Jenny Berry: It's vital to maintain resilience in our leaders

In the latest opinion piece in Third Sector's series on mental health, Acevo's director of leadership and governance says that being the pinch-point of a charity can take its toll on its chief executive

Jenny Berry
Jenny Berry

A charity chief executive is like the pinch-point in the neck of an egg timer. On one side are the beneficiaries, volunteers and staff. On the other are the chair and trustees. The chief executive is in the middle, charged with the responsibility of keeping the sand moving.

The pressure to meet a seemingly endless range of responsibilities, from fundraising to HR to keeping up with the speed of change in politics, regulation and technology, can take its toll. The chief executive needs to be energised, motivated and engaged to be able to focus and concentrate on their role, and to adapt to any changing requirements. Each chief wants to see their charity achieve and maintain success for their beneficiaries.

And although most chief executives do practice and encourage self-care for themselves and their teams, at times of extreme stress or busy-ness this can be abandoned, and the symptoms of stress are often then ignored. 

Building and maintaining resilience is vitally important. But too often the focus is on organisational resilience, such as sustainable financial reserves and diverse income streams. We also need to recognise the more human resources that charities rely on day in, day out.

We know from our members that building and restoring personal resilience remains a constant area of concern. For the chief executive, this relies on self-care and motivation, plus a good relationship with their chair. And sadly we don't hear as many examples of positive motivation as we’d like from chairs and trustees, who often ignore their duty of care for the chief executive, especially at times of stress.

Developing personal resilience can take any number of forms, from mindfulness training to polishing up your crisis-management skills. We know from our own regular chief executive forums that leaders value the opportunity these meetings give them not only to network with their peers, but also to enter a "decompression chamber" where they can share their feelings with their peers in a safe space.

In the end, it boils down to organisations investing in their leaders, and leaders investing in themselves. It’s no good to anyone if the sand in that egg timer gets stuck because the chief executive has become isolated and over-stressed. Investing in a chief executive’s wellbeing is as important to organisational success as any other discipline, such as due diligence or accounting. When the pressure is on, a chief executive’s own self-care must not be allowed to become a "nice-to-have".

Jenny Berry is director of leadership and governance at Acevo

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