The importance of difference: reflections on six years on the British Council board of trustees

Rohan Gunatillake
Aug 17 · 8 min read
Unexpected colour on an evening in Riyadh

This month — after six years as a trustee — I stepped down from the board of the British Council. It was my first ever time serving as a board member or trustee and alongside my wanting to contribute to the organisation itself, part of my motivation when I joined was to challenge myself and learn. So now that I’ve completed my time, here is a little reflection on my experience. I hope you it useful. But first for context if you need it…

Quick guide to the British Council

The British Council is a charity, that while headquartered in the UK, operates in around 120 countries around the world, working in the fields of education, the English language, civil society and the arts. As one of the world’s most important organisations working in ‘soft-power’ and cultural relations it has very close ties to government — in particular the Foreign & Commonwealth Office — and at the same time parts of it operate very commercially and overall it has an annual revenue of over £1Bn, the largest of any charity in the UK. It is deeply complex and deeply important. While others work on short political cycles, the Council plays the long game and it plays it from a place of values and humanness. So in its 80 year history, it’s perhaps needed now more than ever.

Quick guide to its board

It has a non-executive board of twelve to fourteen trustees who act as the guardians of the Council’s purpose and are ultimately accountable for the organisation. A trustee’s term is three years and can be renewed only once if agreed by the wider board. They meet 6–7 times a year for half-day board meetings and there we monitor progress on operations, give steers on strategy and make decisions re: investment, partnerships and organisational direction. Outside of that there are sub-committees — I was on the Nominations (helping select new trustees, chairs and chief executives), Remuneration (helping with policy re: staff pay) and the Digital Advisory Group — there are many more. I then would have informal relationships with various members of the leadership team (e.g. HR, Innovation, Arts) to support them on particular matters and I would also act as an ambassador for the organisation both at UK events and on overseas trips. In my six years on board I had engagements in Italy, Uganda, South Africa, Sri Lanka & Saudi Arabia.

Imposter syndrome is real yo

I had wild imposter syndrome when I joined the British Council board. Every one else around the table was heading up a major museum or a university or had had a storied career. Most had at least a CBE and at peak oldschool honours recognition we had a dame, two knights and a baroness. And there I was — a first time board-member, with only ten year’s work experience under my belt and while I have a fair few letters in my name, there certainly weren’t any after them. And if my age and inexperience wasn’t enough to make me feel different, I was also (pretty much) the brownest person in the room, the person who lived furthest away from London and the one with the most day-to-day digital experience.

Those first one or two boards were tough. Not only was I getting a handle on the format and formalities of the meetings, I didn’t yet have the confidence to speak in as direct a manner as I would have liked. What helped change that was realising that I was there as a peer not as a junior and that my differences were especially valuable since they brought fresh perspectives and helped shine light on blind spots. For that, I’m especially grateful to Usha Prashar and Vernon Ellis, the then vice-chair and chair who showed a special level of trust in me. I doubt I’ll ever meet as skilful a human as Usha in a board context in my life.

And while I do have a very privileged background (educated at a London private school, then Oxford, first job at Accenture etc), I realise now that the board at the time took a big gamble bringing me on. They backed me and my potential and while yes I did tick a lot of diversity boxes, on a board of twelve there isn’t really room for people who are just there for window-dressing.

All of which leads me to the only real point I want to make:

Institutions need to take more risks with board appointments because in times of ongoing turbulence it is difference that will move things forward

It is perhaps not viable for institutions to recruit people to their senior executive team who don’t have deep experience on the basis of having strong potential. But it is viable when it comes to board members. There were many times over the six years at the Council when my age, my digital-literacy, my closeness to more junior members of staff in the organisation and my brown-ness changed and added to the conversation. And I fear for the organisations which don’t have those perspectives (and others) in a time like this, especially the larger institutions which have material impact on the people of the UK and of how we are perceived and understood by the wider world.

The headhunter issue

There is already lots of good work happening out there under the banner of creating more diverse, inclusive boards and while everyone can do more, I’m pleased with how the Council’s understanding has evolved and changed in the time I’ve been there. There is however a structural issue for many big institutions in that they tend to use a relatively small set of search firms or headhunters to source candidates and those firms tend to have rolodexes which they think are golden but are in fact mainly made of gammon. The public appointment recruitment space needs some major disruption — both by nominations committees in organisations being more open to difference and by the support for different kinds of recruitment activity. Thankfully there are exciting firms which start from difference such as Audeliss and it’s my hope that more emerge.

There is however another critical factor…

The money issue

I was lucky. Not only did the Council take a gamble on me, I could afford to take the gamble myself. A charity trustee is an unpaid position and all the board meetings, calls, events and overseas trips really do add up to a substantial amount of time. And while travel expenses are covered, as the owner of a small business, the trustee position likely cost me thousands of pounds over the six years. But it was something I was not only ready to invest in for my own development, my and my company’s financial position meant that I could afford to. It’s yet another piece of the privilege puzzle behind my being able to do what I did. And I know it’s part of charity law that trustees can’t be paid but that same law is a structural barrier prohibiting people who have the skills and the potential but just can’t afford the time. We need to solve that.

There is a lot more I could have said about what has been an amazing six years: what I learnt about high-level politics, the future of English language teaching, the meeting of ‘high art’ with digital culture, the role of soft-power in a post-Brexit world etc etc. But I’ll save that for another day. The British Council is a truly important institution and I’m excited to keep in touch and see where it goes next. I’ve stepped down at a fascinating time and wish the new chair Stevie Spring all my best for her time heading it up.

And if you’ll indulge me, here are some random highlights of my time:

Best moment

Giving a public talk at the British Council’s centre in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Part of the reason my mother ended up the UK was thanks to a British Council scholarship and that together with several family members being in the audience made it a very emotional experience for me. I may have cried at one point on stage.

Worst moment

The death of Martin Roth, the Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum who has served as a board member until he became very ill. Martin was my total boardcrush, a brave, brilliant, and deeply principled man. A gutting loss.

Funniest moment

Meeting Jimmy Choo and then him insulting my wife’s shoes to her face is hard to beat. He did it very playfully and he is a really lovely human but it was still pretty hilarious.

Best trip

Due to the real life of work and family life I only managed less than one trip a year. They were all special and Sri Lanka was of course doubly so. But the one that was perhaps the most striking was my trip to Saudi Arabia. Part of me didn’t want to go but I’m glad I did and saw first hand part of what is happening in that country. Hosting a round-table discussion with a collection of female entrepreneurs in Riyadh was a particular highlight.

Least good trip

Back in 2013, I went as the British Council representative to the Pontignano Conference, which brings together a range of people from the UK and Italy to discuss strategic and political issues the two countries face. I was new to the context and to be honest out of my depth but I did learn a great deal. I hear that since the Brexit referendum, the event is somewhat more lively.

Least formal board member-like moment

When you visit a country as a trustee you’re treated with enormous privilege and are pretty much a VIP and as such tend to experience a highly curated slice of what there is to experience. So on the last day of our Saudi Arabia trip, having a debrief with the team over dirty fried chicken from Al-Baik the Jeddah fast food institution was a nice change of pace.

What’s next for me board-wise?

I’m taking a break for now. I had a great six years with the Council but with a relatively recently expanded family and settling into my new role with NHS Scotland I’m committed all my time to doing those two things really well. However if a good opportunity comes up — especially in Scotland — then I’d be open to it if I feel I have something to give and it’s an organisation whose work I have a connection with.

Special thanks

All the board members and wider BC team have been incredible supportive of me during my time. I’ve already mentioned Usha Prashar and Vernon Ellis for special thanks and to that I’d also like to add Christopher Rodrigues, Alison Coutts and Ciaràn Devane — all of whose wisdom and support have changed me for the better. Immense gratitude also to my wife Lucy who had to put up with my regular sleeper train trips and days away.

Enjoying my Al-Baik midnight feast in Jeddah

Rohan Gunatillake

Written by

Creator of buddhify. Author of Modern Mindfulness. Also made Designing Mindfulness, Kara etc.

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