Bursting the leadership bubble: what can people in power learn from the charity sector?

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Allowing your leaders to spend time working in the charity sector can develop their collaboration and coaching skills and make them happier.  

What do we need from leaders today? In short, we expect a lot. Most businesses are facing an unusual degree of uncertainty in their operating environment. Traditional business, professional and industry boundaries are being reset.

This means that HR, organisational development and L&D professionals urgently need to cultivate leaders who can thrive in an agile working environment.

The mindset required to manage high-performing teams and develop relevant new products and services is one that values collaboration and embraces continuous learning and change.

It’s not just about smart decisions (we’ll have AI to help with that) but an ability to see things differently and be genuinely inspiring, while avoiding burnout.

Soft skills are key

According to a recent workplace learning report from LinkedIn, 57% of senior leaders, talent developers, executives and people managers agree that training for soft skills is the top priority for talent development teams.

In day-to-day company life, it’s still common to plough a deep but narrow furrow, become the ‘expert’, and manage others as you rise up the ladder.

My experience with many hundreds of leaders has been that there is an increasing requirement to develop a broader set of leadership skills – a challenge that may require stepping outside their day job.

How about encouraging your senior leaders to step into a different reality – that of non-profits in the charity sector? Why is it effective and what do they learn?

Resist comfort

Too much familiarity and remaining in a ‘comfort zone’ in the workplace can make the environment feel stale, which is not conducive to new ideas and ways of working. This is why exposure to another business mindset provides an effective stimulus.

I’ve used the word ‘business’ deliberately – a charity is a business because it needs to bring in money to service its customers or beneficiaries. Many, if not most of a charity’s challenges are business issues – but they are different to the ones your staff will face day to day.

I’ve worked with plenty of captains of industry who’ve admitted to feeling nervous when starting a coaching engagement with a small charity. It’s humbling to realise that in spite of their career success and the tremendous value of their input, they too have much to learn from the charities they support.

Experiential learning

Working on real-time issues with organisations that are seeking support and challenge from business leaders is hands-on learning at its very finest.

One business person who completed a year-long engagement with a community organisation admitted that the gritty, issues-laden experience was far more valuable than a course he’d taken at INSEAD Business School.

The people I work with are constantly inspired by and learn from charity leaders. They are learning about the commitment and persistence to overcome obstacles, how to operate on a shoestring with very few resources and to pursue a mission that is about helping others.

Learning to listen

As a business professional, engaging with a charity is likely to be as a mentor, either informally, or as a trustee.

In either case you are not in a position to ‘tell’. Even if you have a solution, the only way to make it stick is by influencing and being persuasive. This may differ from your leader’s current experience in the workplace.

One of my biggest surprises was hearing ‘listening’ brought up by leaders as a learning point when coaching charity leaders.

It’s difficult to overestimate the value of a sense of perspective, gained from stepping outside the ‘bubble’ of the everyday working life for leaders, both professionally and personally.

As their career progressed, without even realising it was happening, they were speaking a lot more than listening. This somewhat command-and-control leadership style is definitely on the way out.

Future leaders in your organisation will be valued for their ability to bring together diverse, non-hierarchical teams and this involves more listening than talking and a respect for different experiences.

It is healthy to be able to manage and coach when you are not the subject expert. Yes, there are familiar business challenges in the voluntary sector, but what do your senior and future leaders know about the real world, the needs of the disabled, children in care or hard-to-reach young people? In some cases, these may be your customers.

End-to-end thinking

No business is an island. Your organisation is likely to be traversing increasingly complex systems – whether technological, geographical or cross-industry.

Very few staff outside of the boardroom will have a clear end-to-end understanding of their organisation and all its stakeholders, particularly in larger organisations.

Immersing oneself in the world of smaller charities will give a 360-degree view of its entire business system – the finances, the governance, the operating environment, the resources.

Find the right match

It’s difficult to overestimate the value of a sense of perspective, gained from stepping outside the ‘bubble’ of the everyday working life for leaders, both professionally and personally. It’s not just about taking a step back from their day job, but experiencing another reality altogether.

The context in which I’ve gained my insights is one in which the time and skills of business leaders are carefully managed – both in terms of time, and of engagement. Taking people outside of their comfort zone has value but needs careful thought and facilitation to get the best results.

What I have discovered more recently is that the gains from this approach can be applied from the very start of someone’s career. It can be used as a tool to attract top talent as well as developing and retaining the best people.

Creating shared value

Being able to successfully apply commercial leadership skills to a charitable organisation is rewarding and fulfilling in its own right.

In fact, 94% of business leaders who’ve coached charities through my organisation say it has improved their happiness and wellbeing.  

It also provides a cognitively transformative insight into a different ‘business’ and its drivers, culture and challenges – an experience that might give them the confidence to transform your organisation.

This is what I call creating shared value. It’s a very simple (in principle) way to join up what’s already happening in the corporate responsibility space and use it as a talent management strategy – to attract, develop, retain and promote the best people. It’s a win/win situation.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: creating a culture of innovation.

About Gillian Murray

Gillian Murray CEO Pilotlight

Not many people have worked with thousands of business leaders and even fewer have been exposed to their inner values and vulnerabilities in the way Gillian Murray has as CEO of Pilotlight. Gillian says she has the most fascinating job in the world leading an organisation that matchmakes and manages relationships between charities in need of strategic transformation and carefully selected teams of senior professionals and entrepreneurs with skills to offer. Gillian joined Pilotlight as a project manager in October 2005, served as Deputy Chief Executive in 2007 and became its Chief Executive in 2013. 

Her work straddles a UK charity sector dealing with increasing deprivation and a business world that is being challenged to pair profit with purpose. She still experiences an element of delight each time these worlds connect, enabling business and charity leaders to learn from each other in the process.

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