Almost every charity CEO I’ve spoken with in recent years wants their organisation to move faster, to become more responsive, more flexible, more agile. Many look to the corporate sector for exemplars, but business can be a very mixed bag from which to draw inspiration.
For instance, there tends to be a noticeable difference between business leaders who’ve climbed the corporate ladder, and those who’ve taken the entrepreneurial route. You can see it in the way entrepreneurs work, hear it in the way they speak. There’s an impatience, an energy, an almost reckless “just do it” voice inside the entrepreneur’s head that makes them roll up their sleeves and get things moving.
That attitude often generates a restless sense of pace, purpose and positivity within the businesses they establish. It’s those characteristics that are increasingly being sought-after across the business world in these fast-changing times, and it’s those characteristics that create an agile environment.
Make no mistake, entrepreneurs aren’t born with those characteristics. They’re invariably acquired by necessity, but they also develop surprisingly quickly. An ex-colleague of mine left his Regional Director role in the corporate world about six years ago to start his own business, going from a team of over 2,000 people to a team of two. He described the experience as disorientating in the extreme: “… like climbing into a washing machine.” And yet, his is now one of the best growth stories in high-tech manufacturing. The optimism in their offices is overwhelming, the pace is breath-taking, and they’re already making an impact on the global stage.
I remember the first formal session we had together, about 18 months into the new business. We developed their strategy, start to finish, in about four hours, and we did the same thing a year later. In his corporate life, progress was all about planning: ready, aim, fire. Now he’s an entrepreneur, it’s fire, aim, fire again. I recently worked with another, much larger entrepreneurial business, where we developed their long-term strategy in a two-week process: one meeting, half a dozen phone calls and one day away with the Board. In an entrepreneurial environment pace is paramount.
It’s easy to assume that we could achieve this speed because they were small, simple businesses; very different to large, complex charities. But in fact, that second business has several thousand staff, operates in a wide variety of categories in a dozen different countries, and turned over a quarter of a billion pounds last year, having doubled in size since 2014. The difference is not one of scale or complexity, it’s entirely one of attitude.
I recently spoke with a charity CEO who, not unlike my Regional Director friend, had once risen through the ranks to reach the top of a large, traditional charity. For the last few years however, he’d been leading a smaller, more ambitious charity, chaired by a serial entrepreneur.
As he talked about the transition, it was clear it wasn’t just the role that had changed, he’d changed as well: the examples he gave, the pace they were moving at, even the language he used. He shared some of their innovations, the risks they’d taken, the failures, the pivots, the extraordinary successes, and I asked how he’d come to embrace this much more entrepreneurial approach.
He summed it up in one anecdote. When he told his Chair that the charity needed a more formal strategy, the Chair asked how long it would take. He ventured three or four months, to which the Chair replied he had two weeks. Two weeks later they had the outline of a smart strategy that has taken them from strength to strength.
Much has been written about how to structure an agile organisation, but the key to agility is not structural, it’s cultural. And the biggest influence on organisational culture is the attitude and behaviour of the leadership. Pace is state of mind. Agility is a change of attitude: from planned and prepared to impatient and energetic; ready to move with a few ideas that have a 70% chance, rather than waiting for all the stars to align behind one; ready to fire without a perfect aim, to see where the shots hit, to rapidly reload, aim, and fire again.
What can you do in the next two weeks to step-up the pace and agility of your leadership team?