Leadership & Governance: Interview - Dame Mary Marsh

The founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme looks ahead as she embarks on the challenge of bridging the sector's skills gaps

Dame Mary Marsh
Dame Mary Marsh

Dame Mary Marsh was appointed to lead the Office for Civil Society's review of leadership and skills in the voluntary sector last month. At that time, she said in a statement that there was an urgent need for the sector to gain new skills and adapt to working in a "radically changed context", leaving the impression that it was in danger of drifting in a swiftly changing environment.

As a former chief executive of the children's charity NSPCC and the founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, which offers funded fellowships to aspiring third sector leaders, Marsh appears to be well placed to carry out the role she has taken on.

In some ways, she says, the skills challenge facing the voluntary sector is no different from that confronting the private or public sectors. And the drivers of that change are technology, the inexorable movement of information online and the rise of social media as a means of communication. "At the moment there is a generational gap with technology, and this will escalate," she says. "This is a challenge across the piece." Marsh believes that the recession hit charities later, but much harder than organisations in other sectors and that a lot of funding just isn't there any more. Grant funding from statutory sources has largely dried up and, while contract funding still exists, the contracts now available tend to be on a much bigger scale and more closely tied to outcomes.

"It has changed very quickly," says Marsh, who believes this fast pace has exposed some missing skills in the sector - particularly a lack of "business capability". Chief executives and leadership teams need to develop what she calls an "expert fluency" - an ease in knowing how to direct the activities of finance staff, lawyers, IT professionals and communications workers.

They also need to develop a greater understanding of the commissioning process, how to manage personal budgets and how to deliver services in conjunction with service users.

"Everywhere there are new and challenging ways of looking at things," she says.

The skills and leadership review was commissioned by Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, and there is an explicit assumption that business will share its expertise with the sector. Marsh, who sits on the board of the bank HSBC in Europe, believes that the sector can learn from good customer service in the private sector.

"HSBC is a very different kind of organisation, but treating customers fairly is a key driver," she says.

Equally, there are lessons that business can learn from charities, particularly about leadership values. "We have strongly embedded, values-based leadership in the social sector, aspects of which many parts of the private sector are falling over themselves to try to demonstrate," she says.

But in response to questions about revelations that HSBC had laundered money for Mexican drugs cartels, Marsh says the sector should resist the temptation to come across as holier than thou. "We have perhaps been stronger for longer, but that doesn't mean that we have not been caught up in fraud, deception and misconduct - just as happens anywhere," she says.

Marsh says she has an open mind about where the biggest skills gaps exist in the third sector. To get to the bottom of the question, a working group of some of the Office for Civil Society's strategic partners has been set up to conduct multiple conversations with people in the sector. "This isn't about meetings around a table, but about gathering a group of people who are well connected and sending them out to have lots of conversations and to feed back," she says.

Marsh believes that more needs to be done to develop leaders from within the third sector - the latest figures show that only a quarter of sector leaders have come from charities. "Many chief executives of my generation have come into the sector from elsewhere in the past decade," she says. "A lot of women, myself included, came from the public sector, and quite a lot of men came from the private sector. Some of that is really healthy, but we should also have people coming from within."

Marsh attributes this situation to managers failing to emerge from their silos - staying as fundraising or finance directors - and to risk-adverse trustee boards. "There are times when you have to take some risks and give somebody a chance to step up," she says. "Otherwise, you are cutting off a mass of potential talent that you could be making use of."

The findings of the leadership and skills review are expected next spring, but Marsh does not expect it to unlock a new tranche of funding. "I hope I will identify some opportunities that people can take advantage of without anyone telling them what to do," she says. "This isn't about direction, it's about helping people to be aware of how they can help themselves."


2012: Appointed by the Office for Civil Society to lead a review of leadership and skills in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector

2009 (continuing): Non-executive director, HSBC

2008 (continuing): Director, the Clore Social Leadership Programme

2000: Chief executive, NSPCC

1995: Headteacher, Holland Park School, London

- Sector experts give their views on the relationship between chairs and chief execs

- Find out how the sector is leading the way towards greater diversity

- See what are the career benefits of a Clore Fellowship


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