• Ettie Bailey-King

#InsideTrusteeship with James Watson O'Neill

James Watson O'Neill is CEO of SignHealth, and a trustee of the British Society of Mental Health and Deafness (BSMHD) and the UK Council on Deafness.


Tell us about your journey into trusteeship

Being a chief executive can be difficult because when you move into a new organisation (even if it’s in the same sector), you want to expand your network, understand who the main players are. you want to influence people and make partnerships. Trusteeship is a great way to build your network.

I purposefully joined two boards that are closely connected with my organisation. When I’m being a trustee I try hard to wear the right hat, not my SignHealth hat. For example, when I’m with my fellow trustees from the British Society of Mental Health and Deafness (BSMHD) I try not to think like the chief exec of SignHealth. I also joined the UK Council on Deafness, which is a small charity but has a broad reach as it’s the umbrella body for the deaf sector. The common thread in all of these is disability: although some deaf people wouldn't call themselves disabled.

At SignHealth we're focused on profoundly deaf people who use British Sign Language as their first language. I am ‘coincidentally’ deaf in my job because my experience of deafness is not the same as my colleagues or the beneficiaries of the charity. They have a culture and community that I'm a visitor to. I have experience of being deaf, but it's a completely different life experience. My personal identity as a deaf person is something I therefore tend to diminish in my day job. But, when I have my UK Council on Deafness hat on, for example, I have a much stronger sense of my identity as a disabled person.

So as a trustee, I'm always taking on and off different hats.

It's important to me that I manage that properly. In my day job I need to remember it's about sign language users. On one of those boards, I'm one of just two disabled people on the whole board.

How did you find the early days of being a trustee?

In my experience, the smaller the organisation, the more is typically expected from you as a trustee. Of the three charities I'm on the board of, two have only part-time staff or freelance support and one has a team of five. There's a palpable difference in the experience of being a trustee in those charities. The complexity of what the organisation does. If a charity only has volunteers at its disposal, it may deliver fewer activities. It can therefore be less complicated to get your head around. You can learn its situation more easily. With multiple paid staff, it's harder to remember who they all are, what they all do.

Joining a board is like jumping on to a moving train. It doesn't stop for you.

It doesn't forgive the fact that you're new. Sometimes chairs say: ‘let's remember we have a new trustee, let's spell out all the jargon’ etc. But people find that hard to do. If I'm in a room with people who don't use sign language or aren’t deaf aware, I miss a lot of people's names. A lot of trustee business and getting to know each other is in corridors, over cups of tea etc. Most people are looking away while they do that, so I can't hear what they say. At what point do I lay out my access needs?

As a disabled person volunteering as a trustee, you have to arrive on the moving train and then ask them to stop and slightly change the train.

People find that quite annoying. You need to take responsibility. Recognise that people will do their best, but they probably won't do it the way you want them to.

If you want to read every board paper for the last five years, you need to keep asking for them. If you want to read a glossary of jargon, you might need to make your own. If you want to remember who everybody is, you might need to arrange your own 1:1s with those people. In a bigger org, you could ask for that work to be done for you, but it’s very unlikely to be done for you in a smaller charity.

At SignHealth, my chair and vice chair are both deaf. One is a sign language user, one is not. Last week, our vice chair chaired our board meeting. The dynamic is totally different. When the meeting is being led by a deaf person in sign language, the cultural value of their identity is more visible. you can see that the other sign language users are even more included, more attuned to their needs. On Zoom, if you have personal experience of that, you're much better at chairing a meeting to manage that.

It's not wilful discrimination, it's about what your ordinary day is, your lived experience. My everyday experience is very different. A lot of our meetings are in sign language. The Zoom experience of our board is interesting. In our board of ten, six are deaf, five are BSL users. In a board meeting around a square table, what happens is that the sign language users sit on one side and the interpreters sit on the other side. Zoom is much more accessible because you have everybody looking into a screen, at each other's faces. But there are nuances, too. You have to pin and unpin the BSL users from your screen, it creates a delay. If you haven't experienced it, it can be disorientating.

How has being a trustee affected your professional life?


I couldn't do my day job if I wasn't a trustee.

I couldn’t be the chief executive that my own board needs me to be, if I wasn’t a trustee.

I've been a trustee of two previous charities, including being a chair, and I've been a member of an NHS board.

As a member of staff at a charity, anybody who attends board meetings, whether you're a director, a company secretary etc. you've got to understand what your audiences' experiences are. I've studied drama at university so I naturally think in terms of audience. what are they looking at, how am I taking them through that journey? It's all about timing, precision, when you read the paper does it flow like a script. Does it have a beginning, middle and end and present you with options. We have a chair's agenda ("say this",' Don't say that"), like a stage manager's script. You have to understand what you're giving to the people you're working with.

It's such a peculiar relationship working with an executive team as a trustee, or working with a board as an exec. I'm always saying to my staff: remember these people are full of their day jobs. they're arriving on the Zoom call by the skin of their teeth. They've just left behind their day of mayhem. They won't remember all the details. How do you recognise their context, not expect them to remember what you talked about last time? It's not meant to be an exam ('can you remember what these ten acronyms stand for?')

We want our trustees for their diverse perspectives.

When we ask them what should we do, we want their decision-making capacities. Trustees can be a bit scared. They're usually – and understandably - risk averse. To help trustees take risks, you need to put them into a place where they feel comfortable. We create a journey where they are introduced to certain topics, kept highly informed, given loads of opportunities to feel confident about an issue, before the decision point comes up.

I’ve been in board meetings for 15, 16, 17 years, but I’ve only been a CEO for four years, I've had a lot of time to sit in hundreds of audit committee meetings. It might have been a bit dull for some people, but I got so much experience. I learned a lot; how people can misbehave professionally, for example, or bring their personal lives into work.

The charity is run by the trustees. They employee me, and all my staff, but it is their charity.

I induct my trustees at SignHealth on that basis [that this is their charity, and they employ me].

Remember: as a trustee, you are accountable. you are literally responsible. you could be barred from ever being a company director [if you fail in your duties]. I've actually seen it happen. I thank my trustees for volunteering, but make no mistake: this is their privilege. I say to them, ‘you get to run this amazing charity, that we think is the best thing ever. You are an owner of it. That is a privilege. So please get it right.’

I’m not just grateful to the trustees for showing up, they are privileged to be able to.

How has being a trustee affected your personal life?


Being a trustee helps me. There’s a sense in which a change is as good as a rest. It's good to turn up and contribute on something else, something that's different to the day job. It helps you feel more valid.

It's volunteering, and volunteering makes the world go round.

We don't often use that language in our society, but it's so true. We saw that in the pandemic; neighbours looking after neighbours, communities supporting each other.

If this is how you volunteer [by being a trustee], you do it in concentrated bursts, and in quite a cerebral way. It's just as valid as working at a soup kitchen, or litter picking.

It's intellectually stimulating - wrestling with the sheer data, the facts of an organisational machine. You benefit so much from understanding that. It’s like juggling – juggling rather slowly, because the ball only comes down once every few months- but juggling nonetheless.

Being a good trustee, it’s evident to you, the exec, your whole team. That is a great feeling. When you know you're making a contribution to changing people’s lives, changing the planet, you feel active. There's something about altruism.

Giving away your time for free: it’s genuinely good for us.

Is there anything negative about being a trustee?


Practically, it's very hard to do it all well and balance the time. Balancing exec with non-exec responsibilities is tough. I've been on boards with people who are retired and have a lot of time and arrive at meetings very well-prepared, and they can be great trustees. But the very rushed trustee who is giving their best with limited headspace, can be just as valuable or more valuable.

A trustee with loads of time but no perspective isn't necessarily going to be useful when it comes to making strong decisions.

Time is a big issue. It's hard to prioritise trustee work in the way you always want to. Some of that comes down to how you agree your roles as a board, how you design your board papers etc. If your board pack is 100 pages, you need real clarity: if I only read 20 pages, which 20 do you want me to read? It's a real challenge to help people run a multimillion pound organisation; do what you can to simplify.

Conflict comes up on trustee boards. Not conflict of interest, but feelings of allegiance. One of the charities I'm a trustee of is very similar to the one I’m a chief exec of, for example. It's very hard to take off the hat from one role and put on the other one.

Think of a Venn diagram of all my different roles [three trusteeships and CEO of SignHealth]. Then you have the bigger circle of the whole deaf community, surrounding that. It’s not about me, it's about the cause. It's quite difficult because it can become quite personal.

The majority of my colleagues are deaf, as is my board, and two of the boards I'm on.

If you're a member of the community that your charity serves, your personal identity can come into play in very complicated ways.

I'm still a person at the end of the work day. It’s difficult to box off parts of yourself and be ‘just’ a leader or ‘just’ a trustee. I bring my personal self into the mix every day.

Trustees mustn’t underestimate the responsibilities they’re taking on. In fact, a lot of trustees would be justifiably scared if they were reminded of their responsibilities. They’ve made a huge commitment, and some charities are only confronting that now for the first time [as many charities have folded during the pandemic].


What do you want people to know about being a trustee?


I want to wave the flag about age. There are many protected characteristics that don't get a fair shout. Disability is one of them. Everybody should get the chance to work with disabled people, it's a very enriching experience. And – not but – and, I’m constantly surprised by how old boards are. They are so often talking about children, or adult's services for the whole age range from 18+. Everybody is usually very old. I understand why that is; I’m on more boards now than when I was a younger person, and it’s to do with the leadership journey we go on through our careers. But we have to do something about it.

I’m constantly surprised by how old boards are.

We started a shadow trustee scheme at SignHealth aimed at young, deaf, BAME people. It’s a one year scheme, in which you can attend all four or five board meetings as an observer, and you can participate. You get to meet with me, the chair, vice chair before and after. We prep what's on the agenda, what will people be asking, we debrief: what was it like, what would you have said, how did that feel? We offer specific training - do they need training on finance, for example, because so many trustee meetings focus on finances.


At the end of the year, the shadow trustees get celebrated, perhaps they get a certificate – we haven’t finished our first year yet, so it’s not clear exactly how we will do this. When a trustee retires, we would, as part of our open recruitment, go to the shadow trustees and ask them if they're interested in joining the board. And we'd also go out to the wider community, and say we've supported these people, they can make brilliant trustees. We don't need to 'keep' them for SignHealth, they can go out to the wider sector. If we keep them, how will the whole sector change?

We have seven or eight young deaf people on our shadow trustee board. All but one are BAME. These are exactly the people I want to be reporting to as CEO. I want the irreverence of a 19 year old telling me 'it doesn't work like that.' I want to have an 'oh sh**’ moment when they point out what’s missing. SignHealth is proudly user-led.

So we need to be confronted with true governance from the community telling us 'we don't like that. Do it again.'

Trustee boards in our sector right now are often great, but the dynamic can be very polite. It can be macho, very straight. It reminds me of being at school as a gay 15-year-old, trying to fake interest in the latest football scores. It shows you how these rooms are not necessarily welcoming to everybody, to every part of their identity.

We need to make these rooms welcoming for everyone.

We need to think about people as full people; not making assumptions about who they are or what they need, build a team where everybody feels supported, welcomed and included.

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