The Changing role of the charity CEO

Wave - sA leadership model for permanent crises…

Last week I held one of my regular calls with CEOs from across the sector to talk through some of the changes they are having to lead through, and potentially what comes next.

It’s only when you lay it out that you start to appreciate the scale of the challenge. If this were a film it would probably come with a parental advisory.

We’ve now had two years of organisations working in emergency response mode through the pandemic, and that’s in the context of justice, health, and social care systems that were already on their knees from a decade of austerity and state retreat.

Industries and businesses in some key sectors have been decimated. Public behaviours and beliefs have changed. Patterns of giving and volunteering have shifted, as have attitudes to authority, work, careers, commuting, campaigns, causes, country, and community.

Polarisation, populism, and authoritarianism are all rising, from crime bills to culture wars, from the spiralling refugee crisis to our own embarrassing response; with post-truth politics fuelling conspiracy theories and the continued erosion of public trust.

Sovereign debt, inequality, and inflation have reached levels we’ve not seen in decades and seem only set to increase; add to that labour shortages, food poverty, ongoing discrimination, and now a war in Europe…

Shall I go on?

And we’ve not even got onto climate change, teenage mental health, post-pandemic trauma, possible waves of new variants, the sheer scale of the impending cost-of-living crisis, and everything else that’s racing down the track towards us.

The world is not going back to normal any time soon. This “rolling crisis” is here to stay for the foreseeable, and I’m sorry if that sounds like the voice of doom, but we need to be honest about the future because we’re all going to be living and working in it.

To do that, we’re going to have to change; to think, act, and above all lead, differently.

We had no shortage of challenges back in, say, 2018, but the ones we face now are of a different order of magnitude in terms of urgency and impact.

We have to balance the need to make ever faster, more effective operational decisions – to be agile and work at extreme pace over long periods – with the need to work strategically, collaboratively, and thoughtfully on the profound structural and systemic issues that may take decades to address.

We have to bring parties together for genuine collaboration, within systems designed to promote competition; and to protect the health and wellbeing of the people operating and drawing on our services, while at the same time, dissolving the boundaries between our organisation and others.

And we have to inspire people both within and outside of our organisations to join us on a journey, while being transparent and honest that it won’t be plain sailing, and that we don’t, and may never have, all the answers.

And we have to do all this is on top of everything else we need to do to keep the wheels turning day-to-day.

In the ten years I’ve been advising charity leaders, I don’t think I’ve ever met one who wasn’t busy, but the ones I meet now, although they rarely let on, are often almost overwhelmed with the panoply of challenges they’re managing. Some are probably not far away away from burnout.

Which brings me, finally, to the point.

Our leadership model needs to change – in its style, its focus, its philosophy – if our leaders and their people are going to survive, let alone succeed.

Over the coming months, I’ll be convening more conversations around this topic and sharing my thoughts here. If you’d like to join them, just drop me a line.

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