I’ve been hearing from lots of not-for-profit leaders in the past few weeks, in my 1-1 coaching, in informal chats and in recent online events. I’m hearing anger, frustration and exhaustion. I’m also hearing optimism, humour and courage in the face of the most challenging environment our sector has faced in decades.
Listening to all these voices, it feels as though I am witness to new ways emerging. Ways of leading that even a few years ago would have seemed risky and out of place. I feel proud to be aligned with these voices. Here’s what I’m noticing.
A new willingness to be vulnerable
A few weeks ago, I was at the DSC Charity Leaders Conference. One of the most powerful presentations was from Martin Houghton-Brown, CEO of St John’s Ambulance. He’s the top man, yes, and, he was upfront about how he suffers from anxiety. “I make it a matter of principle to tell people I am anxious”, he said in his inspiring speech.
He wonders aloud whether that’s a mismatch with being a Charity CEO and all the challenges that brings, and I can’t stop myself from dropping into the chat: “No! Not a mismatch. A perfect match.” A CEO who shares that he struggles with his mental health and who knows that whatever happens it will be okay is my kind of leader.
It was one of the most moving speeches I’ve ever heard. DSC CEO, Debra Alcock-Tyler, teared up in her facilitation role, and so did I.
A new awareness of the importance of looking after your people
It hasn’t always fallen on welcoming ears but I have been saying this, literally, for years, as I’ve pressed senior leaders to invest in staff with coaching, training and support. At the DSC conference it was so good to hear it said back loud and clear by the super-inspiring, Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter. ‘If you don’t look after your people”, she says, “you can’t do anything.” Three cheers for that! Polly told us she is currently holding ‘ask me anything’ Q&As live every fortnight so that her people feel heard.
If there’s one thing this pandemic has made us all realise it is that your people are at the very core of everything you do. If it ever really was a luxury to care for the wellbeing of your team, now it is an absolute necessity. “We are having to do stuff that would endanger people’s wellbeing at the best of times” says Polly, “and these are not the best of times.”
I truly hope this people-focused approach lasts through the pandemic and beyond.
A new embracing of the uncomfortable and the unpredictable
Another voice from the conference was CEO of Barnado’s, Javed Khan, always a witty and entertaining speaker. Barnado’s has lost a devastating £50 million in a year when its services are needed more than ever. And he is still telling lively stories, encouraging charity leaders to build their capacity to ‘learn, unlearn and learn again’ and to embrace the uncomfortable, particularly in relation to Black Lives Matter.
I love his approach that leaders don’t have all the answers. ‘We are all driving blind,” he says. “We are all feeling our way.” “Don’t be the person who knows it all,” he warns. “The person who closes down ideas because ‘we did this once and it didn’t work.’” I couldn’t agree more that this approach doesn’t have a whole lot to bring to the pandemic party. Times have changed. It’s fresh thinking, agility, open-mindedness and a willingness to engage with the unpredictable that’s needed right now.
I feel hugely privileged to be working with senior leaders and their teams at this time. To be witnessing and encouraging these important shifts in our thinking which will help us through these dark times and out the other side.
These shifts aren’t always easy to navigate alone – a new way of thinking often presents new obstacles, particularly if you’re going against the tide in your organisation. If you’d like some support, please do get in touch and let’s see how I can help.