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Meet Leon Ward: Young Trustee at Brook Young People

Megan Raybould

02 June 2020

Leon has been a trustee for 10 years, since her was 18. Read his story and find out how the sector has changed over the last decade.

Leon Ward

Ambassador for Wales

Young Trustees Movement Ambassador

Leon has been a trustee since he was 18 years old when he became a trustee of Plan International UK. On the back of this, Leon has gone onto publish or contribute to several young trustee guides. He has spent much of his career convincing boards about how and why they should recruit young trustees and helping them to implement board models which increase diversity. He is currently Deputy Chair of Brook Young People.

As the author of the Young Trustees Guide, you could say Leon joined the Young Trustee Movement before it had even got started! Leon has been passionately working to get more young people interested in trusteeship over the past 10 years. He’s been involved in making million pound decisions as a board member, designed guides to young trusteeship and spoken in Parliament about it.

We chatted with Leon about his experiences and his top tips for being a trustee.

Can you tell us about your journey as a trustee?

I’ve been a Trustee for 10 years! I first became a Trustee when I was 18 for Plan International UK. I’d been on their Youth Advisory Panel for about 3 years before that.

One of the things I did was go round the world encouraging the Plan offices to recruit young trustees. By the time I left Plan, 11 of the 20 national offices had young Trustees.

I stepped down from the board when I was 24. I quite strongly believe in natural turnover. I think once you kind of feel like it’s job done, you should get out of there and let someone else have an opportunity.

After that I joined the board I’m currently at called Brook Young People. Brook is the UK’s largest sexual health and relationships charity, and they have sexual health clinics all over the country. It’s a really fascinating organisation!

How would you define success for yourself and how would you describe a successful day?

My values are really important to me and the work I do everyday, I think we should be equalising opportunities for all young people. When I go to bed I like to ask myself: “have I contributed to the world to make it a better place or at least nudge it along a little bit?”

Sometimes the boardroom isn’t super glamorous and you don’t feel like you’re saving the world that day, you’re doing more of the mundane tasks. So, how do you manage those tasks?

I think I would challenge that a little bit and say the mundane stuff makes the whole operation work properly. You have to get the governance of an organisation right. Sometimes that does include really boring stuff, but without that the organisation wouldn’t be able to do all the great things it does.

I think you have to be in it for the long game. You’re not necessarily going to make a big impact in the first year, because you’ll only be there for about 8 hours in total. But, I think if you’re in the room you can challenge people’s perceptions and thinking, and ask questions that get them to consider new ideas. In that way you’re contributing to great work the charity is doing.

I think motivation is key too. Things like: it looks great for my career or I learned these skills, should always come secondary to ‘wow that is a fascinating, impactful organisation’.

What would you say the biggest misconception you had about young trusteeship was?

Initially, I thought the board would have been really confident about my engagement but actually, they’re just as nervous as you are, because they know you’re going to add a new dynamic to the room. They know they’re going to have to change their behaviour and contributions to make sense to you. Actually, if they adjust their behaviours for young trustees, I find that that makes the boardroom work better anyway.

Unfortunately, it does often fall to the young trustee to be like, “oh, can you just repeat that point?” Or, “I really don’t understand the papers, can we have them in a different way?”. But, when I’ve done that, 9 out of 10 times, another trustee will come up to me afterwards and say, “oh, thank God you asked for that because I haven’t understood what we’ve been going on about for two years.

What training have you had as a trustee?

I’ve had some finance training and I’ve obviously had informal training around the board. I had a mentor in both my boards and I’m now a mentor for somebody on my board too.

I think you really just have to get an understanding of governance generally, but then you learn it, like with everything in life, you learn it once you’re in the seat.

And I would say that actually, that’s true for most trustees, especially older trustees. Most of them do not have any formal governance training and the threshold for young people is always higher.

If the skills threshold to be a trustee was: “to contribute to our board, we want you to be able to work as a team and be on top of current trends.” That would mean most younger people would be able to reach that threshold. But if you say, “you need to have years of governance training.” That would strip out nearly every young trustee, I reckon.

Greatest challenge as a young trustee?

I think as a trustee, you’re always being asked to prove yourself, again and again, and that is really boring. Even though I think that I can do it, it’s just a little bit frustrating. Sometimes I felt like saying: “listen to what I’m saying and stop undermining me and discriminating against me because I’m young?”

What has been your greatest reward along this journey?

I think the greatest reward is that I know that I’m making a difference and the number of young trustees is going up. I know I’m still seen as a voice that people want to hear talking about young trusteeship too. So I feel I’m quite well established in that sense and that’s obviously, a massive success 10 years ago, I was doing things that no one was really doing. Now, thank god, more and more people are doing it.

I’ve done some wonderful public speaking to completely different audiences. I’ve sold the idea of young trustees to a number of boards and to a number of young people too.

Because of this journey, I’m better at my day job, I’m more strategic, I think I ask the right questions of my team. The skill I’ve developed most is probably understanding the politics of the room and understanding the motivations of executives and trustees.

If you’d like to hear more from Leon, you can watch a recording of a Q&A with Leon here

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