At Impetus we bring together the CEOs of all our partner charities every quarter to share their experiences and learn from each other. It’s always a brilliant thing – these are great people working together on a shared goal for children from poorer families to have the chance to succeed in school and work. But my team usually ban me from attending because we’ve learned that, no matter how much we invest in building deep relationships of trust with our partners, having ‘the funder’ in the room makes the tough conversations harder.
But this week was my last week at Impetus after a wonderful, challenging, meaningful four years. So, the CEOs asked me along to share my reflections on being a leader in the charity sector. It turned into a fascinating conversation, so I wanted to share what I said in the hope that it kicks off similar conversations with people reading this.
I had four reflections and two quotes from Fast Eddie Felson. (If you’re not familiar with this sage of the pool halls you really need to watch the 80s classic The Colour Of Money).
1. CEOs are over-rated.
Donors tell charity CEOs all the time that they’re ‘investing in you’, that they back great individual leaders. The myth of the strong leader is alive and well in the charity sector, as it is in the business world, sport and politics. Of course, leadership matters but I think we over-emphasise individual leaders and under-emphasise leadership teams and shared leadership capabilities. There is good evidence that the easy narratives of heroic individuals are a rubbish predictor of organisational success and that’s as true for football managers as it is for CEOs.
What can you do about this as one of these over-exalted people? The first thing to do is challenge the assumption. I’ve tried to do that with my board – building their relationships with the rest of the team and letting them hear from the people that really lead an area of work rather than having everything filtered through me. And, I’ve tried to do the same within Impetus – asking for and recognising leadership at all levels.
At the same time, you must be realistic. If people focus on you as the CEO you sometimes need to make it work, particularly if you need those people to give you money. Often that means telling your personal story, which brings me to authenticity. There’s a lot of talk of authentic leadership in the sector these days. Which is great because authenticity is important, and people can smell inauthenticity a mile away. But often authenticity is taken to mean ‘just be yourself’, which is not only the worst dating advice I’ve ever received, it’s also an unrealistic approach to leadership. This is where the wisdom of Fast Eddie comes in, sometimes as a leader you need to 'be yourself, but on purpose’. One of the peculiar things about leadership is that you sometimes must choose which emotions to show and when. If you’re speaking to your whole organisation, or presenting to hundreds of potential donors, you make a conscious choice about how you want them to feel and what emotions you need to show. This isn’t fake – I don’t think you should show emotions you don’t feel – but I think we should be honest that it’s weird and can, because of the element of performance it inevitably involves, make authenticity feel inauthentic to you as the leader.
2. CEOs are under-rated.
They're under-rated by themselves and sometimes by their teams. I’ve noticed this when it comes to planning. When you write a business plan it’s normally pretty obvious what the COO is responsible for, what the Director of Programmes will do, who oversees comms and so on. But it’s not obvious which bit the CEO is responsible for. I found myself feeling I was responsible for everything but without a clear something I could point to.
As I got more comfortable as a CEO though I became more confident in the things that only I could bring – partly because of the vantage point that being CEO gives you and partly because of what I happen to be good at. This will be different for different people but for me it was about four c’s: clarity, trying to be absolutely clear about what we were doing and why; connection, seeing the joins between our different areas of work and making the links; confidence, helping us to believe that we could do great things; and custodianship of the values of the organisation (in any alliteration it’s important that the last one on the list is painfully forced, like ‘rithmetic).
3. Manage yourself the way you would manage others.
It’s been amazing how often I have found myself treating myself in a way that I hope I never treat people who work for me: pushing myself too hard, never switching off, and punishing failures. I think now I would feel more comfortable giving myself a break so that I could perform well over the long haul.
4. Be lucky.
One of my first meetings at Impetus was with an investor who told me that most people in his industry thought their success was down to them, when in reality a lot of it was luck. I think he was right and it’s true for CEOs too – most of the big successes and failures will come with a heavy dose of luck. It’s a healthy reminder that you’re not as important as you think you are (or as others think you are).
But, at the same time, you need to put yourself in a position to be lucky. For me that is about investing in relationships. An opportunity is no good if you never hear about it. And most opportunities involve some kind of partnership – so you need lots of partners who want to work with you. If you get that right you might be able to live up to Fast Eddie’s other maxim: 'for some players, luck itself, is an art'.
I’m not sure how much of this resonated with the group of brilliant CEOs I was speaking to, but I learned a lot from the conversation that followed. So maybe that’s the final lesson: surround yourself with brilliant people and copy them.