Coming to the end of my first year as a CEO seems like a fine time to reflect on my experiences – not just at the top, but in the journey that brought me here.
I was recruited in 2009 as ‘Deputy Project Co-ordinator’ to the founder/leader of an established youth work charity. Whilst I had previous management experience from industry, this was my first role in the voluntary sector. The trustees had recognized the need for a succession plan. Whilst my predecessor had no clear intention to leave, it was accepted that he wouldn’t be around forever and therefore my role had been created – I often describe my journey to CEO as having a 5 year hand-over period.
In some ways this was incredibly useful – trustees and Chief Exec were aware of the need to develop me and ensure I’d experienced as many aspects of the charity as possible. I was able to head up each of the 3 operational departments, gathering them in my wake as I progressed – recruiting new managers to train and back-fill as I moved on, so that in my last year I was a fully fledged Director of Operations. This also allowed me to put my stamp onto each department and develop services and processes along the way. An unexpected development was that the organization grew considerably during this time, and so the charity I inherited was much larger, and very different, from the one I’d been recruited into.
I appreciate that for other aspiring CEOs, the potential to learn the ropes on the job in this way isn’t possible. And perhaps that’s no bad thing. As much as it gave me the opportunity to get an in depth understanding, increasingly I felt restricted in my ability to do things completely my way, and once the outgoing CEO had announced his intention to leave the final few months seemed to go on forever!
In contrast, once I took up the role, the biggest challenge was actually seeing myself differently as a CEO. My senior managers, once my peers, are now my subordinates, and it is appropriate that staff view me differently, even if I don’t always like it that way. I only really grasped this when we recruited, and new staff clearly saw me as ‘The Big Boss’. For any aspiring CEO I’d highly recommend reflecting on what type of leader you want your staff to see you as before you step into the role – I’ve valued talking this through with trusted staff members and allowing them to help me develop. I believe it’s vital that I’m honest about my own ongoing development; because that’s an attitude I want to instill in the team themselves. What is great is when the team grab hold of my vision, and bring it into reality – it is also pretty humbling too. I woke up one morning with half an idea about a new campaign we could launch to tie in with our 25th anniversary in 2016, within the space of a few days my senior and admin teams had run with it and the results are beyond my wildest dreams!
In post, I’ve also learnt how lonely it can be at the top. Lots of people told me to expect this, but I didn’t really understand it until a few months in when I made the decision to close a department and make redundancies. Suddenly the pressure of the situation seemed to overwhelm me. As well as shifting relationships with my team, I’ve also had to re-establish those with the trustees, and actually this tough decision brought us closer together. Even with a good relationship with them, I still need an independent sounding board, and I’ve been thankful that I already had a mentor in place to support me in this way.
Having overall responsibility for everything is a shock too. As Ops Director I’d been involved in finance, HR and governance, but ultimately I could concentrate on outputs and outcomes. In hindsight, paying much more attention to those dull things like budgets, fundraising and networking would have paid dividends. Trying to manage my time between all the things which need to be done is tough, and getting the balance between being in the loop but not too involved with specifics takes time to perfect.
Truth is, I’m loving the job. The best bit has been the hardest to master – its ok to have time to just think. I heard someone say at a conference once that when you change gear you can go faster with less effort. I think that one year in, I’ve found the right gear and things are feeling a lot easier. My best piece of advice to budding CEOs is to practice creating time and space in your diary to think and reflect. Getting that right first will help everything else slot into place.
Barrie Voyce, Chief Executive Officer
The Door Youth Project
Senior Leaders’ Circle
If you’re a Senior Leader, book on to our next event. We’ll be hearing from CEOs in the third sector about their experiences of becoming a CEO and gaining experience in areas beyond their specialism.