Analysing leadership in the sector

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Ian Findlay reflects on his, and his organisation's, learnings one year on from the publication of the Path to Impact report

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30th July 2019 by TFN Guest 1 Comment

Path to Impact was a lottery funded collaboration between CO3 and ACOSVO looking to assess and strengthen the capacity of third sector organisations in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Fifty third sector organisations from Scotland and 50 from NI took part. The 50 in Scotland included Paths for All, the organisation I’ve been the Chief Officer of for 16 years and ACOSVO, which I’ve been a Trustee of for almost 10 years.

The subsequent report is a compilation of the results from all 100 organisations and is an extremely rich source of information which I recommend to everyone working in, for and with the third sector. I believe some of its main findings are of huge significance to the sector and there are a couple of results I’d like to highlight.

One of the highest scoring capacities is Leadership Vision. The sector is full of leaders who are good at formulating and motivating others to pursue a clear vision. Strong individuals who are intimately associated with the organisation they lead. Great!

Conversely, one of the lowest scoring capacities is Leadership Sustainability. The sector is relatively poor at cultivating new leaders, has an over-reliance on single ‘figure-head’ leaders and succession planning is rare.

Taking these two sets of results together, there is a risk of a perfect storm or ‘double whammy’. The results show the sector cultivates strong visionary leaders. This is great while such leaders are in post, but the results also show that the sector is vulnerable to changes in leadership as we’re not planning for succession.

Ian FindlAY

Ian FindlAY

This potential vulnerability is exacerbated by a couple other factors. Recently I keep hearing phrases such as ‘money follows relationships’ and ‘funders do not fund organisations, they fund people’.  Both these phrases say to me that individuals and relationships are critical to sustainability.  However, if these relationships reside with single leaders and the evidence points to poor succession planning, then that is a bit risky!

Another factor, the attractiveness of the leader role.  A recent survey carried out by ACOSVO suggests that as many as 50% of current third sector leaders are possibly thinking of leaving their post in the next five years. Furthermore, I worry that we as leaders can often be painting a negative picture of the leadership role.  Press articles associated with the latest ACEVO pay and equalities survey suggest that third sector leaders work an equivalent of three months unpaid due to working excess hours.  Linked to this, there is anecdotal evidence that interim chief executive roles are becoming more common as it becomes harder to fill such roles on a more permanent basis.  All this points to the likelihood and impact of the risks I’ve identified earlier being real, immediate, significant and sector-wide.

Sorry if I’ve painted a bit of a dark picture.  However, I also firmly believe there are actions we can take to mitigate these risks.

Firstly, I thoroughly recommend investing time in succession planning. Throughout 2018 Paths for All had an internal conversation on succession planning that has led to a plan. This conversation involved the trustees and senior managers of the organisation thinking about succession, short-term and long-term, planned and unplanned, in relation to the key roles of the chair, trustees, office bearers, chief officer and senior managers. As well as thinking about the roles, we also thought hard about nurturing and sustaining key relationships with individuals within our stakeholder group, e.g. funders. It was an extremely useful conversation and one that is much easier to have when it is not urgent due to an unplanned loss of a key role, temporarily or permanently.

Secondly and equally importantly, we must work hard on making the leadership role more attractive, reality and perceptions. We need to do this for ourselves, for our own wellbeing and to be the best leaders we can be.  Remember, leaders are at their best, i.e. peak performance, when they are in a relaxed, but alert state.

We also need to do this in order to attract people to fill the 50% gap in the next five years that I referred to above.  For me, this need not be too difficult. Yes, our jobs are busy, full of ‘stuff’ and come with a lot of responsibility, but they are also hugely privileged positions. We get to lead an organisation, be the custodian of a vison which we believe in, be the carriers of our organisation’s culture, ask that colleagues share our values and maybe most importantly create an environment that sees our colleagues grow and excel.  Surely that shouldn’t be a too difficult a sell.

Finally, let’s be careful when we talk about work life balance. I feel it can demean our roles and give the perception that work is something less valuable, valued and fulfilling than the rest of our lives.  I appreciate that for many, the work life balance concept does hold true. However, this should not be the case for our privileged positions. Of course, we need to balance work and non-work life, but I feel we all spend far too much time, energy and personal capital working for it not to be an important part of lives and who we are as people. Ultimately, it’s up to us as leaders to not only lead our organisations, but to lead the sector. Equally, I believe there’s a vital role for more experienced leaders in the sector to support new, emerging leaders, hence initiatives such as ACOSVO’s Fellows and Alumni programmes.

To conclude, I know many leaders in and associated with the sector.  I am, therefore, entirely confident that we can rise to these challenges facing the sector and in doing so continue to play a vital and impactful role for Scotland and its people.     

Ian Findlay is chief officer of Paths for All and vice convenor of ACOSVO

31st July 2019 by Graeme Reekie

Thanks for sharing your timely reflections Ian. We do indeed say money follows relationships. You're absolutely right that one of the implications of this is for succession planning - internally and how we respond to changes in partner orgs too. I remember 10 years ago trying to persuade an org of the value of a knowledge audit for similar reasons: where are the key knowledge and relationships held? I think succession planning in its widest sense of developing leadership capacity is gaining traction at long last - thank you for sharing your valuable learning on it.