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The Secret CEO: Answers

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Secret Ceo Teaser 1
I should start by saying, the answers that follow are my views on the sector as a whole and as such, the sector is treated homogeneously. However, there are always outliers; some organisations that are leaders on something and some that don’t do it at all. These are my personal views – I don’t expect everyone to agree and indeed would be surprised if they did! 

Unlike some in our sector, I do not view charities as being the answer to all the world’s ills, nor the way to solve all its problems. I do get annoyed sometimes when some in the sector act as if all knowledge and experience lies with us and we should be the ones to do everything to help those we seek to support. I don’t believe that is our role at all – I believe we are there to help when others won’t, or can’t and to bring a user perspective where perhaps it is seldom heard. I believe it is our role to drive up the levels of service our beneficiaries (another word I don’t really like!) receive and expect – not to seek to supply all services ourselves.

So here are my views on a few of the many, fascinating, questions that you posed – as I say, I don’t expect everyone to agree but hopefully they might spark some discussion. 

How do you think the sector is doing on digital transformation?

Cr*p in many cases. If I hear one more charity CEO (or worse Chair) rabbit on about how they are digitally transforming their organisation and discover they mean they are getting a new website, I shall scream! In most cases I don’t believe the sector knows what digital transformation actually is – you can tell that by two things; a) the number of organisations who “get in a consultant” and believe that’s how you digitally transform and b) the number who believe it is about tools and gadgets, many of which are expensive and therefore “we can’t afford to do it”. You don’t digitally transform by bringing in a consultant and it isn’t about gadgets – it is about processes, systems and more importantly, thinking differently. The latter is probably why many in the sector aren’t keen on it.

Digital transformation is about your entire organisation – everything about it – and taking a long, hard look at what works and what doesn’t. It has to be led – not by consultants - but by the CEO and the SMT. If it isn’t, it is highly unlikely to get traction and after a few brief gasps will sink down the agenda never to be seen again. I think the reason many in the sector find it frightening is that it requires you to say “we don’t do this well” or even “we are appalling at this” and it is often in our most established systems with long-serving staff where this occurs. We aren’t very good at facing and admitting failure – just look at how many annual reports sound as if they have solved the world’s problems but seldom admit what didn’t work. 

I think Covid has made many organisations do more digitally – ourselves included. We have had little choice. But I doubt many have genuinely “transformed” – most have digitally adapted and changed, which isn’t the same thing. The latter is a reaction to circumstances imposed from outside, the former is an intentional move to change. The pandemic has started many of us on the road to digitally changing, it could lead to digital transformation but on its own, it won’t. If you don’t lead the process as the CEO and if you aren’t willing to have honest conversations – difficult though they may be – then you may change, but you won’t transform.  

If you earn £100K+ are you comfortable with that, considering when people donate £5, £10, £15 they think it will make a difference to the actual services that people receive?

Ok, I do earn more than £100K! I really wish the sector would stop beating itself up over this and tying itself into knots. Salary should be paid according to:

  • the organisation’s size 

  • its complexity as a business (and yes, we are a business – stop pretending otherwise)  

  • performance. It should also reflect the charity’s aspiration for the future, or current situation. 

The sort of salary that CEOs (in general) are on isn’t that different from Head Teachers across the country and is below what the civil service pays its leaders. Unlike either group we have to raise the funds to keep the whole show on the road and that (as anyone who has employed a leading fundraiser knows) comes at a premium.

We are running a fairly significant size of business, with a multitude of demanding (and often conflicting) demands and expectations and we are growing organisations which are satisfying and delivering for their stakeholders. So we should be paid accordingly. If we aren’t doing those things, then our own performance (and jobs!) should be on the line. 

If you are a CEO earning £100k+ for crying out loud stop being so defensive. If you believe you are worth it and your organisation agrees, then you can justify it. If you aren’t performing or you don’t think you are worth it – then do something about it.

What's the optimum size for a charity? Can a charity be too big?

This was my favourite question, though maybe not for the reason that you might think. Thank you to whoever asked it – it is genuinely interesting and has had me thinking whether there is an optimum size or not. I think there is – but I suspect there is no algorithm that we can use to determine it. 

I absolutely think a charity can be too large. Sometimes a charity – for all the right reasons – can get so large, or dominant (depends how you wish to interpret “large”) that it can suck initiative and innovation out of that part of the sector. It becomes in effect a monopoly and few would regard monopolies as being innovative or quick to respond to change in the environment they exist in. It is one of the refreshing things over the last 10 years or so to see new charities burst out of existing sectors and really capture the public imagination and support. I can think of examples, particularly in the armed services and mental health sectors, where a newcomer on the block clearly got traction with the public very quickly in a way that their more established sister charities weren’t. 

However, I also think charities can get too small. Where you have a plethora of small one & two person organisations all in the same space it dilutes the funding and support available and makes it unlikely that any of them can grow particularly easily. 

There was another question asked about how larger charities can support smaller charities and I think this is an area where they could. Smaller charities could come under the wing of larger ones and still be distinctive. They could still have their own boards and operating models but by working under a larger one, they could save themselves cost and establishment costs. But it would require both sides to show goodwill and a willingness to “let go” a bit. I am not sure how often I genuinely see that willingness in the sector. 

Do you seek to make your charity obsolete by fundamentally addressing the root causes of the issues you address?

This is such a deep question and it requires us to think beyond the “here and now” and to almost wave a magic wand.  The answer is you absolutely should, but the reality is I can’t think of a single example where it has happened.

There are lots of practical reasons for that – we often find ourselves dealing with the “here and now”, the everyday effects of our cause on the people we seek to help; those with cancer, the homeless, refugees whatever group it happens to be. We are so busy with the immediate need it is really tough to allocate resources and effort away from that and use it on the root causes – whether that is research or awareness. Indeed in tough times like this it is usually research & awareness raising that are the first under the knife. Yet I would argue that they – and income generation are the very ones you need most when times are tough.

I say this for two reasons – on fundraising one of my directors in a previous role found himself sitting next to John Caldwell at a dinner many years ago as the country was entering one of the recessions. He was the Director of Fundraising and was about to face a difficult Board meeting the next day. He asked the founder of Car Phone Warehouse what effect the recession was having on his business. “Simple” came the reply “I double my marketing spend, then double it again”. The reason? Everyone else was cutting theirs and this was his chance to grow market share. And he did.

On research and awareness. Again, an anecdote – again a true one. Again, one of my directors used to work for a very old benevolent charity which hadn’t been particularly known for innovation until a new team began to chase research and media opportunities. They were highly successful and from being unknown the charity was often on BBC news and running major policy campaigns. The new CEO was utterly perplexed as to why he should authorise money being spent on research and media which could go towards grants instead. He only got the message when my colleague told him “If you are walking along a river and there are bodies floating down, you can spend all your time pulling them out or you can send someone up stream to see what’s causing it. They might find the bridge has fallen down and be able to stop people going on it and ending up in the river.” He got it – but he never really wanted to do it!  

What does best practice look like when empowering and developing your middle management/succession planning?

Your biggest investment as an organisation, by a long way, are your staff and the difference that a motivated and empowered senior and middle management make is disproportionate to their cost. Put simply, whatever you want for your organisation in the future is unlikely to happen if you don’t have the right Directors and Managers, motivated, on-side and empowered. Get that right and your chances of success are massively improved.

In my organisation this is an area that has come right in the last few years and you can see it in everything the organisation does – from its interactions with funders and supporters to the way people talk to each other and behave. It makes coming to work an increasing joy. So what made it right?

First have you got the right people? If you haven’t, no matter how difficult it may be, you need to move them on. Your chances of changing behaviour at senior management level is limited – no matter how brilliant a mentor and coach you think you are. Don’t kid yourself. If they aren’t the right people for the task you owe it to the organisation and to yourself to move them on. If you don’t, then you are failing in your role.

Second, work out what you want for the organisation or from it. What is it you actually want for the future and keep it simple; growth, consolidation, more income, more focused service offering, whatever. Don’t over complicate it. Then share it with your key team – don’t be restricted by titles when you do this. Compile in your mind a “coalition of the willing” – the people in your organisation (and maybe even those outside it) who you think have the willingness, the skills and the capacity to make what you want happen. Share it with them and listen to what they have to say – that is one of the advantages of keeping it simple; you let them fill in the details which means they are more likely to achieve it.

Then – and here is the crux - et them get on with it. Don’t micromanage, try not to interfere or fiddle with what they are doing and give them the time and (where possible) the resource to succeed. You lead – but don’t put them on a lead. Let them earn their money, you focus on the bigger picture or on putting out the inevitable fires that will spring up. If you do that and set a realistic time frame you have a chance of success.      

How do you look after your own wellbeing, as well as your teams?

At the present moment I think this is probably one of the most important questions you could ask. Thank you whoever asked it. The last few months have shepherded in home-working in a way that I had never dreamed possible. Without a doubt it is here to stay and that presents every manager and every organisation with a real challenge – how do you run a staff team when you can’t see them in person and how do you ensure their wellbeing. It is a learning curve for all of us and one that still has a very long way to go until we know the answers.

However, in my view the key to this (as to so much else) is communication. It might not ensure wellbeing in and of itself but a lack of it will certainly not help wellbeing. Staff need to know you care, they need to know they aren’t alone or forgotten and they need to know they are valued. During lockdown I wrote a card to every member of staff who was furloughed telling them they were appreciated and we were looking forward to having them back. When staff returned from furlough I wrote to all those that hadn’t been furloughed and said how grateful we were and how I appreciated all they had done to cover for staff who were on furlough. The cost? Probably £20 – the effect, enormous. It shows you are thinking of them as individuals and shows them you care. It tells them they are wanted – and that is hugely motivating. A weekly blog telling people what you are doing personally – your first meal out after lockdown, your first weekend away, your first BBQ with friends – as well as what is going on in the organisation all engenders a sense that we are in this together. You would be amazed how effective such things can be.

There are other things you can do at minimal cost – we recently created “well being days” for staff which are days they can take off at short notice to do something that means a lot to them – volunteering, caring for family, going for a long walk with the dog, whatever it is that counts to them. It doesn’t really cost you much but just the fact they know they can have some time to themselves is hugely advantageous. A final thought – I doubt we will be having many Christmas parties this year. Send your staff a small present at home, arrange a zoom call for everyone to have a glass of wine and a mince pie together. Send them a note in a card and on it – say thank you! You’ll be amazed how much it is appreciated.