Martyn Drake: How to resolve your biggest challenges

Making yourself vulnerable is essential for finding solutions to your most difficult issues

Charity leaders have had to make a whole bunch of tough decisions over the past year.

Some have been driven by the challenges of operating in a pandemic; others by financial pressures as income evaporated away.

But as we look towards another year, there is another set of problems we’re going to have to address that are of a different order of magnitude entirely.

They are the problems to which the potential solutions are far more complex and unclear. 

These are the chronic problems – the ones that aren’t going to be solved with the usual box of tricks: change some processes, cut some projects, run some more campaigns, restructure some teams. 

Most of them have been building for a while: markets that are fundamentally broken; models that could never be scaled for a meaningful impact; services, systems and governance structures that were never fit for purpose; economics that haven’t been truly sustainable for years.

They are the deeper challenges that Covid-19 hasn’t created, but merely brought into a rapid and painfully sharp focus. And we know they don’t have simple and obvious solutions, because if they did, you’d have fixed them already.

These chronic challenges are increasingly becoming the main talking points in my chief executive roundtables, peer learning groups and one-to-one calls.

And it is in our ability to help find resolutions for them that colleagues, peer groups and advisers like me demonstrate whether or not we are actually worth our salt.

The first step is to recognise that there is almost never a perfect solution; there is no “right” answer that ticks all the boxes for outcomes and stakeholders. 

What you’re going to need are options – creative ones, innovative ones, pragmatic ones – so that you can boil things down to a diverse set of “best-available” choices.

Inspiration for how you can find those more creative and innovative options can come from anywhere.

There are hundreds of thousands of charities in the UK alone, and innumerable ones around the world. Some of them will have faced challenges that are similar to yours, or at least could offer you a fresh perspective on your dilemma. 

Most of the feedback I get about my own book isn’t about my wonderful writing style, scintillating wit or incisive insights (hard to believe, I know) – it’s about the examples I share of how different organisations have approached their big challenges in innovative and varied ways.

But often, the best ideas will come not from organisations very similar to ours, but from those that aren’t; particularly from conversations with people whose perspectives and experiences are radically different to our own. 

This is where outside advisers, cross-sector peer groups and the breadth of your own network can be worth their weight in gold. 

It’s from that diversity that we can get the greatest breadth of alternative thoughts and ideas, to start building new, much more creative options – ones that we would never come up with from within our own, personal bubble. 

To do this, though, there’s a Rubicon we each need to cross. 

We all have a tendency to bottle our challenges up. Leadership is a lonely place and we’ve all had times where imposter syndrome has crept into our thoughts. 

So, often we respond to that by doubling down on our own self-reliance; riding the short-term boost in self-esteem that comes from not needing to ask for help.

Because, deep down, in that tricky little amygdala inside our heads, we feel as if the implication of asking for help could just be that other people will discover that we’re not actually good enough to do the job we’ve been asked to do.

If we want to succeed, this self-protective voice represents the psychological armour we need to consciously take off. 

This is the shell each of us needs to shed from time to time if we want to grow. Lobsters have to do it, and so do we, irrespective of how vulnerable it might make us feel in the moment.

Sharing your situation and asking for help and advice beyond your “insider circle” can be transformational, but ultimately it will depend on one thing: your willingness to put yourself out there, to seek out far more diverse people in whom you can place your trust, and to share your challenges with them, embracing all the vulnerability that comes with that.


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