Modernising without losing your roots

Debra Allcock Tyler says charities need to balance progress with tradition

Ah, the agony of getting older. It was my birthday the other week and my lovely staff surprised me with a special birthday tea. As you would expect, questions were asked about my age. You'll be pleased to know I told the truth. I might never tell the truth again.

They displayed a worrying lack of emotional intelligence. I had to give them a 20-minute training session explaining that once a woman gets over a certain age, when she tells you how old she is you are supposed to gasp in horror and say "no way do you look that age", not nod sagely as if you had guessed it all along.

How things change. In the olden days, my fiercely feminist furious self would round on builders who whistled at me and expostulate loudly about their sexist behaviour. Nowadays, as I saunter (indeed, sway) past and they don't whistle, I am more likely to say "something wrong with your eyesight mate?" or "look again, love!"

I've changed. I still love fashionable clothes and glamorous shoes - but I now recognise that I need to rethink the bare midriff and mini look because it no longer does justice to my somewhat older, fuller figure.

What does this have to do with leadership? Well, it's about realising that everything changes, including our organisations. They will grow older, just as we do. They will change in shape and definition.

There is a natural desire, when we are passionate about the work we do, to try to cling on to how things used to be and how they were done in the past. But to continue the ageing analogy, you don't want to be mutton dressed as lamb. Your organisation needs to reflect today, not yesterday.

There's a fine line, of course. It is critical that you don't lose sight of what your organisation stands for. You must absolutely hang on to your vision. But you must also realise that the way to achieve that vision might have changed; that your beneficiaries have changed and the solution to the problem might have changed. Honour your organisation's age - but don't get trapped by it.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert

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