At Work: Human resources - Career coach - Bosses need a shoulder to cry on too

Stressed-out voluntary sector chief executives can benefit from the support of their peers.

Amanda Falkson is a psychotherapist who runs monthly Tough at the Top groups for voluntary sector chief executives.

What do you do as a psychotherapist when you have three friends who are charity chief executives and two are in despair? Friend A is faced with spurious employment litigation that threatens the existence of his organisation and his personal reputation. Friend B's husband has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She simultaneously learns that her deputy lied on his application form about his mental health, which explains his duplicitous behaviour and lengthy absences.

Faced with this situation, you do a good deal of listening. You are appalled at the amount of stress they are under, but try not to show it. You trust that the interventions and suggestions you make are helpful. You keep your fingers tightly crossed that you don't hear from friend C.

This was the situation I found myself in a couple of years ago. There were long, anguished telephone calls and trips into town ending in equally lengthy and tearful lunches. "Where else can you find support for this?" I would ask them. "There's no one I can really talk to," was the reply.

Friend A's chair had her own fears about the employment case and became increasingly unapproachable. Friend B's board - well, the least said about them the better.

Amidst all this upset, a question formed: "If my mates have nowhere to discuss these personal and professional issues, where do other voluntary sector chief executives find support?"

Over time, I learned that there is support available: Acevo meetings, outside supervision, one-to-one coaching and some great chairs. However, no regular ongoing forum existed for chief executives to meet and get support from peers.

Last summer, Acevo put the word out that I was starting 'Tough at the Top', a facilitated professional peer support group for third sector chief executives. A year later, I have four groups and have been on a steep learning curve. Countless thought-provoking issues have been chewed over and many decisions taken. Group members stay in contact between meetings so that the work continues behind the scenes.

Topics covered this year include whistleblowing, the death of a colleague, bullying, being viewed as mum or dad by the staff, knowing when it's time to leave your organisation, stress created by tribunals and a raft of interpersonal issues.

Hearing these issues from a third sector perspective is quite different to listening to individual clients who work in other sectors. I look forward to telling you more about them here each month.

Names, organisations and other details have been removed to protect anonymity and confidentiality.

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