The board skills you didn’t know you had and how recognising them will help you reach your board potential
I am forever encouraging people to get themselves on a board or committee, to get involved and to be part of the solution in diversifying the leadership and governance of organisations across the non-profit sector and beyond. Often this results in draft CVs and cover letters coming my way and there is one conversation that I find myself having repeatedly.
It generally goes a bit like this:
Me: It looks great. I’m surprised you haven’t talked more about your governance experience though.
Other: I’ve never done any before. That’s what I am trying to get.
Me: I’m sure you do. Weren’t you on the organising committee for that event? / Didn’t you take minutes for that project steering committee? / I thought you mentioned being the staff representative on the employee forum / Aren’t you on the PTA?...
Other: Oh yeah, but that was just a little thing. That doesn’t count. Why would they want to hear about that?
So, let’s talk about why organisations want to hear about your governance experience, whether you gained it at a project, programme, portfolio or board level, when you are applying for a trustee position.
Getting involved in governance means learning how to influence
Whether you were on the project board or the advisory group, the chances are you had to work as part of a team. Decision making may have been by group consensus or perhaps the group simply made recommendations and proposals to the decision makers on the leadership team. There will have been discussions to contribute to, and documents to comment on. You will have had to communicate across the group and advocate for your position (and maybe even for others if you were a representative). This is an incredibly important skill to bring to non-executive roles.
The role of trustee can be akin to a driving instructor. You are not in the driving seat of the day-to-day operations and decision making. You are there to set the course with a strategy and guide and support the team along the way. When things are not quite going to plan, it can be tempting to slip into back-seat driver mode and when things have gone very wrong, you may even find yourself taking over the wheel for a short period. Despite any detours, the objective should be to get back in the front passenger seat as soon as possible. That’s where the boards of healthy and well-functioning organisations belong. Being involved in governance, you learn how to influence outcomes from that position.
Governance positions are often extra-curricular and voluntary. It’s usually a commitment that you took on over and above the day job. Within that role, you will have contributed to the delivery of projects, programmes, policies, events, or initiatives. Whether you were taking notes, tracking progress, giving expert advice, contributing your opinion, or working directly on the project, you will have helped produce something to be proud of. These demonstrate your ability to commit and contribute which is exactly what organisations want from their trustees.
Many trustee and non-executive director positions are voluntary and at times, organisations can struggle to get the engagement they need from their board. This can mean anything from initiatives proceeding without the right level of challenge to the work stalling or the opportunity being missed altogether. Being able to demonstrate that when put in a governance position, you were engaged, committed and able to make an effective contribution makes you an attractive candidate to organisations looking for new additions to their board.
Governance positions require leadership. Whether you find yourself reviewing the latest diversity and inclusion policy for the employee forum or taking on treasurer responsibilities for the pogo club you joined in fresher’s week, you are taking on responsibility for interests beyond your own. The recommendations you make or decisions that you take affect a wide group of people. You will need to consider their needs and wants. You may even need to reach out and canvas their views to be able to best represent them in your forum.
The primary duty of the trustee is to ensure the charity is fulfilling its purpose and generating impact for the people it has been set up to support. Organisations want to know that you can empathise with and advocate for the full range people they support, whether you share their lived experience or not. The best trustees ensure this by actively engaging with the community when they can.
Getting on Board
If you are currently applying for trustee roles, I would encourage you to think broadly about the skills and experience that you bring to the role. There may be things that you think of as trivial but that others will see as an act of demonstrating just the character and values they are looking for.
Sapna Marwaha who is a commercial lawyer, board member and consultant who has worked closely with universities, charities, foundations and membership organisations. You can find out more about her on LinkedIn and Twitter.