Trustees need to be Trustworthy!

Asho Zarathushtra, in his Divine Gatha, advises, “Hear with your ears the highest Truths, consider them with clear thought, before deciding between the two paths, man by man, each one for himself”. Zarathushtra speaks here about the moral and ethical choice each one of us must exercise with clear thought or an illuminated mind. The time indeed has come for every Parsi individually and collectively the community, to make the right moral and ethical choice and exercise franchise with clear thinking and using one’s own mind.

Choose Wisely: Please remember that it is us, the community, that will stand responsible for our choice of leaders.  No savior can or will come to the community’s rescue. The outcome will be the result of our own thinking and actions, right or wrong! Again, in the words of Asho Zarathushtra, “And of these two (right and wrong) the wise do choose what’s right; the unwise choose not thus.”

Fortunately, the time is right and ripe for the community to elect the entire Board of seven trustees. It is an exciting and testing time for the community. Promises will be made and various sops and candies will be on offer. But, we need to think before we believe, and question before accepting.

What Is Trusteeship? By legal interpretation, trusteeship is “an obligation annexed to the ownership of property (movable or immovable) and arising out of a confidence reposed and accepted by him (i.e., the trustee) for the benefit of another”. In other words, every trustee is obliged to judiciously handle the trust funds, properties and assets as if it were his/her own, but, NOT for his/her own benefit (or that of his/her family and friends), but for the beneficiaries named or intended by the Settlors or the founders of the trust.

While dealing with matters concerning the trust, a trustee should try to remain as objective as possible and keep the demons of nepotism and favoritism at bay. Also, every trustee is required to exercise independent thinking and not get influenced by external manipulators and mischief-makers.

Role Of A Trustee: Trustees are expected to provide leadership and vision and collectively give the organization a sense of direction. They are expected to set policy and take responsibility for their decisions, irrespective of success or failure. Holding the organization together, motivating staff and mobilizing adequate resources (financial, intellectual and human) are important Board duties. Trustees are expected to build and nurture an ethical, sensitive, motivated and responsible team.

Generally, when there is ‘success’, trustees take full responsibility (read credit). However, when things begin to fail or crumble, the ‘Blame Game’ commences and colleagues on the Board or at times the staff is blamed. Exaggerated or misleading claims should be discouraged at all levels and at all cost.

It is important for the Board of Trustees to set high standards of ethics and excellence before expecting staff and other professionals and consultants to comply. More than anything else, it is important that every trustee always means what he/she says and always says what he/she means.

A confusion that one notices not just at the BPP but most other trusts is in the area of sifting ‘Governance’ from ‘Management’. Most trustees seem to think that ‘Governance’ and ‘Management’ is the same thing. It is not!  It is not the job of a trustee to ‘Manage’ the trust. That is the job of the CEO and the staff. A trustee’s job is to ‘Govern’ – provide vision and leadership, strategize the trust’s mission, lay down policies and ensure that it is followed and implemented diligently and exercise general oversight and due diligence in areas of financial health, human resource and programs laid down under a five years strategic plan. 

A trustee should be accessible to the trust and the beneficiaries at all reasonable hours of the day. However, a trustee need not necessarily park himself at the trust’s office everyday and for several hours. Trustees should always aim for ‘Macro Management’ and leave ‘Micro Management’ of routine matters to professional staff.

Desirable Qualities In A Trustee: A ‘good trustee’ is expected to have interest in the work of the organization and commitment to the organization’s aims and objects. He/she should have reasonable intelligence and competence and should be one who is respected in the community and by all stakeholders. Above all else, the trustee should be trustworthy – a man or woman of his word. A trustee who cannot keep his word or commitment is not worthy of respect or the respectable office of trusteeship.

He should also have capacity for growth and remain sensitive to change and new issues affecting the community. The ability to work in concert with others also needs to be underscored though one should never fight shy of standing up to one’s convictions.

Self-assessment: Each aspiring trustee should make a self assessment of his/her special skills and qualifications and determine his/her ‘job description’ on the Board. It’s not enough just attending Board Meetings over tea and sandwiches. Performance should be evaluated on the basis of proactive decisions, new initiatives and effectiveness of various policies, projects and programs. Good Governance necessitates a ‘social audit’, preferably by an external evaluator, to measure performance against promises made by any team before the polls.

Leadership: Leadership is the ability to have clear vision, out of which one sets goals and objectives, which then form the basis of an organization’s parameters. It is essentially a dynamic process of making people more effective, increasing their competence and through them, achieving goals. The effectiveness of a good leader lies in his/her ability to share and develop leadership in others through empowerment, thereby increasing their competence and accountability. A good leader helps diverse personalities merge into an effective social whole. Instead of browbeating them, he should help the team use abilities and experience at optimum level.

Unfortunately, at the BPP, since the past many years, one observes team spirit of a divisive type. “Are you in my team or that other trustee’s team?” is a common refrain. Even at board meetings, the warring teams fracture important decisions. This invariably results in stunted growth of the organization, poor public-image and a distinct disservice to the community.

Board Qualities: In ‘The Role of The Board and Board Members’, author Brian O’Connell states, “I would single out the ability to start and end every analysis and evaluation with the standard, ‘What is Right?’” While the second most important quality is Fairness, the third is ‘Controlled Ambition’, as per O’Connell. Flexibility is the fourth important characteristic: “Adding flexibility to the blend of fairness, sensitivity, and imagination helps the individual and organization to rise.” And, finally, O’Connell lists ‘Enthusiasm’ as the fifth most important quality of a leader.

Managing Conflict: The most important principle involved in managing differences of opinion, is keeping disagreements impersonal and agreeing to disagree in an “agreeable manner”. Always attempt to fight the ‘issue’ and not the ‘individual’. An ideal trustee would respect the right of one or more of his/her team members to disagree and encourages constructive criticism, usually pushing the critic to suggest an alternative course, if there is one.

At BPP Board meetings, the team’s energy should be harnessed in fighting for the cause and not against one another. Sadly, some of our trustees have wasted most of their time in fighting and browbeating each other at board meetings. They conveniently forget that excellence on the trust board is not about getting ahead of others but getting ahead of ourselves.

Conclusion: Excellence on a trust board is all about going beyond one’s call of duty and doing more than what others expect. It is about going the extra mile and giving one’s best in everything and in every way. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism and the determination to make a difference in this world, despite the odds.

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