Opinion: Be aware of where the real power lies

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

Who runs your charity? I reflected on this for the PentaHact staff conference - in a small organisation it really is the founder or the chief executive, but once there are more than a couple of dozen workers it is productive to think about who your charity really depends on. The formalities of governance and the elegantly drawn organigram can blur your vision.

But look harder, listen and talk to your colleagues, and you might be surprised upon whose shoulders the human tower really rests.

My first job was running an adult education centre in Cambridgeshire (those were the days of serious skill shortages). I soon discovered that it was run neither by me nor by its overall boss, but by Alf the caretaker, part-time pig breeder and ace sausage-maker. After one or two stand-offs, Alf and I got to understand each other and I was generous with his time sheets. At meetings of my fellow principals, I smugly sat silent while the others railed against the martinets who jangled their keys to lock the local historians out at 8.59pm on the dot.

Often the keystone is the receptionist - the unrecognised gatekeeper to the organisation whose response sets the tone for everything that follows for beneficiaries or donors. These days it is often the website manager, who decides not only the tone of voice of the charity, but also whether electronic visitors feel welcomed or rejected. There are charities whose fortunes have been made, and others broken, by the first response to a caller or visitor.

Often it's the IT geek who enjoys fixing anything and likes working out puzzles. Where I now work, in a tower block next to MI6, the security staff (and the contract lift engineers) are the unsung heroes.

When the charity can afford it, most chief executives depend on their assistants, who provide extra, often unseen, brains. My first male PA never assumed the handmaiden role and status that used to make me uncomfortable.

Dave listened to my tapes and happily rewrote the letters because "I thought you were talking crap, Peter".

Now my assistant manages my programme, constantly recalculating to make the most of my time and keep me as accessible as possible. Our PAs have to rely on their own professional skills and diplomacy, close to the chief executive's authority but unable to use it to get things done. They are in a peculiar position, with no peers and no trade body to support them.

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