My board journey

Christine-Richard right sizeLooking back for this article I was a little surprised to see how many boards I had served on. Every one was pro bono, so money was certainly not my motive. The majority were in the public and charity sectors. My present commitment is as a Director of The Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy. Our patron is Prince Philip who takes an active interest. This is a very ‘hands on’ board unlike some of the others where we were simply there to nod through the all executive decisions without question.

My own experience began during my 12 years as a Councillor on the Edinburgh District Council. I was appointed as a Director of the first Edinburgh International Science Festival which began during my first term of office. We were all new and  worked together in great harmony with the Director and a small staff. So we all learned together. The Festival has gone on from strength to strength and is now a greatly successful part of the Edinburgh Festival scene. I remember Professor Heinz Woolff, who was a great help to us. He once announced at a board meeting ‘every morning my wife and I re-enact the Garden of Eden.’ So we waited trying to imagine this, serpent and all. But no ‘we share an apple cut exactly in two!’ So now you know.

Next on my journey came Edinburgh Development and Investment Ltd. This was to look at developing the land at the Gyle, to the west of Edinburgh into a major shopping development, with offices also. We had to study the business case carefully and the risks of investing in such a major project publicly funded. The City benefited by £10 million and this was in the seventies!

Next I was the Council’s representative director with the Lothian Marriage Guidance Service (now Relate). This lasted for 10 years. As I had previously been a counsellor with the organisation this was a directorship which I really enjoyed. We were a very ‘hands on’ board, encouraged to bring forward our own suggestions for improving the service for our clients. I was able to get funding from the Council so we could pay modest sums to counsellors after they had completed a number of hours free of charge. Then we introduced a modest fee for clients who could afford to pay. All counsellors undertook a rigorous training programme.

The best board role was as a director on the first board of Edinburgh Festival Theatre. With all-party support the Council managed to buy what was then the  Mecca Bingo Hall. We had support from the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind MP and Historic Scotland. Also, with the late Sir George Younger’s help some £6 million was raised from the private sector – no mean feat in the early 1990’s. I had the opportunity to suggest a name for the theatre and chose ‘The Festival Theatre’. My dream at that time was the building would also house the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Theatre. Alas this was not to be, partly because the building was not large enough and partly because the Hub had already been chosen. I am now a Patron of the Edinburgh and King’s Theatre Trust and take  a keen interest in all developments, the latest of which has been the building of a Studio for small performances and to support the educational programme.

This leads me neatly in to my penultimate board challenge. I was elected, against keen competition to be a director and served for the maximum six years. I soon discovered this was a board where we were not expected to contribute very much! Eventually, with the support of the new director, Jonathan Mills, I put together a programme, working with staff, whereby directors could attend sponsored performances to thank the sponsors for their help. With two or three other directors, this worked very well and was appreciated

Eventually this became an established, successful practice and was taken on by Christopher Wynn the new, highly successful Fund Raising Director.

Finally, for the moment, I became a Director of Edinburgh’s Telford College until all the colleges merged into The Edinburgh College. I had to undergo an interview, after a written application in order to take up this post. This was a great opportunity to use the skills I had gained during a long, and successful career in Further Education. I engaged both with staff and students to explore issues and, sometimes, to achieve more engagement between the Board and other stakeholders to raise the profile of the college, which included Ministerial visits, competitions and a prize for the student who had overcome difficulties and still achieved her/his diploma. I also took on the provision of a special prize to the member  of staff who had contributed most either in or  out  of college to the community of North Edinburgh. My final contribution was to set up a prize in memory of the late Education convener and local councillor,  Elizabeth Maginnis, who overcame cancer only to die from a brain aneurysm. Again, this was for a member of staff who had helped disadvantaged people in North Edinburgh. The award was presented at the annual Graduation ceremony

My Telford experience led to me being asked to join a group from the Scottish Association of Colleges to draw up governance regulations to be followed by college directors throughout Scotland. Here again my Further Education experience enabled me to make positive contributions.

So I have, so far, had a very interesting set of experiences with different organisations  and styles of board. My conclusions? Non-executive directors have a duty to question management, also to support them and recognise there is a fine line between interference and competent advice.

Christine Richard, OBE, FRSA is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.

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