Chief Executive of National Trust for Scotland, Simon Skinner, talks about his transition from a large Plc business to leading one of Scotland’s most high profile charities.
Reflecting on the changes which have taken place in recent years and those still underway at the National Trust for Scotland, he considers the need for more communication, partnership thinking and succession planning within the charitable and heritage sectors.
What were the key drivers for you in transitioning from the private sector to a role in the charitable sector? Or was it more specific to the role at the National Trust for Scotland?
It was driven largely by a change in my personal circumstance. Sadly a year into my three year international assignment as CEO of Aegon Ireland plc, my wife was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. Luckily for us we were able to access a drug, unavailable to women in the UK, that has the potential to extend life expectancy for on average 18 months. For us it did exactly what it said on the tin and whilst in the end her passing was kind of sudden, I had had time to reflect on what was important in life.
Without wanting to sound trite I knew that I wanted to put something back and engage in something that would give me a real sense of purpose, so I started looking at the Third Sector. Scotland as a working destination was an obvious choice as this is where my children are and I wanted to be near them.
In the end I applied for two posts in the charitable sector. To my surprise I was shortlisted for both, but the National Trust For Scotland was the one that was closest to my heart. I am passionate about Scotland’s heritage and the sense of place it provides us. My long-held belief is that if it wasn’t for independent organisations like the NTS and its efforts to protect and promote access to our heritage, much of what we take for granted today would have been lost.How much do you believe your previous role and experience in a Plc organisation influenced or informed your approach to change management at National Trust for Scotland?
I think my previous roles and experience of organisational change in the private sector have influenced my approach here enormously. Indeed it was the realisation by the Trustees that the National Trust for Scotland needed to change, to become more business-like, that influenced their selection of me as their new CEO.
Just looking at the Trust’s support systems you can see why change was needed. For example whilst we enjoy the largest membership of any conservation charity membership in Scotland, with more than 370,000 members, our membership demographic tends to be limited to young families and older age couples, with very little in between. Indeed those people that don’t have any experience of us, don’t realise we are a charity, and think of us as a well-funded arm of government, looking after castles. In reality, only 4 percent of our operating costs are provided through government grants and in addition to the 129 built properties we look after, we care for 200,000 acres of countryside and all the wildlife they contain, 46 Munros, 400 islands, including St Kilda, (the UK’s only dual World heritage site), 394 miles of mountain footpaths, 35 major gardens, 9 national nature reserves, 46 sites of special scientific interest, 200,000 artefacts etc. That plurality of coverage should support a much more diverse support base and it’s our job to widen our appeal and attract new audiences and grow our supporters.
In business terms we are equivalent to a medium-sized business, with operating costs and income of £40 million per annum. However over the long term income from paying visitors and their associated secondary spend has been declining and it was becoming more and more difficult to square the circle, let alone address the £40m of conservation deficit.
Almost all the organisations I have ever worked with have undergone large transformation projects, and you learn a little bit more each time. I came to this role with a developed set of views about change management. Broadly these are: You first need to establish and communicate the need for change; in so doing define the gaps between what you have and where you want to go; secondly set out a route map to the new organisation, with clear deliverables and outcomes and lastly determine the skills and competencies you need to ensure delivery.
In my experience too many organisations confuse the need to communicate with the need to consult and believe they have the capacity and skills to deliver major change, whilst doing their day jobs. I also believe effective organisational change is lead from the top and hence change often has to start with the leadership team.
Communication is key to successful change and taking people with you is the key to embedding that change. It links to the theme of culture change. How do you make the change stick? You can’t make it stick if you don’t change the culture. I also believe that culture starts at the top. If you don’t have the right top team and attitudes, then you need to make the change there first.
In the charity sector, and I am sure that applies to the public sector too, people are understandably nervous about using consultants. But properly managed they can through their skills and programme management models bring a level of assurance and confidence to the delivery of organisational change, that otherwise would be missing.
Simply stated the need for change at the Trust stems from the hypothesis that long term sustainability of heritage depends on ensuring its use and on developing support systems. Hence our immediate strategy is one of monetisation. We need to get paying visitor numbers back up to past levels; we need to get secondary spend up; and we need to widen our appeal and drive a radical increase in membership. Short term we will achieve this through a investing in new attractions, offering great experiences and medium term by making sure that people recognise there is a ‘cause’ here worth supporting.
In terms of other income sources the Trust is in the enviable position of having a big pool of endowments. Many are restricted, but nevertheless a number of the properties have built up good reserves and our strategy is to invest this capital in developing the new attractions. This year, we are looking at investing in six properties.
Capital programmes and the attaching business case /ROI are familiar territory, organisational change and strategic planning experience and leadership through change from the perspective of the private sector fit the bill for what the Trust needs right now. I am a great believer that leadership is time-served and more often than not leaders don’t know when their time is up. I fully recognise why I have been asked to come in and what I am here to do.
What have been the key challenges, opportunities and learnings as you have transitioned through this period of change with the Trust?
I guess one of the key challenges was to convey the case for radical change and the need to act at pace. My sense was that staff had been expecting iterative change rather than anything transformational.
Another area of challenge for me is working with an elected Board. I have a board of 14 Trustees, four of whom are co-opted and ten elected. I am used to working in a PLC where non-execs are sought out and remunerated for the specific skills and experiences they bring to the table. That said I welcome the varied make-up of the Board and admire both their commitment to the Trust and willingness to use their skills and experiences collectively to reach good decisions. I am also lucky in that my Chairman has a business background and hence our starting positions are often aligned, in that we tend to challenge the status quo and are determined to move things forward.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity I have is the amazing ‘passion’ people in the Trust have for what they do. The challenge is to harness this passion, energy and commitment behind a set of corporate priorities.
Has the need for communication been greater during this process? If so, how have you addressed this and what tools/mediums have been most valuable? As an individual, I recognise that I can only do so much. Change is constant and I need my leadership team to be out walking the floor and communicating all the time. For me coming into the organisation from the outside, it was important that in the initial period, I visited and met with staff – in my first year I manged to visit 40 of the 148 properties within the Trust. I was trying hard to form an impression from staff about what they thought of the organisation as well as what makes it tick. We have about 400 full time staff, but we have also 3500 volunteers at our peak. It was really important that I got to know what they thought about the Trust and also what our active membership thought, especially those in the Members’ Centres and Friends’ Groups which do so much to support our properties.
We spent time bringing groups of staff together. At the beginning of the change process we made it clear we were not going to impact those at the property level. It was mainly going to be HQ-based staff. We explained that it was not just about team structures but about people’s individual roles changing too. We were also looking for greater efficiencies in the way we do things. Some of the means by which we communicated what we were doing included weekly updates on the programme, weekly meetings, media interviews and briefings for stakeholders, including the Scottish Government. I also personally respond to anyone who writes to me. I did worry that following the announcement of the changes I might get 370,000 letters, but actually, by making clear the reasons for, rationale and purpose of our changes from the start, we didn’t get a lot of pushback from members.
The whole period of change has been, and continues to be, carried out under a high level of scrutiny and observation by the Scottish media. Has this impacted on your approach? If so, how?
I can honestly say that it hasn’t really impacted my approach. Looking back at the coverage over the past two to three years, it is on the whole largely favourable. There were a few sensationalist headlines, but overall the articles were balanced. In terms of my personal approach, I feel it is best to be open and honest with journalists, acknowledging they have a role in challenging what we are doing and holding me to account.
The size of the board of trustees has evolved in the past few years at National Trust for Scotland? What impacts do you think that this has brought to the overall governance of the Trust?
My predecessor was accountable to an 80-strong council (reformed as part of the 2010 review led by Sir George Reid), as well as Board of Trustees. I have to be honest and say that if that arrangement had still been in in place when the job was advertised I don’t think I could have taken it on.
The Board of Trustees has and continues to evolve. For instance we now link the criteria for election to the experience required to match the needs of our corporate strategy. The Trustees are of course responsible for setting that strategy and for monitoring its delivery. They also need to satisfy themselves that Trust’s operations are being well managed and this is where the Transformation of the Trust ( Phase II) , which is bringing in business reporting and data management capability to provide assurance around our controls and operations will lead to further changes for the way the Trustees engage with the Trust’s operations.
We are also engaged on the establishment of advisory groups or panels of experts who are willing to make themselves available to us when we need them, bringing expert opinion to our idea’ formulation and decison-making.
Is there a need for greater diversity at a senior leadership and governor level (not just gender specific) across the charitable sector in Scotland?
Yes there is. I think greater diversity is quite plainly good business sense. Whilst I subscribe to the absolute need to appoint the best people for the job, collective informed decisions within leadership teams are best served by diversity of composition.
How important is succession planning within the National Trust for Scotland? If so, is there an active approach in place to deliver this?
It is important for the long term sustainability of any organisation but one that is often ignored, particularly in organisations going through change. We are beginning that journey now, to putting a more formal succession planning programme in place.
We are constantly thinking about leadership and the people we need to provide it. Our leadership team represents the most influential positions within the business and we need to ensure we are taking account of the diversity agenda and the key skills we need.
For the first time, we have created our own internal Talent Development Pool. We are working in partnership with Edinburgh University to grow this and build a group which has a focused, common base of skillsets, with the right understanding, knowledge and approach. The programme has been specifically tailored for us in partnership with Edinburgh University. We are about to launch our second cohort, so by next year about 20 people will have been involved from the Trust.
You have talked about greater collaboration, even consolidation, within the heritage and historical organisations in Scotland. What impact do you believe this will have in the long term for the sector?
There is a plethora of charities within the ‘heritage’ sector many carrying out the same activity, whether that’s conserving, protecting or managing heritage attractions and or promoting access to the beautiful stories, places and objects of our shared heritage. However resources to support this activity are finite and I believe it is incumbent on us all to explore how we could work more efficiently together to achieve these ends.
This sentiment was echoed by the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities – with findings in the report ‘Stronger charities for stronger society’ (March 2017) that duplication of charities and mergers ‘should often be considered as a measure of success. Naturally a reflection of a charity keeping a proper reflection on its benefactors.’
The Government recognises the importance of preservation and heritage across many areas, such as education, health and wellbeing. However, there is universal recognition that there isn’t enough government money to go round.
I do believe that we need to think more about partnerships; what we are doing and how we can do it better. A lot of infrastructure is duplicated and there really is no need for that.
As you look ahead to the next five-ten years for the Trust, what do you believe are the key areas of focus across Scotland?
The key debate beyond how the sector can work together more efficiently to do ‘what’ we do, has to be about ‘why’ we do what we do – the public benefit. This has to include not only our economic contribution to society but our contribution to health, wellness, education and to our sense of place as a society.
For the NTS we remain first and foremost the National Trust for Scotland and as the largest independent heritage conservation charity we are uniquely placed to give voice to the issues we face in the sector. We are on a journey, transitioning from a charity to a cause. The sad reality is that many people don’t see us as relevant to them or their lives. We need to communicate better what we do and why and create experiences that better resonate with the communities of Scotland.
When I joined the Trust, I was committed to being there for 3-5 years. I have just entered my third year, and feel like we are making progress. What will be really positive, not just for me personally but for the organisation over the next 5-10 years, will be if we have delivered on our existing strategic plan, have a clear view of what success looks like for the next 5 years; and have ensured that there are people within the organisation in place and ready to take it to the next level.
Politically, economically and culturally we are in unusual times, which paradoxically plays to the strengths of The National Trust for Scotland. We are rooted in heritage, something every one of us brings to the table and our protection of that heritage and the promotion of a sense of place are all the more needed and relevant than they have ever been. We provide a reference point to the past and that can help us understand what we can be in the future. I think that is where we fit and I hope that people will increasingly look at the Trust, value what we are doing and want to be part of it. This is where we need to be very clear about explaining who we are as an organisation and thinking about how we present ourselves.
Simon, who holds an MBA from the University of Stirling, was previously Chief Executive of Aegon Ireland Plc, an international insurance business managing in excess of €4 billion of funds for over 20,000 investors. Prior to this he served in a succession of senior leadership posts within the wider Aegon UK group of pension, insurance and investment businesses, including the roles of Chief Operating Officer for Aegon UK (Scottish Equitable) and Director of Customer Services. At earlier stages in his career, Simon also fulfilled senior corporate services, sales and marketing roles with the Automobile Association, Scottish Equitable, Scottish Widows and Lloyds TSB. His very earliest appointments were with the National Health Service, including the Greater Glasgow Health Board where he was responsible for commissioning cancer and cardiac care. Simon’s career in healthcare management also took him to Saudi Arabia where he was Director of Procurement for the Saudi Arabian Military Hospitals programme. He took up his post as Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland in June 2015.