Differences and similarities between commercial NED and trustee roles
The expert view of Sarah King
Note: Recorded in 2016, the interview was edited by the NEDonBoard Team in 2021.
The roles of trustees and NEDs are very similar but also have their differences. As such we approached Sarah King to find out more from her experience in these roles. As Sarah notes, being active in both roles can have complementary advantages.
Sarah King has over 35 years’ experience of working in media, communications and business development at leading London agencies, providing advice and PR support, for clients of all shapes and sizes, from government agencies and international corporate organisations to not-for-profits and new start-ups, often in very challenging markets or in response to sensitive issues. She now works as an independent director, serving on the boards of a number of commercial and not-for-profit organisations as well as providing senior level counsel on business strategy and communications and is currently Chair of Polka Theatre, Britain’s leading children’s theatre and a Non-Executive Director of Hillgate Public Relations as well as serving on the Council of Royal Holloway.
How do your roles as a trustee and NED compare?
Both types of roles are very fulfilling but being an NED is a much clearer cut. You are there as an experienced, independent member of the Board, informed about but not engaged in the management of the business, as a “critical friend” and to advise on longer term strategy, ideally providing an element of creativity. The role of trustee is much more flexible, depending on the needs of the organisation. It implies personal commitment not just to the organisation but also to the cause the charity represents. While a NED role carries responsibility to ensure the long term future of the organisation, trustees are also employers, responsible for how the organisation is managed. You are called on to act as ambassador and may also need to learn new skills. For example, as Chair of Polka Theatre for Children, I am responsible for the quality of Polka’s productions, all of which are linked to the National Curriculum, two theatres, copyright issues and the safety of 90,000 children, families and teachers who visit each year.
Related post: A Short guide to the Trustee Role
Does having a variety of NED and trustee roles enhance your ability to understand and perform these roles, and to what degree?
Both roles require strategic thinking and provide opportunities to pass on experience, both things I am keen to do. However, as a trustee there is always the danger that one becomes too involved in day to day management. Being a NED reminds me of the importance of maintaining objectivity and professionalism. Conversely, being a trustee means you have to keep on your toes, rather than waiting to be fed information (for example legislative developments), which is a real benefit with NED roles as it is important not to just rely on what management tell you. It is the combination that helps you to stay fresh, objective and creative.
How do you ensure you stay up-to-date in your responsibilities as an NED and trustee?
I look at relevant websites and also try to get the leading industry title in each area as well as looking for relevant coverage in national media. About a week before each board meeting, I look at the organisation’s website and those of its ‘competitors’ and other organisations good for bench marking. I also try and visit sites between meetings, to talk to staff, and go to various network events and talk to peers (it is the easiest thing to drop off the list but is very helpful).
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