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Finding support as a charity leader

By Eleanor Mitchell, consultant at Action Planning.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

CEOs have recently reported feeling exhausted (or even more exhausted than usual) due to the impact of the pandemic. The constant clamour for funding and recruitment has also been particularly hard for some sector leaders.

The position of CEO in a charity or other not-for-profit organisation can bring a feeling of isolation, which can become damaging to your performance in the role, to the organisation as a whole and to your own wellbeing.

This article looks at how, by adopting certain behaviours, CEOs can unburden themselves while creating synergy and alignment that benefits the entire workforce.

It’s lonely at the top

A CEO wears many hats: leader, negotiator, budget holder, fundraiser and more. The role can be thrilling but sometimes overwhelming and riddled with uncertainty. When difficulties occur, it is the CEO’s job to ensure that staff, volunteers and clients feel supported. But who supports the CEO?

A CEO shoulders responsibility for the organisation. You are expected to drive it forward and secure income to provide outcomes that meet the mission and aims, not only of the organisation but the people within it too. The CEO sits in the middle, with staff looking up and the board looking down. You can feel squeezed and lonely. This is especially true now that a lot of work happens at home.

Delegation benefits everyone

Support for the CEO is easily overlooked, especially by CEOs themselves. You can become swept away with the responsibilities of looking after your people and your organisation and fail to recognise your own need for personal care and good management until it’s too late. To avoid burning out, it’s essential that you share the load from the start.

For first-time CEOs especially, the sense of being a senior manager, and the expectations of accountability and leadership that come with it, can make working collaboratively with a team seem counter-intuitive. Should you really be passing your responsibilities on to others less senior than you? When done well, delegation is not about passing the buck, it’s about investing trust in your staff and the effect is positive in several ways.

When staff are informed, they make better choices. Managers who are given responsibility and are involved in the decision-making process feel empowered and will, in turn, delegate the running of their part of the organisation appropriately.

Involve project managers in the finances. Be open about income trajectory and funding options. All managers should have oversight and responsibility for their budgets, which should be reviewed quarterly. By sharing responsibility and delegating tasks, you will instil a collective culture in the organisation as a whole, which will make you as CEO feel much less isolated and bring benefits in the form of shared decision making – especially important when making tough choices that could lead to income loss and redundancy.

Find someone to talk to

But as a CEO there are some things you can’t delegate. The simple knowledge that the buck stops with you, for example. So how can you prevent this from becoming overwhelming?

It is important to offload the pressure through supportive and constructive relationships, so seek support. The relationship between CEO and chair is not always straightforward but it should be a confidential space to discuss feelings and concerns, with support to find solutions. The board is there to share skills and expertise that support the CEO in running the organisation.

Sharing with other CEOs is beneficial too. Many CEOs, especially in the third sector, will be faced with similar challenges to you. You may not want to divulge your innermost fears to some peers but there will be supportive relationships waiting to be forged. These relationships can provide a trusted space to speak and learn from one another. ACEVO was set up to provide CEOs in the charity sector with just that kind of support network.

Be honest with yourself

As well as assessing the organisation periodically, it’s important to self-evaluate too. After all, you are a key asset and it’s essential that you don’t break down. Check your own temperature regularly. Stressed, tired, fine, excited, overworked, undervalued, happy, valued but not thriving, thriving but not valued? Ask yourself is it a healthy load you’re carrying or is it tipping into unhealthy?

It is very easy to get swept away and forget your own condition when supporting others, so make this part of your routine.

Sometimes, though, it’s very hard to self-evaluate, identify areas for your own improvement and act on them. Sometimes we are unable to see the wood for the trees when it comes to self-reflection. Or maybe we just don’t want to. The often dreaded 360 evaluation can be very insightful and constructive, as can an annual appraisal from the chair, especially if followed up with target setting during the year. But regular sessions with a mentor can be invaluable.

Time is always tight but making time on a regular basis to speak to someone who understands the demands of the role, can identify areas that require work and provide a supportive sounding board, will help you make more of the time you do have.

As a CEO you need more than just strategic support. It is important to let off steam from time to time, with someone who understands the position you’re in and cares about your welfare. That could be a mentor or friends and family. The important thing is that you accept that you have the need, it’s normal, and that you ask for support.

Therapy can help too. Many workplaces have confidential employee assistance programmes that are seldom used. They usually offer six sessions – six hours of constructive offloading with ideas of how to manage feelings and the impact of the role.

The crucial message, and one that the best CEOs take on board, is that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. By doing this and creating a support system with shared responsibility and effective delegation, you will feel less lonely, more supported and so will those around you.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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