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What makes a good trustee?

LionHeart staff and trustees 2023 (cropped)
09-11-2023

What makes a good trustee? As it is Trustees Week, I have been reflecting on nearly seven years as a Trustee of the Charity, and nearly six years as Chair.  Quite a lot has changed, over a period which simultaneously feels like a long time on the stump, but in other ways feels like five minutes!

As I have said before, my main priority on being elected chair was to help diversify the board at LionHeart. That is not to criticise any of my former colleagues; far from it, there was a vast amount of experience around the table, and I learnt something from nearly all of them in one way or another.  But it was a board that was wholly white, mostly male, virtually all middle-aged, and all Chartered Surveyors.

So, over time, we recruited from a much wider pool, and today we have a board of mixed ethnicity, background, professional qualifications, and age - much more reflective of the people LionHeart is there to help.

I am particularly proud of creating our new Associate Board Member roles, an idea borrowed from my friends at the University College of Estate Management.  Our two associates, Grace and So Sum, bring a freshness of thought and a familiarity with the needs and pressures facing those at the start of their careers.  We were all delighted that their talent was recognised by both of them being shortlisted in the Ambassador of the Year category in the recent RICS Matrics awards. 

Many of our trustees have real lived experience in a variety of ways, which helps them gain insight into the issues facing the people who use and need LionHeart's services. 

And they also come from a variety of backgrounds - public and private sectors, small firms and global firms, and one (who I think of as the only 'proper' surveyor around the table) goes in lofts and has a damp meter and everything! This breadth of experience brings better decision-making, and golly did we need it over some challenging periods - not least the Covid pandemic, during which everyone at LionHeart was determined to provide whatever help we could to the profession. 

So, what makes a good trustee? I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but I can offer some thoughts from seeing some really brilliant trustees in action...

  • First, an understanding of the role.  Thankfully we have had very few if any 'passengers' on the Board, and now every member of the board understands why they are there, the aims, values and vision of the organisation, and the objectives of the charity. 
  • Secondly, the ability to not get dragged into the detail.  Your role is a non-executive one, and you are not there to call the operational shots, save in extremis.  It is seldom these days that I feel the need to drag a meeting back from being overly operational (accepting that surveyors by their nature like the detail.  I shudder to remember the mistake of showing colleagues the floor plan of our new office!)
  • Thirdly, the importance of appreciating the balance of support and challenge to the executive - too little or too much of either leads to problems. 
  • Fourthly, having the time and inclination to do your homework, be familiar with the Board papers having read them in advance (sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised...)
  • Fifthly, in meetings, knowing when to speak up, and when to keep quiet, either because a contribution will not bring anything to the party, or because someone else has already made the point.  An ability to catch the chair's eye is always useful, as is giving him a look that it's time to move on! 
  • Sixthly, contributing to all of the work behind the scenes, committees, sub-groups, etc, much of which goes under the radar. 
  • Seventhly, a collegiate approach, a respect for your colleagues, and the ability to find humour from most situations.

Succession planning is vital, it is often said that a chair's first job is to identify their successor. If every Prime Minister needed a Willie, every Chair needs an effective Vice-Chair, and I have been very fortunate in that regard at LionHeart, with Dayle Bayliss, James Grierson, and now Philippa Sampson-Bancroft, who has been an absolute brick and hit the ground running since she was elected to the position in the summer.  

Philippa's star qualities were recognised in winning the Matrics Ambassador of the Year recently, and so when my term of office as chair comes to an end next year I will feel confident that LionHeart and its board are in a safe pair of hands, coupled with a secret curiosity as to where she and future vice chair Philip Nell will take the organisation as they look to keep serving their fellow professionals and the surveyors of the future.  

So I will finish this piece for Trustees Week by extending my sincere thanks to the trustees of LionHeart, both present and past, for your dedication, support and good humour over the last six or so years.  Thank you.

PMPeter McCrea FRICS was appointed chair of the LionHeart board in October 2018, after 18 months as a trustee. He was re-elected to serve a second term as chair of the board by his fellow trustees in 2021. A father-of-two, he became the youngest ever appointed surveyor member of the Lands Tribunal in 2013 after 25 years in private practice, specialising mostly in dispute resolution.

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