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It's tough at the top
22 May 2006
by Debra Tyler

There is a saying that some people achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. The latter is often true for voluntary sector chief executives, many of who end up in a senior leadership position entirely by accident.

Yet, despite this, most of them take on the enormous burden of their role cheerfully, passionately and willingly. This is because they care deeply about the work of their organisations and the massive difference they make, not just to people's lives, but to society as a whole. In the course of researching my book, It's Tough At The Top, and during my mentoring and training activities, I have spoken with hundreds of chief executives. Many of them have been profoundly positive about their roles and the demands of the job. But nonetheless the challenges they face are considerable.

For a start, most will have received little or no training in leadership, and have often been the victims of poor leadership themselves. But this doesn't change the expectations that people have of them.

Indeed, voluntary sector chief executives face one of the most challenging jobs in the country. Not only do they have to be able to competently run "the business" by ensuring that income is greater than expenditure, but they live in a funding environment that is unstable and frequently shifting. They constantly have to justify the value of their organisation's work to a range of different questioners, all with different success criteria, simply to get enough money to continue the work.

In addition, they have to have a good grasp on the political and policy issues affecting their cause, as well as the wider political and policy issues affecting charities as a whole.

They have to be highly financially competent, and be able to shift quickly between thinking strategically and fixing the plumbing!

They have to ensure that the organization complies with all the usual legislation applicable to any organisation, as well as with charity law and any laws and rules relating to their particular area of work, such as the Child Protection Act or housing statutes or public health guidelines.

Added to all this is the consequence of failure. If they don't lead the organisation successfully, it's not a disappointed shareholder they have to face, or even a board of trustees. It's the fact that there's no money to buy the minibus so the young disabled children can't have their day trip; the hospice has to close down; the homeless person doesn't have a shelter; the research that could have prevented the disease isn't carried out; the canal bank isn't cleaned.

The consequences of failure are far reaching and affect society generally, not just the employees and volunteers of the charity.

Learning how to lead successfully in this environment is pretty important, and there are a number of things chief executives can do to make sure that their organization is successful:

· Have a clear idea of what it is they are trying to achieve and make sure it is widely communicated, accompanied by a clearly expressed framework of activities that support their vision.
· Build a senior team trained in leadership and able to act corporately and take on some of the leadership burden.
· Ensure that there are robust communication mechanisms and systems that keep people informed and focussed.
· Look to see what they can improve or change, essentially keeping their eyes on the hills and their feet on the ground.
· Work in partnership with their board of trustees to build robust governance systems and wider support for the work.
· Take time out to reflect and think about what things are working and what things need to be done differently.
· Take good care of themselves so that they are physically, emotionally and mentally equipped to deal with the challenges.

So, it's a really tough job in which the only real reward is the work itself. And that's what makes charity chief executives so special.

Debra Tyler is the chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and author of "It's Tough At The Top".