Terrible bosses who made me want to manage better

Having bad experiences can be useful in the end, says Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

The worst employer I ever encountered was mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Conflicts of interest went undeclared. The accounting was questionable. Fundraisers were told they were less important than operational staff. Royal events triggered an unseemly scramble for places by the charity's directors at the expense of places for its donors.

Managers behaved like little emperors, battling with each other and bullying their teams. Male bosses told female staff to wear skirts. Teenage girls at a charity event were asked to perform aerobics for mostly older male guests. It was carnage, and the root cause of this was a vacuum of leadership. Focused, inspiring, values-driven: none of these described the chief executive, whose leadership toolbox instead contained crassness, laziness and a terror of making decisions. I resolved that, if ever I got my chance to lead a charity, things would be very different.

At Julia's House, therefore, we provide formal training in people skills for all line managers and coaching in how to involve and support their people. We seek anonymous feedback from all staff on our performance as an employer, and hold focus groups for more detailed evaluations of how to improve.

I send a monthly bulletin to our 120 staff, with news from every team, as well as a nominations column in which staff write about unsung colleagues who impress them. To ensure two-way dialogue, I attend all team meetings twice a year. It is especially useful for employers to do this, given the uncertainty and worry of the current economic climate.

We challenge underperforming managers fairly but robustly, mindful that early intervention is key to liberating the potential of their teams.

The charity keeps an up-to-date succession plan to identify and develop potential internal successors to all management positions.

To alleviate stress, we offer our staff free complementary therapies and a 24/7 confidential counselling helpline for staff, run by experts.

After a child dies, we invite the affected staff to join a debrief in which most of us cry. It is always cathartic - in a children's hospice, grief and stress are part of what we experience. But every workplace has its own stress, and wise employers seek to identify its effects and mitigate them.

This is a holistic approach to supporting our staff. We know it works, too: our annual measure of staff morale has neatly tracked rising income and output, while staff turnover and sick leave have fallen. In four years, we have increased children's services twentyfold with only a three-fold increase in staff. We have even earned a Top 20 ranking in the Sunday Times's Top 100 Companies To Work For list.

So to anyone who has had or is having bad experiences: remember that they can be useful in the end. It just doesn't feel like it at the time.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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