I recently heard the great news that a former colleague and good friend has just got his first Chief Executive position in a local charity. This got me thinking….its soon to be 15 years since I took on my first Chief Officer role (at the grand age of 29!), what have I learned over those years and what advice would I give to somebody just starting out?
1. You’ll have heard the expression ‘it’s lonely at the top’. I don’t strictly subscribe to that belief but you need to remember your job is unique in the organisation and that everybody will be watching and looking to you for guidance. This means you have to be thoughtful in the relationships you develop with staff, volunteers and trustees. Once you’ve established a relationship it’s hard to change it later.
2. Every successful Chief Exec I’ve met can enthuse me about their organisation. If you don’t feel real passion about your cause you can still do a good job but will struggle to really shine. Sometimes it takes time to find that passion.
3. Chief Execs are leaders. This sounds so obvious but is so often forgotten. Leaders have a vision, can inspire, motivate and encourage. Leaders develop people, give praise and take responsibility when things go wrong. Leaders don’t manage from a distance via email or memo (though sometimes that might be all you have time for!).
4. You won’t always be popular. In an ever changing world you will usually have to be the catalyst for that change. This will upset the status quo and some people will disagree with you. Chief Execs are also people with feelings, sometimes being unpopular is unfair and it hurts but that’s part of the job.
5. Be ambitious but don’t oversell. As Chief Ambassador it’s your job to sell your organisation to the outside world. Be wary of over promising. If you fail to deliver its not just your own credibility at stake but the whole organisation too.
6. Find some peers you can trust. You might be the only Chief Exec in your organisation but there are many more out there. Find a small handful you can trust and develop your own peer support network. At some point, you’ll need somebody you can turn to for help and sharing with peers helps keep your own issues in perspective.
7. Don’t stay too long. A new Chief Exec should bring energy, passion and fresh thinking. Holding on to those attributes isn’t impossible but it gets increasingly difficult as the years go by. When you find yourself reinventing your own work it’s probably time for a change.
8. Don’t get caught up in history. Whilst it’s important to know why your organisation exists and enough to tell its story don’t try to correct mistakes of the past. Draw a line under the past and look to the future. That’s the only place you can make a difference.
9. Take some time for you. A Chief Execs job isn’t 9-5, you’ve given a part of yourself to the organisation, you’ll work many more hours than you’re paid for and when at home you’ll still be thinking about work and the future. When you get the opportunity during the day for a quiet five minutes grab it with both hands. At times you’ll need it.
10. Smile. Seriously. Inside, outside, partners, employees, trustees, funders. Everybody will be looking at you and if you don’t look happy they will wonder what is happening. You’ve also got one of the best jobs in the world
David Smith, Chief Executive of Mind Hull & East Yorkshire
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