People Management: Leadership is the key to performance

Indira Das-Gupta

Only a minority of charity heads are addressing the leadership issue.

A recent survey by chief executives' body Acevo showed that although nine out of 10 charity heads believe there needs to be more leadership development within the sector, only three out of 10 are actually addressing the issue.

One charity that has made a concerted effort in this area is Age Concern England. When Gordon Lishman became director general of the charity three years ago, he decided to make improving leadership a priority and brought in consultants the Hay Group to help.

Sundran Rajendra, head of organisation development at the charity, says: "Hay Group was chosen because it produced a bespoke model tailored just for us. We also found that most of the other proposals we had concentrated on improving people's skills rather than their attitudes and behaviour.

"If you can bring lasting change in the way an organisation's leaders think, then this will be transmitted to the rest of the staff."

The programme looked at the top two tiers in the management structure: the board of directors and the 30 senior managers. There were a number of different modules aimed at raising awareness of how people did things and how they could do them better. These were then followed up with other initiatives, such as mentoring, to give people the support they needed to put what they learnt into practice.

Jonathan Cormack, who led the Hay Group project, says: "Adults do not learn best in the classroom, so it was important that we followed up the work they began there."

Rajendra estimates that it took between a year and 18 months for the programme to begin to deliver. "An added bonus was that the senior managers really got to know each other and began to communicate much better," he adds.

The connection between strong leadership and strong performance has long been acknowledged in the private sector, but is a relatively new concept in the voluntary sector.

Nick Aldridge, head of policy at Acevo, says: "Good leadership is key to good performance, but has been an area of historic underinvestment for the third sector."

Cormack believes voluntary sector leaders face unique challenges. He says: "People who work for charities tend to be passionate, but motivating unpaid volunteers is quite different to dealing with paid staff.

"As salaries tend to be lower, it is often people's commitment to a cause that matters most. So if a charity then has to downsize and work in a particular field is cut back, that can be harder for people to deal with."

Acevo estimates that charities only spend a third as much as the public sector on leadership development. Aldridge says: "This is a figure that needs to be improved, so Acevo is working with NCVO to establish a leadership centre for the third sector."

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