Becoming a Chair (part two): assessing the role, working with passion, structuring meetings and fundraising, with Matthew Newcombe-Ellis (Prostate Cancer Research, Kidney Research UK Chair / Chair Designate)
After fifteen years as an investment banker, Matt joined the board of Prostate Cancer Research. Two years later, he was Chair - a job he now does full time.
What made him make the leap?
Tune in to Matt’s conversation with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings to hear his answers to:
- What advice would you have for someone considering becoming a Chair? (1:36)
- How did you prepare for your Chair role? (3:36)
- Why did you want to become a charity Chair, given the risks? (6:29)
- How can you add the most value as a Chair? (8:36)
- What have you done to foster a culture where people feel comfortable innovating? (11:13)
- How have you thought about board composition / hiring? (12:01)
- What have you learnt about onboarding? (16:17)
- Does trustee engagement vary depending on how you recruited them? (18:08)
- What is your approach to fundraising? (21:45)
- How do you build a high-net-worth network? (26:10)
- What have been the biggest challenges of chairing a charity board? (27:14)
- Which areas did you need to improve the most when you started chairing? (28:59)
- To what extent do you choreograph meetings? (34:47)
- When do you encourage execs to come with recommendations versus points for discussion? (36:58)
- What due diligence do people need to do before accepting a charity Chair position? (38:59)
- How did you know you felt passionately enough about your Charities? (42:26), and
- ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡(45:15)
Oliver Cummings: Hello and welcome to another episode of Enter the Boardroom with Nurole, the business podcast that brings the boardroom to you. I'm your host, Oliver Cummings, CEO of Nurole, the board search specialist and market leader bringing science to the art of board hiring.
Today's guest, Matt Newcombe Ellis, spent 15 years as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and latterly Robey Warshaw, where he was one of four founding members.
In 2016, he joined the board of Prostate Cancer Research. Two years later, he became chair, a role which he has done full time for the last two years. During that time, prostate cancer research has tripled its income, grown research projects from four to 23 across the UK and US, and set up fundraising, risk, audit, and finance subcommittees.
In June this year, Matt was appointed trustee at Kidney Research UK and will become chair in March 2024. Matt, a huge welcome and thank you so much for joining us today.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Thanks, Oli. Great to be here.
Oliver Cummings: Now, I remember you asking me when you were first considering taking on a chair role, and I can't believe your tenure is now almost over. I remember talking to you about it, and I think I advised you against taking on a chair role alongside a full-time executive job. But you went ahead, although you did end up leaving your full-time job not long after. What advice would you give someone now asking you the same question?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Yeah, I think it's worth saying that those were two separate things. I did both my full-time role and chairing the charity for three years together. And I think it is possible to be the chair of a charity while doing a demanding job. When I think about most of the demands on my time as a chair, it's not often that things are urgent and need responding to immediately. So, providing that there's understanding on both sides, I think it is definitely possible to do a busy job and to chair a charity, but I think the charity needs to understand that you've got your full-time job as well.
And there'll be some times where you're less available or you can't make certain meetings, and similarly, I think you need your job to understand that you've taken on this responsibility and there'll be times where you have to chair board meetings and things like that. So, you need understanding on both sides, but I wouldn't discourage anybody from applying to chair a charity just because they've got a busy job.
And in fact, I think actually it can be very additive. It depends on what your job is, but I think my bosses were quite enlightened in that they realised that this would be a great experience for me. I was advising boards and management teams. So, what better way to learn how to advise a board than to chair one? So, I think they were quite forward-thinking on that.
Oliver Cummings: Makes a lot of sense. We have these sessions with the Nurole community where non-executives come together and discuss some of the challenges that they're wrestling with. And one of the most common topics raised is people thinking about stepping up into the chair role and the questions they have are both how do they go about getting a chair role? And then once they've got it, how do they best go about preparing for it? How did you prepare for taking on this chair role? And what helped you most?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Yeah, there were quite a few things that I did and that other people did that were helpful to me. I think the first one I'd say is that Tim, who was the previous chair of Prostate Cancer Research, stayed on as a trustee for a few months after I became chair, so he was available to me as a sounding board and a source of advice, so I think that was helpful.
I obviously spent a lot of time with the management team and the CEO in particular discussing our vision for the charity and what we wanted to do together over the next few years. And there was good alignment there. So I think that was important clarity [00:05:00] before taking on the role.
And then speaking to people who'd been chairs beforehand. I'm quite fortunate to have lots of mentors from my past roles, and I think they were able to give some advice on what being a chair entails and how they approach it and how they think through certain problems. You are then in a position to take the best bits from that advice and incorporate them into your own style.
Someone talked me through what they called the "Challenging Friend," although I think that was actually a version of "Critical Friend," which is the more established term. I like Challenging Friend. I don't like Critical Friend because I don't think it's the job of the chair to criticize the CEO all the time.
That's a really difficult job. It's a lonely job, as you'll know, as a CEO. And I don't think having someone constantly marking your homework is particularly helpful, dynamic, or motivating for the [00:06:00] CEO. So I think challenging friend is, whether it's intentional or unintentional, a better way of going about it.
And when you build a relationship where there's trust, the CEO knows that if the chair is asking questions, it's because they want to understand or want to help the organization get to a better place. It's not because they think they know better or they think they have all of the answers. So that was a good bit of advice that helped me in my early days as a chair.
Oliver Cummings: Really interesting, one of the things that we see in the data on Nurole's platform is it's something like 10 times easier to hire a trustee than it is a chair. My advice to organizations is, you shouldn't be hiring a chair. Ideally, you promote from within because if you're hiring a chair, it's really hard, especially for these charity chair roles where people are being asked to take on serious risk, a serious time commitment, and they're not getting paid [00:07:00] for it. And I do sometimes wonder, why does anyone do this role? What have you enjoyed most about it for someone sitting there thinking, gosh, why is anyone crazy enough to take on a role like that? What would be your perspective?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think the obvious thing to say is charities all have a social purpose and being part of the team that delivers that purpose is very rewarding.
Oliver Cummings: But I guess you could get that as a trustee as well. What is unique about being a chair given the significantly incremental workload required?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think you're probably right that the altruistic impact delivering side of it is probably there whether you're a trustee or a chair. It might be that you feel it slightly more as a chair because of the time commitment and effort that goes into it. But I certainly felt it when I was a trustee as well. So that's [00:08:00] maybe not a reason to step up to chair. I think one of the other things that I really enjoy is working with the team, helping them grow and develop. And I think that's maybe something that you do to a greater extent as a chair than you would do as a trustee. Both boards that I'm a part of, the trustees are very engaged outside of trustee meetings and in a whole host of different activities. But I think as a chair, you just do have more regular dialogue with the senior management team. So I think that's an interesting part of it.
Oliver Cummings: Okay, I'm curious to understand how you've thought about adding value as a chair. The organization has obviously gone from strength to strength under your leadership. How have you framed your way of thinking about the ways that you can add value?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I'd [00:09:00] say a few things. The obvious one is chairing the meetings and the governance side of things. So, I think we made a big effort to make sure that the charity had the right structures and processes in place to make sure that the trustee board was making effective decisions. That included things like creating subcommittees, which we didn't have previously, so that relevant expert trustees could go into more detail on specific topics outside of the board meetings, so that we could then focus the board meetings on more strategic matters.
So, that's one thing where I've tried to add value. Another is supporting the management team and giving them the freedom and the flexibility to be innovative. PCR is a relatively small charity. So if we're going to have an impact, we need to try new things.
Some of those have [00:10:00] worked well. Others probably need a bit more time or a bit of modification. But I'd like to think I've created an environment amongst the trustee board where the team aren't afraid to try new things, suggest new things. Then maybe also just creating opportunities for the team as individuals.
I think as a chair of an organization, people will most often take a meeting. I enjoy reaching out to other organizations in the space. Doing that first intro, finding out ways where we can collaborate, and then handing that off to the management team to build relationships with those other organizations.
So, that's something that I like to do as a chair that maybe is a bit harder to do as a trustee. As a chair, you're kind of more of a figurehead of a charity. Well, you connected me to someone who was the chair of another charity to have a conversation, and that conversation uncovered that there were areas of mutual interest, and it may be that we're funding some research together now, collaboratively.
So, that's maybe something that the management team might not have had the bandwidth to do, or there wasn't that reason for that initial conversation. It's quite rewarding as a chair to be able to facilitate those things.
Oliver Cummings: Brilliant. And you talked about creating an environment where people felt comfortable innovating. What, practically speaking, have you done to foster that?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Probably comes back to the comments that I made earlier about not being critical and being supportive. Even when people come up with ideas that don't eventually play out, you're taking the time to understand the thinking and the rationale behind them.
I think it's how you behave in trustee meetings and just how you engage with the team generally. And making sure that we've got the right people around the table, so that the team have the right level of expertise to call on - and people who can really help guide and shape those ideas [00:12:00] into something tangible.
Oliver Cummings: My sense is you've been particularly thoughtful about that composition and the way that you've approached the composition of the board. What have you learned from the journey of your time on this board as chair?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Shortly after I was appointed, we conducted a quite large recruiting round, which we did through Nu Role, as you'll know. We appointed five trustees at the same time, which was quite a large intake. But I would definitely support the idea of, on occasion, hiring multiple people at the same time, because it allows you to balance various factors together and consider the overall composition of the new trustees, as opposed to just continually hiring people sequentially.
So, that gave us a new body of trustees. Then, I think we took a step back and thought, what are the areas where we're missing or the particular skills we are lacking? Which perspectives don't we have on the board? We then did some very deliberate recruiting for people with those skills. So, it's really been a mix, but I'm happy with where we've got to in terms of the skill matrix and covering off the skills that are essential around a trustee table.
Oliver Cummings: Interesting. One of the challenges with hiring a large number of people in one go for a board is, first, you run the risk of, in three, six, or nine years, whenever their tenure runs out, having to replace a whole load at once. And you lose huge amounts of experience. Another thing that I think is sometimes underestimated is the value of having different members of your board at different stages in their life cycle. Someone once explained it to me as, in your first three years, you're getting up to speed. In the next three years, you're adding value. In the last three years, you've gone native, becoming a part of the furniture, and you carry the corporate identity with you. Each of these stages has value and offers something different. It's important to have different members of your board at different stages.
The risk of having brought in five at once is they move through those cycles together, and you potentially lose that diversity of perspective from the person who's just coming in asking the naive question, or the person who, when they all go, and you have to replace them again, has the history of the organization. What was your experience with that? Were there actually advantages to doing it like this?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I don't really recognize the 3-3-3 cycle. Maybe it's more 1-7-1, but I think people have caught up to speed pretty quickly. We've taken a thoughtful approach to induction to help people get up the learning curve quicker, although it's inevitable that you'll know more in year four than you did at the end of year one, so I accept that.
As for Prostate Cancer Research, I'm in my final six months now, and I don't feel like I've checked out. If anything, I feel like I'm having a sprint to the line because I want to squeeze every last drop out of the time that I'm there.
So, look, I think, yes, all of those points you raised about recruiting lots of people at the same time are valid. But, I think, we'd probably been slow on recruiting prior to that, so we would have had a number of people leaving in the coming years. Our choices were to hire everyone in one go, or kind of continually be hiring someone every three months. And I think you're going to get to the same point after 18 months. I would prefer the bulk hire, for those reasons I gave earlier, about being able to balance the skills and expertise within the group rather than hiring sequentially.
And maybe the things we'll have to do in terms of staggering exit dates. So some people don't get the full nine years, and there's not a kind of another cliff at the end of their tenure, but I tend to find that people have their own reasons as to why they'll drop off, so I'm not sure we'll necessarily get that cliff anyway; it'll probably, hopefully, naturally resolve itself.
Oliver Cummings: Okay, nice. Tell me more about the onboarding process you put in place because I imagine you've been thoughtful about that, and it must also be interesting for you now going through the onboarding process again as a trustee in a new organization before becoming chair. What have been your lessons?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: At PCR, we invite new trustees to come in for a day and spend the whole day with management. They get to spend time with each of the senior leaders, so they understand how we raise the money, how we spend the money, how we look after our patients, and all aspects of running the charity. So, I think that's really valuable in terms of getting people up to speed quickly and giving them the chance not only to meet the executive directors, whom they'll probably engage with at the board, but also the people below them, and having those relationships.
And as you say, I'm going through that same process now with kidney research. I knew very little about kidney disease before I applied for the role. So, there's lots of learning from that perspective, but there are also many similarities in terms of things that I've learned from being a trustee and being a chair of a medical research charity that can translate relatively easily over to the new role. What kidney research did when they appointed me as chair-elect was that they appointed me as a trustee for a year before the current chair will step down, and I will become chair. And that's been invaluable because it's meant that I've had a whole annual cycle of understanding the meetings and events that we have. And so, when I'm in the position that I have to chair those next year, I'll just have a much better understanding of how it works in that particular setting.
Oliver Cummings: How do you do that on an ongoing basis? One of the things that I quite like to do with my advisory board members is to get them involved in quarterly retrospectives that each of my functional teams does. And we'll typically get the advisory board member who has the functional spike that relates to that team involved in that. Because what that enables is them to get a very good sense of what's going on without imposing any reporting burden on my executive team. And it allows them to stay engaged between board meetings, which can sometimes be challenging. So, when you come to the board meeting, everything is quite fresh and top of mind for people. Is there a wide variance in the levels of engagement of your different trustees? I know you've talked about in the past some of the differences between those that you've approached versus those who approached you in the way that they engage with the organization.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think those that approach us often have a personal connection to the disease or the area of focus for the charity. And I think that tends to motivate a certain level of contribution, which I think is potentially harder to generate without that. So, I think you probably do see a greater commitment from those who really wanted to be trustees as opposed to those who you've specifically targeted, but I think you should also keep in mind, you've often gone to those people for specific skills and expertise. And providing that they are contributing those skills and expertise when you need them, I'm a happy chair, and the charity is happy with that level of contribution. So maybe, the takeaway is to have a good balance on your board of both.
Oliver Cummings: Yeah, it's interesting. It's very striking to us, the contrast between the pro bono roles on the platform and what the organizations typically look for versus the paid roles. The pro bono ones weigh much more heavily on the reasons for application. And we sometimes see them discarding candidates who've expressed interest in a role on the basis that they haven't demonstrated enough passion and connection to the organization. Whereas in the paid role space, they almost don't care about the reason for interest and are just focused on the experience. And I wonder if that goes a little bit to how much you can get out of people, recognizing that passion is a really significant driver of engagement.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Yeah, I think so, because I would worry that over a prolonged period of a trustee tenure, if you don't have that passion, might the enthusiasm wane? I don't think that would necessarily be the case with everybody because people have different motivations and I'm sure for a lot of people, once they've committed to something, they want to do a great job at it. But I think it's a helpful indicator of how engaged someone's going to be. And then also, medical research charities are putting a lot of emphasis at the moment on being patient-centric and making sure that the decisions at the trustee board reflect the requirements of their patient population. And I assume that a similar dynamic goes on in different charitable sectors. So, that personal connection that you mentioned is often important because it means that the people who you're supposed to serve are represented at the board level in your decision-making.
Oliver Cummings: Okay. One of the areas that strikes me you've been particularly successful with over your tenure has been fundraising, which is one of the areas we see many charities really struggling with. I'm curious to hear what advice you'd offer to other chairs, or those considering taking on a charity chair role, around how to think about fundraising. Clearly, given your background, it's an area of expertise in the commercial space, but I imagine some of that has translated into the way that you think about it in this pro bono arena.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: One of the first conclusions at PCR was that we were too focused on a narrow number of fundraising streams. We raised lots of money from events, and we also had some legacy income and an annual fundraising dinner, but that was about it.
And though that funding is great when you can get it, there's a limit as to how much you can scale it. You know, there's only so many people that can run the marathon for you. And also, there's not very much in the way of diversification.
So, we invested in our Trusts and Foundations fundraising, which has been quite successful. We have invested in our corporate relationships, which are predominantly with the pharma industry and people working in ancillary industries to the work that we're doing, but those partnerships have been very successful.
And it meant that, for example, when the pandemic hit and people weren't allowed to leave their houses and our fundraising dinner was canceled and the marathon was postponed, we still had some other sources of income that we could fall back on. So I'd say that kind of risk management approach is one thing that's been quite important.
Maybe the second thing to add is that we've really tried to make sure that when we're putting fundraising proposals in front of people, they see the value of the solutions we're delivering and it's not just asking people to give to us because we're nice guys, because it ticks a box for them from a CSR perspective.
So really trying to make it more of a partnership with the people who are giving to us and less of a transactional relationship. And then maybe just one final thing, which you and I have spoken about before, is I still think high net worth giving and philanthropy is important for charities, and you know, maybe it's somewhat inconsistent with my previous comment that we need to focus on demonstrating impact, but it does help to have high net worth people around the board table, around your fundraising efforts so that they can bring in other people who are able to make those six, seven figure donations that can really transform individual projects and move those forward.
Oliver Cummings: It's interesting because there's a contrast with what you see in the US where essentially it's pay to play sit on the board and you're there because of the donations you make, or that you bring in. Whereas typically UK charities are usually people that are based on the skills and experience and perspective that they bring.
Do you think there's a case for a mix of the two, or more of a mix of the two than we currently have?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I really don't like the pay to play model because I think it contrasts with governance requirements. But I think if you can find people who are experts and passionate about your cause and also happen to be high net worth or have high net worth networks, then that can be a really valuable thing.
And those people aren't particularly common, but... If you can find them, then they're, they're worth their weight in gold. So I think it's worth keeping an eye on that high net worth network as a criteria alongside the other skills that you're looking for on a board.
Oliver Cummings: So someone sitting there listening to this thinking, Ooh, I better start thinking about how I build that network. Any, any tips on, on how you have gone about doing that?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I want to paint myself as an expert in that area because I think it's probably still a nut that we've not cracked but I think, as with any fundraising effort, the more people you tell your story to it might not work for the first conversation.
It might not work for the second conversation. But by the time you're on the third or fourth connection you find someone who fits the criteria and also cares about what you're, you're doing. So I think the thing that we always have to do is have as many conversations you can.
And the sad thing about cancer or kidney disease is that there are lots of people out there who have been touched by these things. Personally, I've, you know, I've, Can't keep count of the number of times that you tell people about your, your role and they tell you a personal story for them.
So you know, for some people it stops there, but for others they're more interested and then that can lead on to a bigger partnership with them.
Oliver Cummings: Okay, I want to talk a little bit about the other side of the coin, around the biggest challenges that you've faced as a first time chair. If someone's listening to this and they want to make sure that they go in eyes wide open to what they're letting themselves in for, what would you say were the biggest challenges for you?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think the challenges for me have all been from things that we weren't expecting and that weren't in the plan. The obvious example is COVID where we lost half of our income and that required a lot of hands on chairing and being flexible and making decisions and making sure we look after our staff and making sure that we took an approach to funding research that didn't reduce the long term capacity.
I think some charities had to cut the foot research that they were funding and that has consequences down the line. Being a chair would be easy if you were able to just come up with a strategy and deliver the plan without any unexpected hiccups, but it isn't like that.
So those unexpected situations that require a lot of time and focus and where there's not a clear answer, I'd probably say that's the most challenging thing. Obviously people need to be, especially people who've come from the corporate sector need to appreciate that it'll be different and often there aren't the same level of resources available that there would be at a large corporate.
But I think our mentality as a charity has been maybe closer to a startup. You can innovate and do things in a different way and you try and turn that weakness to a strength.
Oliver Cummings: You obviously came from a financial background, but you didn't have the sector knowledge as such. People often say they want a chair who's got... sector knowledge. Did you feel that was ever a blind spot? How much of a help was the financial expertise?
Someone listening to this who didn't have the financial expertise say how much of a challenge you think that would be? And were there other blind spots that you felt?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: It's definitely an area where I needed to learn and spend time quickly because I think it's really hard to chair an organization if you don't understand the context in which they're operating. And so, one, are you willing to put in the time to get up the curve? Two, have you got people around the table who can help you with making decisions on things where you're not expert?
But I suspect it's pretty unlikely that a lot of charities will be able to find someone who ticks every single box. But I think you do need to be able to demonstrate an interest in the subject matter and a willingness to learn.
Oliver Cummings: Definitely, I mean most charities looking for a chair are struggling to find them. So, if they get one or two people interested, they are really pleased. So, if people are interested, they should be putting themselves forward for these roles because they've got a really good chance of getting them, given the sort of competitive dynamics versus say, a non-executive role or a trustee.
If I had your trustees and the exec team with me now on this call and you weren't there, what will they say you've done well and where will they say you need to work on to be even better as a chair in your next role?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think I can give you quite a good answer to this one because I've recently just had a round of conversations with my trustees at Prostate Cancer Research in light of stepping down in March. And interestingly, one of the comments that came up in nearly all of the conversations was that it was clear that I had a very strong relationship with the CEO. So, I think that's probably a strength.
And then one thing that I've been thinking about as my tenure comes to an end is that I've probably not done a very good job with people who've left the board over the years. You know, obviously, we say some nice words at the end of the trustee meeting, but I think on reflection, that's probably not enough.
And one thing I would certainly like is to stay involved and feel close to the charity that I've given eight years to and a lot of the initiatives that I've been part of the trustee board, you know, they'll come to fruition after I've stepped down as a chair, but I'd still really like to know how that all unfolds. So yeah, one thing I'd like to do better is more of an ongoing relationship with people who've made a significant contribution to the charity.
I suppose a bit like an alumni network. I know our mutual former employer does a good job of that. So I think it's just a case that it's another thing to do and it takes time and effort, but I think it's important for the people who've given a lot to the organization.
Oliver Cummings: Yeah, I love that. It's always very difficult as an organization in general. Even when you have executive people leaving, knowing how to keep them connected and ensure that you can continue to give and potentially get some value from them that makes you sort of collectively stronger.
It's a really interesting idea. I haven't thought about that so much in the space of non-execs and trustees, but you've got amazing people there who still care deeply about you as an organization who may not be there in the day-to-day, but could still add lots of value. What else have you learned from your chair experience that would have been helpful to know before?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: It probably took me a bit of time to get up to speed on the subtleties of chairing a meeting versus just participating in a meeting. If you're chairing, you need to be fully focused the whole time. Listening to what people are saying, listening to what people aren't saying, observing when you're not, when you're not, yeah, I think, but, you know, there are times where you can drift off and, you know, check your phone or whatever when I chaired a meeting, I'm exhausted. It's requires a real ... So I don't think I'd appreciated that before I took on the role.
And now I have learned that, I think there are things that I can do that make that easier. So what do you do? Yeah, I try to do a dry run of the meeting, in my own head and kind of think about, okay, on agenda item X, whose voices do I want to hear from particularly who was vocal on this the last time, who's not really, who's participated to a lesser degree in recent meetings.
If I'm being really good, I'll let them know in advance that I'd like to come to them during the meeting so that they can prepare and be ready for that. I wouldn't want to give the impression that board meetings are entirely choreographed, because I don't think that's a productive use of time. But I think just having clarity on how you want things to unfold means that you can be more present in the discussion.
Oliver Cummings: It's really interesting. I mean, that's something I spend lots of time thinking about with my senior leadership meetings as an executive of how we approach agenda items and tackle them and try to think about for each agenda item, how we're going to tackle that problem.
So spending time, for example, thinking about what is the problem. And there's often the temptation for people to jump onto the solutions first. But being really clear at this stage, we're just thinking about what's the underlying problem. And then at this stage, we're just thinking about, well, what are our options?
And then at this stage, we're thinking, okay, let's start narrowing down those options. And you get those who are better at divergent thinking, tending to shine during those sort of open ended conversations, and those who are better at convergent thinking shining more in the closed parts. How do you think about that dynamic?
Do you have any mental models or frameworks that you use for structuring those discussions so that, as you say, you get that balance right between not choreographing, but ensuring that you make the most of the time and the talent around the table.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think one thing is being really clear in advance of the meeting, what the purpose of each [00:36:00] agenda item is. Is it for discussion? Is it for a decision? If so, what's the decision? So that I think then, when trustees or directors are doing their own preparation for the meeting, they know what's being asked of them. I Found that really helpful.
Oliver Cummings: And when you have an item that's for discussion, I don't know whether there's an example that springs to mind. You know, sometimes when I see that on agendas, my eyes roll because I think, well, you know, what is the point of a discussion? There's surely an end goal here. What are we trying to get to from that discussion? Is it about just making sure everyone is up to speed? Is it about identifying what the options that we have are? How, how do you frame that?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: You know, I agree with you. I think for information or it's for decision being vague in terms of just general discussion isn't particularly helpful to anybody. So yeah, I think the more concrete you can be about the objectives, the better.
Oliver Cummings: And how often would you try to [00:37:00] encourage the executive to lay out options and really have thought through those different options and provide a clear recommendation versus, do you have times when you encourage them to come with a blank sheet of paper where you work at it as a board? There's a risk of that in my experience that you end up with the complete. Sort of dog's dinner as people go off and in different directions if there's not enough
Matt Newcombe Ellis: structure.
Yeah I felt quite strongly when I took over as chair that agenda items in the most part required a recommendation of the management team.
Because they are the people who are living and breathing this nine to five. And the trustees can come to a meeting and then not necessarily engage at all for another 3 months . So handing over the responsibility for making those decisions to trustees, I don't think is, is optimal.
My [00:38:00] preference has always been for, management's come to meetings with a clear recommendation. That recommendation can be challenged and management can say in reaching this recommendation, we also considered ABC and ruled them out for X, Y, Z. I think that's a good discussion.
But I think just to have a kind of complete open book, as you say is, is quite high risk and, especially if you've got a large board, quite difficult to contain and guide towards any firm conclusions.
Maybe the exception to that is, is maybe some of the early kind of strategy setting discussions. So maybe there it's more helpful to have a bit more of an open discussion at least initially to give some guidance. But again, I think it needs a framework rather than "just let us know what you think". I think that would be difficult.
Oliver Cummings: [00:39:00] Okay. Now, for anyone listening to this, thinking about taking on a chair or themselves, looking at a particular nonprofit where they're interested, would you give them any advice?
And I guess you, now with both of your roles, have been a trustee first before taking on the chair role, which I imagine is quite helpful because it means you don't have to do a load of due diligence, you understand a lot about the way things work. But if someone's coming at it cold , what questions should they be asking?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I would focus on three areas. The first one would be the CEO and your relationship with them. Can you see yourself working with this person? Because you're going to be working with them a lot over the next six, nine years, however long the period is.
is that someone you respect? Is that someone you can trust? I feel fortunate that I've got two very good Chief Executives who I get on well with and work well [00:40:00] with. But I think if that wasn't in place I'd be nervous about taking on a chair role. So I think that would be the first one.
Oliver Cummings: Nervous? Does that mean you wouldn't take on a chair role?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Absolutely. I think , if that relationship isn't right, you're heading for trouble, so spend some time on it get to know the person, get to know them personally and think really carefully about how happy you are to be speaking to them on a daily basis for the next six, nine years.
Oliver Cummings: But I guess you have the option as chair to change them out. If you care about the organization significantly, that's always an option you have, or would you just not counsel, I guess, particularly for a first chair role? And that's going to be a tough one to take on.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I think that's, that's a challenge to go into a chair role thinking that one of the things that needs to happen is to change the CEO I probably wouldn't advise that.
Oliver Cummings: Yeah, I guess actually by the same token, I have heard [00:41:00] of chairs who've gone in and CEO has announced, two weeks after they settle in a, by the way, I'm going to be heading off. So probably another thing you want to be quite sure of, especially if it's your first chair role, is that that CEO is going to be sticking around for a while. Cause that's quite a terrifying position to be in as a new chair. Having a new CEO at the same time.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Yeah. Cause I think you run the risk there of losing institutional knowledge. I think the second thing, and it's probably harder to gauge if you're coming in cold, but it's the kind of board culture.
Our trustees- do they work together well as a team? Do people want to get to the right decisions for good reasons or are they there because it looks good on their CV or they like to tell other people what they think or the kind of wrong reasons for being a trustee.
Maybe harder to gauge without attending a trustee meeting directly, but I think you'd probably get a sense from the interview panel. I'm sure you can take [00:42:00] references from people who've been there as well. So I think it's worth doing your homework on that. And then I think the third thing is, you know, something you have to ask yourself, which is, is it something that you really feel passionate about?
You're going to spend a lot of time doing it and there will be some difficult moments. So if you don't then, maybe it's not a good thing to commit to. But I think if you can. How did
Oliver Cummings: you know you were, you felt passionate about these, the two charities you, you've been involved with when you don't have a family connection to either?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: It's a good question. With my first experience, prostate cancer research, I'd at least been a trustee for two years. So I knew at that point that it was something that I felt strongly about because my actions had demonstrated it.
You know, you finish a busy day of your day job and then... You sit down [00:43:00] and read board papers for another couple of hours. You don't do that if you don't feel strongly about it. And I think if the charity is doing a good job with its trustees, it will create opportunities for them to feel a part of the work.
Whether it's hosting a lab tour where you get to go and see some of the work that's being funded or an opportunity to engage with patients and hear their stories firsthand, some of those things are incredibly powerful. When you've done some of those things that, you know, it's a cause that you you feel strongly about. So again, a bit harder to, to judge from the, from the outside looking in.
Oliver Cummings: But when you first stepped into that trustee role, what gave you the confidence to take that leap of faith, again, when you didn't necessarily have from the outside an obvious passion for it. Was it just a leap of faith? Cause I always encourage people, if they're taking on pro bono roles to only do it in [00:44:00] something that they are passionate about, because as you say, when things go wrong, they can consume huge amounts of time.
And if you're not passionate about it, and that's the same with paid roles as well. I remember getting a hospital pass early on in my career, I got one of my first roles as an investor on a board and it went straight into a restructuring and , it was all right because it was part of my paid role and it was a great learning experience.
But had I been doing that as a non exec, that would have been horrendous. How did you know from the outside that you were passionate? Or that you had, you, you would become passionate.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I I think there was the kind of obvious logical step that charity raises money. Charity spends money in a way that's consistent with its charitable purpose that helps people who have cancer.
I, you know, doesn't take a genius to kind of work out that that's a good thing and you know, could be satisfying. Personally, I also quite liked the intellectual side of funding the [00:45:00] research and just getting stuck into, " why do these researchers think this is a good idea" and, " how are they going to test that and then what are they going to do when they've got the results of that".
So I found it intellectually challenging as well.
Oliver Cummings: The time has flown by, which means it's time for the lightning round, if you're ready, where I say a short statement and ask you for a quick response.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Ready as I'll ever be.
Oliver Cummings: So first up, best book every board member should read and why?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Reboots by Jason Stockwood, which is a blueprint for running a business in the digital age and challenges some conventional thinking about shareholder primacy and hierarchical leadership. Jason's a successful businessman and three years ago he... bought my beloved Grimsby Town, so I read his book to learn about our new owner and I don't think you could ask for a better chairman, so we're in safe hands.
Oliver Cummings: Fantastic. Don't know that one, I'll have to look it up.[00:46:00] Favorite quote and why?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take by Wayne Gretzky, who was the Canadian ice hockey player, but I think it's appropriate for medical research charities because we get dozens of applications every year and we can only fund a fraction of them.
And you know, each one is a opportunity to learn more about a disease and find a potential diagnostic or treatment. So I think it's motivating to think that, you know, we need to have as many shots on goal as possible.
Oliver Cummings: Your worst professional advice you've ever received?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Can I include you telling me not to take the
Oliver Cummings: chair role?
Absolutely. What three things should our listeners take away from this podcast if they take nothing else away?
Matt Newcombe Ellis: I would wholeheartedly encourage people to take a chair role, if that's something that they're interested in doing. Providing, you know, one, they've got the, Time to do [00:47:00] so to, they've got a good relationship with the chief exec and three that it's something that they care passionately about.
Oliver Cummings: Brilliant. Matt, thank you so much. That has been a real pleasure and just amazing to sort of see your journey and hear about it now again having seen it from the start. And I think that's going to be so helpful for all those listening to this thinking about potentially embarking on the same journey themselves, or perhaps already on that journey and taking some of the insights and wisdom that you've shared.
I still really appreciate you taking the time.
Matt Newcombe Ellis: Thanks Olly. And if anyone wants to talk more they can reach you and you can connect them to me.
99: Gretsky: His Game, His Story, Al Strachan and Roy MacGregor (Book)
In Search of Greatness, Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, Pele and Sir Ken Robertson (Film)
Kidney Research UK (website)
Prostate Cancer Research (website)
Reboot: A Blueprint for Happy, Human Business in the Digital Age, Jason Stockwood (Book)
If you are looking for senior executive and non-executive director roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help.
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