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Making way for change

Tamsin Stirling reflects on what significant change within organisations means for board members.

There is plenty of helpful guidance on the board member role and the expectations on, and responsibilities of, board members, both collectively and individually. Core sources that all board members should be familiar with are the Community Housing Cymru Code of Governance and the regulatory framework/performance standards. But beyond these, a wide range of written guidance is available.

Organisations and individuals that have published reports and articles on governance that I have found useful over the years have included:

A recent discovery for me is the Association of Chairs. Focused on organisations with social purpose and not-for-profit organisations, the association aims to ‘help chairs with their unique task; leading the board in delivering the organisation’s aims’. I have found their guides on the chair/chief executive relationship and their chair’s challenge series particularly thought-provoking.

As well as reading about governance, I have been reflecting on my various board roles over the years and thinking about different situations I have lived through; learning from mistakes and things that went wrong or didn’t work, revelling in success and positive feedback and responding to very difficult behaviours from fellow/sister board members. In different circumstances, the balance between support and challenge from board members needs to shift. This is subtle and nuanced and, in my experience, can only be learnt by doing (and inevitably getting it wrong sometimes).

I have also been on boards where organisations are going through significant change – the stock transfer process, restructuring, responding to regulatory intervention, , recruiting a whole new senior management team – are just some examples. Thinking about the role of the board in fostering change is interesting. Is the change stimulated by the board, does it come as a necessary response to the external environment, or is it generated by fundamental questions about what the organisation does, how it does it and the experience of the people who the organisation works with? Is the board driving change, supportive of it, or resistant? If change in the senior team within an organisation is required, to what extent should the membership of the board also change?

I was lucky to hear about a fantastic example of major change in an organisation at the recent Cymorth Cymru conference. Pat McArdle, chief executive of the Mayday Trust, gave an inspirational presentation about the paradigm shift that the organisation has been through over recent years, moving from a process-led to a people-led approach. The organisation works with, what they refer to as ‘people going through tough times’ (people who have been homeless, are leaving prison, care or psychiatric hospital).

Over a number of years, having listened very carefully to, and reflected on, the experiences of individuals, Mayday has totally changed what it does and how it does it. The organisation’s mission is now ‘to reconstruct the system by giving people going through tough times access to the personalised transitions service [which takes a coaching approach], whilst influencing others in the sector to adopt strength based, personalised approaches’.

That sounds great. But the change has been far from easy. It has involved the organisation reducing in size by half. The organisation got out of all services and contracts which didn’t enable a human-led approach; Mayday Trust does not work in areas where commissioners think homeless people have got ‘complex needs’ and will not participate in a ‘race to the bottom’ in relation to tendering. The organisation also sold a building that it had relatively recently developed for people with mental health issues; the people for whom the building had been developed had fed back very clearly that they did not want to be labelled.

Mayday Trust now works in areas (such as Oxford) where the commissioning enables their approach to be delivered, and although the organisation has halved in size, it has tripled its impact through a small number of carefully constructed partnerships.

So what has this meant for Mayday board members? They had to really listen to, and reflect on, what was being said by people about what they wanted to achieve in their lives. They had to be courageous in agreeing not to bid for some contracts with the result that the organisation would shrink. They had to ensure the organisation gave real autonomy to frontline staff to enable the person-led approach to become a reality, supporting the senior management team to lead a total change in organisational culture. And for some board members, they decided that the best thing they could do would be to get out of the way and make space for new people to join the board.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at [email protected] and is on Twitter @TamsinStirling1  

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