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Sunday, 12 May 2013

How do Trustees and NEDs balance duty and passion?

Many thanks to my colleague at The Open Channel Christina Heaton for inspiring this blog. As a Probation Trust Board member she has had a challenging week, with Chris Graylings announcement about the future shape of Probation Services.

It is so important for our society and for themselves that offenders have the opportunity and are appropriately challenged to take a different path and choose not to reoffend. Good Probation Services are the key to that, so there is a lot at stake in the Government's experiments with different providers and the fragmentation of the service.

The issue I want to address in this blog, though, isn't particular to Probation Services, it's a wider issue for Trustees and Non-Executive Directors. What is the responsibility and focus of Trustees and NEDs when policy changes affect their organisation? How do they balance a duty to steer change, with their passion for the service for which they are accountable?

Change from within, owned and understood, is often preferable to facilitate a smooth ride and sustainable difference. Change from the top can be ideological, but impractical, visionary but unrealistic. Being in charge of delivering change works best, doing it to yourself on behalf of somebody else can be very hard. Even if you believe it, you haven't conceived it, you may not understand it fully, it's being thrust upon you, it's hard.

For Chief Executives and their teams, their role in organisational change is clear, no matter whether they are driving it from within, or it is being driven by elected members, politicians or legislation - they have to get on and make it happen. They must articulate the need for change, celebrate the best of what has been, and create the future in open collaboration with their colleagues across the organisation.

How is the role of Trustees and NEDs different? Well, non-execs are of but not in the organisation, their role is not to do, but to be assured that the right things have been done. They also have a corporate responsibility to lead, to set a strategic course, to monitor performance and to support and promote the organisation to the outside world. Critically though, they are the champions, not just of the organisation itself, but of what it does - their role is to see that the purposes of the organisation are fulfilled by delivering the benefits to customers, service users or patients which are promised.

If non-execs are unconvinced about the need for change, or the prescription for change, what should they do? If individuals feel a genuine conflict in their position, they can and do resign in these circumstances, but it is not practical for all non-execs to stand down every time a shareholder or funder or political master wants to change course.

Big changes can often leave non-execs feeling unconvinced and uncomfortable though. Many non-execs, including me, were put into the position of overseeing their own demise as a result of NHS reform. Most of us knew our duty - even if we were not convinced of the need or design for change - to oversee a safe transition to the new commissioning structures. It is hard to be passionate about a future which is not yours, but you can be professional, thorough, supportive and encouraging to staff caught up in the maelstrom of change and to the new leadership.

With the benefit of an arms length perspective, it can be possible for non-execs to take a cool-headed view of change, which can be helpful, but might also contain some risks. Non-execs can sometimes fail to understand the scale and depth of disruption that  change can create, and to underestimate the effect on staff and service users. On the other hand, non-execs can over do it, to want to help and get too involved in trying to manage the process of change, feeling that they can see the solutions and are able to fix things quickly.

At times of  change and disruption, it is important for non-execs to be at their best, balancing their duty and passion in equal measure. They need to remain clear about maintaining their focus on their primary purpose for as long as required, to be clear and efficient about implementing change, to let go when the change comes, and to embrace the new in its place, creating optimism and confidnece in the future.

At The Open Channel our personal and professional experienc as non-execs mean that we understand deeply the challenges that Trustees and NEDs face, and can help colleagues develop their own ideas about how to deal with them.

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