Skills and Diversity on boards: My Girlguiding #trusteesweek interview

In October 2016, NVCO asked me to write a blog on being a trustee for their annual Trustee’s Week which spends a week each November celebrating trustees and encouraging others to join non-profit boards; so I obliged! Here it is in full:

When did you become a trustee?
I became a trustee for Girlguiding in February 2014 when I was 25.

What the charity’s name is and what it does in brief?
Girlguiding is the national arm of the UK’s leading charity for girls and young women, which provides over 500,000 girls aged 4-25 with the opportunity to discover new experiences and grow in confidence, through Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and beyond.

Why did you become a trustee?
Girlguiding is super focused on youth participation and girl-led programmes so when they did an overhaul of their governance process in 2014 and opened up spaces on their national board to their wider membership on a skills basis, I remember being hit with messaging from all over the organization that they were keen for all types of people to apply.

I’ve always been ambitious and recognized that at some point I would want to be on boards, so I thought even just the experience of applying would be worthwhile. I am also extremely passionate about opportunities for young women particularly teenage girls, and loved the idea of a chance to get under the skin of how Girlguiding could help serve them better.

I honestly didn’t expect anything to come of applying so was surprised to be asked to interview and even more surprised when I was offered a place on the board. I think I am case in point that young women underestimate their unique skillset and value. In particular, I realise now that what I thought were fairly generic digital skills were actually quite unique and advanced, and I have gone on to be the trustee representative on a monthly operational digital board for the charity where I supported the overhaul of the national website and CRM system.

I’m also under no illusion that it helped to have an interview panel of mainly women who weren’t scared to work with someone different to what they were used to – brave boards will attract brave people, and I try really hard to make sure we maintain that fearlessness.

How do you make sure you are being effective/ doing a good job – both individually and as a board?
I joined the board at the start of a new governance structure so we’ve been pretty rigorous in appraising ourselves and the wider board against Charity Commission best practice. The includes online 360 reviews and the use of an external consultant to facilitate development discussions.  More informally we are very supportive of each other as a board – we challenge hard in meetings, and it can be quite tough, so outside of the board room we make sure to tell each when we though a good point was made and ask for feedback on what felt relevant or what wasn’t quite so imperative.

What’s been the best thing about being a trustee so far?
Professionally, it’s lovely being 3 years in to my term and seeing how decisions we made or chances we took a few years ago are starting to pay off.  Girlguiding volunteers rely heavily on an online management system and a new version is about to be rolled out which will make the lives of our volunteers so much easier. It’s been a big investment for the charity but we’ve ensured it’s stayed accountable and I’m so proud of how aligned the staff have remained to the core needs of our volunteers.

Personally the best thing has been to work with some of the smartest and most successful women in the UK as fellow board members. I am aware that it is quite a luxury in this day and age (still..!) to sit on an almost all female board, and I am constantly grateful and awe-inspired by the wisdom and courage I learn from them. It has given me so much confidence in myself as woman who has experienced professional success at a young age and all the serious imposter syndrome that brings with it! We talk constantly in Girlguiding about how important role models are but we as a charity, and as a society still have to keep improving. What is starting to interest me a lot is that we’ve got better at highlighting female role models but not so much at highlighting young role models.  I am in no doubt that most of the 14 year olds I work with have more wisdom, courage and sense than most adults – we have to harness those talents, and engaging them in senior leadership or governance positions is imperative to that.

What’s the hardest thing been?
I’ve found that when you’re new to being on board, the hardest thing is knowing whether you should keep challenging on something, or whether you might actually be in the wrong. You will always get push back to challenge, that’s the point, so I’ve found it’s so important to do your homework and canvas as much opinion or expertise on something as possible to both feel confident in your challenge and also to help the person you are challenging understand where you are coming from and together find a solution.

I also think it’s sometimes hard for older board members to understand how to relate to and include younger board members (as it would be for any group to relate to a group different from them). I actually feel lucky that on the Girlguiding board I haven’t encountered much of this but I know other young trustees have, and I also know that in our wider organization it’s always something we strive to improve; we pride ourselves at Girlguiding on being ‘girl-led’ but this means having adult volunteers who are skilled to facilitate that – and that’s not an easy or innate skill.  I came across a great article this week about what younger colleagues wish you knew, and I think it’s a great starting point for boards wanting to get more out of younger trustees. There is often fear or misunderstanding of the unknown but if you speak to those people around the table who you’re not as sure of, and just ask them what motivates them and what they need in order to thrive, I promise you will unlock potentially your greatest governance asset.

Would you recommend it your experience and to whom?
I would recommend being on a board to anyone who a) has a significant skillset in a certain area / areas, and b). who has the confidence in that skillset to challenge people who in other circumstances you probably wouldn’t challenge. I particularly think there are young people out there who might have been volunteering for a particular cause, building websites, or debating at school since they were very young and therefore have as much if not more of a skillset in those areas than much older people. Similarly, someone who has travelled the world or been a stay at home parent will have developed significant skills in areas that someone in a professional career won’t have.

I think it’s imperative that we have more diversity on boards but I also think that has to be backed up with real skillsets otherwise the diversity will become tokenistic and unsustainable.

Originally published on TrusteesWeek.Org.

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