Take care of the board amateurs

An article by Carly Chynoweth for The Sunday Times originally published on 26 October 2014

When some non-executives are elected as ‘lay’ directors, the chairman may need to fill in gaps in their knowledge and stop top-level bullying.

There is clearly a solid grasp of corporate governance at the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo) given that three-quarters of the board are directly elected from the membership. Still, this does not always mean that the board has exactly the skills mix that it needs, said Lesley-Anne Alexander, Acevo’s chairwoman. So she and her team appoint additional directors to fill any gaps. “For example, if we did not have anyone elected with financial qualifications, we would co-opt someone to be treasurer.”

While Alexander’s member directors all have senior leadership experience in their own right, this is not always the case, said Helen Pitcher, chairwoman of the consultancy Advanced Boardroom Excellence. “If the director has been nominated by a user, such as a local council, it will often be someone who is looking for a development opportunity,” she said. “They might only be in middle management, or even more junior.” This puts extra pressure on the chairman to make sure the newcomer learns the ropes.

“With this sort of board you have to allow a lot more time,” she said. “You need to educate people about what a board is and what contribution the directors are expected to make. For example, with a tenant member joining a housing association board, the chairman would need to explain: ‘Your role is not just to tell us all the things that are wrong with the block of flats you live in. You can give a user perspective but you have a much wider duty’.”