In this week’s blog, I am drawing on my experience of more than 30 years as a CEO leading organisations with a mission to improve the world. There are no simple recipes for successful leadership and it is good that individual leaders find their own way. But people often ask me for my own thoughts on the most critical success factors. “You’ve had a successful career as a leader”, they say “what is the secret of your success?” Of course there is no single ‘secret’. How do I answer the question? I could just duck it and say it’s all too complicated, or I could write a book (so far I haven’t found the time to do this!) So I thought I would try for something relatively short that could perhaps be expanded on later. So, in Buzzfeed mode, here is my ‘Top 20’ list of leadership tips! These are based on my own experience in the not-for-profit sector, but I believe they apply as well to leadership in other sectors. I hope you will find them helpful. Comments, questions and thoughts are welcome.
Leadership is not the same as management. I don’t think you can succeed by being incredibly wise and efficient. You need to be able to inspire people. This means having a clear vision, and a sense of purpose, that you can communicate in a way that motivates your team and gains their commitment, passion and belief. In a charity, the purpose may be clear and persuasive, but may need to be articulated and made real with a vision for what can be achieved in the next 5 or 10 years. For a company, it would need, in my view, to be about the ‘social’ purpose of the business, ie not primarily about the bottom line, but why the company exists and how it can help meet a real need that consumers have (eg an airline helping bring people and cultures together, the stock market helping mobilise the investment that economies need to grow and deliver for their citizens, a clothing company making people feel special, and warm…). If there isn’t a compelling social purpose, maybe this isn’t an organisation you want to lead? If you want to be a successful leader, you will need to embody the inspiring vision.
The vision sets the purpose and direction but in order to succeed people also have to love working for your organisation and be willing and able to bring their talents to bear. They need to feel proud, and to feel empowered to spend their energy making the vision come true. It won’t work, at least not sustainably, if they feel exploited, undervalued, micro-managed and taken for granted, however powerful the vision. Neither will it work if every team is competing with every other, keeping information to themselves and being closed to ideas from outside. There isn’t one single ‘right’ culture, but every organisation has one and, if you don’t lead it explicitly, it will emerge informally and is unlikely to be the best one. For me, a leader needs to focus deliberately on defining, refining and building the culture that is needed to get the best from people. Give your culture a name and tell everyone about it. Recruit people able to operate in that culture, make it the core of your induction and training programme. Be the place people aspire to work.
3. Top Team
Inspiration and culture are far more important than structure. Structure can really get in the way. Lines on the organogram are there to be crossed and not reinforced. But every organisation has to have structure of some kind and the people who lead each part of the structure usually form the top team. For the leader, how this team works is one of the most critical success factors. Personally, I like to keep the top team relatively small (ideally 4 or 5 at the most). Getting the right team and ensuring they are firing on all cylinders as a team is perhaps the most important thing to spend your time on. There have been times when I forgot this and things started to go badly wrong very quickly. Fortunately someone told me and I listened (see 18 below!) and woke up and worked hard to change things. If the top team is divided, everyone will know almost before you do and it will impact on morale and wellbeing, and on results, very quickly. The top team needs to be as passionate as you are about the vision and as committed to the culture. You should all be able to make decisions with trust. At Unicef UK, we would go ahead and make decisions, if we needed to, if any two of us were there, knowing the others trusted us to get the right answer. The team should understand that, while they may each lead a specialised function, they are first and foremost leaders of the whole, not defenders of their function. They bring a perspective to the collective deliberation rather than fighting a corner. They are open to each other’s ideas and prepared to listen to constructive criticism and use it to help make their ideas better.
In a UK charity, ‘management’ and ‘governance’ are clearly distinguished. Management is the job of the Chief Executive and his or her team, while governance is the legal responsibility of the Board of Trustees. So where does ‘leadership’ fit in to this duality? It is shared. A CEO can’t be the inspirational leader that helps the organisation succeed without the support of the Trustee Board. The Chair of the Board and the CEO need to work together, in an open, trusting and mutually respectful relationship, as co-leaders. As CEO, one of your most important tasks is to build and enhance that relationship. That means meeting regularly, sharing information and ideas, being open to input and working together to support each other. The Chair of Trustees is responsible for leading the Board in a way which gives you the right kind of supportive challenge and strategic guidance. A strong, committed and united Board team is essential for your success as a leader and you have to be able to work with the Chair to help make it happen. If the CEO/Chair relationship breaks down the organisation is in big trouble. You can’t let that happen. In a charity, the Trustees are unpaid volunteers and CEOs are not normally formal members, but for me the top team of staff and the trustee board still need to be able to work as one team, while recognising their distinctive roles and duties. In a business, the board will include both Executive and non-Executive members together but the principle is the same.
As a leader you will have to make a lot of very tricky decisions. Often there are pros and cons that seem evenly balanced. I have usually found that referring back to my core values and principles can guide me towards the right decision. The people you are leading will also be guided by your values and those that you have established for the organisation as part of the definition of its culture. The best organisations, whatever their purpose, are those with clear values and principles. People need to know that you are leading them on a path that is based on principle rather than simply expediency and personal advantage. A values driven leader of a values driven organisation is one of the secrets of success.
6. Social Responsibility
Your values and principles, your vision and purpose, and your culture, all set you in a social context. You and your organisation are not isolated. You exist in a community and in the global environment. What you do and how you do it will have an impact beyond your immediate organisation and its direct focus. As a leader you should be aware of that context and accept responsibility for ensuring that it is as positive as possible. As a small but important example, if you employ a company to clean your premises, do you know how well they look after their workers – can you negotiate the contract to make sure they are getting a living wage? As a buyer of goods and services, your decisions impact more widely – base them on your values and take social responsibility for their environmental and social consequences. Reduce your carbon footprint, buy fairtrade tea and coffee, play a part in the local community.
7. Financial parameters
One of the first things I did in my last role was to establish a clear set of financial parameters, which helped us plan and budget and ensured that the beneficiaries of our charity always received an improving share of our income as we grew. We set limits, for example, on how much we would spend on salaries and agreed targets on how much we spent in the UK and overseas. Some simple measures that can guide your financial planning and can be regularly monitored are in my view very valuable. Often the parameters represented trade-offs – do better on one and it is harder to achieve another – so that meeting the parameters required a great deal of creative thinking that would otherwise be too easy to avoid. And you can always tell stakeholders how the finances work.
One key financial parameters is that growth and success require investment. I remember when the financial crisis hit, many of my fellow CEOs were concerned about whether their donors would still be able to afford to contribute as before. They were inclined to try to reduce costs, including fundraising costs. I took the opposite view. Our beneficiaries, the world’s most vulnerable children, would be hit hard by a global downturn, so we needed to maintain and even increase our support for them. That meant investing more not less. We managed to grow and also improve our returns on investment even during the hardest economic times. Of course you have to invest wisely and well at all times, but cutting fundraising is unlikely to bring more funds! Whatever your business, if you believe in its vision and purpose, you will know it can do more good if it is able to grow. That won’t happen without adequate investment.
In business of course everyone expects, and even values, competition as a force for good – driving efficiency and innovation and offering choice. Yet in the not-for-profit world it is often considered somehow inappropriate. In pursuit of a social goal, funded by voluntary contributions, there is an expectation that organisations will work together rather than compete. Competition is seen as something that can lead to duplication of effort, waste in establishing parallel systems, and failure to share lessons that can make everyone’ work more successful. And that is all valid. But the positive value of competition can also apply. Even companies collaborate where they see value, through industry associations for example. Cooperation brings incredible benefits, perhaps especially in the non-profit world, and donors and supporters always ask about how organisations work together, especially in programme delivery and in advocacy if not in fundraising. So my principle is co-operate where you can and compete where you must (and don’t be afraid to do either). I christened this co-opertition. Even when organisations are working together, the background of competition for attention, influence and support is there in the background. The secret is not to allow it to dominate or to overwhelm the spirit of co-operation to the detriment of beneficiaries. But the fact remains that a degree of external competition can drive innovation and determination, and the total good is enhanced (but never within an organisation, where collaboration must rule).
Sometimes you will be faced, as a leader, with seemingly impossible decisions. Whichever way you turn there are challenges and risks, but the buck stops with you and decisions have to be made. Careful analysis is important, but sometimes you just have to go with what feels right! Test your decisions against your vision, culture and values and hear contrary opinions, but in the end sometimes you just have to trust your instincts.
I once worked in a collective where every decision had to be made by complete consensus. It was very inefficient, time consuming and painful, but we did emerge with decisions that we knew had everyone’s support. Consensus is different from compromise. Compromise can mean the lowest common denominator – the decision everyone can live with but no-one actually likes. Consensus is about refining ideas together to take account of objections or difficulties until you arrive at something everyone feels is better than where you started. It is about listening, respecting differing views and using those differences to find a better way to proceed. While it is impossible to make every decision by consensus in a large and complex organisation, the principles of listening and building solutions that take account of objections and challenges can help create strategies that gain the broadest possible support and buy-in.
When I first took up a leadership position a lot of people told me I would never be a good leader because I wasn’t hard enough. “Don’t expect people to like you” they said. “You’ll have to make hard and unpopular decisions, sack people, and cut their budgets, tell them their ideas are no good. For the sake of the greater good, you will need to be prepared to put your human emotions and empathy to one side and be tough”. But I have learned how completely wrong that is! Sometimes I despair about the impression young people must get of leadership from TV dramas and reality shows where “you’re fired” is the dominant ethic. In the real world, a leader who loses their humanity is no leader and will not be able to inspire the trust, loyalty and belief that are necessary for success. A bully is the worst kind of leader. Whatever you are be human. Yes, you may need to move people on and out (though if you select and support and coach them well that should be very rare), but even that can be done with gentleness, understanding and humanity. Don’t believe the stereotypes. You can be a good, kind and generous person and a good leader. If you are mean-spirited and lose touch with your emotions and your humanity, you will almost certainly be a poor leader.
No organisation exists for the benefit of its staff (though they need to be looked after well!) A charity exists for its beneficiaries, but cannot succeed without its supporters, volunteers and donors. A business exists for its stakeholders, including its shareholders and its customers. The people who support you with their donations or their custom are fundamental. You are a leader for them too. You need to be prepared to engage with them and support them and make them feel valued and even empowered. In a charity, supporters are good people who want to help make the world a better place. They can’t easily do that alone. You are giving them the power to make the difference they want to make. You need to keep them in the forefront of your thinking. If your vision and strategy isn’t going to work for them, it isn’t going to work. They need to be at the heart of your culture. Businesses that don’t look after their customers will not succeed, or not for long, as their customers always have the choice to go elsewhere.
14. Lead – be bold
Much as it is important to look for buy-in and to be consultative, it is the job of leaders to lead. Sometimes your vision will be too radical at first for others to appreciate. It is important for a leader to be willing to push the boundaries, to seek to persuade, to drive forward ideas that may initially be unpopular or unproven or may seem over ambitious or even impossible. You are not a leader if you simply follow what is easy or popular. Of course you can’t do this all the time, but sometimes the most brilliant successes arise from ideas that were initially unpopular. Of course you do have to get people on board at some point, and if you can’t you will have to be prepared to back off, even on your favourite idea. But don’t be afraid to be bold.
15. Embrace risk
Success usually involves taking risks. To be the best and get great results, your organisation will need to innovate. Doing something that has never been done before and making it work is one of the most exciting and rewarding things in life and work. But there are always going to be risks. Trying something new, ambitious and bold may not succeed (I would never say ‘fail’ as you will always learn and do better next time). I am a proponent of the idea of ‘risk appetite’ as opposed to risk aversion. Risks are something to be embraced. That doesn’t mean you should ignore them, or fail to assess and mitigate them, but it does mean accepting a level of risk to do something truly amazing.
Everyone is in favour of planning, of course. But sometimes I have heard people say, when a new and wonderful opportunity comes along “we can’t do that – it isn’t in the Plan”. Plans must not be inflexible. The world around us changes and we must be prepared to adapt. One of the most vital traits of a leader is the ability to identify and seize new opportunities (before someone else does!) Yes, you will perhaps need to find the money to invest in something unplanned. That may even mean dropping something planned and prepared for, at least for the time being. But some of the best outcomes will certainly start with the identification of an unexpected opportunity. Don’t be afraid to go for it!
If you are going to do new things, be bold, embrace risk and succeed, you need belief. That includes self-belief (though you also need to challenge yourself and listen to others just to make sure you are not deluded!) It also includes the capacity to inspire belief in others. It is amazing what can be achieved when people believe in their ability to achieve it. Belief is not sufficient, but it is essential if you are going to succeed in the most innovative and ambitious projects.
In number three above, I referred to the importance of being ready to listen, even (especially) when someone is telling you you’re getting it wrong. Your belief mustn’t be allowed to get in the way of listening to the warnings and good sense of people you trust and respect. You can’t afford to dismiss criticism, though neither can you allow it to divert you from a path you believe is the right one. You must at least consider it seriously. If you then choose to press ahead, at least do so consciously and adapt where you can. I have not always been the best listener – leaders often aren’t. But my work in coaching and mentoring taught me the value of deep listening. When someone brings you a problem as a leader, there is value in exploring the solutions they may arrive at themselves before you dive in with your own answers. You are very likely to find that they will get to a better answer themselves than the one you would have offered. And they will own it and so do a better job of implementing it.
Whatever the field of your leadership, achievement will always depend on others, not least those you don’t formally lead. You will need to be able to apply many of the above characteristics to developing and enhancing external relationships, as well as internal ones. These may be with donors, influencers, collaborators (and even competitors). You need to win their trust and build their belief in you and the organisation you lead. As a leader you are the embodiment and representative of your organisation. Others will support your organisation if they support you. It is a big responsibility. Often people support people, not organisations. Organisations often select leaders alternately. They have a leader who drives the organisation well internally but doesn’t pay sufficient attention to external relationships. Then they appoint a successor to compensate for that and get someone who is great at the external but pays insufficient attention to the internal. This cycle is disastrous. A good leader needs to lead in both arenas. The key principles of successful leadership apply in both and success in one depends on success in the other.
Finally, you can’t just follow a set of top 20 principles. You are yourself – a unique individual. To be a true leader you have to be real and authentic. Of course you are not fixed and you can change over time, but you can’t pretend to be what you are not. Your values, principles and instincts can only be your own. They have to be genuine. No two leaders will be alike. Your leadership will depend on your personality, life experience, principles and charisma. But I hope these 20 thoughts will be of some help anyway.
Let me know if there are any you would add or subtract from my list. Here it is in summary.