Trustee Profile – Brian Lavery

Trustee Profile – Brian Lavery

Brian Lavery, Trustee of The Ark 

European Managing Director, AccuWeather

‘May you live in interesting times,’ goes the apocryphal curse. It’s obviously preferable to spend one’s days in peaceful, and historically irrelevant, periods.

When it comes to serving on a nonprofit board, the blessing on the flipside — the boring tranquility of an uneventful director’s term — doesn’t sound great either.

No one wants to serve on the board of an organisation that becomes interesting for the wrong reasons, and ends up in the newspapers. It’s a trustee’s responsibility to prevent that from happening, by ensuring that risk management functions are executed effectively.

But who wants to spend years attending board meetings where everything proceeds exactly according to plan, approving financial reports, respectfully challenging management to ensure that the organisation delivers on its strategic objectives?

A balance is needed. First and foremost, directors sign up to provide governance (and if you’re not really sure what that means, it’s time to do some reading). For some of us, the most rewarding moments are when that governance role expands to include helping to solve really sticky problems.

I served for five years as a director of BirdWatch Ireland, the country’s largest environmental NGO, and am into my sixth year on the board of the Ark, Ireland’s cultural centre for children. I joined both boards in 2012, when both organisations, like most Irish nonprofits that survived the global financial crisis, were still coping with the impact of the downturn.

And, like all nonprofits, plenty of interesting times were ahead. My personal favourites have been the challenges that, thankfully, come up only rarely. They make big demands on a board member — and they’re when trustees have the opportunity to step up to make a real difference.

Choosing leadership

It’s slightly terrifying when a chief executive resigns. That individual has likely served as the board’s eyes and ears in the organisation. They’ve provided leadership and direction for staff, as well as reassurance to external stakeholders that all is well at the charity.

Losing that consistent presence poses major tests. Is there a succession plan? Will the transition period be handled smoothly, with the least disruption to operations and to personnel? Will the new leader be onboarded to make them optimally effective as quickly as possible? Failing to execute these processes well can cause real damage.

But choosing new leadership is also a wonderfully exciting (even ‘interesting’) opportunity. Searching for top management, and recruiting and hiring, involves debates at board level about what type of leader is needed. It forces trustees to take a hard look at themselves and the work they’ve been doing, and to be bluntly honest about what has been going well, and what could be going better.

The selection process itself also prompts such thinking. Interviews allow the board to seek out independent points of view, to see the charity through a fresh set of eyes. Good interviews should encourage potential CEOs or senior executives to express their imaginations and ambitions freely, since they’re not yet feeling the constraints of budgets and resources that they’ll have to cope with in the role.

These transitions don’t come along often, but when they do, it’s a rare chance to tap into new sources of vision, creativity, and energy.

Setting strategy

Setting strategy, and ensuring its delivery, is one of a board’s core functions. As with leadership transitions, creating a new strategy, or fundamentally revising an existing one, doesn’t happen often. At most, this should occur every few years; otherwise there would be no time to implement the plan.

When that moment comes along, it’s another opportunity to look in the mirror. Strategic thinking requires the board (and the executive) to reassess the state of the organisation, the landscape in which it’s operating (competition, funding, etc.), and the social needs that it’s working to address.

Ideally the board has hands-on involved in this process: it’s time to get in front of the whiteboard or flipcharts with markers and post-its. It can be heavy, intellectual work. But once it’s completed, and there’s a clear strategy document that internal and external stakeholders have helped devise and have bought into, literally everything else comes more easily.

The Ark launched a strategy last year which clearly delineates core activities into four areas — excellence, access, advocacy, and sustainability — that are all clearly in service of its mission, and that help the board prioritise its time and attention. The document provides a structural foundation all of the charity’s activity, so that all staff, and the board, can see how their work fits in.

Managing a crisis

As mentioned above, risk management is a fundamental part of the board’s governance role. Directors are explicitly tasked with ensuring that the charity has robust processes across all areas of operations — and that it is implementing them effectively — to minimise the possibility of any problems arising.

But the world can be unpredictable. And sometimes, to use another proverb, s**t happens.

A major funding source may suddenly dry up. Customers, stakeholders, and even staff may behave in unexpected ways. External factors, like the weather or political events, may severely damage assets or organisational performance.

Dealing with those situations isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Often it makes sense to have a selection of trustees run point as a mini committee, devising and even executing a solution, while reporting back to the board.

It’s in these situations that I’ve learned the most from my fellow board members. What seems at first glance to be the right solution may not be the best one, so it helps to have a mix of temperaments dealing with crises — especially to mix expertise with cooler heads. Reputation should be one of a charity’s most cherished assets; it takes years to earn and seconds to lose.

A crisis isn’t really resolved, though, just when it passes by without reputational damage. The final step is reviewing whether and how the situation could have been avoided, with processes that could have been better designed or executed. In addition to resolving the urgent problems of today, good crisis management helps to prevent them from recurring tomorrow.

Brian Lavery is the European managing director for AccuWeather, a board member at the Ark, and a member of the Corporate Governance Association of Ireland. He holds a professional certificate in governance from the Institute of Public Administration and an MBA from Columbia University in New York. He can be contacted on Twitter and LinkedIn.

November 2017

Trustee Profile – Nessan Vaughan

Trustee Profile – Nessan Vaughan

Nessan Vaughan, Chairperson of Sphere 17, Regional Youth Service

Full-time Community & Volunteer Worker

Honest, Organisied and Flexible: Building Strong Board Relationships 

“Building and achieving consensus are important while focusing on arriving at the right decision; not always the easy decision. Honesty and transparency greatly assist in achieving this as trust is developed.”

Why did you choose to take on a voluntary directorship?

 I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to people and communities experiencing disadvantage and social exclusion.

How has your experience differed from what you expected?

The regulatory framework in respect of governance; the distinction between Boards of Management and Boards of Directors.

Has your professional capacity helped you in this position?

My lengthy and diverse experience in the public service, particularly my policy background, have helped me.

What have you learnt by being on the board?

The need for a balanced Board with an appropriate mix of skills is essential for an effective Board. Thus, when recruiting Board members, one should start by examining any skills deficits and then having an open and transparent recruitment process.

What challenges did you encounter whilst being on a board?

Varying and often inconsistent demands made by the sometimes multiple funders. The need to take account of various perspectives whilst ultimately doing the ‘right thing’: funders, staff, service users, managers and Directors.

How did you approach conflict resolution on your board?

I encountered very little of this. It is always important to prepare well for Board meetings – agree agenda and anticipate any issues with the Manager; utilise Board Committees to do some of the detailed examination and preparation of various items; present well written papers for Board information/consideration.

How would you describe time management with respects to your day-job and voluntary board position?

I am a full-time volunteer and work for a variety of organisations. Good diary management is essential. Set aside sufficient time for the scheduled meetings and preparation of same and, importantly, be flexible around availability as required.

How important was teamwork and collaboration in relation to board effectiveness?

Essential. Building and achieving consensus are important while focusing on arriving at the right decision; not always the easy decision. Honesty and transparency greatly assist in achieving this as trust is developed.

November 2017

Trustee Profile – Niamh Gallagher

Trustee Profile – Niamh Gallagher

Niamh Gallagher, Trustee of Women for Election

CEO, Drinkaware

Understanding the Limitations of a Small Organisation and how Board Effectiveness can Combat this

“Effective team work is even more important given that Directors are voluntary and therefore their time is more limited, everyone has to work together as efficiently and effectively as possible to achieve the desired result.”

Why did you choose to take on a voluntary directorship?

I set up Women for Election, but was no longer in a position to run it in the day-to-day. The obvious transition was to move onto the Board so that I (and my fellow co-founder, Michelle O’Donnell Keating) could continue to play a role in the strategic direction of the organisation.  I can’t imagine not being involved with Women for Election – as co-founder, it is very much part of who I am: I feel passionately that we need more women in politics, and I want to do all I can to ensure that we achieve that.

What have you learnt by being on the board?

A lot about Governance! Before becoming a Director I wasn’t aware of the various legal and compliance elements that come with running a company or non-profit, nor did I fully understand the very central role the Board plays in driving the whole organisation: from a policy and procedure point of view, as well as strategy and budget.

What challenges did you encounter whilst being on a board?

Fundraising is a constant challenge.  Working in small non-profit organisations the Board maintains a role here, and – in the case of Women for Election in the last year – took full responsibility for delivering the funds necessary to run the organisation.  I know people who want to take board positions for leadership and strategy experience, that is of course part of it, but my experience has been grittier – when it comes to the organisation surviving and thriving the board of Women for Election has played a critical, hands-on role.

How did you approach conflict resolution on your board?

We haven’t had a serious conflict on our Board, but – as a political organisation – we have regular issues for discussion where there are a variety of viewpoints.  This is managed by our excellent Chairperson, Michelle O’Donnell Keating, and naturally by our Board culture, which fosters debate and discussion, and always reverts to the question: what is best for the organisation?

How would you describe time management with respects to your day-job and voluntary board position?

This can be challenging! This year has been more hands-on as a Board member at Women for Election as we have had limited staffing.  We are currently hiring a CEO so that will change.  The issues tend to arise when both the board organisation and my day job are busy, which seem to happen at the same time! Needing to be available during the day for Board activities happens now and again, and I do find that hard with my day job, but generally I manage it, particularly as the learning I get from dealing with the situations that arise as a Board member is usually helpful to my day job too.

How important was teamwork and collaboration in relation to board effectiveness?

Teamwork and collaboration are critical when it comes to Board effectiveness – the Board are united around achieving the vision of the organisation, and have to work together to drive and support the team to deliver that vision.  My experience of being on a board has been very much about working with other board members in a collaborative way, developing an idea and then taking responsibility for bits of it to drive its delivery.  Effective team work is even more important given that Directors are voluntary and therefore their time is more limited, everyone has to work together as efficiently and effectively as possible to achieve the desired result.

November 2017

Trustee Profile – Helen Kelly

Trustee Profile – Helen Kelly

Helen Kelly, Trustee of Barnardos Ireland

Head of Corporate Banking Origination – Ireland, Barclays Bank

Discovering the Impact of Charitable Organisations through a Board role

“It is much more fulfilling than I originally expected. What is particularly striking is when we visit projects or hear case studies about the impact of Barnardos on children’s lives. This helps put my day job into perspective”.

Why did you choose to take on a voluntary directorship?

Firstly, because I completed my Chartered Director exams at the Institute of Directors in 2014 and I wanted to put my leaning into practice. Secondly, because I wanted to give something back to the Community – I am not very good at painting or gardening, and I wanted to use my professional skills. Thirdly, because I was encouraged and supported by my employer Barclays to do so and that was also very important.

How has your experience differed from what you expected?

It is much more fulfilling than I originally expected and Board discussions can be really interesting. Governance matters are an important agenda item but there are also many strategic decisions to be made that impact on our employees and on the services that we can provide to children and their families. What is particularly striking is when we visit projects or hear case studies about the impact of Barnardos on children’s lives. This helps put my day job into perspective.

Has your professional capacity helped you in this position?

Absolutely. In Barnardos we are lucky to have a very diverse Board comprising of child care professionals, academia and business leaders with expertise in areas such as finance, HR, PR and marketing, but I like to think my commercial and financial skills from banking add real value also.

What have you learnt by being on the board?

I am surrounded by very experienced, sage Directors from both public and private sector backgrounds, all of whom have different perspectives on particular points. The experience of listening to and working closely with others who think quite differently from me is what I am learning most.

What challenges did you encounter whilst being on a board?

Initially the biggest challenge was understanding the services we provide, how Barnardos interacts with service provision from the State and basic sector terminology, so there is a definite learning curve for about a year before you start to have the confidence to contribute yourself. I also joined the Audit Committee and that has also been very useful place to learn what the key risks are and how to mitigate these.

How important was teamwork and collaboration in relation to board effectiveness?

Really important. At its core a Board is a collection of individuals who need to work together for the good of the organisation. Most Barnardos Directors will join a Sub-Committee at some point during their directorship and that fosters even closer working relationships but the ability to collaborate is key particularly as it relates also to the Executive Team.

November 2017

Trustee Profile – Michael McDonagh

Trustee Profile – Michael McDonagh

Michael McDonagh, Chairperson of Boardmatch Ireland 

Senior Business Director – Hays Recruitment

Dealing with Challenges and Learning as a Charity Trustee
“You have to be mindful that, as a Director or Trustee, you are less hands on operationally than you might like to be – you need to be able to let go and trust the executive team to deal with the day-to-day issues” 

 

Why did you choose to take on a voluntary directorship?

Having worked for Hays Recruitment for 15 years, I wanted to test my skills in another environment. I also felt a strong sense of wanting to give something back. Finally, I thought it would be good for my career – the opportunity to build a new network, give myself some profile and see how I could cope at board level.

 

What challenges do you encounter whilst being on a board?

The main challenge has been the transition from a very large organisation with good resources (in my day job) to a very small organisation with limited resources.You have to be mindful of the fact that things you could get done in your day job with relative ease are much tougher in this environment. You therefore have to be creative and think about how you can try and achieve the same quality outcomes on a smaller budget and with less resources. You also have to be mindful that, as a Director or Trustee, you are less hands on operationally than you might like to be – you need to be able to let go and trust the executive team to deal with the day-to-day issues.

 

How do you approach conflict resolution on your board?

Thankfully, the Board of Boardmatch Ireland is experienced and everyone understands why we are there – to work independently to improve governance in the not-for-profit sector by strengthening Boards’ composition. Any conflicts that have arisen tend to be against the back-drop of understanding that everyone wants the organisation to move forward. When we have had disagreements, talking it through, taking into account other Directors’/Trustees’ positions, is crucial to finding a way through. We have also developed clearer expectations of the role of a Director/Trustee on the Board of Boardmatch, so everyone knows what is expected of them.

 

How important is teamwork and collaboration in relation to board effectiveness?

Very important. We have developed and continue to develop the sub-committee structure in order to support the executive team in a more cohesive way. The Board has been excellent in volunteering for roles on sub-committees. I think the Board and the executive work very well together – it is important to have constructive criticism (that’s part of the role of the Board), but again with the understanding that everyone is trying to get to the same place.
November 2017