Martyn Drake: The post-pandemic leaps that charity leaders must make

If you want your organisation to make the greatest possible difference, you need to harness the full potential that we’ve merely glimpsed over the past year

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is this…

Your challenge now is to complete that sentence. I mean it.

Have a go, because over the coming months, that conditional clause will need to become a regular refrain for you, as it will for leaders right across the sector.

We have learned a vast amount over the past 12 months – about ourselves, about our colleagues and our organisations, and about our potential to move mountains and achieve extraordinary things when needs must, when the pressure is on, when there’s nobody riding to the rescue.

These are the lessons we need to lock in. Right now. And here’s why.

I’m working with half a dozen different organisations on their strategies at the moment, and almost every chief executive, at some point in the process, has mooted, voiced or vented their concern that some of their people are already defaulting back to the past; retreating to the comfort zone of how things have always been done.

In the aftermath of an incredibly tough year, this is entirely understandable. It’s just not entirely helpful.

If you want your organisation to make the greatest possible difference, you need to change; you need to harness the full potential that we’ve merely glimpsed over the past year.

Through the strategy process, all those chief executives have seen first-hand the value that emerges when their teams are able to put “the way we have always done things” out of their minds for a few hours, when they start reconnecting with their core purpose and their greater goals, and fundamentally rethinking what might be possible for them to achieve.

But they’ve also come to recognise that it’s what happens after those reflections and conversations that really counts. That the most critical thing leaders must do, to make any of it worthwhile, is to commit the organisation to that more expansive way of thinking, permanently.

There’s no shortage of examples I could pick to illustrate the point.

Probably the most obvious is “digital by default” – a conscious recognition that any products, services, or supporter engagement that can be delivered through digital channels will immediately have a far greater potential reach than anything you can do physically.

And the consequent realisation that physical delivery should solely aim to fill the gaps where digital can’t yet reach.

Easy to say; harder to embed in teams whose jobs, perspectives and, often, identities are tethered to a physical delivery model.

“Weeks not years” is the next shift I’d highlight.

Wherever we’ve had to change to compensate for Covid-19 restrictions, we have demonstrated time and again that “good enough” really is good enough, and that we can achieve great things in a fraction of the time we’d thought, if we have one overriding priority, focus our efforts on one essential goal, and get past our tendencies to throw protectionism, perfectionism, and past history in our own way.

But the third and biggest shift of all is unlocked by the combination of those two.

“Unbridled ambition” is what finally gets to emerge when we internalise the realisation that with digital by default, we can vastly expand our reach and impact, and by focusing relentlessly on a single, urgent opportunity, we can achieve it in weeks instead of years.

If you haven’t yet reinvented, or at least heavily revised, your strategy since last summer, you’re missing some huge opportunities because, from what I’ve seen, the results can be transformational.

By fully embedding what they’ve learned in the past year, many of the organisations reworking their strategies post-lockdown are no longer thinking in increments, they’re thinking in multiples. Their aspirations no longer for 10 per cent or 20 per cent, but for 10 or 20 times.

Because if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s this: if our people can work together with a single, clear goal; with an urgent sense of ambition, focus, and possibility; there’s very little we can’t collectively achieve.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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