and experience, you are collectively responsible for the direction, success and governance of the organisation.  Everyone is technically equal on the Board (apart from the Chair) and this collaborative decision-making can provide fabulous development opportunities that HR departments could be more aware of.  The opportunity to argue your case and possibly challenge a majority decision can help you hone your powers of persuasion and confidence.  Sue Harrison has seen Trustees 'learn to use their personal authority as an equal voice with people who may be significantly more senior to them in their corporate lives.'   Of course the flip side of this decision- making is that if there is a significant disagreement you may find yourself in a position where you need to go with your principles and resign your trusteeship.

Choose your charity wisely

Smaller charities often struggle to find good people and may be seeking a Trustee because they can't afford full- or part-time staff for an Executive role.  Betty Thayer advises that you should make sure in advance that you know exactly what the role involves and get a written role description (which makes the charity think about what they want as well.)  She says, 'You should remember that as a director of a charity you could be liable if there are any legal or financial issues, so doing your due diligence in advance is important.  Check the accounts for the past five years.  Meet with all the key staff.  Check for inconsistencies like very high staff turnover or client turnover.  Do a thorough internet search.  You may even consider talking to the local newspaper journalists to see what their view is if any.  Finally, remember this is usually a three year appointment and if you are doing this to enhance your CV then quitting early because you did not do a thorough investigation (rather than a significant change in the organisation) won’t enhance your experience.'

Like any recruitment decision, think about the environment you have come from and how good your 'fit' will be.  If you have spent your entire career in a large, multi-national organisation that hires the top 1% of graduates,  it may not be easy to work with an entirely different group of people.  Betty has found that for some executives the ‘roll up your sleeves’ requirement of some Trustee roles is just too far from their previous corporate, strategic experience.  Equally while some smaller charities would probably love to have a former executive as a Trustee, the executives are required to spend the first six months learning, listening and asking rather than ‘telling’.  Some can find this very frustrating.

Is it a stepping-stone to a lucrative portfolio career?

We have established that charity roles round out your Board experience, develop your skills through committee work, can be useful networking opportunities, may help refresh you and help you grow in executive presence.  The experience and networking could help you find an executive role within the charity sector.  Are they necessarily a route to more lucrative NED positions?  The best preparation for those is still to reach the highest leadership level within the commercial world first.  Betty Thayer says, 'I encourage young executives to take on a Trustee role early in their career so that they can get the experience of being on a Board and meet other Trustees to learn from their experience.  Starting cold from an executive role, particularly if you did not have board experience, takes time and for some people they are never able to achieve the earnings they had hoped for.  The best way to head towards more lucrative Board roles is to plan your portfolio well before you decide to leave full-time work'.

 Peter Wain is a Founding Director of Hanson Green, the specialist search firm in the appointment of non executive Chairman and Directors.  He makes the point that there isn't a direct correlation between charity and commercial roles  because the composition of charity Boards is different (they are bigger than the average PLC board) and with a different purpose and governance structure.  He recommends that executives looking for their first NED roles should at least be on an executive committee of a PLC board or, in a truly global business, running a very large business within it.  Like all the people I spoke to, Peter sees trustee roles as hugely worthwhile and enjoyable, but warns portofolio careerists against filling up all their free time with too many not-for-profit roles.

Thank you to all the very generous contributors.  Feedback always welcome!   If you would like to find out more about the work of Robin Nye's Arthritic Association (trustee meetings are held in London and/or Sussex) please contact membership@arthriticassociation.org.uk.  

Zena Everett
Second Careers: Executive coaching, career development and bespoke outplacement programmes.
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Contact Zena: zena@second-careers.co.uk