A wise director once shared with me his top tip for successful leadership: "Be great at two things – managing talent and managing upwards." In other words, above all else, be excellent at unlocking and harnessing the potential of those around you.
Excellent advice. But what if the talent isn’t there to be unleashed?
In recent years, I’ve come to fear that more than any other challenge facing our sector, our single biggest issue is a deficit of talent. When I speak to peers in charities and not-for-profits of all sizes, the conversation always turns swiftly to the same issue: the growing difficulty of attracting and retaining the talent we need to deliver on our missions. Collectively, we have a talent crisis, and it feels like we’re sleepwalking through it.
Before I go any further, let me just clarify: I’m not suggesting there is NO talent in our sector. Within my own team and organisation I am fortunate to be surrounded by amazing individuals, and I’m frequently inspired by those I encounter in other organisations too. Yet there isn’t enough to go round. The talent pool isn’t growing anywhere near fast enough, or in step with the skills and capabilities we’re going to need in the future – and, yes, there are people in our midst that hold us back too.
What then is the shape of our challenge? From my own experience, and in conversation with other sector leaders, we are mostly all struggling with both the attraction and the retention of talent – in terms of capabilities, competencies, skills and attitudes – as well as performance management of those who fall short of what we need. Just like every other sector, we are in the midst of major disruption – driven by rapid political, economic, social and technological change – and if we’re going to adapt to the future, we need to transform our workforce.
A recent report from the World Economic Forum predicted that the rise of machines, robots and algorithms could double the number of jobs in the economy, and more than half the current tasks in our workplaces could be performed by machines as early as 2025. Within five years, a high proportion of our recruitment will be for jobs that don’t exist today. At the same time as the type of work inevitably changes, so too will how we do our work, with traditional work patterns already being hugely disrupted.
Which is to say, our problem is not just one of finding people able to deliver today’s strategies and plans; far greater, I believe, is the challenge of developing the talent capable of carrying us into the future. If our boards, executive and staff teams are populated primarily with people born and raised in old business models, we will struggle to adapt; and if we want to attract new skills and talent, then we need to create an environment that is attractive and future-facing.
There’s no handy silver bullet. But there are plenty of complementary solutions. Equality, diversity and inclusion are rightfully moving up the charity board agenda – but we need to push faster and harder, because this is more than just a moral imperative: the most successful organisations thrive on their diversity. We have to reach beyond our bubble if we’re going to deepen and strengthen our talent pool.
We need to overhaul our dated HR policies and systems to encourage ever greater flexibility and dynamism in our workforce. We must invest in our people – developing the skills and capabilities for the future, training, coaching, equipping and empowering our teams to succeed. We must also tackle underperformance – we cannot tolerate mediocrity, allowing colleagues to drift along in their jobs, never knowingly excelling. We need to value our people in all senses – remunerating competitively and recognising, rewarding, supporting and developing. As a sector, we need to build a "value proposition" that positions us as a desirable aspirational career path, where the brightest and best are drawn to realise their fullest potential. And, crucially, our strategies and plans need to be transforming our approach and laying the foundations for our future workforce to thrive.
All of which will require leadership. That includes leadership by our national sector bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Acevo and the Institute of Fundraising, as well as our boards and executive teams, our managers and staff. It will need leadership at every level to attract, develop and build our workforce of the future. Innovative, creative, brave, risk-taking, bold, visionary leadership. Because, ultimately, if we don’t tackle our talent crisis then we have an even bigger problem: we will fail in our missions to create a better world.
Every leader needs to step up and face this challenge, so we can all progress onwards and upwards.