Guest Blog by Chris Munday, CEO of Crossways Community
‘So is it what you expected?’ everyone asks. What’s it really like running a charity? And I think, and take another sip of my drink and say ‘Well, I don’t think I knew quite what to expect, but I’m enjoying it’.
It had all sounded reasonably easy a couple of years beforehand. I was a partner in a City law firm satisfied with my job but knowing that I didn’t want to end my working days there. My clients were charities and I had run our firm’s social responsibility programme, so I had wondered about moving sideways to the charitable sector. At home our children were flying the nest so change was in the air.
In typical lawyerly fashion I took lots of advice, then accepted my first ever piece of career coaching (in my arrogance I had never thought it important before), sweated hours over my CV and launched myself onto an unsuspecting charitable world. The result? – well initially a bit of damp squib if I’m honest. I applied for plenty of jobs; emphasised my transferrable skills, pointed to my ability to dissect a pile of complex legal documents and polished my brogues in readiness. Charities were interested in me, even curious but a lack of track record in charitable employment was unsurprisingly a bit of a drawback. I was learning one of my first lessons in this brave new world.
But eventually I was appointed as the Chief executive of Crossways Community; a mental health charity based in Kent. I told the panel emphatically at my interviews that I knew nothing about mental health. They nodded sagely, (probably swallowed hard) and offered me the job anyway. And it’s great. There are lots of great things about running a charity: the first is a cliché, but it is wonderful to be able to have a direct impact on improving the lives of disadvantaged people, rather than just enabling others to do so.
I have to admit that being in charge is rather fun too. Being able to go a meeting and say ‘why don’t we do this?’ is energising. Being responsible for people’s careers and livelihoods is daunting but feels good.
Most of all I feel that I’m working in the real world. Being in City was huge fun and a privilege but for me it always felt a bit unreal. Here the decisions that I and my team make impact directly on real people. So we want to make sure we get those decisions right. That means using all our abilities, brain power and energies to achieve that. Because if we get it wrong then I can’t just shrug and say ‘Well I’m only the lawyer’.
And it’s a revelation to be the conductor in front of the orchestra; seeing how everyone’s contributions are necessary, being responsible for the overall sound and desperately hoping that nobody notices the odd squeak. My learning curve is almost perpendicular and my brain occasionally aches as I learn how to lead this organisation. But I know I needed more brain stimulation after over twenty years in the same job and it’s a refreshing (and scary) change.
I’ve discovered that building a team at all levels in the organisation is a vital and time-consuming task. I knew that in my head but have discovered that team building doesn’t happen by magic. I have learnt that I need to spend time getting to know how my staff tick so that I can ensure they are happy and working well.
While we’re talking about investing in relationships, I have discovered that I need to invest time in my relationship with my trustees and especially my Chair. The relationship between a chair and a Chief executive is unusual: part mentor, part line manager, part colleague. Not a relationship I’d ever had before.
And what about the not-so-good bits. Well you have to be resourceful: if my computer plays up I don’t have a host of helpful IT bods to turn up and sort it. So you use your common sense or Google the problem on your phone and hope for the best.
A law firm, like most of the professional services world, is focussed on targets, outputs and bottom lines. It has taken me some time, and quite a bit of rethinking, at Crossways to become less target driven, not always to expect instant results and to see issues in the context of real people’s lives and problems.
Its surreal going to meetings where I still don’t quite understand completely what’s going on and where acronyms and jargon fly around like tennis balls on Centre Court. But I have learnt that it’s OK, and indeed crucial, to say ‘I’m sorry can you explain what you mean by that please’. That’s a refreshing change – as a lawyer it’s hard to admit you don’t know the answer but when you’re the new boy you need to swallow your pride and ask.
My biggest problem has been loneliness despite being surrounded by people. In my previous role when I was stuck on a problem or needed to have a good moan I simply pushed back my chair, turned to my neighbour and asked their advice. Simple, easy and effective. But when you’re the boss and you’re not sure of one of your decisions, who do you ask? There’s always your Chair but you don’t want to keep asking him or her all the time- after all you need them to keep thinking that you’re brilliant.
Sometimes I have discovered you just need to be brave, have the courage of your convictions and go for a decision. Other times you need a mentor or two. Or in my case three. Being able to do some guilt free unburdening and questioning with wise and neutral folks who have been in this game a while has been an essential and thoroughly enjoyable part of my new life. I also realised that I need proper further training so I am starting an MSc in Charity leadership later this year.
So is it what I expected? Not sure? Is it what I want? Absolutely yes. Would I recommend it to anyone else considering a career change? Of course.