In local government, he had bosses who were supportive and believed in him. He wants to encourage future leaders at the RSPB but he says it has to be handled sensitively or people can feel de-motivated if they believe they have been overlooked.
Gordon Lishman was appointed chief executive of Age Concern in July 2000 and has been with the organisation for 28 years. He started off as a development officer working with local Age Concern branches in North Yorkshire before rising to become the charity's operations director in 1987.
He believes that charities should grow their own bosses. "There are things that are distinctive about our sector. In general, my belief is that people that develop within the charity sector are more likely to have the breadth of experience and approach to get things right. I think you should have a substantial grounding in the way the voluntary sector works."
Lishman helped his wife take an MBA and says he learned a lot from reading her text books. He says reading in general is immensely valuable to learn how people tick. He is planning to launch a staff development programme at Age Concern. "The principle is to try to enable people to develop personally and professionally. You need to find ways of encouraging openness and innovative approaches."
For people who are aspiring to be leaders of charities, he recommends they gain as much experience as possible of the work they are involved in. "But the first thing is to be yourself,
he says. "Don't try to follow someone else's template. Have a clear sense of who you are."
Fran Beckett believes the main role of chief executive is to sell a vision and to develop a strategy. After being head of the Shaftesbury Society for six-and-a-half years, she recently became chief executive of the Church Urban Fund.
She started out working in social services in Somerset and then became involved as a community church worker in London. She did three jobs for the Shaftesbury Society before becoming chief executive. She believes being the society's community care co-ordinator was a very useful step.
"It involved a lot of strategic thinking and planning,
Beckett did a masters course at the London School of Economics in voluntary-sector organisation about eight years ago which she believes has helped her career enormously. "It covered social policy. It covered areas of management and theories and concepts around the voluntary sector. I think it stretched my understanding and gave me a much broader knowledge of the issues."
Although it's early days at the Church Urban Fund, she is strongly committed to developing people internally and is considering introducing mentoring schemes as well as more formal training.
Sometimes, a tough job elsewhere can be the ideal preparation for a tough job in the voluntary sector. Mary Marsh was made chief executive of the NSPCC two years ago after a successful career as a headteacher.
"It gives you the experience of working quite closely with children and families which is entirely relevant to the position I hold now,
"As a headteacher you are in the front line every day."
Running schools meant that she also got involved in policy developments and was part of government working groups tackling issues such as citizenship.
However, her main breakthrough was attending on an MBA course at the London Business School in the late 80s. "I think that was one of the most significant opportunities which I sought and got. I wanted to get an understanding of financial issues, marketing and strategies."
She thinks it is dangerous to define people by the jobs they have done before but instead believes that management and leadership skills are transferable to other contexts. "I want to give as many people as possible opportunities to develop leadership skills. I passionately believe in growing people because then you can achieve so much more. It's crucial."
Simon Armson has been chief executive of The Samaritans for 13 years after starting out in personnel management at the NHS. During the 70s, he was heavily involved with industrial relations which reached their peak during the so-called Winter of Discontent. "It was very demanding.
I learned the skills of tact, discretion and diplomacy and was always trying to remain pleasant in the face of great adversity."
He worked as a Samaritans' volunteer for 10 years before taking a paid job with the organisation, and still does a regular stint on the helplines.
"For me it's essential to remain in touch with what is going on at the point of delivery of our service."
He was assistant general secretary of the Samaritans for five years before becoming chief executive.
Shortly after joining the Samaritans he was offered a scholarship place on a management course run by Ashridge college where he learned skills in financial management and marketing.
He admits that the Samaritans needs to invest more in management training.
"The amount of scope for career progression is relatively small at a senior level. The turnover is not vast. The whole realm of management training is something that we have underplayed.
How good is the voluntary sector at developing its leaders? Justin Hunt asks chief executives who rose through the ranks what helped them reach the top
The voluntary sector is not good at developing its own leaders.
At least, that's the impression one gets from the frequent cases of chief executives and heads of department parachuted in from the commercial or public sectors. And if not handled delicately, it can leave other senior staff feeling undervalued and passed over.
Paul Winter, chief executive of the Leadership Trust, feels the charity sector is way behind the private sector in terms of succession planning and bringing on managers. "They have got to create an environment where the individual wants to grow. You need a strategy for developing people and for identifying the stars in your organisation to promote them and give them a sense of empowerment."
Winter believes it is essential that charities put in place management training programmes to sustain morale and to give staff clear career paths and a sense of belonging. Given the unique nature of charities, Winter says they can sometimes be reluctant to be seen to be spending money on their staff.
"At times the voluntary sector is a little shy of spending money on developing people. But as long as what they are doing is linked with organisational growth and efficiency, no one is going to complain."
General impressions, however, can be deceptive. There are plenty of leaders of charities large and small who have reached the top jobs after rising through the ranks.
Third Sector spoke to nine of them about the development of their own careers, the things that helped or hindered them, training courses that were particularly good and the mentors they turned to for assistance.
We found that most had been prepared to take risks with their careers by either moving sideways or applying for positions not immediately related to what they had been doing before.
Also, now they're the boss, are they providing the professional development support their staff require?
Nick Partridge has been chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust since 1991. He was the first member of staff at the charity back in 1985 when he joined as an office administrator. "The worst part of the job was taking the messages from the answer machine each morning,
"Cowardly people would call at night saying all gays deserved to die."
The best part of the job was helping the organisation to grow. Partridge says that he received invaluable assistance from Professor Tony Pinching, an immunity consultant at St Bartholomew's hospital in London, who taught him how to work with the NHS. He also took an MSC in voluntary-sector organisation and management at the London School of Economics in 1988.
"It gave me a good background and understanding of the history of charities and the fact there is the potential for a destructive relationship between the trustee body and the management side."
He is now striving to create a self-development environment which will attract and retain the combination of people who work at the Terrence Higgins Trust. His main advice to people looking to become leaders of charities is to seek out a mentor as well as develop an understanding of the charity movement.
Jeremy Swain joined Thames Reach Bondway in 1984 and became chief executive at the start of 1999. He was a street worker between 1984 and 1988 and became a leader of one of the housing teams. "One of my turning points was doing a management qualification with the Open University. It broadened my perspective of management issues. That was a real boost for me."
Swain says listening is important if you want to progress your career.
"I've been very painstaking about learning from people around me. I have been diligent about spending time with people who have experience in management areas."
He also has a corporate mentor, Stephen Howard, chief executive of the Cookson Group, who he speaks to every quarter for advice and support.
"He has been enormously helpful and gives me practical advice. We go into some of the touchy-feely stuff about working at the top of an organisation.
It's an isolated position. We talk about some of the stresses and issues of working with demanding boards."
Swain is committed to developing future leaders from within. Each year, 16 managers go on an Open University course. "We're very much growing our own,
he says. "The course covers team-building skills, time management and strategy. It's actively targeted not at senior managers but those at junior and middle levels."
Harry Cayton puts his career development largely down to luck and his ability to make sideways moves.
He has been chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society since 1991 and before that was chief executive of the National Deaf Children's Society.
"I have always been willing to take the risk of a sideways move. The early part of my career was in teaching, and I took a salary cut to move into the charity sector."
After failing to make it as an actor, Cayton qualified as a teacher of deaf children and then later became an educational adviser at the National Deaf Children's Society for 18 months. He was promoted to chief executive in 1982.
He says he is a strong advocate of developing leadership internally at the Alzheimer's Society. "We have leaders in our organisation at every level. It's about recognising that all people have skills in an organisation and things they can contribute."
He says a good guide to developing your career is to look for jobs that are interesting and challenging. "People need to know what they value in their career. Interesting challenges and opportunities help you grow and develop."
Eric Appleby has been chief executive of Alcohol Concern for 11 years and he did a number of jobs before entering the charity sector. He was a security guard for a while and even a tennis coach. Then he joined the civil service and worked as an industrial tribunal clerk which gave him a clear understanding of employee relations.
For a year he got a real taste of political life as private secretary to the then minister, John Golding, at the Department of Employment. This furthered his knowledge of how government works and how policy can be successfully influenced.
In 1979, he helped to set up and run the National Federation of Voluntary Literacy Schemes, an umbrella organisation working on adult literacy.
He then became a director of Alcohol Concern. "I had no particular mission to deal with alcohol problems. It was a job that required the experience I had and looked interesting."
Training has been a consistent theme of his career. "I have done quite a lot of training programmes,
"I could not single out one that is seminal. It's a question of topping up your learning all the time."
Graham Wynne, chief executive of the RSPB, started his professional life as a town planner in a variety of London boroughs and became involved with economic regeneration initiatives."I have always loved being in a position where you can combine on-the -ground action with influencing the policy framework,
His interest in natural history had been largely dormant since he was a kid but it re-awakened in his twenties. Wynne decided to take a diploma in ecology and conservation at the London University. After a while he grew tired of town planning and decided to make his hobby his job. He applied to become parliamentary officer at the RSPB and was asked instead to apply to be director of nature reserves. He persuaded the RSPB that his skills in urban regeneration could be transferred to the natural environment.
So what skills does he think has helped him to progress in his career?
"I'm an enthusiastic person. Enthusiasm and commitment have got me an awful long way. I'm also able to look at the broader picture and deal with quite fine detail."