Mark Flannagan: Spare a thought for the chief executive

We were once entry level staff or lowly managers, too, writes our columnist, and we're isolated and not immune from having off days

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

Being a charity chief executive probably requires you to have a particular set of character traits. Not all of these are, at first sight, flattering. We can be viewed as stubborn, egotistical, dominating, hopelessly optimistic and super-confident, against all the evidence. Of course, we would never normally admit to any of these because, at all times, we need to be role models, leaders, positive individuals who reflect the values of our charities. Bearing this in mind, I want to make a plea for a little more understanding. I also want to highlight one trait that is certainly common to us all.

If you want to be a charity chief executive, be prepared for a world like no other in your career to date. You will be isolated within your charity. Even with a great staff team, a brilliant management team and an incredibly supportive trustee board, you have no peers within your charity with whom you can share everything equally. Your chair should be a source of support but s/he is still your boss. Your staff expect your behaviour to be exemplary and, no matter how great your relations, you are still their boss. Your supporters, donors and beneficiaries look to you to perform when needed as an advocate for your cause. You are never allowed an off day.

But we do have off days. We have days when, as with everyone else, it is tough to keep the forward momentum, to keep the strategy in sight and to make a difference. If any chief executive tells you otherwise, don’t believe them. Every chief executive I know shares one word to describe what they need to keep going: resilience.

One definition of resilience is "the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc, after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity". That describes a charity chief executive’s role. S/he needs to change with the circumstances. S/he must see all parts of the charity and the issues in making decisions or supporting others to fulfil their roles. That is why, sometimes, you will see a chief executive take a less than straightforward view. What is obvious to you is often more complicated to them. Considerations for a chief executive might include strategy, operational plans, income, image, board relations, staff culture and, to be blunt, survival. This doesn’t mean chief executives are being political or less than honest. It is just that we have, uniquely in the charity, many different audiences to reconcile. I don’t play chess, but being chief executive of a charity is, I imagine, like daily considering the whole board and the potential implications of moves not yet taken, and wondering what strategy is being applied and what will be its as yet unforeseen impact.

Chief executives were, once, entry level staff, then managers, then heads of department, then directors within a management team. We haven’t forgotten what it was like to be further down the chain, wondering why the chief executive took that decision or behaved in that way.

Now we have the "top" role, we lose a lot of sleep. Before becoming a chief executive I was unprepared for the regular annual month of insomnia related to thinking constantly about delivery of annual plans. We do have, or should have, support mechanisms. Spending time with other chief executives is the simplest and most therapeutic. No matter who they are and which charity they run, our peers understand what we face and have sympathy. So next time you sigh and wonder what the heck your chief executive is up to and why s/he did that, spare a little thought for the more complex and difficult world s/he lives in.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlannCEO) is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

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