The important role of trustees in setting an organisation’s culture, tone and values
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By James Cross, Chief Executive of Urban Green Newcastle
If you’ve ever struggled with a difficult decision in your life, you’ll know how important the advice, support and guidance from members of your family, or a close personal friend, can be. Often a simple conversation can make things clearer and you’re then able to be more confident and decisive in your actions.
In a business environment, trustees work in a very similar way. They are there to support executive teams to deliver an organisation’s vision and strategy, to push them forward and create an environment where people feel confident to make ambitious and bold decisions.
As a Chief Executive and Board-level executive, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many talented trustees over the years. I’m also a trustee myself, which gives me a unique perspective on how this important role benefits both the organisation and the individual.
I’m the founding Chief Executive of the Newcastle-based charity, Urban Green Newcastle, which is responsible for the management of Newcastle’s 33 parks and over 60 allotments sites. Set up in April 2018, Urban Green Newcastle is an innovative new approach to securing the future of green spaces in the city, without public funding.
As a new charity we have developed our own vision and strategy, and our trustees have been central to that process. They have helped shape our identity and our values, which ultimately will dictate our success.
I think that’s one of the most important roles for a trustee; working with the Chief Executive and the senior leadership team to set the tone and culture of an organisation. I’m really proud of what we’ve created at Urban Green Newcastle. Everyone that works at our charity is invested in our mission to improve people’s health and wellbeing by providing access to safe and well-maintained parks and allotments. We’ve been able to achieve that because our values are understood, articulated and shared across the whole organisation.
Another key role of a trustee is to help deliver and drive forward an organisation’s strategy. Senior leadership teams can often get bogged down in doing the doing, so it’s really important that trustees think about the organisation’s short, medium and long-term goals. What is it we want to achieve? Do we have the skills to do it? If we don’t, do we need to find them?
Part of being a trustee is about future-proofing an organisation and ensuring it is prepared for any situation. I think that’s where trustees’ individual skills and experience really comes into its own. That’s why having a varied and diverse board of trustees is important. Far too often people think about becoming trustees late in their career and that really impacts the views and opinions you have access to. In my opinion trustees should reflect the communities they serve and voice the opinions of people of different ages, genders, races and abilities. I think all organisations should aim to be more inclusive, especially when it comes to appointing trustees.
We’ve talked about the benefits trustees bring to an organisation, but what about the trustee themselves? What do they gain from the experience?
I’m currently in non-executive roles at four different organisations; Teesside University, The Environment Bank, Newcastle Parks Enterprises Ltd, and Teddy’s Towers Charitable Association. I chose to work with each organisation because I have a genuine interest and passion for what they do.
I believe that’s the most important thing to consider when becoming a trustee because you do have to devote a lot of your time to it. I chose to focus on organisations and charities that work to improve the lives of people living in the North East region – that’s what drives me. If you work on something you have a genuine passion for, you’ll put more into it, and the organisation will benefit as a result.
As well as being a very rewarding experience, being a trustee really improves your skill set too. You’re often faced with different challenges so you’re constantly learning and developing. You then take those experiences to each new role meaning you can add more value. I’ve coached a lot of managers moving into more senior positions, and non-exec roles - like a trustee - can be a great stepping stone as it really sharpens your executive toolkit and gives you lots of management experience.
There’s no doubt being a trustee is good for career progression, but I would advise against doing it for that reason only. Being a trustee is about investing your knowledge and expertise to help other people achieve great things. It shouldn’t be all about how it benefits you personally.
Ultimately, for me, trustees are there to nurture people and give them the confidence to try new things and succeed at what they plan to do. We all know there are stresses and strains when it comes to running or working in any organisation, it doesn’t mater if it’s a small charity like Urban Green Newcastle or a FTSE 100 company – emotions can run high when people are passionate about something. Good trustees recognise this and create an environment where people can dare to fail. If people feel supported it gives them the confidence to move outside their comfort zone, and that’s often where great things happen.
I feel like we’ve achieved that brilliantly at Urban Green Newcastle. The combination of an experienced CEO and Chair, an accomplished and passionate board of trustees, and an experienced senior leadership team has created a culture where everyone is working collaboratively and with the same vision, purpose and goal in mind. We’ve built an environment where there is complete trust and people are encouraged to think creatively. Once a cultural norm takes hold its really hard to change, so its important to get this right from the very start.
As well as being a Chief Executive and trustee, I’m also a management consultant and executive coach. I have worked with lots of organisations to help them review their strategies, evaluate their board’s effectiveness and support the recruitment of new trustees. If you are thinking about becoming a trustee and would like some advice or guidance, or if you’d like to learn more about becoming a high-performing Board, then do please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more at www.urbangreennewcastle.org
First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces with Parks Community UK on 22 February 2021. Read the full issue here
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