Sarah Lindsell: The right road to success

Recruiting the right people, giving them autonomy and creating the right culture are the keys to the charity's success, says the chief executive of the Brain Tumour Charity

Sarah Lindsell
Sarah Lindsell

This week I was shown a wedding photograph. It wasn’t an ordinary wedding picture. The bride had chosen our brand colours – red and teal – for her bridesmaids; not the most obvious choice. I was really touched by this: the charity and our cause meant so much to this family that they styled their most special day around us.

We are a young charity, formed from a merger of three organisations with a 20-year history but, as the Brain Tumour Charity, fewer than four years old. Yet in that time we have grown tenfold in terms of income. We have significantly increased the size of our team, our volunteer numbers and our ambition. We have won awards.

I have no doubt that we will achieve our strategic goals – to double survival and halve the harm caused by brain tumours – through the efforts of our staff, volunteers, supporters, researchers and those personally affected by the disease.

But sometimes I wonder – like any chief executive, I’m sure – just how we got here. What are the secrets of our success? Other than pure grit and a great team, I’m not sure there’s a special formula. And then I hear in my head the voice of my coach and mentor: "Really?"

So I’ve dug a bit deeper, and he’s right. There is a particular way we have done things and areas we have focused on to ensure our successful growth.

  • Focused recruitment: I had the great pleasure of spending time with a head of talent from Google. I learnt a key lesson: get the right people on the bus and worry later about where they sit. Then you know you can achieve pretty much anything. We recruit for values and we hire the smartest, most determined and ambitious staff. We know they might not stay with us for more than a couple of years, but we’ve also discovered that some of them come back after a while because their experience with us is so positive. If we make a mistake in hiring, we address it fairly but quickly. We put substantial effort into creating the right team
  • Culture: it turns out that Peter Drucker was right: culture eats strategy for breakfast. We pay as much attention to how we do things as to what we do. We spend a lot of time at work – especially in the voluntary sector – so making every day count really matters. We need to enjoy what we do, too, particularly in a field such as ours, where we spend every day with people going through traumatic experiences
  • Autonomy: evidence suggests that giving people responsibility and autonomy can be far more rewarding than financial benefits and incentives. We focus on everyone being a leader and on giving people responsibility. We agree what needs to be done: how or when it is done is down to the individual. That isn’t always easy, but after hearing David Marquet speak (he wrote the book Turn the Ship Around!), I felt greatly reassured. If a nuclear submarine can run on these principles, we’re probably all right.

So these three things matter: hiring the best people, giving them autonomy and creating the right culture.

Add to those a cause that inspires extraordinary passion – our drive to end the devastation caused by brain tumours – and I’d like to think you end up somewhere pretty special. Just like the red and teal-themed wedding.

Sarah Lindsell is chief executive of the Brain Tumour Charity

This article was originally published here

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