Friday, July 3, 2009

How it Was For Me

I have been a CEO in the not-for-profit sector for about 15 years.

It all started when I worked in social care for disabled people. I noticed how poor the outcomes were when set against the colossal sums spent on people’s care and support. What I also noticed was how much better the outcomes were for disabled people who had the ability to represent themselves effectively. Have a voice. Speak up. So one day I made a decision to start a new organisation dedicated to just this. Speaking Up.

My journey began as a start-up with me as the only employee. Unpaid of course - I was 25 so money didn’t matter. It is a great time of life to take risks. I got the start-up funding after a year, and my second employee was a disabled man. Today I lead 150 people up and down the UK, a mix of disabled and non-disabled people.

In 2009 the mission stays the same: we still exist to support people with disabilities or mental health problems (and, occasionally, both) to control their own lives. We do this through mentoring, advocacy and self-help activities. Our strapline is Voice, Action, Change. One leading to the next. We work with 4000 people a year and are becoming a well-know charity and social business.

What has been distinctive about my journey is that I have been a CEO through every stage of organisational development. From seedling to sapling. From sapling to mighty oak. Each has made different demands, required a different ‘me’. Early stage leadership is all about passion, energy and workrate. It also involves being a polymath-operator, moving from selling to delivering then onto finance and governance all over the course of a single morning!

As we moved from ’seedling’ to ’sapling’ the demands changed. The passion that got me going up until now had to give way to a more considered approach. I had to step back and audit the skills I needed to deliver my mission through others. At this stage, the selection of key `cornerstone’ individuals becomes the major hurdle for a CEO to overcome.

This done, we grew into a mature ‘tree’ of an organisation, and the demands change again. Our organisation has evolved from being a unitary thing – myself and the people immediately around me – to a hydra-like being, with lots of different functions and, in our case, geographies.

As CEO, my task was then is to create a shared sense of purpose, co-operation and common values which, in turn, allowed a strategy to emerge. The management aspect of leadership becomes exclusively about creating a brilliant senior team around you and nurturing them. Not simply leading from the front like a First World War Colonel leaping over the trench. Imploring others to come with me!

Finding those people, trusting them to deliver and keeping them individually and collectively focused is now my main role as CEO. Developing the organisation, overseeing the development of strategy and providing clear leadership are now the chief skills. Very different from the early ’social entrepreneur’ days – which is why so many entrepreneurs leave early on and professional management comes in.

So why did I stay? Well, I knew I had to evolve with my organisation or leave – and I felt I could adapt to its needs. The journey was not without bumps and my skills have always lagged behind the demands of the job. But I worked hard to develop myself – getting an MBA on the way – and, eventually, turned myself into a proper CEO.

How different is it in the third sector from the private? In some ways, I suspect it isn’t that different at all as a CEO anywhere. The stuff I have written just now is probably true of any growing organisation, whether it exists to make money or not.

The difference perhaps comes in the nature of third sector organisations which are less deferential and hierarchical, and the role of Trustees that hold CEOs accountable and, in theory at least, set strategy. Things are slower, on the whole, and generally speaking organisations develop at a less frantic pace and take fewer risks. Procedure also plays a bigger role, making some third sector organisations feel more like the public than the private sector.

Overall though, I believe that most high quality third sector CEOs would do well in the private sector if they chose to go there. For most of them though, the third sector is where they remain. Either because their values have taken them there. Or, like me, they get hooked early on and stay addicted to its challenges.

If you’re thinking of a career in the third sector my best advice is to show some interest first and volunteer either as a trustee or front-line volunteer. This will help you understand the sector’s values and mark you out from the thousands who profess to want to come into the sector but show no evidence of previous interest.

If you are considering social entrepreneurship, go for it. But think carefully about whether you can cope with the work-rate, lack of structure and wide skill-set it demands. Many start, few succeed. From there, if you do succeed, always be aware that the skills that got you going to begin with won’t be the same skills to lead a larger going concern.

Overall though, don’t be deterred. The sector has a skills shortage and people with fantastic training are thin on the ground. Don’t be put off by lack of experience. Just be prepared to be challenged. It certainly won’t be what you are used to!

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