The top job: What does it take to lead a charity?

Many talented and ambitious people work in the third sector, but what does it take to get to the top? Three charity chief executives, including Paul Breckell, tell Annette Rawstrone the secrets of their success

Paul Breckell, chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss
Paul Breckell, chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss

Paul Breckell Chief executive, Action on Hearing Loss

Being a chief executive brings lots of responsibility, long hours and hard work – but it's also great fun. A good chief executive has to have a connection with the cause and really believe in the work of the charity – you can't fake it. They also need to be very people-focused, engaged, emotionally intelligent and able to work in partnership with others. The majority of charities have volunteers, and you need to connect with that as well.

I've made two difficult career decisions. The first was leaving a familiar first job at the Audit Commission to branch out into the charity sector; the second was an internal application for this role when I was finance director. People knew I was applying, and it would have been tough if I'd not got the job, especially since I'd been acting chief executive for a period. A safer career move would have been to go to a larger charity as finance director. I'm grateful to have had a forward-thinking boss in Jackie Ballard who was happy to talk about my career trajectory.

To make progress within your own organisation, you need to focus on your job and be good at it, but also to take opportunities outside your role when they appear. I encourage people to take responsibility for their self-development and found that doing my masters degree while working was really helpful. I learnt a lot from being chair of the Charity Finance Directors' Group (now the Charity Finance Group) and experiencing the relationship between chair and chief executive. It was also a great way for me to build networks and gain exposure in the sector. I'd recommend people should become trustees to gain an appreciation of what it's like for the board.

If you aspire to the top job, make sure you don't try to be something you're not. You have to be true to yourself and do it your own way.

Hannah Bellamy Chief executive, United Way

Some excellent advice I received early in my career was not to focus on the job title or the salary but on the job itself. If you do that, you'll end up where you need to be.

My career has meandered from publishing to the private sector and then into the third sector, and my salary has declined as well as increased; but I think it's important to move on when you need to be challenged further. Apply for roles that you care about, but don't necessarily limit yourself to one area, because many of them overlap. It's important not to work in silos, but rather across cause areas and sectors.

I regard getting my current role as my big break because it's opened up a wealth of expertise, contacts and training. As an ambitious young person in the sector, it's essential to grab any opportunity you can, because you never know who you might meet or what you could learn. Networking and maintaining relationships to build contacts and a profile are also important. For those who want to break into the sector, it's good to volunteer and get a feel for how it operates.

When I'm hiring or promoting people, I want to detect a certain level of energy. I'm not afraid of employing people who will challenge me. I look for someone who is willing to take ownership of what is put before them and drive things forward rather than check with me at each point. Passion and grand ideas are important, but they need to be distilled into action.

Javed Khan Chief executive, Barnardo's

I come from humble origins – neither of my parents, who emigrated to England in the late 1950s, could read or write. Three key ingredients have driven me forward: love from family and community, hard work and a lot of support.

Anyone can get to the top if they put their mind to it, but no one has the god-given right to succeed. Don't be depressed and play victim if you apply for jobs and don't get them. You need to be prepared to gain experience by moving - even if it's sideways - and to take calculated risks.

I didn't have a strict career plan and when I entered teaching I expected it to be for life. Statistics show that people will change their careers up to seven times in their working lives: I'm no exception, having worked in education, local government, the civil service and now the voluntary sector.

The best advice I've received is to stay close to the front line. I've promised my staff and volunteers that they can contact me personally and, although I can't promise to fix their problems, I will respond. They give me insight into the front line and the simplest solutions to the most complex problems often come from there.

This sector might not have the best processes for welcoming people from BME backgrounds, but this is not deliberate and the sector does value a wide range of transferable skills.

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