14th December 2023Charity Trustee Roundtable: Skills vs Experience – Building the right board

At our recent Charity Trustee Roundtable, we were joined by Kai Adams, Managing Partner of Green Park who led us through a discussion around board skills v experience. The key points are below.

Going down a rabbit hole: What do we mean by skills and experience, and what role does knowledge play?

What do we mean by skills and experience?  How do you blend skills and experience to bring things to life? You need two things: knowledge and behaviour. You can have the best skills and have the best experience, but if people don’t apply their knowledge, and don’t operate in a purposeful, values-based way, this won’t be useful.

Knowledge involves theory; it can be anything that’s documented, it can be read, taught or learned. Skills, on the other hand, are things that need to be practiced; they must be mastered over time, and they need constant effort in order to attain (and retain) them. Experience is a blend of the two. It’s when you apply knowledge and skills to a specific context or situation. You can’t isolate one from the other. To use an analogy, you can watch YouTube videos, you can read all there is to know about playing the piano, or the drums, but if you’ve never actually sat down and tried to play them, all you’ve got is pure knowledge. Experience is when you apply the knowledge and skill.

However, it is not that simple. In many conversations with boards, skills are described as hard skills or soft skills, experience is defined as either professional experience but it’s also defined as lived experience. Knowledge is often sought that’s very deep, very expert or profound, but it’s also sought as being very broad, very generalist. Each one of those has a different value depending on the context and each one informs the other.

Skills demonstrate mastery, but skills can also be learnt while you’re on the board. Experience is something that’s sought by most to bring to the board, but what if you’ve never been on a board? Experience is also something that you can learn whilst on the board. You can lack experience of board membership, but if you bring a lived experience of a particular condition, a situation, or an environment, that can be hugely valuable.

Having said that, all board members should contribute to governance responsibilities – that must be a prerequisite for good governance. You must know how to discharge your duties, how to deal with conflicts of interest, how to manage the cabinet responsibilities.. Organisations always face all sorts of challenges, and these often  change over time. Challenges are evolving at a fast pace against the current market backdrop –  political uncertainty, economic instability, regulatory change, cyber security threats, safeguarding issues, media scrutiny, public activism, demands of ESG, importance of diversity and inclusion; all these things mean that a complex blend of skills and experience is needed. Many boards have the necessary hard skills such as finance or legal, or other technical skills, but it’s important to remember what skills are required to future proof and protect the organisation 5 years from now.  In addition, there are  soft skills around adaptability, analytical skills, decision making skills, the ability to ask those really thoughtful, probing questions and your capacity to horizon scan, to spot trends.  Are skills worth more than experience and how do behaviours affect those skills?

Skills and knowledge can be demonstrated in the recruitment process, but it is much harder to assess behaviour. One approach is to ask values based questions and move the focus from the individual to how they would operate on behalf of the charity.

The board as a Taxidermist: What role do skills, knowledge, and experience play in defining the purpose of an organisation?

“I heard someone in the audience describe their role as a trustee, and more pertinently described their charity as being like a crystal bauble on a Christmas tree – beautiful, delicate, and near perfect. They said that their job was to keep it that way and pass it on to the people that came after them.”

However, you need to think about the purpose and if the organisation needs to be changed then that change needs to happen, you can’t keep it perfect, you can’t keep it isolated and you can’t keep it wrapped in cotton wool because needs change, context changes and demands change. In fact, boards do tend towards thinking ‘this won’t happen on my watch’. Most of the organisations behaving that way tend to be full of technical experts, subject matter experts, niche experts who view that expertise as vital to the running of the organisation, but also precious to them, so it can become a power play.

What tends to happen is that when they contribute, they contribute on their power base rather than contributing corporately, it’s about their technical skill or their narrow piece. Worse still is that colleagues can assume that they don’t need to think about those areas, as they are being covered by the expert, and suddenly you get a single point of failure in your board. Boards begin to rely on the expert, they become infantilised, and this is one of the reasons why they can underperform.

In contrast, more thoughtful boards have a healthier relationship with change – they don’t just want to pack the board full of experts and keep it ‘perfect’, they want to talk about risk, and how you harness that risk, they want to talk about failure and how we avoid it, but if we’re going to fail, how do we fail forward, and fail fast? Those boards are much, much clearer about thinking how does this skill, or this experience, affect our purpose? It’s a shift between the idea of ‘I’m here to protect my organisation’ versus ‘I’m here to protect the people in crisis that my charity exists to work with and support’. The best boards are the ones that take on that responsibility differently. They move away from ‘not on my watch’ to ‘what if we tried this’. They will consider the unthinkable – they might not necessarily go through with it, but they will debate it, from the short, mid and long term. We’ve seen organisations completely pivot what they do.  How do you manage risk rather than eliminate it?

The board as a networked brain: The board as an interconnected, dynamic group.

Even one change of a person can have an impact. When people join or people leave, it shifts the human dynamics. So why are boards so often assembled in what seems to be a somewhat haphazard way? The focus goes on the individual leaving and filling the gap as if the board was a puzzle fixed in shape.  That would suggest a very static board. One way of looking at it is to not think about the requisite skills and experience but think about how everyone can shuffle around in order to enable you to bring those skills or that experience on in a different way. Your duties remain the same eg finance, legal etc but the focus moves away from getting the same skills in the same way.  If the focus remains too much on ‘this is how the board should be composed’ as opposed to ‘this is the board we need for the people for whom and on behalf of whom we work’ you start to group think. You start to collect people who look like you, sound like you and feel like you, instead of thinking, how has the world of our beneficiaries changing?  So it’s about challenging the boards mindset to enable you to recruit the people you bring onto the board who perhaps aren’t the most experienced, but fill the component that you’re missing.

The board as a murder mystery club: Are diverse boards more purposeful and/or effective?

We know that a lot of Boards can be very non diverse and there are a lot of discussions around EDI, but often it is basic.  When you’re hiring, you should be thinking about the individual because of what they bring, not because of what they lack.

There is an excellent piece of work by Katherine Philips, who is an organisational psychologist and researcher[1]. She brought together a number of groups to solve a series of murders. The first finding was that homogenous groups enjoyed the exercise more than anyone – they found it amazing and scored highly on the excitement and enjoyment factors. Homogenous groups were easily the most confident in solving the problems. The second finding was that diverse groups were easily the most successful at  solving them. Why? Because the groups that contained outsiders brought a little bit more vulnerability, a little bit more doubt, they had an inclination to ask different questions, and they had an inclination to think harder about the problems. The homogenous groups ended up thinking along similar lines as each other, and because they felt comfortable with one another, they felt discomforted by any kind of disagreement.  There is a question here about people feeling they can’t speak up, maybe a lack of perception of healthy dissidence and promoting a sense of thinking differently.

Our next Charity Trustees’ roundtable will be taking place at 9am on Wednesday 17 January 2024 where we will be joined by Joe Saxton, the new Chair of the Association of Chairs.

Contact Louise Hughes: lhughes@hwfisher.co.uk to reserve your place.

[1] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_diversity_makes_us_smarter

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