As you’ll know, if you’ve been following my online activity, I work both as a CEO of a medium sized charity, and as a coach. Oh, and I write books, too. Working as a CEO and also coaching others, as well as having been, until recently, a charity trustee, gives me a very particular view on issues facing leaders in the third sector. These are really, really difficult times. The results of a poll carried out by NCVO of charity leaders, published in January, indicated that charities were having to deal with declining income, whilst meeting increased demand. Paul Ashton, CEO of Prospects, is quoted as saying:
“Our sector can’t expect to be immune from the economic challenges but further reductions in contract income will be devastating to an already hard-pressed and dedicated workforce. Local charities often provide a lifeline for individuals and families and there is a danger that many effective organisations will be forced to close, leaving the public sector to pick up the pieces.”
And of course we all know that the way things are going, there soon won’t be much public sector at all to even acknowledge the pieces, let alone pick them up. And for the director or CEO leading their organisation, the challenges are enormous. We have to balance the books, which increasingly means closing down services and making people redundant. Increasingly, we have to adapt to a market economy, often bidding for work against colleagues in the sector. We’re advocates for our service users, so we’re often having to protest to the people who have the power to fund us, or not. As the health and social care environment goes through a revolution that is by no means bloodless, we have to understand new bureaucracies, build new relationships, prepare to meet a different set of customer needs. And we need to provide excellent leadership for teams of people who, in many cases, are seeing their incomes fall as wages stay static and the cost of living soars, and who are on the front line, dealing with increasing need with fewer resources.
So if you’re a CEO, ask yourself this: is your board of trustees, or your management committee, a help or a hindrance in all this? As a CEO, are you drawing on the strengths of your board? Are you making sure that they’re as informed as they need to be about the aspects of organisation that affect them? And if you’re a trustee, as yourself this: what have I done this week to support the CEO of my organisation? Am I doing things that are less than helpful?
There’s never been a time when working together in a spirit of trust and co-operation has been more important. In order to function with clarity, and to the best of their ability, the CEO needs to know that she or he has the support of their board; and that challenges from trustees will be constructive and relevant to what’s going on now; and that board members will put at the organisation’s disposal their skills and energy, their buy-in to their particular cause.
They say that being a CEO is a lonely job, and you certainly know about it when you’re having to make difficult and unpopular decisions. Many of us blame ourselves when things go wrong, even if the logic is flawed. We worry that we’re not doing enough, we’re not good enough. We fear failing, because the implications don’t just affect us, they affect our staff and our service users and heaven knows who else. However good the board is, most CEOs will benefit from coaching, mentoring, or non-managerial supervision from someone outside the organisation who’s a skilled facilitator/consultant and has no vested interest in the charity. Not only does it help to have a sounding board – and someone who can hold the mirror up to you – but taking time with someone outside the office gives you space and time to reflect, to take stock, to creatively problem-solve, to take a reality check, and to explore different options for tough situations. You can let off steam and know that you won’t be putting your job on the line by doing so. I’d urge boards of trustees to recognise that even if it means spending some money, your CEO is likely to do a far better job – and preserve their sanity – if they have someone outside the organisation with whom to work on a regular basis. With my CEO hat on, this has been my own experience – and I also have a board of skilled and supportive trustees.
I was talking to the CEO of a small organisation a few weeks ago. She’d been having some external non-managerial supervision, which she’d told me had been very helpful. I asked her how it was going. “The board haven’t agreed to fund it,” she said. “I’ve had to stop. Sorry, I’ve got to dash – it’s just crazy at the moment.” This surely is not the way to get the best from someone who happens to be immensely skilled and impressive, but who looked to be heading towards exhaustion.
There’s a challenge here for coaches, mentors, and consultants too, especially for those of us who who want to contribute to making a difference through support of third sector leaders. How do we make high quality coaching and mentoring available at a price that charities and social enterprises can afford? It’s a tough one: our costs are high if we keep up our CPD, are members of an association, have coaching ourselves, and avail ourselves of supervision. We have a living to make, after all. What helps? Consider having different fee levels depending on the turnover of the charity – you can check out their financial status on the Charity Commission website. Is running a group an option for some people? Do you offer different packages, depending on the client’s needs? Do you give a certain number of freebies, or heavily discounted sessions each year?
It’s the start of a new week. What changes will you make as a result of reading this?