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Tips for leading in challenging times

Civil society is going through an unprecedented period of upheaval and change.

The threat of the coronavirus pandemic is piling pressure organisations which are often already stretched to breaking point, or are now facing unforeseen challenges.

Against this background, CEOs must try to steer a course to secure the future of their organisation – in both the short and longer term – and at the same time maintain staff and morale and minimise the pain to those who work with, support and rely on the organisation.

Many CEOs are finding themselves well outside their own comfort zones and facing issues for which they feel themselves ill equipped in terms of experience, expertise or both.

Needless to say, there are no magic solutions. But it can help to hear from others in comparable situations who have gone through similar experiences and survived.

These tips are an extract from the 2011 ACEVO publication Leadership in Challenging Times, written by Ann Frye. They draw on the experiences of a number of CEOs from national, regional and local organisations who have faced a whole raft of different challenges, and passes on their thoughts and tips on what to do – and what not to do!

Be realistic

  • Unexpected challenges mean you will need to reprioritise activity. Give yourself permission to let some things go;
  • Once you have a plan it is important to get on and do it. Don’t wait for every small detail to be in place. Having the plan 80% right is good enough;
  • Even when the world is unpredictable, you need to take control of those things you can take control of so you can manage the things you are not in control of.
  • Recognise that you may not succeed and face up to options that could include: closing, merging or changing direction.

Communicate with people

  • Make sure you communicate at all stages with your staff. If you don’t morale will suffer and there will be confusion among staff about what is happening;
  • Talk to people: however difficult the message it is better to be open and to share the problems;
  • Engaging with staff is incredibly powerful and effective: if people understand the big picture there is a real sense of energy and of people working for the same cause;
  • Always give staff a context for the message you are delivering and trust that they will appreciate the ‘big picture’. Be clear about the message and about what it means for each group and department;
  • Think about how you communicate across all your stakeholder groups – staff, volunteers, trustees, donors and of course the people you serve;
  • Even when difficult decisions have to be taken, treat staff fairly and openly and support them in moving on or adjusting their sights;
  • Don’t forget to thank staff and volunteers for their contribution, cooperation and attitude.

Keep the board with you

  • A knowledgeable board which understands its own role as well as the challenges facing the organisation is vital;
  • Board members may be uncomfortable at the prospect of lost income, cuts in service or even redundancies. A risk averse board will need convincing that you are taking the organisation in the right direction;
  • Agree who is leading on communication, both internally and externally. Our advice is for the CEO to lead on external and staff communication, with the chair taking responsibility for communicating with the board;
  • Be cautious about your chair wanting to take on operational leadership, however helpful they are trying to be. Make it clear where you would welcome help and where the boundaries remain between exec and non-exec involvement. Do consult with your chair about whether a decision should be matter for the trustees, but try not to let them become a second chief executive;
  • It’s understandable if the chair wants to prioritise financial projections for the year ahead, but point out the volatility of the situation and let them know what your priorities are in the short and medium term.

Be true to yourself

  • Be true to yourself, stick to your own beliefs and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated;
  • Don’t let the “fear factor” get the better of you: remember that however terrifying it seems, you just put your head down and get on with it;
  • If you are new to the sector, the role or the issues, don’t be afraid to ask questions. People will respect your openness.

Draw on your strengths, shore up weaknesses

  • Recognise your own strengths and weaknesses and bring people in to fill the gaps;
  • If your strengths are in the vision and the big picture, bring in people to help with the detailed implementation;
  • Don’t assume that free or cheap advice is always good advice. Be prepared to pay for the quality that you need in key areas (legal, financial, marketing etc).

Look after yourself and your wellbeing

  • Don’t allow stressful and pressured situations to override your own needs to the extent where you make yourself ill, either mentally or physically;
  • Take proper breaks and try not to neglect the things that help you destress, whether that’s exercise, family time or getting enough sleep;
  • Recognise the emotional load you are carrying in processing and responding to changing and demanding circumstances while also absorbing the anxieties of both staff and trustees;
  • Admit to yourself when you can’t cope. Ask for help from others and try and share the burden. Don’t hesitate to call on ACEVO if you need support.

Further guidance

Photo by: Mathias Jensen on Unsplash

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