A few years ago, I attended a university-run short programme about how to grow a business. It was aimed at mainly private sector chief executives and entrepreneurs who were looking to take things to the next level. But social sector people could go too. The cost was £10,000.
When I arrived, the round of introductions revealed that I was the only third sector person there. My place had been subsidised generously by a charitable trust after I pleaded poverty. Everyone else paid full whack.
At coffee, I got chatting to the owner of a string of veterinary practices. His business was struggling. It became apparent that every penny he had was in the business, parts of which were losing him big money. His challenges were familiar to me: building a better team, finding decent non-executive directors and obtaining money for growth.
Most striking, though, was how passionate he was about his veterinary business. He loved the animals, his customers and the communities he served. Just as passionate, in fact, as anyone I knew in the third sector. There was little, really, to separate us.
But the big difference was in the way he viewed the £10,000 fee for the programme, which he had needed to borrow from his father to attend the programme. I confided, red-faced, that I had been given a generous bursary to attend. He told me, cheerfully, that he was utterly untroubled by the fee.
He saw it as a slam-dunk investment in the success of his venture.
For me, as a life-long third sector person, this was a watershed moment. My first instinct on seeing the £10,000 price tag was to apply for a bursary. I informed the trust that if I didn’t get it I couldn’t afford to attend the programme.
Looking back, I did this because I viewed the programme as a cost to my organisation rather than an investment in its future success. And even with my bursary safely in hand, I was still, up to that very conversation, fretfully listing all the "worthwhile" things that my remaining outlay might achieve for our mission.
What happened over the following weeks was instructive. The veterinary practice owner’s instincts were bang-on: the programme helped him to refinance and grow his business using new technology.
The awful truth is that few of our chief executives have been properly prepared for these challengeCraig Dearden-Phillips
He acquired another veterinary business and all parts of his business are now profitable. His investment of £10,000 paid off handsomely and he long ago repaid his father.
I too got a fantastic return on the rather modest chunk of the fee I paid for myself. I realised that our business’s cost-base was wrong. It became clear that we needed an entirely new business model to deliver the change we wanted to see. Over the following year, our business became much more sustainable and had far more impact.
This experience changed me forever.
Today, I spend generously on leadership and coaching support, knowing that the returns will come back many times over. When I get the chance, I urge third sector chief executives to do the same. Many take my advice, but I think our boards are often stuck in the same mud that I was sploshing around in before I understood the value of investment in its top leaders. They just don’t get it.
Heading for a fall
My worry is that we’re heading for a fall. For while we talk this big game about "impact", "sustainability" and "transformation", the awful truth is that relatively few of our chief executives and senior leaders have been properly prepared for any of these Herculean challenges.
This is very obvious when you compare investment levels in our current and future leaders to what is routinely spent on their equivalents in other sectors. For some daft reason, we expect our leaders to be fully-formed.
And because of all this, a fair number of current chief executives and senior leaders do not know where to start when facing the Everest ahead. So they sink or swim. And when they do ask their boards for coaching or development, they are frequently told "no" – that the money has to go into the front line. Sadly, I see it all the time.
This is one of the things that frustrates me most about our sector. There is a choice here. We can invest in getting our leaders into much better shape to tackle the bumps in the road ahead.
Please, please do not say that we don’t have the money. We do, but we just instinctively prefer to spend on small outcomes now than invest in a bigger outcome later. This has to change if we are to remain relevant to the challenges of the 2020s.
Leaders matter. So let’s invest in them.
Craig Dearden-Phillips is founder of Social Club, a peer-support network of leaders in charities and mission-based businesses