UK Trustee network: An interview with Salima Shariff, The Gingerbread Centre

Author Fay Phillips-Jones
February 22, 2024

As part of our interview series for our UK Trustee Network, Frazer Jones Director Fay Phillips-Jones recently spoke to Salima Shariff, Senior HR leader, about being a Trustee for The Gingerbread Centre.

What is your background and how did it lead to you wanting to become a Trustee?

I am a chemist who fell into HR completely by accident 25 years ago and I have never looked back. I’ve spent my career working in large energy and natural resources organisations in a variety of HR roles. I have always been curious and wanted to stretch myself personally and professionally – maintaining a growth mindset has always been important for me as if we don’t grow, we are going backwards.

A number of years ago I started becoming restless as I wanted to give back in some way to the broader community and find out more about different sections of our society. A mentor suggested that I look into being a trustee. I have to admit that I had made assumptions about the sort of people who became trustees, their background and experience levels etc. However, when I delved in deeper, it became clear that we need Trustees to be a diverse representation of the society we are.

I am a trustee of a multi-academy trust and an independent advisor to a national charity that supports people as they become parents. More recently I will be appointed as a trustee of another charity – The Gingerbread Centre that provides accommodation and support for families that are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

It’s important for me that I support organisations that are tackling some of the issues that I care about. As a trustee it has given me the opportunity to make a strategic difference and ensure that those organisations’ vision and purpose are fulfilled. It’s not all one way – I have grown and learnt a lot from the organisations, my fellow board members and new colleagues. It’s a privilege to get an insight into different people’s worlds, it may challenge my own assumptions, cause me to be open minded and refine my influencing skills and work on many more skills! This has in turn transferred into my corporate roles.

What will it mean to you to be a Trustee?

As I take on the new Trustee role there are a number of aspects that will important for me:

  • To build a deep understanding and connection to the cause and playing a role in shaping a charity’s future and ensuring its sustainability, growth, and ability to create a positive impact on the community it serves.
  • Opportunity to build my network and collaborate with other trustees, stakeholders and continue to learn from diverse perspectives and build a value network with a new non‑profit sector.

Leveraging my HR expertise to contribute meaningfully to discussions and decisions related to the People agenda into strategy, governance, leadership, financial acumen, compliance and risk management.

What challenges do you foresee in this role?

There are a few potential challenges I see; a number of them are more in my control, whilst some of them I need to ensure that I actively manage so they do not become challenges.

  • Balancing roles and time commitment – Work:life integration is a challenge for me so I need to be mindful that I can find the balance between my professional obligations, family, other trustee roles and my new trustee obligations.
  • Building knowledge and understanding – I will be on a steep learning curve to understand a new area within the charity sector, the challenges, opportunities, what is the current governance, what are the strategic plans, funding and advocacy models. Assessing risks, financial considerations, and HR-related impacts might require a broad perspective and thoughtful decision-making.
  • Understanding the board dynamics – I see my roles as being a ‘critical friend’, being a support as well as a constructive challenger. Being able to ask curious questions is key as well as being open to feedback and challenge in return.

Navigating these challenges involves effective communication, transparency, and a willingness to learn and adapt.

What impact do you hope to have in the workplace?

As well as bringing my specific HR skills I hope to provide different perspectives, insights and thoughts that will enhance the delivery of the charity’s purpose, strategy and its execution. Being a trustee is not an operational role, however having a understanding of its operations will help to ensure any ideas and thoughts are grounded in reality. As a new trustee I will have the privilege to ask the basic and simplest questions and to be curious. A trustee is not necessarily visible in the day to day, being able to support colleagues to review fundraising initiatives, advocacy programmes and provide good governance are important to ensure ethical and responsible decisions are made. Hence, I hope my impact will be felt where it matters by making a positive impact on the lives of those the charity serves.

What new skills do you feel you will learn from being a Trustee?

There are a number of skills I know I will learn and continue to refine that are both technical and professional in nature:

Governance Skills – Understanding governance structures, legal responsibilities, and decision-making processes within a non-profit organisation.

Strategic thinking and planning – Developing long-term strategies aligned with the charity’s mission and vision, considering various stakeholders and potential impacts. Contributing to the development of plans and initiatives that drive the charity forward and ensure its sustainability.

Networking & Relationship Building – Engaging with diverse stakeholders, building relationships, and networking within the non-profit sector.

Risk Management – Assessing risks and developing strategies to mitigate them, both within the organisation and in terms of external factors affecting the charity.

Adaptability and flexibility – navigating unforeseen challenges and changes, requiring adaptability and flexibility in decision-making.

Listening – Being able to listen to other board members, staff and the people the charity supports, and take their voices on board. The ability to give someone your full attention and fully understand what they are saying is very important without my own assumptions clouding my ability to listen. Using these skills will not only enrich my experience as a Trustee but also enhance my overall professional skill set, benefiting both my role within the charity and my career as an HR professional.

What advice do you have for others who are thinking of becoming a Trustee?

Belief – You will have skills, lived experiences, knowledge and information that you can bring into any trustee role. Many people from different walks of life are trustees.

Be Ready to Learn – Approach the role with an open mind. You’ll learn a lot about charity operations, governance, and decision-making. Do some research, it can sound daunting and complicated however with the right support and willingness to learn you can and will come up to speed on the role of a trustee. You can always connect with current Trustees or seek mentors who have experience in governance. Learning from their experiences can prepare you better.

Align with your interest and passions – Choose an organisation whose mission aligns with your values and passions. Your commitment will be more fulfilling when you believe in the cause.

Understand the commitment – Being a Trustee is a serious commitment. Understand the time, responsibilities and legal duties involved before you commit. The time commitment can be significant when you take into account meetings, preparation, building relationships and understanding the organisation. Being a trustee is immensely rewarding – it’s essential to approach it with dedication, willingness to learn and a genuine interest in the organisations’ vision and mission.

How was the Trustee interview process, and how did you learn of the role?

Frazer Jones highlighted the opportunity as they were supporting the Trust in helping to fulfil a number of Trustee roles.

The selection process involved various interviews involving the CEO and other Trustees. Just like any interview, it was important to be prepared, which involved undertaking research on the charity and sector (I like to create a SWOT and PESTLE). Social media and the internet have a wealth of information to use, leverage and cross reference.

My personal preparation involved developing my own elevator pitch (why I wanted to become a trustee at that charity), how I could demonstrate the NOLAN principles (Seven Principles of Public Life, which are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership) and, finally, what I could bring to the board e.g., values, attributes, experience and skills.

The interview process does need to be seen as a two-way process – as a prospective Trustee how the discussions are conducted can give an insight into how the organisation and board runs. Understanding the interviewer’s back story and personal journey also can give a sense of their commitment and motivation. I also asked lots of questions to understand their purpose, strategy, current challenges, board effectiveness, decision making and governance. The more people I spoke to, the more I got a sense of what the charity was like and what I could bring to it.

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About Salima Shariff

An accomplished senior HR leader recognised for building board-level strategies that transform people and culture functions across the international arena. Ensuring the HR function is fit for the future to attract, develop, and execute the strategic vision.

As a passionate leader and trusted collaborator, I help to build workforces that will create a sustainable future for the world and everyone within it. At the heart of all my roles, I support networks consisting of thousands of employees to reach their full potential and support them on their path to success, regardless of the walk of life they have come from.

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