Lessons in Leadership: Joseph Levy Foundation

In this series, we are speaking to members about their experience of foundation leadership. 

The third article in this series comes from James Fitzpatrick, Director of the Joseph Levy Foundation.

This series first appeared in December 2017’s Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here

What drew me to apply for this job was the opportunity to bring my skills and experience into a new role where I could also learn about family foundations, understand more about different cultural perspectives, including a faith-based view, and look more at diversity and inclusion. I believe trusts and foundations have a responsibility to address this in their charitable activities and their governance and operations. It’s not just about recruitment processes, but also about foundations and the individuals within them supporting the next generation of grant-makers, for example, by mentoring someone, particularly someone who ‘doesn’t look like me’.

I joined the foundation five months ago when the previous long-term director retired. Before then my career had mainly been in grant-making. Immediately prior to this, I was director of a smaller grantmaking trust working in international development, and before that director of a grant-making charity for children with life-limiting conditions.

I think the process of transition from one role to another is very important. My experience in leaving my previous trust has been particularly valuable. Obviously, have a handover if you can. I had two weeks, which was brilliant. And if you have already left, offer to go back when the new person is starting. I have been co-opted as an unpaid adviser to the board for a year. The new director is eminently capable of fulfilling the role and leading the organisation, but the board felt it would supplement that process if I were available as a reference point. I hope this helps my previous trust, but it is also good for me in that I know I have handled my moving on in as responsible a way as possible.

If it is not possible to remain involved in some constructive way, it is important to offer an exit interview. That allows you to decompress a little, and to reflect on your previous role and the organisation, which is helpful in preparing for your new one. In previous roles I wish I had had the opportunity to do that.

Before you start, I would suggest you to do as much preparation as you can. Start with a plan, your own sense of what is needed, but don’t be rigid about it. The first thing you should do is to speak to everybody – staff and trustees in a small foundation or key stakeholders in a larger trust. Be prepared to change your plan once you have spoken to everybody and done the sort of assessment that can only be done once you have been in the role for at least a couple of weeks.

Know your own strength and weaknesses and do something about the weaknesses while you have the luxury of time and being new. For example, I know I am not really a people person, which is one of the reasons I have always been interested in small foundations – there are just 2.2 staff here, including me. But I’m consciously trying to develop my skills in that area. A new role is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to reflect on what you wish you had done differently in a previous job and start the new job with that in mind.

I’m fortunate to meet regularly outside of work with three people in similar roles and I find that network of peer support, almost co-mentoring, particularly helpful. And there’s usually cake involved!

For me there have been no great surprises in this role. The job description and recruitment pack were pretty accurate. When my predecessor retired, the foundation took the opportunity to undertake a review and look at new ways of working. I had two interviews and attended a board meeting, and felt that both parties could ask honest questions and have them answered.

It is important to meet with each of your board members individually, and to have a clear sense of what you want to explore with them – what is their vision for the trust, what do they want to get out of their involvement, what can they offer? Reflect back your analysis of their responses to the board as a whole. The absolute key is building a relationship with the Chair, and having a clear set of expectations from the board about your role, and the support and supervision between the Chair and you as Director. It should be clear to everyone that board and paid staff are a team.

In previous transitions to director roles, my best decisions include not giving in to the temptation of making changes at the outset. But equally it is important to avoid a sense of analysis/paralysis. One of the mistakes I made in the past was not giving sufficient attention to the culture of a trust, particularly from the long-term employees who felt they had a stake in the organisation that went beyond their job description. For them, the change that I thought was needed was immensely difficult, and I didn’t pay enough attention to that.

The last thing I would suggest is to take a break between jobs, if only for a few days. It gives you a chance to reset, take stock, ask “what in my last role did I not like about myself?” and use it as an opportunity to stop doing that and plan to do better things instead!

James Fitzpatrick
Joseph Levy Foundation


Other articles in this series:

Lessons in Leadership: Bupa UK Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Building Change Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Nationwide Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Cattanach Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Building Communities Trust

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