Staff turn to leaders who make themselves known

Charity heads should stay in close touch with their staff, writes Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

The other day I had to choose between a national meeting of children's hospice chief executives in London and a staff training session here in Dorset on dealing with grief and bereavement. It exposed an issue all charity bosses face: at what point does spending time on external affairs detract from the duty to look after the charity internally?

Our staff day would focus on the important issue of how to remain emotionally resilient so that we can repeatedly support families whose children die young. It was also important to attend the infrequent national forum, but such events invariably focus on political issues: changes in the commissioning landscape and lobbying for our small amount of statutory income. Nowadays, with devolved government, the significant commissioning negotiations happen locally, not nationally.

Besides, I can't recall any of our forums talking about the things that really challenge hospice leaders: how to guard against the poor quality care that has bedevilled many NHS hospitals and private sector care homes; how to boost our voluntary income, on which we depend for 90 per cent of our funds; and how to support our people to do their emotionally demanding work.

Supportive atmosphere

So I chose the training day, and I'm glad I did. As well as providing training, it was a great bonding day. It brought different teams together in a hugely supportive atmosphere that emphasised our common humanity. There was no doubt where the emotional heartbeat of our organisation was - and it wasn't in a meeting room of hospice bosses in London.

A chief executive's job is partly to be outward-facing - to raise awareness, make contacts and build networks. But some charity bosses do this too much, and to the extent that I wonder whose nest they are feathering with these contacts - theirs or the charity's? Beware the boss who spends most of his or her time at networks and conferences: they're not focusing enough on the home front, on service quality and income generation.

I recall working for one regional charity's chief executive who spent so much time networking in the capital or attending board meetings of other organisations that it felt as if we had an absentee landlord. Perhaps it was a masterstroke, because we became used to coping on our own - but I'm not so sure. Such bosses also usually move on to a bigger job too soon, before their achievements have been truly embedded in the charity they leave behind.

The depth of empathy at our training day reminded us that we really are all in it together. As a result, I learned about more than emotional coping techniques. I learned that when people really need support, they won't turn to someone who isn't there.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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