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Five lessons from leading during challenging times for a Covid world

Blog by Eliot Lyne, director of operations at Essex Wildlife Trust.

I was the interim finance director of RNIB from early 2017 until March 2018, when reports of failures in RNIB run schools resulted in the then CEO stepping down and me becoming interim CEO until May 2019. This was a challenging time, and for many in the sector may be long forgotten. For others, including the children and families, staff, and volunteers impacted most directly, it is not. I feel massively honoured to have had the opportunity to lead a brilliant organisation full of inspiring, passionate, and committed staff and volunteers and am proud of the work that has been taken to address the problems that existed at RNIB. Over the last 12 months, it has struck me that my personal learnings as a leader during this time have equipped me very well for the Covid-19 crisis.  So, I’ve tried to draw the threads from these into five key questions of relevance to the Covid and post-Covid landscape.

  • Are you clear about your purpose? Our strategy and purpose must provide the north star in our Covid-19 response and our building for the new normal. Are yours lean or strategically flabby? Under control or grossly overstretched? If we all think very deeply about our organisations, the purpose is or should be clear. If not, in the post-Covid world, tough decisions may need to be made or may already be being made. Best make them now rather than pay the price later.
  • Are the basics in place? If the purpose is clear, what about the tools and processes that we have in hand? How much cash have we got?  What is our health and safety/safeguarding/fundraising or data compliance framework?  How do we treat our supporters?  What about our diversity?  These might be basic questions, but they are the foundations of any response. You can’t build a response if it’s not compliant or if you don’t have the cash. I think for many of us, these have already been the foundations of our Covid-19 responses, but the foundations are never something that should be taken for granted. We cannot be complacent about the need to regularly review and invest in the foundations that our charities are built on.
  • Are you tuned in to your culture? No matter the purpose and tools, if the organisational culture isn’t working, then no process and strategy will fix it. And if the leadership is seen as disconnected and complacent, then how do you reconnect with staff?  It’s worth considering how connected you are to your staff, volunteers and stakeholders? Do you understand the culture of your organisation? How do you know?  If you plot a response and nobody follows, then it won’t work.  
  • How effective is your governance machinery? How is your governance structure working under the stress of the Covid crisis?  If it isn’t, then don’t let it fester, work to make it better from a purpose-driven place. The chair relationship is critical. Make it a safe space of openness and honesty.  More broadly than that, how many more lessons do we need before making the Charity Governance Code mandatory through the SORP?
  • Acknowledge your learning from the crisis: Steering a charity through a crisis is hard. When going through a tough time, it is essential to communicate with humility and honesty to everyone involved in your charity. This is something I find quite hard.  I don’t consider myself to be a hugely empathetic person or with particularly high emotional intelligence. Still, I have grown a lot during my time as a CEO, and I think this has made me a better leader. It is important to take time to acknowledge your own personal growth – focus on what has worked, rather than only what hasn’t.  And be gentle with yourself!  There’s an old Sufi phrase that says “This too shall pass”.  I use this on a daily basis.  

This isn’t about attaining a nirvana of governance perfection. It’s “advanced common sense”, as one of my bosses used to say. If nothing else, this will inspire confidence that the things we are doing now are not just about survival. They are the essence of good charity leadership. And that we are developing, in all of us, a fabulously equipped generation of leaders for the challenges of the post-Covid future.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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