Geraldine Kilbride caused a stir with her comments at a recent Resource Alliance event that the charity sector was "possibly 10 years behind the private sector" in its thinking about leadership.
Kilbride is director of the Future Leaders Programme for Fundraisers at the Resource Alliance, a charity set up to help third sector organisations build their financial sustainability. She is also a business psychologist at the London Business School. Her comments, she says, were not intended to suggest there are "worse or less competent leaders" in charities, but to highlight the lack of research into good leadership in the sector.
She says the private sector has done more leadership research because it faces a tougher challenge motivating staff. "If you're trying to eradicate poverty or change lives, it's easy to get people to come to work in the morning," she says. "Your work has meaning and purpose. It's not the same if you sell soap or make bread. If that's the purpose of your company, you need to be a pretty good leader to give your staff commitment and focus."
But the challenging economic situation has changed things for many charities and those who lead them. They now have to fight harder for funding and try to do more with fewer resources. An increasing number of charities have to compete with the private sector to deliver services.
Kilbride argues that no matter what the sector, the people at the top should think about how to lead better. "Don't try to figure it out by trial and error," she says. "It's a skill. You have to learn it. You owe it to your staff to try to get it right." At the moment, she says, 65 per cent of employees say that they could do their jobs better if their bosses didn't get in their way.
So what advice does she have for charity leaders? "First off, leadership isn't management," she says. "When managers are promoted to leadership roles, one of the main mistakes they make is to carry on doing what they've always done."
Leaders should focus more on external, rather than internal, matters, she says: "Charities' senior managers need to provide leadership - not just to staff but also to an external audience of supporters."
Kilbride is also interested in how the charity sector selects leaders. In all types of organisation, she says, the relationship between the board and the senior management team is often strained because board members are selected for the wrong reason, or because they focus on the wrong things.
"We ought to select people for their skills," she says. "But too often we select them because they were good elsewhere, or their title looks good on the letterhead, or because they're friends with the chairman. And if all the trustees do is monitor the senior management, those managers might stop working with them and start thinking about how to get around them."
Charities should also consider changing leaders when the needs of the organisation change, Kilbride says. For example, some leaders are highly talented at turning organisations around or getting them on their feet, but not so good at managing them when they are more settled. This means a time can come when a leader needs to change their approach or move on, which can be difficult.
Two traits that good leaders should have, she says, are humility and dogged persistence. A good leader, she contends, will focus not on his or her own achievements, but on those of the team. It can be a good sign if a leader is not looking forward to taking over a new job, she says, because it indicates they are not after personal glory.
Another attribute that should be prized highly when choosing leaders, Kilbride says, is the ability to communicate. She argues that it's almost impossible for a leader to over-communicate. "People don't hear much of what you say," she says. "There's great research that suggests you should pick five key messages and repeat them until you're bored."
Leaders must also be prepared to deliver unpalatable truths. "Don't shy away from doing something because you think people will misunderstand," she says. "And don't tell lies. Think carefully about how to make your message clear."
Finally, Kilbride says, the voluntary sector needs to "train and steer" the public about the reality of life in the sector because public perceptions of charities can often be at odds with the truth. "The sector can be reluctant to get involved in that sort of thing because it wants to remain pure," she says. "Reality can be a bit grubby."
Watch Geraldine Kilbride speak to Third Sector:
2009: Founder, CrucialSkills4Leaders
2005: Founder, Visioning Works
2001: Associate, department of organisational behaviour, London Business School
1996: Founder, Global Workplace, London Business School
1992: Independent consultant, strategy and organisational behaviour.