Leadership: Spotlight on new CEOs

Peter Cardy, former chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, draws on his experience in the voluntary sector to outline his top tips for new chief executives who are looking to lead organisations for the first time.

How do you start to learn your way around a new organisation? Each of us has our own learning style. For my part, I like to map an organisation: that is, literally make maps and lists of its key internal elements and its governance and stakeholders.

Over the next few months I'll be doing just that for the new role I've just taken on as chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at the Department for Transport. I'll meet the key individuals in the ministry and the agency, without forgetting that the people on whom things really depend may be a long way down the formal hierarchy, and I'll mark on the map where I've been.

When I left Macmillan Cancer Support, I looked back at the maps I made during my induction when I started as chief executive in 2001. They remained an essential guide to a very complex organisation. Here, I've produced a guide outlining some of my findings about trustees, external stakeholders, staff and volunteers. They might be useful for new chief executives who are looking to lead such people for the very first time.


It's often as big a challenge for the chief executive as it is for the trustees to work out where the boundaries of their relationship lie. Chief executives are, by definition, restless, controlling people who want to do their best for the cause. We feel the weight of responsibility, respond by trying to manage everything in and around the charity and are often impatient to push aside any obstacle to doing that.

Trustees, too, are often restless, controlling people who have enough energy to spare from their day jobs, whether as tycoons or home makers, to moonlight on boards. But trustees are almost always non-executives at larger voluntary bodies, and that often sits uncomfortably with their sense of vocation. Conversely, chief executives are almost never trustees of their own organisations, but are usually the principal advisers to trustees.

My general rule of thumb is that the unique role of trustees is to think about the future: how to keep the charity fit for what it has to do 10 or 20 years from now. The chief executive thinks about the same stuff, too, but has today's business to manage and seeks the shortest route for doing that. So the trustees become the counterbalance to what is convenient for today's management problems but may be inimical to the long-term objects.

My view is that the boundary between their roles is always blurred but, whatever else they think about, trustees must focus on policy for the long-term and chief executives must concentrate on operations in the shorter term.

What is policy? When I wrote my Master's thesis an impressively long time ago, I found no agreed definition of policy, so I created my own: "Policy is the bundle of attitudes and dispositions that conditions the response to actual situations." Nothing has changed in the intervening 25 years, so I've continued to use that definition.

Should chief executives be involved in the recruitment of trustees? However tempting it is to decide who the trustees are, the chief executive does well to stand back. Trying to fix the trustee board will end in tears sooner or later as the trustees discover minds of their own. Having said that, chief executives can and should put time and effort into the education and development of their trustees and into helping them to work as a single corporate body.

The best trustee board I ever worked with was elected by the members of the charity and had virtually no management experience, but was eager to learn. It worked with an experienced trustee from another charity, himself a former chairman, who spoke the same language and shared the same perspective.

The most difficult board I've ever encountered consisted of people who appointed each other and were all leaders in their own right: people who never learned to work together and did not see the point of working to improve their own personal development. My question is: what happens when these two types of trustee inevitably collide?

Beneficiaries, donors and other stakeholders

I've always taken the view that you can't run an organisation from head office. It's important that you understand your beneficiaries, and sometimes - in membership organisations, for example - it's important for them to meet you.

I've made it a cardinal principle to spend time with the people for whom I work. I have, for example, helped out at respite homes and hospices. This isn't a case of going back to the shopfloor for the cameras, but a systematic learning experience. It may take a while for the people you're with to relax, but nobody else can teach you so well what matters to them.

Yes, you may feel awkward in the beginning, but the pay-off will be worth it. If you have specialist staff, they may also feel anxious and protective about their clients, so you'll have to reassure them, too.

As for donors, it's often the case that you feel you always have to be there explaining the organisation's work - especially to major donors. And donors often want to see the top banana.

However, do consider that you may not be the best person to present your case. A volunteer, a caseworker or a beneficiary may be far more convincing than you. If you have a head of fundraising, ask for their honest advice: they may be very willing to give you an evening off.

The same goes for the media. A lot of chief executives are show-offs (not me, of course) and love the camera and the mike. It's often important for you to be the face or voice of your organisation, but not always. Is a paunchy, ageing man the best person to be talking about children's issues? Is a dynamic young woman the right choice for talking about elderly people? Your PR team will want to establish your presence, but you might do better to step back from the limelight.

And if chief executives map nothing else, they should definitely chart their organisations' external connections.

It can be hard to understand the nature or importance of relationships with other organisations, or the significant individuals who work at them. I have made mistakes by not recognising this and have had to backtrack later.

The only way to find out is to ask around; an important, continuing relationship and what is transacted through it may not be documented thoroughly or at all. When you pick up these relationships, the other party will be alert to signals that things will either continue as before or will change for the better or worse. Careful testing of the other's expectations will always pay off.

Staff and volunteers

The realisation eventually dawns on most new chief executives in the voluntary sector that we're on our own. In all but the smallest voluntary bodies, the chief executive has a bigger view than every other employee; in the largest, they may be the only person who can see right across the organisation.

As a chief executive, you are not the same as the rest of your staff: you get little credit for their successes, but you are to blame for all of their shortcomings. You no longer have peers within your organisation. There is only one chief executive, and there may well be aspects of the job that you can't share even with your most senior colleagues.

You have to look elsewhere for support and a listening ear. In my experience, most chief executives - however grand - are pleased to be asked to act as mentors to new peers. The traffic is two-way: I've never failed to learn at least as much from a mentee or shadow as they have learned from me.

There are no magic tricks to managing your staff and volunteers, but the obvious advice is to listen, listen again and then listen some more. If you've just risen from the ranks, remember that you can be good friends with your colleagues, but you can no longer be one of them. Learn to stop worrying about what people think about you, and stop wanting to be liked; you will have to make unpleasant decisions that may hurt people you care about.

However lovely a person you are, your role means that some people will not like you and will dispute your decisions. Respect is the best you can hope to earn, and - even though respect is sometimes granted to a chief executive post regardless of the incumbent - it can run through your fingers like dust. Ultimately, your colleagues are looking to you for leadership, for direction, for decisiveness.

Remember, you'll be working with some of the best people in the country - people who've chosen not to work for private profit or the government machine, but for a cause. Such people see the voluntary sector as a liberating environment. They will be creative, argumentative, maverick and passionate. And they won't be motivated by money.

If you were employed in a job similar to theirs in your previous role, you need to take a step back and stop being an expert; that's what they do and they will advise you.

And that's just the volunteers. The paid staff will be the same. The only major difference is that they work under contract and can therefore be required to do or desist.

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