You're The CEO? Get Over Yourself!

henryp
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- 5 min read

People in commercial companies used to think of those working in charities as well-meaning hippies. And those in not for profits viewed their private sector brethren as individualistic, sales-driven sociopaths who struggle to see beyond their bonuses.

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The not-for-profit sector has adopted more 'business like' approaches in recent years - sophisticated marketing, 'customer' relationship management, multiple revenue streams and so on. But can the business community learn from the way charities do things, especially when it comes to leadership?

Introducing Change Grow Live

Change Grow Live is the biggest charity you've never heard of. They have 5,000 staff and thousands of volunteers running £250m worth of services to support people affected by deprivation, trauma, abuse, homelessness and substance misuse. CEO, Mark Moody, has been in post for 3 years. He shared his insights in conversations with me.

Lesson 1: Pay attention to your reputation

Change Grow Live was once known for being a contract gobbling juggernaut. Their website looked cold and corporate. You wouldn't have guessed they were a charity. This was deliberate up to a point as Mark explains:

"The charity sector needed an injection of private sector discipline and focus. We knew that, so we put marketing out that said 'we're all about business, all the time'. Underneath, we were still nice people, but we never talked about the caring side, and our reputation shaped people's response to us".

This won them 'business', but it became an issue that affected how staff and volunteers felt about working for Change Grow Live:

"One time we took over a service and got a group of staff to storyboard the whole experience [of joining us]. They drew 3 guys in suits, like the Men in Black. That's how they thought of us. This response was based what they'd seen of us. That was how we showed up."

Lesson 2: Don't lose heart as you scale

I was struck by a phrase that the senior team at Change Grow Live used a lot - 'we've got the head of a business and the heart of a charity'.

The emphasis on professionalism had paid huge dividends in winning new contracts. But it had also given rise to a culture increasingly at risk of crushing the values and aims of the organisation. Mark puts it like this:

"The problem was we tried to borrow the traditional model of running a business, with heroic leadership, performance management, big company systems… We were trying so hard to look hardass that we forgot to be compassionate too."

Lesson 3: Understand what really makes you successful

A major challenge in health/social care is managing the relationship between funding, caseloads and staffing. Put simply, how many people a service can support within an agreed budget.

With staff numbers in the 1000s, why were some services thriving (high caseloads) while others were struggling. Mark discovered that many of the things they thought were driving success weren’t. And it wasn't because of operations or money. It was people.

"Looking at the relationship between higher case loads, funding per service user, and sickness and retention amongst our staff. There was none. The thing that made the difference was leadership."

Lesson 4 - When it comes to culture, show don't tell

Behaviours come from the top. People look up to see how things are done. It's not what you say, it’s what you do that’s noticed.

If you want a culture based on compassion, kindness and respect, make sure these guide how you run your business. If values are on the wall in reception, and not lived every day, no one takes them seriously.

"The higher up you are, the more you set the tone and model behaviours. You influence the behaviour of more and more people. Trouble is it’s often the other way around. The bigger the job, the more some feel they're unaccountable and can get away with behaving badly."

Lesson 5 - You're the CEO? Get over yourself

The most common issue I see in large organisations is a disconnect between people at the top and the front line. Is this because some CEOs still think their job is controlling everything or dispensing their hard-won wisdom to adoring underlings?

In reality, most employees don't care about the CEO. They care about being clear on what they're doing, why they're doing it, and having the tools they need to do good work.

Having worked up from an entry-level job in a service, Mark has clarity on his job description. "The CEO's job is to make sure the person who impacts your day-to-day experience is not an asshole. Everything starts with your frontline - whatever that means for you. The rest of the organisation exists to let them do their best work. No one cares about the CEO and nor should they."

It's not rocket science

On the one hand, navigating inter-related challenges in a world contorted by a pandemic is pretty tricky. On the other, there are common-sense principles that serve us, whatever business we're in.

"Do the right things and business will grow. Do the wrong things and business will shrink. Do what you say you're going to do, and make things happen.


With thanks to Mark Moody, Nic Adamson, Russell Booth and many others at Change Grow Live.

This is a guest post from Henry Playfoot, Founder of the Pitch Doctor where he advises CEOs and leadership teams on what matters most and what to do next. For more information on Henry and the company, check out his rebel page.

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