Martin Baker: Leadership and management is as much about culture as skills

Teaching good management is vital – but doing it well requires time, resourcing and investment from the top

People in the charity sector often think that their problems are unique or different to the private sector. In my experience, most of the time this simply isn’t true.

One area where both the charity and private sectors experience the same issues is in leadership and management development.

According to the report Leadership and Management in the UK - the key to sustainable growth, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there is “a perception that leadership and management skills are something you ‘pick up’ on the job”.

As a result, people are promoted into management for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes it’s because they have been at an organisation so long that it is the next logical step. More often it’s because they are so good at their job – the rationale being that they can lead a team to be as good as they are.

But neither of these examples should be why someone is promoted into a management role.

People should be promoted because of their potential to be a good manager. Then they should be given the support they need to flourish in that role – not left to sink or swim.

The report estimates that ineffective management costs UK businesses more than £19bn a year in lost working hours. By that yardstick, can charities similarly afford to lose vital funds because of ineffective management and leadership – money that could be spent on services and delivering on their mission?

A few years ago we commissioned research by the Foundation for Social Improvement to better understand the big skills gaps in the sector. The research revealed that the biggest skills gap for larger charities was in leadership and management.

More recent findings suggest not much has changed. When the accountancy firm Grant Thornton interviewed 10 of the top charities in the UK to find out what they thought were the biggest risks to the sector, a widely-cited risk was people, leadership and culture.

So charities need to invest in developing the skills of both potential and existing managers: but effective management cannot be learned in a day. It needs to be embedded in organisational culture and learning, and it needs to come from the top.

The learning and development team at the youth homelessness charity Depaul UK designed a bespoke, one-year leadership and management development programme after realising that its previous offer didn’t quite give everyone in the organisation the same experience.

For Helen Bullock, head of people and learning at Depaul UK, management is more than just understanding HR processes and signing off annual leave.

“To be able to manage your team, and lead them effectively, you need a person-centred approach to understanding people’s needs and motivations as well as organisational context," she says.

"As a manager you don’t have to know all the answers, but you always have to ask the right questions."

And while the cost of developing a leadership and management programme may be a potential barrier for some charities, the RSPCA has created a blended learning programme for new line managers, in a perfect example of developing skills without breaking the bank.

The programme utilises in-house subject matter experts, recorded webinars and live training, as well as a digital workbook designed using Google Docs.

Pam Pappenheim, IT digital consultant at the charity, says the programme saved a huge amount of time and money, as well as an 80 per cent reduction in cost when factoring in external provision and accommodation.

Part of the programme’s success, she says, is having high-level sponsorship from the charity’s chief executive from the start.

As the BSI research proves, effective management and leadership saves money in the long run. But effectiveness requires buy-in and this is where culture comes in. Ultimately, leadership and management development is as much about culture as it is about skills.

Martin Baker is founder and chief executive of the Charity Learning Consortium

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