Who is going to be your trustee chair when the role regenerates?

Nick Smith is a consultant specializing in governance

So Ncuti Gatwa is the new Doctor. I’m very excited by this news, not least because it will upset all the right people but also because lots of journalists will start opinion pieces by explaining what this means for world trade / Sue Gray / this week’s manufactured culture war outrage about Durham SU.

My planned treatise on why the Gallifrey council in “The End of Time” (2009) is a bad model for annual general meetings remains unwritten, but I’ve been thinking about how some SU roles do regenerate each year with a new face – in particular the Trustee Board Chair.

At this point I would like to be clear that I am not a “Whovian” as such and if there are any complaints about this article they should be directed to the Wonkhe SUs Editor and not myself.

Same role new approach

The character of the Doctor is constant over the past 60 years, but each new actor brings a different approach and style to the position. They may be gruff or amenable, energetic or thoughtful, Scottish with a Scottish accent or Scottish with a cockney one.

Trustee boards are designed to give stability. It is the board as a collective who makes decisions and, even as members change due to elections, we think about board resolutions from one year to the next.

The Chair of this body should have an appreciation of what went before while still bringing their own approach. They might be directive in the way an agenda item is dealt with, or seek informal inputs outside of meetings. Chairs should own the agenda and business of board meetings and navigate it as they need.

Travelling with companions

Each Doctor is accompanied by one or more companions and the way they are engaged and encouraged will differ. While all will be committed to the mission, some are more risk adverse than others. Some use intellect to solve problems, others bring out the best in others or can observe a trait, skill or value that will be of use.

Almost every SU board includes a mixture of Officer, student and lay trustee members. The chair will need to think about how these companions can be supported and when to let them take centre stage. One trope of Doctor Who is that the Doctor is always explaining things and making sure people know what is going on – a key skill for any board chair as they make sure that all Trustees understand the context and implications of their decisions. This might be explaining the Freedom of Speech circus to an external member or helping a student navigate the SORP.

It’s not just regular travellers that the Chair needs to think about. Someone popping in to a single meeting to deliver a presentation may need guidance. More importantly the board should be accountable to students and the Chair is central to this through the student members meeting and promoting transparency.

From afar the Trustee business can seem boring and full of compliance but with their role in strategy setting the impact of the board truly bigger on the inside of the meetings than many think.

The return of old faces

Some challenges the Doctor encounters will occur once, possibly even dealt with simply and quickly. As inevitable as Daleks at the Christmas special though some things keep returning. I’m not suggesting Auditors are like Cybermen, but a good Chair will be ready for the approval of the accounts, the elections report or the annual skills review and have a plan for them.

We can foresee some of the discussions month in advance (what are the implications of the budget, is our income forecast too challenging…) and with a bit of forward planning the meetings can be much smoother.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it

Ncuti will have to learn the ropes quickly – the community of fans will be watching and scrutinising. Social media over the past few weeks has been full of people wishing them well and actors who played the part before given advice. He’ll have a lot to learn but at least there’s a few seasons ahead for him to establish his trade.

New Chairs for SU Boards will also need to find their feet, with the real possibility that they will only have a year to guide the Trustees. With a shameless plug I’m running a series of webinars on Being an SU Trustee Chair for officers taking on this responsibility.

It’ll give them a range of tools more useful than a sonic screwdriver or bag of jelly babies to think about issues such as engaging student trustees, explaining complicated compliance pieces, developing strategy and supporting senior staff members.

Even I will admit that governance isn’t as exciting as a trip in the Tardis, but properly armed SU officers can be excellent chairs given both space and time.

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