Stephen Norton on applying his professional experience as a trustee

"It’s important to listen, but also be prepared to challenge. You are there for a reason, so don’t be afraid to get stuck into the issues."
Stephen Norton
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Trustees' Week Feature | Stephen Norton

I joined the Villiers Park Board of Trustees in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. I was in my early 60s, my career in financial services was winding down, and I decided to see if I could use my business skills to help a charity - something I’d been thinking about for a while.

For many years, I was a professional (paid) trustee in capital markets, representing the interests of bond-holders, ensuring that companies delivered on their investment promises and fulfilled other obligations. I’ve also worked in business development and client relationship roles, helping companies nurture their existing clients and create opportunities for growth.

Over that time, I've learned that people more or less go about business the same way, but nuance - particularly with regards to knowledge about local or religious customs and practices - is important. Working globally helped me to understand, appreciate and be sensitive to cultural differences. 

Becoming a Villiers Park Trustee

I signed up to various recruitment sites and in due course saw the advert for Villiers Park. Initially it looked like the recruitment process was stuck as lockdown meant we couldn’t meet face to face, but then the world discovered Zoom! I interviewed and - happily - got the role.

Villiers Park spoke to me as it aligns with my values. I believe we all have the same potential, but some of us just need help and support to achieve it. My dad was Head at a few Cambridgeshire primary schools, so I think I always understood the importance and value of education, and I had thought about doing something around social mobility as I was a beneficiary of it in a way: I took the eleven-plus exam and got a place at the Perse, a private school in Cambridge, on a full scholarship. I didn’t look upon it this way at the time, but now realise I was very privileged to have the education and opportunities I did.

I’ve tried to repay this good fortune in my working life through mentoring. A few years ago, programmes focussed on tackling exclusion started springing up in the City, supporting talented, ambitious young people from a wide range of backgrounds to access jobs they may have previously felt were closed to them. We knew the talent pool for careers in Law and Accounting was wider than the predominantly Oxbridge intake. I was attracted to Villiers Park by similar work happening around coaching. While I haven’t yet used that experience directly, that resource is there should the charity need it.

Qualities of a Trustee and Board

I think it’s important to differentiate between the strategic and operational aspects of an organisation, and respect the difference. As trustees, our role is predominantly to help set the strategic direction and trust the skilled professionals that have been employed to do the work.

The Board has had to take some big decisions on complex issues over the past few years. It’s our responsibility to ensure that due process is carried out. You are acting in the interests of both the charity itself and the ultimate beneficiaries, the young people we support. That can sometimes be a tricky balance to strike and it takes a macro view. The decisions we make today often impact on the future, so it’s important to look ahead.

Like other businesses, charities can and do outsource the services they need but don’t necessarily need an employee for. If a trustee is, for example, a lawyer in their professional life, that’s a money-saving resource you can call on. That’s why it’s important to have a broad spread of personal and professional experience, of age, of diversity in other areas: we want to be able to help as much as we can, across as many areas of the charity as we can.

That question of diversity is what led us to recruit an Alumni Trustee, and Benita gives us that lived experience perspective: as a former Villiers Park student and our youngest trustee, she brings unique insight.

What I Gain from Being a Trustee

There’s a lot to gain from being a trustee of a charity. I’ve developed a greater understanding of social mobility - or, rather, the lack of it in the UK - and the challenges faced by some young people in accessing the education and careers they are capable of, and deserve.

Finding out what I can and can’t contribute has forced me to look frankly and honestly at my skills and expertise. Reflecting on that has also been beneficial for me. Individually and collectively, we have learned lessons: with hindsight, we might have done this or that differently, so there’s a real element of personal development to this role. 

As a trustee, I always look for the positives and how we can build on our successes, but keep one eye on the risks. It’s important to listen, but also be prepared to challenge. You are there for a reason, so don’t be afraid to get stuck into the issues. The past few years have been turbulent for everyone, not least the young people we support. It's been a privilege to help Villiers Park steer a course through these choppy waters.

Our Impact

We work with hundreds of young people every year, empowering them to succeed in their chosen field. 
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