The cornerstones to building a healthy trustee/chief executive relationship

9 November 2023
Jane Colthup quote for Trustees Week 2023

Trustees’ Week (6-10 November) is a time to celebrate the achievements of over 1 million trustees across the UK.

The relationship between a chief executive and a trustee board can be complex, so we sat down with our chief executive, Jane Colthup, to talk about the part the organisation’s trustees play in her role and the importance of building a transparent, trusting relationship between trustees and executives.

What do you think makes a healthy board/chief executive relationship?

I think you need a set of skills on the board that are different to those of the chief executive. It’s not healthy just to deal with people who are like you; you need trustees who make you think, and who ask you challenging questions – who’ll come at things from a different perspective.

I think it’s important to understand that trustees aren’t there to catch you out but are there to round out your thinking and make sure that you’ve covered all the bases.

Some of our trustees have planning or environmental science expertise which are is different to mine. I also find that having other VCSE chief executives on the trustee board is, for me, particularly helpful as a great sounding board, enabling me to take the pulse of others in the sector.

What do you value the most about your trustee board and how do your trustees help you with your role as chief executive?

I think I value most that they’re not me! That they make me think and make me sing for my supper a bit – because they do! And if I’m grappling with something I often think ‘What will the trustees think about that?’. It’s a good safety net to think that you have to run an idea by the board and if you’re apprehensive then it’s probably not a good idea!

We’re really lucky at Community First Yorkshire because our board are massively supportive and ask questions in a non-confrontational way – they get that sweet spot between being supportive and being challenging.

During your time as chief executive at Community First Yorkshire, is there anything you’ve learnt from your trustee board?

Yes, tons! I don’t know where to start! I’m constantly blown away by how committed they are and how much they want to support the organisation, and how passionately they care about it.

When you first become a chief executive, you might think ‘No one is my boss now!’

Absolutely not! Your trustee board is a very good check to runaway chief execs.

I’ve learnt that the diversity of your trustee board – in terms of different backgrounds, sectors and ages – is key because your board shouldn’t be just like you. They’ve got to make you think.

Also, it’s fine not knowing all the answers. The day you walk into a board meeting and think it’s a walk in the park is probably the day you should give up.

How do you think trustee boards might change in the future?

I think it’s a big ask to have quarterly two or three hour meetings and this is something that may need to be done differently down the line. Board meetings tend to have to be during the day; of necessity that means that we’re not representative enough of the people we are here to serve.

We might need to look at holding subject specific micro sessions to explore what’s happening in a particular area rather than chunky board meetings – but, this is with the caveat that you risk losing the flow of a meeting.

What do you think makes a good trustee?

Someone who genuinely cares about the vision and mission of your organisation; who has the time and expertise, and the right skills to bear. You want someone who actually wants to bring something and are net contributors, rather than exporters. Most importantly, you are looking for someone who truly understands how much time is needed to be a trustee – but who also knows when to let people get on and do the job.


If you want to find out more about what trustees do, take a look at this video.