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Trustees’ Week: how does being a charity CEO and a trustee feed into each other?

To celebrate this year’s Trustees Week, we asked our followers on LinkedIn to talk about how being a trustee influences their role as a CEO – and vice versa. We received some fantastic responses! To wrap up the celebratory week, we collated some of the responses in this blog to inspire more charity leaders maybe to sit on trustee boards. Or the other way around!

Big thanks to everyone who engaged with the original LinkedIn post and consented to publish their comments here.

I did several trustee roles before my first CEO job, and I really can’t imagine having become a CEO without that experience. I would also say to others with charity management or CEO experience, please do become a trustee! Any sensible board will value the experience that you bring. A trustee role is just a brilliant way to gain experience of that higher level of responsibility. For me, being a trustee myself very much helps me in how to manage my relationship with the Stonegrove Community Trust trustee board.

Gus Alston, CEO, Stonegrove Community Trust

My key learnings from being a CEO are by observing the best of the trustees I have worked with. A combined near 200 “trustee years” of learning. This experience has helped me be a better trustee by displaying the behaviours that help teams excel:

➡️consistency of engagement
➡️a level of professionalism that would be great in any sector.
➡️selfless advocacy for the charity
➡️a sense collective responsibility
➡️care for the people involved
➡️being flexible to the context the of the charity

This list is what I think changes a good trustee into a great trustee – like everyone I will stumble but I feel I know what to aspire to in a way that will help the charities I have been a trustee for. What I have learned as a trustee is exactly the above. We all aspire to be better than we are, so I have become more understanding of the challenges of being a trustee.

Russell Findlay, CEO, Speakers Trust

I’m reminded how hard the role of Trustee can be, particularly for those with little experience of the sector. Being a trustee has given me a greater understanding of, and empathy with, trustees – what is important to them in their roles, the responsibility they carry and the information they do and don’t need to make informed decisions. I also realise how much time, over-and-above what is described in the role description, they actually give and how little of this is probably recognised.

Samantha Dixon, charity leader

I’ve always done both, for lots of reasons many rehearsed in the other comments. But most important has been that there is so much ‘art’ as well as ‘science’ in optimising the vital CEO-Chair partnership in a charity, not least the instinct needed about where the line is drawn and how each adds most value. One of the best ways to learn is indeed to do. I took a break from being on Boards after Covid but now I’m really missing it and looking to get back!

Crispin Truman, director, The Rayne Foundation

Having been both a charity Chair, non-executive trustee and CEO at various points in my career I understand the vital importance of the relationship between Chair, Board and CEO. Having sat on both sides of the table provides a great insight and really helped me in all my various roles – reminding myself all the time of the hat I was wearing. Some say ‘once a CEO always a CEO’ but I have never wanted to be the CEO of any charity where I have held the role of Trustee. Sometimes that balance isn’t always the right one and is something for Boards to guard against. I felt that my NED and Chair roles challenged me and I learned and grew so much – all of that benefited me as a CEO. I am currently advising Boards on these very issues

Edel Harris, director, Edel Harris Consultancy

I’ve been a trustee (of different charities) for over 20 years and a CEO for nearly 4 years. I really value the perspective I have gained from sitting on both sides of the table; it helps me understand why a board might be pushing on particular issues or why an exec might find some things frustrating; it has given me experience of what an effective partnership between board and exec looks like (as well as some valuable experience of what can go wrong and why); and it’s given me a very useful lens on why sometimes tension, or uncomfortable discussion, can be a good thing. Above all I think if I’d not been a trustee, I would have taken more things personally as a CEO than I do!

Sarah Atkinson, CEO, The Social Mobility Foundation

Any role as a CEO enhances my role as a trustee in another- it enables me to under and the organisation and the challenges/ tasks that need to be done.

Jo Rice, CEO and operations manager, Age Concern Crediton & District

Completely agree that if you can sit both sides of the table it is very helpful in understanding how governance functions and probably more importantly how to prevent misunderstandings. We always need to present the full story and not have unrealistic expections of our Trustees in terms of knowledge, memory, and amount of time available. Also aware that much of the training and networking I do in my CEO role is valuable in informing Board discussions as a trustee.

Elisabeth Silver, CEO, It Takes a City (Cambridge)

I sit on both sides of the table and I find my experience of being a trustee absolutely invaluable as a CEO. It reminds me that most trustees dip in and out of an organisation and that you need to lead them through a narrative of how did we get here, and what have we tried before. As CEO you’re involved every day but as trustees they might just attend quarterly meetings and it’s really important to help trustees not feel like they missed a big chunk of the story.

Alastair Richards, CEO, North-West Cancer Research

Being able to put yourself in the others shoes from a position of understanding from both roles; to hear and understand the other perspective particularly when there are moments of disagreement. To understand the boundaries between the two roles (strategic/governance vs operational) and notice when they’re being crossed by either party and be curious about what might be going on to cause this.

Georgina Hoare, acting CEO, Respond

Being in both of these roles has 100% made me better at the other (and probably easier to deal with / better to collaborate with!).

Emily Collins-Ellis, CEO, IG Advisors

I’ve been a Trustee longer than I’ve been a CEO and the knowledge and experience gained is invaluable to me in my role as CEO. I see the governance issues from 2 sides and I share learning both ways.

Rachel Gegeshidze, CEO, Tempo Time Credits

I’ve been a Joint Chief Exec for 3.5 years and a trustee for 6 months, so relatively new in both roles. It’s been a great experience and I hope both roles compliment each other. As a trustee I know how stretched the operational team will be and how much work goes into producing papers for the Board, I also know how frustrating it can be as a JCE to get bombarded with questions at a Board meeting which are covered in the papers or to produce a paper which raises no comments or discussion at all. I hope I avoid both these by reading the papers fully, digesting them and thinking of suitable questions which may help further development or thinking from papers presented.

As a JCE I now understand how hard it is to fit in reading papers and giving enough time to an organisation I really don’t know much about (yet!). I hope I give our trustees a little more slack now and try to write papers that are easier to digest and provide necessary detail but not all the detail.”

Vicky Hickey, CEO, Wiltshire Community Foundation

I really think my trusteeship had benefitted from my work as a charity CEO and vice versa. I have a much better empathy toward and understanding of the interplay between governance and management. I steel bits of best practice from both trustee and staff roles (plus differences in organisation) and share reciprocally. I would firmly recommend CEO’s and directors take on a trustee role as it’s been a great part of personal development.

Ben Vulliamy, CEO, University of York Students’ Union

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