Craig Dearden-Phillips: Let's not dump chief executives who make mistakes

We all make errors, some of them bad ones, writes our columnist, but chief executives should be given the chance to learn from them

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

So far, this hasn’t been a good year for charities. For charity chief executives it is probably the worst ever as the stories pile up of misdemeanours present and past.

I am worried about this, and you should be too. I was with the chief executive of a mid-sized national charity recently, who told me that the public flaying of charities has put her off her next big move. "Why would I move to a job that I might lose because of bad press and never work again?" was her essential question. That’s aside from the missile-hit on your health and wellbeing that goes with intense media scrutiny.

She had a point. When a charity chief like my friend is forced out in mid-career, it’s unlikely that she will find it easy to move into an equivalent role. And, unlike her corporate equivalent, she won’t have amassed enough money to weather a year or so in the wilderness. 

But, I hear some of you ask, shouldn’t charity leaders be forced to walk the plank if they are found to be at fault? Isn’t this the best way to re-establish trust in charities?

Here we hit the heart of the matter. My charity chief colleague knows, just like me and anyone who has done the job, they will probably, at some stage, make one or more pretty terrible mistakes. 

It might be an error of managerial judgment or a dreadful hire that blows up in your face. It might be a poor strategic decision that loses the charity money. It could be the mishandling of an incident that ends up in the media. It might be a relationship or personal conduct at work that, in wisdom and hindsight, should never have happened.

If you are a chief executive, you know you are likely to screw a few things up. From the safety of distance, I can say that as a charity chief I got a few things very badly wrong. On one occasion, I seriously feared for my job.

But I was incredibly fortunate to be given the opportunity to learn from my mistakes rather than be sent down the road. My errors are not ones I have repeated. And I believe that learning from my failures made me a much better chief for the charity – and a better human being. 

My point here is to say that we if we want a cohort of brilliant leaders of our sector in the 2020s, we need to think very carefully about how we deal with their inevitable failings and shortcomings. Do we allow chief executives to learn from their mistakes? Or do we simply jettison them when the going gets tough?

The colleague I spoke to would make a magnificent leader of a top ten charity. It pains me that this might never happen.

It should pain you too.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives

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