Martin Edwards: Don't dismiss the long-serving chief exec just yet

There have been many examples of charity leaders staying too long, but regular renewal is not always a good thing, writes the chief executive of Julia's House

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

I have a confession to make. I have been chief executive of the same charity for 11 years. I feel like I should carry a health warning. Yet there is one factor that can make longevity a success, and it isn’t experience.

It is accepted in our sector that most charity chiefs will move on every three to five years, guaranteeing fresh thinking - and leaving other people to try to embed their plans - in the charity they leave behind.

We also see many examples of chief executives staying too long. It starts with getting a little too comfortable in the role, then they develop the habit of talking at people rather than with them, and finally they believe their own hype and act like they own the charity.

So regular renewal, we are all led to believe, is a good thing. Yet we would think it odd if, say, our GP moved on from practice to practice every few years. Likewise, if our MP switched constituencies after each parliamentary term we would think they were damaged goods.  

Like MPs, we could run the gauntlet of elections every five years and be voted in or out by the people we exist to serve. That would terrify some complacent chief executives into taking a lot more notice of what their beneficiaries and supporters actually want. But we might also become weather vanes, changing direction with every prevailing wind rather than making the hard choices that are sometimes required.

So what is the magic ingredient that can make long-term charity leadership work? It is restlessness. Not being restless for a change of job, but constantly ensuring that the organisation does not rest on its laurels. It is about challenging the status quo, always agitating for improvement in direction and quality.

As a chief executive, it’s your job to exhibit the behaviour of a highly demanding leader, but with such good interpersonal skills that you aren’t unpopular. Gordon Ramsay but without the drama. Someone who upsets the cosy apple cart but who helps pick it all up afterwards.

This means jolting complacency wherever you find it; bringing new thinking to stale management meetings; requiring evidence for why we think what people need is really what they need; seeking third-party advisers to be critical friends to your strategy; rewarding innovation and promoting rising stars; finding new sources of funding; and communicating your plans in novel ways.       

At Julia’s House, in the last few years we have launched a radical plan to double our services and supporter base, reaching out to all of Wiltshire. We could have continued only to serve Dorset, as everyone expected, but we were capable of more and we identified a gap in services further north. Whenever I meet a Wiltshire family in our care, I am so glad we are doing it but we must stay focused to truly embed our progress. 

If a charity’s chief executive won’t positively agitate, it is the board’s role to ensure this culture prevails: one way or another. Self-awareness, restless improvement and challenging stasis must be part of your DNA.

If they aren’t, it’s time you moved on.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, the Dorset and Wiltshire children’s hospice

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