The life of a career trustee (aged 39¼)

Chris Roberts is about to celebrate his tenth anniversary as a career trustee. And he isn’t yet 40.

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Chris Roberts is a career trustee at Dalriada Trustees
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Chris Roberts is a career trustee at Dalriada Trustees

Chris Roberts joined Dalriada in 2011 after ten years in scheme management and administration. Here he tells us about his path as a career trustee and the challenges of having a lack of grey hair...

I am just about to celebrate my tenth anniversary with Dalriada. I started as an assistant supporting experienced trustees in preparing for meetings, keeping governance documents up to date and filing general paperwork. In those ten years, I have progressed to being a board director of Dalriada, and last week deputised for our Chair to run the Dalriada Board meeting.

Career trusteeship was not really a thing in 2011, I had never considered being a professional trustee, but I thought ‘why not?'.

A readiness to learn and develop have been crucial. I have been lucky to work with, and take advice from, some very talented industry professionals. Most of my development was gained through listening to and learning from practical presentations.

After the first two to three years I took a more active role in running accounts, I would contribute to meetings and felt a lot more confident in my trustee knowledge and understanding. When a senior colleague left the business, my existing clients agreed that I could continue as the Dalriada lead. This was a great vote of confidence in me and gave me a portfolio of clients.

I think it is important that professional firms rotate trustee leads to ensure fresh ideas continue. This is recommended by the  Association of Professional Pension Trustees for sole trusteeship, and I firmly believe this is right. It also gives those wanting to develop a career in trusteeship to ‘step-up' when they are ready to do so.

As a young trustee trying to win work, I often heard I did not have enough grey hairs or lacked experience of XYZ pension scheme type. We as an industry talk a lot about diversity and inclusion (D&I) but don't act to deliver it. If you close the room to new experience, then the inhabitants cannot get more diverse, even if you mention D&I in the tender document. The grey hair is not something I can fix, you can learn a hell of a lot, but you cannot magic an extra few years on the planet.

Despite these challenges, I have developed my portfolio and now work with a number of businesses across multiple sectors. I find when people work with me, they seem confident to recommend me to others. Trusteeship balances empathy, technical knowledge and interpersonal skills. I have always attempted to lighten the discussions where it is appropriate and to foster an inclusive discussion. I have also grown some grey hairs, which may have helped. The fact word of mouth style referrals also don't foster diversity is also not lost on me…

I was asked to set up our Manchester Office in 2015, which has grown from me sitting in a cupboard, to arguably the largest professional trusteeship team in the north west. I have mentored new entrants into the market and shared my experiences as a developing trustee. There isn't a manual for trusteeship and I think mentoring and peer support are particularly important for the growth of career trustees. It is my job to help them along the way.

In October 2018 I was invited on to the Dalriada board. I found this both exciting and a new challenge. I think as someone from a generalist background, I did suffer from a degree of imposter syndrome. The moment you look around and understand the work you must do to ensure over 150 people remain in employment, is a fairly sobering moment. I have worked to understand the business challenge and to broaden my knowledge on matters completely outside of my normal comfort zone. I felt again like the sponge soaking up the experience of my fellow board members, and working again to get myself to where I needed to be. It was therefore a real milestone for me to be asked to chair a board meeting, which felt like validation that I had developed alongside this new challenge.

Now career trusteeship is probably the norm. We compete against like-minded firms who are taking top professionals from all stages of their working life and diverse sectors. Graduate programs have emerged and firms are increasing diversity of all kinds. Challenges still exist for new entrants to the market - but things are improving. The next ten years will be really interesting as we potentially see the continued contraction of defined benefit schemes, consolidation and the likely emergence of more standalone defined contribution governance. If our business remains unchanged in ten years, we will not survive.  In the immortal words of Canadian rapper Drake: "We started from the bottom, now we're here".

Chris Roberts is a director at Dalriada Trustees

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