Charity Awards 2024

Getting the right tools for the task

Leadership development is not the dark art that many perceive it to be, says Shaks Ghosh. It’s simply about learning key skills and behaviours and deploying them at the right time.

Leadership development is not the dark art that many perceive it to be, says Shaks Ghosh. It’s simply about learning key skills and behaviours and deploying them at the right time.

I have been a leader in the charity sector for more than 20 years. But when I started out I had no leadership training. I found the early days quite tough.

I was the first chief executive of Crisis – a charity with 20 staff and 3,000 volunteers – and I had relatively little support. I was quite young and had few ideas about how to manage the various leadership issues I faced or where to go for help.

And too many leaders in other charities – not just chief executives, but trustees, and other people in leadership positions throughout organisations – still find themselves in the same position.

I believe leadership development is not sufficiently valued in civil society and there is little understanding of the incredible impact benefits that can result from an investment in managers.

This article is about why leadership matters. For charities, few things are more important.

Yet many people are promoted to leadership positions on the basis of the fact that they possess a particular skill, without a real understanding that leadership is also a skill – one very different from the one that got them promoted. They often need help to grow into their role.

Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that only chief executives are leaders. Leadership needs to be grown at every level of the organisation – from the young people emerging as leaders, right through the management structure to the trustee board.

Leadership is a toolkit which encompasses a huge set of skills and behaviours. Charities need leaders with this toolkit because they have businesses to run and beneficiaries to serve. Deploying the right tools at the right time will help them make the right decisions, use their money more efficiently, create a better working environment for the other staff, and ensure that they face fewer problems. Research by the Chartered Management Institute and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that organisations can reap a 23 per cent uplift in performance if they develop their leadership team.

Most of us came into the social sector to help change the lives of the poor, the sick and the lonely. If there were a way to increase our impact by 23 per cent, why would we not?

Trustees and leadership

I was lucky to have a couple of great board members who guided me through those early years. And it is the job of trustees to ensure that other leaders get the help they need to grow into their roles.

In some charities, particularly small and medium-sized organisations, leaders get little training or support, whether this is because the focus is on the frontline, or because it is perceived to be unnecessary, or there is insufficient resource, or simply because the trustees and the executive do not know what to do – what resources they can access, or how to identify areas of potential improvement.

But small and medium charities will be challenged more than any by the changes coming over the horizon. I would argue that they need to develop their staff even more than larger organisations who can weather the storm – they often have the resources to buy in the skills they need.

Despite the crying need for leadership development, few organisations within the social sector will pay for it. Corporate sector leaders are more willing to pay for MBAs and leadership development training as they know there will eventually be a salary premium. This type of salary recompense is lacking in the social sector.

The truth, however, is that even if you do not have a lot of money, you cannot afford not to put time and effort into good leadership. Leadership development does not have to cost a lot.

Mentoring and coaching can be done within organisations; staff can learn from each other and organisations can club together to co-create programmes. Large organisations with internal leadership programmes would benefit from sharing their resources with smaller organisations.

In any case, individuals who go through the daily trauma of managing people through periods of change would find that paying for good leadership development is money well spent.

Every sector has its scandals, but no sector is as dependent on public trust as charities. In a world where the public say they trust supermarkets more than charities, the smartest thing we can do is invest in charity leadership.

Social sector leadership is different

Since joining Clore Social Leadership, the most frequent challenge I hear is that social sector leadership is different. This is true, to an extent.

It’s common for leadership skills to be perceived as ‘sector agnostic’. But good leaders are highly attuned to the context within which they practice. Arguably no other sector in the UK has the same uniquely complex challenges: volunteering, governance, social impact, stakeholder complexity and public accountability.

Social sector leaders need the same skills as every other leader, but they must also learn to overcome these challenges.

With all of that said, a trustee body wanting to develop its leaders needs to identify three things – who needs support, what they need to learn, and how they can learn it.

Who needs help?

Having worked with a huge array of leaders in the social sector, Clore Social Leadership has developed a leadership classification framework that identifies seven different groups of leaders. We recognise that the leadership development needs of each group are different, and as such they each need bespoke solutions.

The seven groups of leaders are:

  1. Junior leaders, who are new to management, just taking on a major project
  2. Emerging leaders, who have a few years’ experience and are ambitious to do more
  3. Community leaders, who are experienced at a local level and who wish to continue to serve there; they are often not interested in a career in the sector
  4. Aspiring chief executives, who are ambitious to be an organisational leader
  5. Senior leaders, who are generally chief executive level and have an ambition to progress self or cause
  6. Board leaders – trustees and chairs
  7. Leaders of leaders, who want to lead a movement

You should identify these people in your organisation, and develop a framework to help them.

What skills do sector leaders need?

We believe that there are four broad training categories.

The first is ‘self-mastery’. Anyone starting their leadership journey needs to develop self-awareness and understand their motivations, while actively seeking and being open to feedback. Self-mastery includes being authentic; learning different leadership styles; understanding context; relational understanding; managing people and teams; learning human psychology; and working out your own style and purpose.

Second, social sector leaders need to understand the basics of managing an organisation and therefore require technical skills. Technical management skills include understanding how organisations run; finance; governance; the role of the Charity Commission; legal issues; HR; and project management.

Third, senior leaders will normally enhance their wider strategic business skills. These include strategic thinking and planning; how to scale products; understanding positioning in the market; and business administration.

Finally, there are the X-factor skills of charisma and inspiration. These are very difficult to train people for; some unlearning may need to happen. They include generous leadership; collaboration; working across organisational and sector boundaries; inspiring communication; and operating through networks rather than hierarchical power.

Those embarking on leadership development training tend to want to learn about hard skills like governance or marketing. Yet the training elements that Clore Social fellows seem to finally appreciate are the ‘softer skills’.

Many people are born with these skills – lucky them. Others, who are good learners, will learn from their bosses or mentors. Most of us have to learn them from others. I would say that the best way is to take learning and development seriously; learn the skills and practice, practice, practice.

It’s important to say that these skills can be learned. There are rules to effective interaction, and if you follow them, you will be successful.

Considerations for leaders

Today’s leaders must be collaborative to ensure leadership flourishes at all levels in their organisation. People at every level need to develop leadership skills. Good leaders understand this and foster leadership development in the workforce. Dame Mary Marsh, the founder of Clore Social Leadership, often used the phrase ‘leaders grow leaders’.

Leadership also needs to be agile and adaptive. Change is a constant and organisational evolution is a natural force, but today change is happening at a much faster pace. Strategies can become redundant almost as soon as they are written. Leaders can build an agile organisation and workforce by being agile themselves.

Leaders also need to be open. As previously mentioned, social sector leaders need to become more comfortable to work with the government, and public and corporate sectors. Doing this will help them understand their motivations, the issues that affect them, and how they make (or don’t make) ethical choices.

Finally, the good leader needs help to think morally. The world is becoming more socially aware and this is reflected in organisational practices across all sectors. Social leaders need to always carry a moral compass with them to develop a clear understanding about the ethical dilemmas their organisations and the sector are facing. It is frequently not the case that decisions are right or wrong – leaders often need to choose between right and right.

Mechanisms for learning

As I progressed in my own career, I tried to plug the gaps in my knowledge by reading a lot of management theory, and this helped. But you can only learn so much from books and through life experience. It is not enough to say that people will become better leaders through experience.

Very often people do not learn from their mistakes. They make the same mistakes over and over again. Leadership is about behaviour and we know that behaviour is hard to shift.

Training is a valuable tool, but is only part of our armoury – I would encourage a more holistic approach to leadership development – including developing networks, being coached and mentored and taking time out to think.

The power of the peer group

At Clore Social Leadership we encourage ‘reflective learning’ where you think about your mistakes and talk to your peers in a safe environment. Then you go out and practice behaving differently.

It wasn’t until I joined Clore Social Leadership and saw how the fellows developed on our programme that I came to appreciate the power of collective learning. The fellows have the opportunity to get support from experts in the field, learn theories, tease them out together, share their professional experiences, and then immediately apply this learning.

This has a hugely positive effect on their organisations and beneficiaries: all of our fellows state that their leadership is more effective as a result of the programme, with 74 per cent reporting that their organisation’s social impact has significantly increased since they completed the programme.

Participant fellows in our programme invariably report that the most important element in developing as effective leaders is the peer group. The group is a place where people can be vulnerable and interact with other peer leaders in their cohort with questions and concerns. Each cohort’s group is one that fellows lean on throughout the programme and in their professional careers; that sort of support is invaluable.

Unfortunately, this is very hard to recreate without the deliberate and time-consuming facilitation that we provide. Good leadership requires time, effort and investment. Residentials are expensive and take time and know-how to organise. Finding a peer group of people at the same stage of development is also hard, although it is not impossible to do if a few people club together.

My leadership mentors

Leaders need mentors. I learned by doing – my first leadership role was as a student leader at Calcutta University where I was able to impart some of the wisdom I learned from my earliest mentors; a group of nuns from my school days. Back then you didn’t meet very many professional women and the nuns were a huge inspiration to me.

Later on in my career as chief executive in a number of organisations, I had the privilege of working with amazing chairs, including David Bell from the FT, who supported me and gave me the freedom to make and learn from my mistakes.

Other leaders who have inspired me are Sheila McKechnie whose leadership was integral to the success of Shelter, and also Nelson Mandela – a true visionary leader.

At Clore Social Leadership we distinguish between mentoring and coaching. Mentors are generally people who have experience and knowledge that you admire who would be great advisers to you at some point in your journey. These people are everywhere. You just need to look around.

Coaches are skilled and understand the psychology of behaviour change and there are costs associated with them. However, good loyal funders who want to see an organisation flourish will support a chief executive’s personal leadership development to ensure that the organisation gets the leadership it needs. Once you have funding Clore Social Leadership can help you find a suitable coach – just get in touch.

Strange as it may sound, there is no shortage of courses and training for social sector leaders. Yet most leaders say they do not know where to go for good information. There is a lack of signposting and brokerage and this is an area where Clore Social Leadership can support more leaders. While we have added courses and workshops in addition to our fellowship offer, we are also building information and thought leadership for the sector.

We have a number of research projects under way which look at the needs of the sector, and our plans for 2017 include an online platform to help many more leaders find the training and support they need.

Shaks Ghosh is chief executive of Clore Social Leadership