Dame Mary Marsh: The best charities search restlessly for improvement

And it will help them do more with less, says our columnist

Dame Mary Marsh
Dame Mary Marsh

In my leadership roles in schools and the voluntary sector, I have used a simple phrase to drive me: I believe we should always embark on "a restless search for improvement". The distinguished educationalist Sir Michael Barber coined this phrase, which describes an approach he said was to be found in the most effective schools. It still works in almost any context.

However good your organisation's outcomes are, there is always something that can be done better or differently. Improvement is not necessarily achieved by maintaining the same direction. And if you relax and become content with your performance, you risk becoming complacent and missing the need to respond to emerging or even critical changes in the context in which you are operating.

Central to this "restless search" is time to think, reflect and learn. All leaders need to be open to learning, and this is a key theme for our Clore Social fellows. They learn through group work, coaching, mentoring and research. Asking effective, probing and open questions can create the most powerful opportunities to learn. We can all help each other to do this, and should also strive to develop the ability to do it to ourselves.

How often have we found ourselves reacting to a proposal rather too hastily and perhaps dismissively? Just stop and think. We might be missing something by prejudging the situation, perhaps because of a previous experience or in response to pressures we are under at the time. When we learn to think about why we react as we do, we can allow for the possibility of becoming more open to different perspectives. In this way, we can become more aware of important challenges or opportunities we might otherwise have missed.

With the need for services and support increasing and some revenue streams declining, there is an increasing expectation that much of the third sector will have to do more with fewer resources. To do this, we must be open to innovation and new models of delivery. And we will have to be ready to focus and stop doing some things that might have been central to our activities in the past.

We must learn how to achieve the outcomes we want by doing things differently - and, in the end, better. The challenge will be to carry on with our "restless search for improvement": thinking robustly, stopping to reflect and always being ready to learn - not least from the mistakes we make along the way.

Dame Mary Marsh, is director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme.

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