Debra Allcock Tyler: 'Leadership is a discipline'

What has 20 years leading the Directory of Social Change taught Debra Allcock Tyler about management, culture and charity? There is certainly no shortage of anecdotes

For the first 18 months she worked as chief executive at the Directory of Social Change, Debra Allcock Tyler was the regular recipient of anonymous hate mail. It was the kind favoured by vintage low-budget spy thrillers – “somebody went to the trouble of cutting out letters from magazines and newspapers” – and it transpired that it had been sent by a member of staff.

“Initially they sent it to my trustees, making all kinds of accusations: that I was using a particular temp agency, or creaming money off,” Allcock Tyler remembers. “For the first six months I had no idea it was going on. But in the end the trustees told me – and when the trustees didn’t do anything, the letters started coming directly to me.”

Of the numerous anecdotes shared during our conversation, this is the most jaw-dropping: part byproduct of a poorly handled appointment process, part manifestation of a hostile response to a new leader, wholly terrifying to be on the receiving end of. As the campaign of anonymous letters lengthened, the content became increasingly abusive. The police were called, but said that if they took the case on, the charity would lose all control of the process.

As in any good thriller, the culprit ultimately committed a fatal error. “They made the mistake of addressing the envelope by hand,” Allcock Tyler says. The DSC hired someone to analyse the handwriting of everyone in the organisation – and after Allcock Tyler’s executive assistant had the idea to include samples from former members of staff, the author was found.

“It turned out that this relentless hate mail had come from a member of staff who left just a few months after I had started,” she says. “We wrote to them, and said: ‘We have done the analysis, and there is a very high correlation with your handwriting. If you don’t stop we will report you to the police.’” The letters stopped.

Allcock Tyler will mark 20 years leading the DSC in 2021, and 35 years in the wider charity sector. Her tenure spans thousands of hours of training; hundreds of keynote speeches; energetic lobbying of policymakers; publication of many books on management and leadership; a regular Third Sector column; and a seemingly endless supply of colourful stories. Her career is underpinned by two driving passions – supporting individuals and organisations to work better, and the world of charity.

“Charities are like a bonfire around which people gather, that gives off heat and warmth and light,” she says. “I know it sounds a bit flowery – but when you create a bonfire people tend to gravitate to it: then new relationships and experiences emerge. Create a charity, and you attract all kinds of people towards it; to volunteer or donate or ask questions; even to challenge the right of it to exist.”

The DSC holds a unique space in the sector, supporting charities in the work they do by providing training, books and resources that help them become better organisations, and campaigning for policies that will make the UK a better environment in which charities can thrive.

And despite arriving into a challenging environment when she came on board as chief executive in 2001, Allcock Tyler says the minute she walked into the DSC’s building “I knew I belonged.”

Debra Allcock Tyler CVLike many in the sector, Allcock Tyler didn’t grow up with an ambition to work in charity. “All I ever wanted to be, from the age of about three years old, was an actress,” she says. “I used to watch old films with my grandmother, who adored Hollywood movies and musicals – I wanted to be an actress and an author.”

But after failing to secure a university place (“turns out being a drama queen isn’t enough”) she spent 14 years from 1986 working for The Industrial Society, a charity with pre-First World War roots that delivered training to companies and campaigned to improve working lives.

“It was well ahead of the game and probably one of the best employers of the time, but it was also ‘of’ the time,” Allcock Tyler says.

“There were fantastic female role models, who I am still in touch with now, but the sexism was absolutely rampant. I can’t tell you the number of times I was groped or inappropriately touched.”

After working her way up from an admin role to become the only female management trainer in a team of 12, she recalls delivering a leadership course at an elevator manufacturer one day, only to be asked: “How do you cope knowing that, while training us, every single man in that room is imagining you naked?”

“Luckily I was brought up in a military background and knew how to handle myself – so I just said: ‘Well, I don’t think of you as men, I just think of you as delegates,’” she says.

Credit where it’s due

Allcock Tyler landed the DSC job, she believes, because her experiences were well matched.

“I’ve tried volunteering at the front line, and I’m rubbish at it. I’m not emotionally robust enough; I find it very difficult to disengage. It’s why I have such admiration for counsellors, and coaches, and those who work with people who have addictions,” she says.

“When I was younger I volunteered at what we used to call an old people’s home – now it would be a hospice… I couldn’t cope with it because they kept dying.”

In 2008 she co-founded the Small Charities Coalition, with Patrick Cox, chief executive of Male Cancer Awareness Campaign, to give small voluntary organisations a voice, and took on the role of its founding chair.

She is a trustee of the product-giving charity In Kind Direct and the Berkshire Community Foundation; and an ambassador for the African Advocacy Foundation – a small charity that supports people living with HIV and women and girls who are at risk of, or affected by, female genital mutilation.

But her passion, she says, is helping organisations and people who lead them to get their work right. “I get really excited about geeky things like the governance code, and changes to the Sorp (Statement of Recommended Practice),” she says.

Allcock Tyler believes the DSC doesn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserves for its achievements. “As far as we’re concerned it doesn’t matter if we don’t get the credit, because what matters is the change – but a lot of changes to transparency and changes in the Sorp came about because of the campaigning work of the DSC,” she says.

A key push for transparency in the early 2000s came in the form of its Guide to Major Trusts, and Guide to Major Charities, definitive guides written by former deputy director Luke FitzHerbert, which detailed the policies and practices of leading foundations to help charities make better applications for funds.

“The Guide to Major Charities formed part of my job interview – I was told this very controversial book was about to come out and had to write an essay about how I would handle the inevitable bad press,” Allcock Tyler recalls.

“There was a real anger about the Guide to Trusts as well: we were inundated with legal letters from trusts and foundations, saying: ‘How dare you publish this? We will sue you’. Of course we said it was all public domain, so sue away.”

“Nowadays, no one would question the importance of transparency for a moment, and I consider that a huge success of ours.”

The leadership journey

Allcock Tyler is also the author of a batch of books that provide practical, “no-fibbing” guidance to management, governance and leadership, from 2006’s It’s Tough At The Top to 2021’s A Battle on The Board. What lessons can she impart about good leadership – and the most common misconceptions about what that looks like?

“People tend to think that good orators are good leaders, but that’s not my experience at all,” she says. “Some of the best leaders I have worked with would never get up and inspire people with a brilliant speech. Instead, they were the practitioners, the people you had a one-to-one with every month and who concentrated when you spoke.”

A good leader unites people in pursuit of a common aim, she continues. This can’t be achieved with inspiration alone: a good leader must also be a capable manager.

“I’ve worked for brilliant leaders who are shit managers, and brilliant managers who were shit leaders. They were both awful – and in neither case did we ever achieve the objectives,” she says.

“If you don’t have really good management, you will never achieve your vision, and if you don’t have a vision it doesn’t matter how good your management is; people’s souls get destroyed because there is no meaning.”

An illustration from Allcock Tyler's It's A Battle On The Board, drawn by Private Eye cartoonist Grizelda

All of this taps into building a strong organisational culture, which, Allcock Tyler insists, is “hard bloody work”. “So much of culture is about creating good, solid practices that you do without flinching.”

At the DSC this is supported by clear rules of engagement and written standards of behaviour for managers. “A standard of performance for a manager at the DSC, which they are measured against, is that they must have a one-to-one with every member of their staff at least once every six weeks, preferably once a month, diaried a year in advance,” she gives as an example.

The charity also throws birthday parties, welcome parties for anyone joining the team, takes time to tell staff how important their roles are to the organisation, and puts transparency at the heart of everything it does: “I firmly believe everyone in the organisation has as much right to know what is going on as I do.”

Both leadership and culture take discipline, Allcock Tyler says. “I remember my mum saying to me: ‘You weren’t born a leader, darling, you were born bossy – it’s not the same thing.’ There’s a lot of truth in that! I was born bossy, I’m the eldest of four in a massive Anglo-Indian, Catholic family, where to be heard you have to be loud and opinionated.”

Her coaching, keynotes and writing are often scattered with anecdotes about parents, her siblings, nephews, nieces and godchildren. During the interview she describes her mother’s childhood in Pune, India, where she spoke fluent Hindustani, and the surprise of her grandmother when Allcock Tyler was born a platinum blonde. Has she always been relaxed about sharing these personal details with the world?

Raised in the military, she remembers her father, a senior officer, always having colleagues over for dinner, where they would get a window into the colourful messiness of family life.

“I’m very used to having people know about you,” she says. “My father used to say that the more people know and understand you, the more likely they are to engage. I also just really like people, and am really interested in them.”

A special mention must be afforded to her gigantic basset hound, Arthur, a sector celebrity in his own right. Has he taught Allcock Tyler any valuable lessons about leadership? “How absolutely shit I am at it!” she hoots. “At the moment his favourite thing to do is drag all of the soft furnishings out of the house and into the garden.”

But, she relents, there have been lessons: discipline (“I will not be defeated by this bloody dog”), patience, and the reward that comes with giving your time to another creature.

Photograph by Colin Stout 

Banging the sector drum

Allcock Tyler firmly believes the sector has experienced the most dramatic changes to its landscape in decades, over the past year. When Covid-19 struck, she says, she thought the DSC had only six weeks to live. “We had a couple of difficult financial years leading to the beginning of 2020, so even before the pandemic were having conversations like: ‘Can we afford to pay staff this month?’,” she says.

Income dried up when the first lockdown hit, but the charity responded fast, furloughing 70 per cent of the team within weeks of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme being announced, and, with the help of several grants, was able to pull through.

The organisation also implemented a four-day working week. “I really can’t imagine us going back to the old days. Do I see us going back to a permanent London office with training rooms attached? I’m not sure that is our future,” Allcock Tyler says.

Her frustration with the government’s indifference to the sector crisis is palpable. “The actual fiscal economy would collapse without the voluntary sector, but trying to get that message through is like bashing your head against the wall,” she says.

“Again – it’s not about charities, it’s about the fact that people have suffered because charities have had to cut services, or reduced their fundraising activity by furloughing or making fundraisers redundant; so there won’t be any money this year or next year to fund vital work and help the people we serve.”

The DSC’s unique position in the sector gives it the freedom to openly express critical views about those in power.

We’re not a membership body so we don’t have to please any members, and we don’t get government funding or even much funding from trusts and foundations – so we are not answerable to anybody,” Allcock Tyler says.

She views this as a privilege, and a collaboration with other sector membership bodies and colleagues: “We have a role to play, and part of our role is to say things that others can’t, because doing so would not properly represent their members.”

By banging the drum publicly, the DSC starts a conversation, which can then enable other organisations to open conversations with ministers about lobbying and policy issues.

With charities overlooked again in the recent 2021 Spring Budget, social media has been home to debates about the ability of charities and umbrella bodies to effectively lobby those in power without having close relationships with ministers. Allcock Tyler takes a dim view of this. “We are at the last gasp of white, patriarchal power structures that the sector has been incredibly guilty of perpetuating,” she says.

While she believes the sector is more collegiate and transparent than it used to be, in the future it has to look physically different: the next generation will bring the change needed. “I am passionate about developing women of all shapes and sizes, but especially women of colour – because women of colour, traditionally, […] never get a bloody chance,” she says.

“We must have more diverse voices[…] I feel really strongly that white people have got to get over themselves. If people are telling you they are unhappy and you are treating them like shit, you have to pay attention.”

If a leader today finds themself at the heart of a difficult conversation about racism, harassment or bullying at their organisation, what are the ways in which they can constructively respond?

“I’m always learning, and – I hope – that if someone said to me ‘that was a bit racist’, I would never be defensive but to say I was really sorry and think about what I was missing in my thinking,” Allcock Tyler says. “You have to own your faults: if you are able to say ‘This was my fault,’ then you build trust.”

Another vital element of building trust, she says, is to listen. “We spring into action too much. Everyone is bringing in consultants around EDI stuff – I’m not knocking them, because that work can be useful for knowing your base line. But 90 per cent of the time, this work is not about big studies, it’s about asking yourself: ‘What can I actually do to make this place a better one to work in.’”

With 39 per cent of staff members at the DSC identifying as black, Asian or a member of a minoritised community in a diversity audit run last year, the charity has three times the proportion of BAME employees as the average UK charity (nine per cent, according to the charity leaders body Acevo), and more than 20 per cent of overall respondents (staff and trustees) have one or more disabilities.

“We are incredibly diverse as an organisation in many ways,” Allcock Tyler says. “But this is about 20 years of cultural discipline. Creating the right culture is simple, but not easy. It’s not complicated, but you have to be disciplined.”

After 20 years in post, what are the steps she takes to keep learning and growing as a leader?

“I’m interested in everything, apart from art and music,” she says; producing three books – Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, by Donal D Hoffman, and The Production of Money by Anne Pettifor. (“I’m really interested in economics and the political choices people make.”)

Does she have any hankering to move on and do something else? “Honestly, no. Well – acting. But now I think, thank God I didn’t become an actress. I’m dramatic enough as it is.”

Topics:
Management

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