Podcast transcript: In conversation with a charity leadership coach

Lucinda and Rory hear about boards, burnout and career development culture

This is a transcript of the Third Sector Podcast episode: In conversation with a charity leadership coach

Rory Poulter: Hello and welcome to the Third Sector Podcast. I'm Rory Poulter 

Lucinda Rouse: And I'm Lucinda Rouse. We’re reporters at Third Sector, and this week we'll be joined by a charity coach to talk about how charity leaders can be better supported to stay at the top of their game. 

Rory: And later in Charity Changed My Life, we'll be hearing from someone who had a life-changing encounter with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance service. 

Lucinda: But we're going to get straight into our main discussion. 

This week is back to school, back to work for many of us. Rory, I think you and I buck that trend in that we've been working pretty much straight through the whole summer. But I do still have that back-to-school feeling.

Rory: Yeah. Especially with how hot it is. It's hard not to get into that kind of mood.

Lucinda: Those poor students. 

But now does seem like a very good time to pause, however briefly, and have a think about wellbeing as things ramp back up. Not least for those at the top of teams and organisations with an ever-lengthening to-do list, being pulled in multiple directions by competing priorities.

Thankfully we're not alone for this discussion and reflection. With us is Steve Allman, a self-described charity coach with a client base of individuals and organisations across the sector. He has accreditations in stress management, performance coaching, problem-focused coaching and coaching psychology.

And Steve, I hope you're going to help us think about how charity leaders can be better supported both by those around them and indeed themselves. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Steve Allman: That's okay. Thanks for having me on.

Lucinda: You must have quite an interesting perspective on the sector. Would you ever describe yourself as something of an agony aunt for charity leaders?

Steve: Oh, I don’t know about that. Who knows? 

I think from my perspective, it can be an agony aunt kind of a role. But a lot of the time it's just about helping charity leaders see the things that are already there. 

Quite often it's about being able to recognise their skills and experience and their ability that it's really easy to forget all about where you're in the stress and strain of the role.

Lucinda: Absolutely. Yeah, really in the thick of it and being able to take a step back and have a bit of perspective. And what are some of the recurring problems that you see that you have clients coming to you with? 

Steve: It's interesting, I kind of thought about this in terms of if it was on an American talk show, if it was a Jerry Springer-style show, what would the title at the bottom of the screen be?

And I was imagining things like, Help! My trustees are aliens! And that kind of thing. But that would be really unfair on trustees. I think often the common problems are really around this sense that leaders think that there is such a thing as the perfect charity leader. 

I wrote a post this week on LinkedIn about Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, and the perfect charity leader walking into a bar. And you can tell from the setup that it's obviously a joke because there’s no such thing as the perfect charity leader. As for the other two, you can make it your own mind. 

But I think we're given this title as leaders and we're given this fancy role. You're a CEO or you're a director. And then you're expected to know exactly what to do in all situations. And even if we're not, we think other people think that of us.

So I think there's a lot of expectation there for charity leaders to almost be these kind of perfect role models of what a leader should be. 

A lot of the other issues are things like burnout, people managing their work-life balance. You know, working their backsides off and not being able to find a way to slow down.

And then I think frustration that sometimes comes from some of the board dynamics, some of the things that go on within trustee meetings. Maybe you don't feel supported by the board. Maybe they're being really helpful, but they're being really helpful in an unhelpful way. 

So yeah, there's all kinds of things really that come into it. It really depends on the individual and where they're at in their own job and their own career at that point in time. 

Rory: So Steve, you mentioned it briefly there, this idea of burnout. Something we hear a lot about in the charity sector is compassion fatigue. Do you have any top tips for how you help people deal with that kind of  issue?

Steve: Yeah, I think we're really up against it in the charity sector because it's almost like it's the perfect storm for burnout. And I tend to find for a lot of the people who I coach, their personal values are so closely aligned with their organisational values. They lose sight sometimes of where they as an individual stop and the organisation starts.

And I think that can be a real challenge. It's almost like, you can stop working, but you don't stop caring about the issue. 

I think in terms of practical stuff, things like being able to recognise your red flags. So when I was a charity leader myself, some of my red flags were that feeling that you’re always on, checking your email late at night, dumping hobbies and social interests, and perhaps not eating well, perhaps dropping exercise because you've got that really important report you need to finish off so you can't possibly find time to walk the dog today, which isn't very fair on the dog either, but that's another story for another time. 

And then being able to change what's in your control and try and let go of things that aren't in your control. Saying no, that's a big one. A lot of the people who I work with really struggle to hold those boundaries in place and say no. 

So they end up spending a lot of time on really mundane tasks that they could have easily given to someone else, but they don't feel it's fair to do that. They don't feel it's fair on somebody else to ask them for help. 

And then I think another one is really about the wider culture of the organisation, working with your colleagues to try and put those measures in place for everyone, not just the leader. Because if you work for a charity that has a whole culture of burnout avoidance, then you stand a much better chance of avoiding it. 

And it creates that level of psychological safety so people feel safe to say, this is too much for me. Or actually, I need some help and I need some support. But if that never happens within your charity, it feels like a really big deal to ask for help and ask for  support.

Lucinda: Really interesting. And how about personal development? I can imagine that for the leaders of charities that are struggling with resources on all fronts, probably developing the chief executive is not going to be top of the agenda and indeed it would probably face some criticism if members of the team lower down were missing out on training opportunities and spend on that sort of thing so that the chief exec or other higher-level leaders could have some personal development.

But what are your thoughts on that and what do you think the approach should be for leadership development whilst in post? 

Steve: Yeah, I think you're right, Lucinda. I think there's a lot of guilt that comes with personal development for charity leaders, and especially when time is really tight, money's tight, resources are tight.

I work with a lot of leaders who say, I feel really guilty asking for money for coaching, or asking for money to do the course or qualification. But it’s not just the more obvious types of development. It's even things like networking. 

I know charity leaders that go to a lot of trouble to explain to their team why they went to a networking event and really justify why they weren't on a jolly, and you think they shouldn't really have to do that. 

Again, it's down to having a culture that encourages career development and encourages that personal shift. 

I think with charity leaders in particular, I do come across a lot of situations where they’re promised the earth when they come into the role. And some of those promises never really materialise. 

And I think that's a big challenge for our sector. So to give you an example, if you recruit for a chief exec and you put a load of stuff in the job advert or the initial paperwork that says, oh, you know, you're going to have monthly support meetings, you're going to have access to training. We do a really good induction. 

And then sometimes leaders come into the role, and you can see the tumbleweed rolling across where those promises were. And I think sometimes that's down to the nature of charities in that you tend to be managed by trustees who are volunteers. 

A lot of them tend to have their own jobs and their own work commitments or their own family commitments. And it's almost like everybody pulls together at the point of recruitment. And once that new leader comes into post there can be a tendency for people to back off and say, oh, phew, it's okay now. We can let them get on with it. They're here. 

And then it's easy to forget, well actually no, that person's still brand new to your organisation. They're still learning the ropes. They're still learning about your culture and values and all the rest of it.

So I do think there’s scope for trustees and boards to do better at having a development plan in place for their leaders and encouraging them to have key milestones and goals and outcomes they're working towards.

Lucinda: I guess it depends as well on the nature and the approach and the character of the chief executive themselves, right? 

I can imagine that some people respond very well to that sort of guidance and support, whereas others might be more inclined to think, oh no, I can get on with this. I don't need these check-ins with my board or whatever.

Steve: You definitely see both sides. And I think the type of CEO you’re describing, I think that works really well for a time, because there will come a point at which that person does need help or does need support, whether that's in terms of their career or maybe something happens in their personal life and they need some time off or something like that. 

But then it's much harder, because they've already created this persona of being the leader that never needs help and being the leader who never needs anything. 

And it's harder to come back from that so I do always suggest that having some kind of formalised plan around support, even if it's nothing more than a monthly check-in or a monthly meeting, that's better than nothing. 

I think it's really about just trying to set the scene so that you've got a system that works well in all weathers as it is. And you started off talking about the weather this week, and while the sun's shining, you might do things a certain way. But you need to kind of have that plan in place for the rainy days as well, or for when the inevitable storm comes along, which it will do in charity leadership for sure.

Rory: Yeah. So you talked there about the persona of a leader. And I was wondering if you could draw a line of distinction between what you think the role of leadership versus management is as a chief executive's role. 

Steve: Yeah, it's an interesting question and it's something that I've got a bit of a prejudice towards managing and talk about managing, which might sound a bit strange. But I often hear managing talked about in a way that's really similar to coping.

So people saying, oh, how are you doing? You're like, oh, I'm managing. And people say, oh, how are you managing? You're like, oh yeah, just about. 

Managing can sometimes have this negative connotation and I think it also says to me, it's really about supervising people, telling them what to do. It all feels a little bit Victorian workhouse to me. 

And I realise I'm at risk of insulting all the managers listening to this podcast, which is not my intention.

But I think sometimes it's just not a very good description of the role, because every manager is a leader. You only have to lead another person or lead a project or lead a campaign to be leader.

And I tend to find a lot of people sell themselves short by seeing themselves as a manager rather than a leader. So leading, to me, it feels a lot more intentional. It feels like it's more about enabling people, empowering them. 

I was about to say, give them tools, which I shouldn't do because it's an expression I don't like and I'm always writing about not liking it.

But I was about to say something like trusting them to make the magic happen. So you give people what they need and let them get on with a job and make the magic happen. And that to me feels like leadership. 

Almost like if you're in an orchestra, the charity leader's like the conductor and you set the pace and you set the rhythm. But I think there's too many charity leaders that get drawn into playing the instruments themselves, or making the tea or cleaning up after the concert. I think that's much more likely where you'll find a charity leader: mopping the floor after the concert's over. 

Lucinda: From your perspective, do you think, and I'm not sure whether management or leadership is the right term to use here, based on what you've just said. But do you think there is an absence of management / leadership development amongst people who are in senior positions?

Do you think there is a need within the sector for more resource or more attention to be spent on developing people's leadership capabilities? 

Steve: Yeah, definitely, and I see it in two ways. I think firstly, the board sets the scene. So people often wonder why I give boards a hard time. And I think what I'd just like to get across is that I think boards are really important, and trustees in particular, although they're volunteers, they play a really important role in setting the scene for the charity's entire culture.

So I think in that respect, if you've got a board that has an approach of micromanagement, for example, where they really micromanage the CEO, then that creates a culture of management rather than leadership. And then you find that you've got a CEO who's much more likely to micromanage their team.

I think when the board tends to be more open and empowers the CEO, it opens the gates for the CEO to do the same for their team. And that's where you find chief execs putting management programmes in place, whether it's days training, whether it's ongoing management qualifications. So I'm seeing more and more of that in the sector, which I think is really important.

I think the second part is that you often find that CEOs can really focus on their senior colleagues’ leadership and putting them on all kinds of development programmes that they've never considered doing for themselves. 

Because it's almost like there's this act of selflessness of you know, you're a servant leader. And we’ll do what we can to empower everyone else, but, oh no, not me, because we can't afford that, or I'm not important enough, or I haven't got time.

So you do quite often find that some charity leaders don't put themselves forward for those opportunities in the way that they perhaps should or benefit from. 

Rory: You mentioned right at the beginning this idea of the perfect charity CEO and how it's essentially a myth. But in your role, if someone came to you and said, look, this is what I want to be. I want to be the perfect charity CEO, how would you answer them or maybe manage their expectations? 

Steve: Oh, that's a really good question. I was thinking, I don't think the perfect charity CEO would come to me for coaching because they'd probably be out there reading my stuff thinking, oh, I'm doing great. I don't need to worry about coaching.

I think a lot of it comes from comparison. I do tend to find there's a lot of comparison within the sector. So for example, if you're a new charity leader and you're only one year into the role, for example, and you’re comparing yourself with someone who's been doing it for five years or 10 years, you’re very rarely going to win that comparison in your own mind.

I mean, there might be cases when you do, because there's probably some things that you’re doing better than the other person because you're newer or fresher. So I do tend to find a lot of CEOs will look to other leaders and think, oh, I need to be more like them. I need to do more of that kind of thing. And I think that can get in the way.

I think I'd be honest with them and just say, in my view, there's no such thing as the perfect charity leader. But I think I'd want them to focus on their own experience, focus on their own skills, their own values, and really get across the point that actually what they're bringing to the role probably is what that charity needs at that time.

Even if it's not perfect, even if they're not fully formed, charity leaders go and make an impact every day in one way or another. 

But sometimes they get too focused on the big things. So unless they can sit down at the end of the day and say, oh, that's the really big thing I did today that made a difference, then they do tend to beat themselves up that they're not good or they need to try harder or they’re doing something wrong.

Lucinda: So you must have a very broad perspective on all the various problems facing different leaders within the sector. I wonder if you could describe to us of scenario of a specific problem that somebody has come to you with that probably they are not alone in experiencing, and how you worked with them to ensure that it was effectively dealt with.

Steve: Yeah, of course. I'm going to give you two scenarios in one, because these are two of the most common scenarios that people come to me with, and there's a way of approaching them both together. 

So it's not unusual for the people I coach to have had a toxic experience of some kind at work. Usually at work. 

And something's happened and it's undermined their confidence. It's undermined their trust in people. It hasn't always happened at the organisation they're working in now. It could be something that's happened in a previous organisation or some time ago. 

And then the other scenario that's quite common is that charity leaders are trying to find their feet in terms of their relationship with their board of trustees, but with their chair in particular.

So if you've got both of those situations, it doesn't take a lot for one cross word from the chair or one misunderstanding to trigger all sorts of feelings about things that may have happened to you previously. And that can be quite common. 

So in that situation, we talk through the toxic situation or the difficult experience and really understand what was the impact of that situation on you.

And often it might be that they've got a sense of guilt that they should have done something differently or regret that the job didn't work out the way they thought it would, or even shame or embarrassment that they're still holding onto after some time. 

But then it means if you're in a situation where you've been challenged or there's some conflict, it can press all those buttons again, and you find yourself back there. 

So quite often we can work through the current relationship with the chair, for example, and just really understand more about where are they coming from. Can we get into their head, can we understand why they're presenting these challenges in the way they are?

So we can look at really practical things like how can you reframe that scenario? So if you're giving yourself a negative message like you’re telling yourself, if the chair questions anything or picks me up on anything, then they're being critical. It means that they don't like me and I'm rubbish at my job.

It might not mean that, it might just mean they're being critical. And you can get the other extreme where they are being overly critical all of the time. We could deal with that as well. But in a lot of cases it's just that they're pressing buttons on situations that have gone previously.

So we can work to eframe that, turn those things into a more positive response, but also work on the charity leader in terms of their own behaviours and their limiting beliefs and the things that perhaps hold them back so that they don't find themselves in that situation again. 

Or that they understand that just because this thing happened, it doesn't mean I'm going to go back to square one and have to start all over again.

Lucinda: Really interesting that it's as much what's going on inside you and inside your thoughts and how you frame things as to what's happening on the outside and your relationship with your chair and how they are communicating with you. 

So just a last question for you, Steve. Thinking about where we are: first week of September, a busy few months ahead for people working in the sector. What would your top tips be for how they can have as stress-free as possible an experience and keep themselves and their organisation on an even keel?

Steve: Yeah, of course. I think September's a good time to look at it, because as you say, for a lot of people it's a bit of a fresh start, especially those of us with kids that work around school. 

I think it's a good chance to reset things. And for a charity leader, I'd be looking at things like your own routines to begin with, your own routines around how do you approach work.

Are you the sort of person who wakes up, has your phone next to the bed, gets on your email straight away, and before you know it, it's the middle of the day and you've been drawn into all the latest dramas? 

Or could you change that by having good boundaries around your phone, good boundaries around your email, making sure that you look after yourself in terms of your breakfast and your exercise and what you need to do for your family before you even get stuck into the working day.

So it's a good chance to reset that routine. I think also there's something about being able to reset your expectations of yourself. 

I work with so many leaders that work to lists, so they spend all day trying to work through a list of a hundred things. But your list can never allow for the constant interruptions, the phone calls you weren't expecting, the people who pop in your office and say, can I just have five minutes? And the next thing you know they've had an hour. 

And then they really get frustrated at the end of the day: well, I didn't finish my list and I didn't do any work. But in reality, they worked all day. They just didn't work on the things they planned to work on.

So I think there's something there about resetting your expectations around what's actually possible within your working day. What's realistic, what can you reasonably achieve today, particularly on a day when you might have a load of meetings and other appointments compared to the day when you might have a whole day at your desk and you can blissfully work through everything.

So I think there's a sense of a reset there. But also being able to reset relationships with your colleagues, whether that's people on your senior management team or leadership team, or whether that's your board and trustees. 

Using September as a time to reset some of those relationships and some of those expectations. So for example, you'll know there's always a mad dash to get board papers out. People get very stressed about board papers and having to get everything in the board papers and making sure it's all done. 

And I quite often say to people, have a chat with your trustees about what they want and what they expect. Because they might not want half of what you're giving them, but you're putting yourself under all this pressure to produce it.

They might be happy with a quick update by email rather than a two-page report. So I think maybe the theme for September is about reset and refresh. That seems to be it, I think. 

Lucinda: Very nice. And just going back to your point about the to-do list, I have to say it hurt me a little bit because I'm a real lister. I think it's the satisfaction of being able to cross stuff off when you do get it done. 

But I think it can be sometimes quite overwhelming if you don't have that frame of reference of what it is that you need to get done. 

Do you have any alternative suggestions instead of having a list, how you can keep track and check in with yourself and say, okay, yeah, I'm achieving what I need to achieve in order for this organisation to be running as it should? 

Steve: Yeah. I mean personally, I try and have three things each day that I need to achieve. And people laugh. My clients laugh because they go, oh, it's easy for you. You're a self-employed coach. You're not running a charity anymore. 

But I think it is just about having those three things and say, okay, if nothing else happens today and I do these three things, then I can say that's a good day. Because even if I've got 50 things on my list, I know it's just not realistic to get that done. 

The most important with the lists is being absolutely ruthless about what gets on there in the first place. And that links back to what I said before about being able to say no. 

So many charity leaders feel too guilty about saying no, because if a colleague needs something, they say, oh, well I should do that because I'm supposed to support my colleagues.

The chair needs something. They think, oh, well I’d better do that because it's the chair, so it must be really important. And I think you've got to have that level of scrutiny or that level of critical thinking around what's actually something that you need to do compared to something that it might be nice to do one day?

A good example is trustee meetings. I go to so many trustee meetings where the discussion usually results in the charity leader walking away with a list of actions. And quite often some of those actions might be things to research or find out that any one of us could quite easily Google in a couple of minutes.

Why does the charity leader need to take that away as an action? Why can't somebody else take care of that for them and not add to their workload? 

So I think there's something about being really ruthless about what gets on in the first place. But if you’re working with a charity leader, being really mindful that they've already got a huge list of things to do, and if you're going to add to it, then make sure it's something really, really important.

Lucinda: Well, Steve, some really great advice there. Thank you very much for joining us. 

Steve: That's great. Thanks for having me.

Lucinda: We hope you enjoyed our discussion with Steve. 

And now we move on to Charity Changed My Life, in which we bring you stories of people whose lives have been transformed for the better thanks to the work of charities. 

This week we hear from Claire Clark from Basingstoke, who tells us her story about her encounter with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance service in the minutes following a terrible accident involving a motorbike nine years ago.

Claire Clark: I was walking home with my children and my husband just around the corner from our house, and a motorcyclist lost control of his bike. And he fell off the bike, but the bike kept going. It mounted the curb and took my feet from under me, which launched me backwards, fracturing my skull on the pavement. So that was it. I was out. 

The air ambulance were called in and they arrived within 15 minutes. I don't remember the journey. It always sounds so exciting to be lifted in a helicopter and flown across Hampshire to Southampton, but I was out of it. 

It's time that was so important, and that's why the air ambulance are so important, because they are speedy. They assess the situation, get to where you need to be, and then hand you over to those who can carry on with what they started. 

Being back home after a month, my kids were so young, they were five and 18 months, so my husband had to juggle parenting and my care and a full-time job. But that just made me more and more determined to get better. 

If the air ambulance wasn't able to help me, if they didn't exist, I really think I would either be brain damaged or dead. 

I do feel, since the accident, I've got a long list of thank yous that I owe so much to, but it's that initial super-fast service that was the start of it. And without that, I wouldn't have got the surgery. Without that, I wouldn't have got the support, so I'm forever grateful.

Having been a receiver of their service, my awareness of them has grown, obviously, massively. Whenever I see a helicopter, before, I was always like, oh dear, I hope someone's all right. But now my thoughts go a bit deeper. Like, they're on a mission, they're going to swoop in, they're the superheroes. They're going to sort it out and do the best they can. 

So I think respect for everyone that works on there, because they're all so skilled, medically or in aviation. They're like a wonderful package of incredibly skilled people who we all rely on without even realising.

Lucinda: That was Claire Clark telling us her story. And hearing about the journey that she and her family have been on through her recovery and where she is today, it just really hits home, doesn't it, how different that family’s story would be today, had it not been for that trip in the air ambulance. 

Rory: Yeah. 

Lucinda: And if you would like your charity to be featured, we'd love to hear from you. Details of how to get in touch and submit a story idea featuring one of your service users are in the show notes.

Rory: Next week we'll be digging into some multi-layered corporate partnerships with Lynda Harwood-Compton. But for now, thanks to our guest, Steve Allman, and our producer, Nav Pal.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now