Being the second Secret CEO has been such an interesting experience. Thank you for all your thought-provoking comments and the opportunity to reflect on my own journey. I hope you find the answers useful – busting some of the myths around what it is to be a chief executive.
Your journey to becoming a CEO
What would your advice be for CEOs in their first weeks?
The first step is to listen, listen, listen – and write down what your instincts are. Make sure you come back to them after your first month – you’re probably really close to being right about the things that come up.
Don’t overthink would be my other reflection. Sometimes you can spend quite a lot of time in a job like this thinking ‘Oh, but when will I know what to do?’ You’ve got the job because you do know what to do; actually, starting is the most important thing.
How does a CEO plan to inspire and learn from their team?
I don’t know that I’ve ever planned to inspire anybody. Inspire means to breathe in and that is why I think the most important thing is to listen and listen really, really hard. And then reflect on what you heard – and didn’t hear – from people. If you put your energy into listening and reflecting, one of the knock-on effects is that people are properly heard and I believe that’s one of the most inspirational things a leader can do.
There’s also something powerful about saying what you think as a chief executive. Not leaving lots of stuff in the grey of ambiguity. Saying to somebody: ‘this is what I most need right now’, ‘this is what the organisation most needs’. Asking, ‘how are you feeling about that?’, ’what’s your confidence/comfort level and how can I help?’. And then really listening to and acting on the responses.
How did you know that you were ready for a CEO role? Did you have particular qualities that you thought ‘yes, that means that I’m ready’?
I had no idea if I was ready. My entire career has been about seeing an opportunity to stretch and challenge myself and going for it. The job title hasn’t been a big driver for me at all. When I got my first CEO role, I got myself a coach and a mentor, who have been invaluable!
Being a CEO provides a different view than you get in any other role. You think you know what the view from that seat is going to look like, but until you sit in it, you don’t. You are now somebody who can see the whole panorama of an organisation, the people within it, and the people you exist to serve. It’s a big widescreen view; you don’t necessarily get to see all the detail.
So, I don’t know that anybody’s ‘ready’. Every chief executive role is different; the same job title, but very different jobs depending on the organisation.
Where were you on the spectrum of ‘I want to be a CEO, too’?
I did my job and it just kind of fell that way!
Did you ever want to be a CEO? Was that your goal?
That was never my goal. Although I imagine if you spoke to my teachers at primary school, they probably wouldn’t be surprised! I’ve always been the kind of character who says, ‘but what should we do about that?’, ‘let’s organise that’ and ‘let’s move things forward’.
I would personally have never thought that, as a woman (that’s not giving too much away is it?!) I would ever be credible in the role of the boss at all. Growing up CEOs were old, white blokes in grey suits – I am not that! Even as my career’s developed, as I’ve got older, and as I’ve seen other female chief executives, I just don’t think I ever felt like I was quite enough of a grown-up to do it.
There was clearly something in me that meant I applied – I’m not trying to be ever so humble and fake about it – but it was more about going on to challenge myself. I’ve always been somebody who wants the next challenge so I can improve things and make change happen.
Did you struggle to make the step to CEO or did it happen naturally? What roles and key skills would you say are the natural, obvious steps to becoming a CEO?
I think there are lots of established routes to Chief Executive, probably the finance director, along with the services or ops directors. Those are typically the kind of paths that people come along. That’s not the path I’ve come to this role through, and I see more directors of external affairs and influencing, fundraising, and digital starting to populate the chief executive spaces. So, I don’t think there is a set path you need to come up through.
Lots of it does depend, I think, on the appetite of a board and their understanding of on the most useful path for the next chief executive to have come through for the challenges of this environment. You need a board who really know what they need.
The most obvious steps into the chief executive space are about being able to decide what to do and what not to do. Strategy is as much about what you say no to as what you say yes to. If you say yes to everything, you haven’t got a strategy.
It’s about being able to focus and, depending on the size of your organisation, to delegate and give people the space to get on with things.
I also think there’s something really vital about stakeholder management and understanding the people who have got their eyes on you. As a chief exec you cast a long shadow, you can’t just be you, you will always be your job title. No matter how human and authentic you are, a simple throwaway remark, arriving with a bit of a headache and frowning, people can worry that something is wrong.
You are very visible as a chief executive, and you need to be mindful of that, whilst not putting on a performance. So, you need to think about your board, think about your team, and think about the people you exist to serve.
What would your advice be for someone, or even a younger you, that wants to get into charity management?
Well, it’s varied. My advice would be to do it, keep your eyes open and learn from what you see other people do. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Ask questions, ask for people to mentor you. Ask if they could spare 30 minutes to talk about how they dealt with X or Y. We’re a generous sector and people like to share what they’ve learned. Most people are learning as they go, and I don’t think anyone totally knows what they’re going to do next; it’s not all planned out like that.
Be really open to learning, would be my advice, and remember that not everybody’s like you (that’s for my younger self). Not everybody works and operates in the same way that you do. And once you start to park what you need and really focus on what other people need, that’s where change can really happen.
Recruiting and retaining the best trustee board
Who would be on your perfect trustee board and why?
The most important relationship on a trustee board is between the chief executive and the chair. When I’m looking for my next chief executive role, there will be some key things that I will be looking for. They will be about where that organisation is and what it needs, do they need someone with my kind of flavour and style of doing things, can I make a difference? Most importantly will be can this chair and I work together in a way that’s supportive and challenging? Will they give me space, but are they also going to be a support to me? I think the chair sets such a tone for the trustee board. So, it would be somebody in the chair role who understands the organisation, understands what it needs to do next, and is prepared to give support and challenge to a chief exec in achieving that.
As I think about boards, those that haven’t got a voice of the people that your organisation exists to support have a huge gap. I think that should be a given – how does this board either have representation or hear from the people that this organisation exists to serve? It’s critical.
Do you think the sector would be governed more effectively if trustees were routinely paid?
It’s a great question. My immediate instinct was ‘yes,’ but I think it’s bigger than that. It’s about how we reward people for their time, energy, expertise, and effort. If people can’t take on board roles because they will be out of pocket for doing it, that’s a barrier that must be removed.
But there are other barriers to be removed as well. The last two years have shown us that boards can meet on Zoom. The last two years have shown us that it doesn’t have to be everyone going to London for a certain number of hours. You can then open up boards to people who are in different places geographically and in their lives. I know some organisations whose boards meet on Saturdays because they’ve got so many trustees who can’t take time out during the working day to do a board meeting.
So, I think it’s more complicated than ‘should trustees be paid?’ It’s about how we get a governance model that is relevant to what a board needs to do and means a board can have relevant members. I think the current model sets itself up for people who are retired or doing portfolio careers, and then you just get the same mindset again and again. That’s the challenge. I don’t think paying trustees totally overcomes it – but it could help in some cases.
What do you view as being the key skills and qualities required to introduce change in an established charity?
Have the bravery and the willingness to act, and centre on who you exist to serve. If we were to set up now, how would we do that? It’s a question that any leadership team should be coming back to because there is risk in just perpetuating the way things have always been done.
I think the pandemic has given us all an opportunity to step back and consider just how much is being done because that is just the way it was always done. Let’s not miss the moment to bake in the changes that the pandemic’s brought – where we’ve discovered that we just weren’t being brave enough.
How do you gently persuade or get your team on board for a proper digital transformation, not just a web design class?
I love this question. I think the answer is you don’t do it gently. You make the case about what the people you exist to serve need, and how you’re invariably not reaching them, not engaging with them, and not making the most of the donations that are given to you. You’ve got to commit to transformation without knowing where you’re going to end up. And I think that talks to the other question about bravery. You just have to, because if somebody set your organisation up now, they wouldn’t set it up as it is now. A huge piece of where they would start would probably be digital.
How do you see the charity sector developing in the next five to 10 years?
Probably more slowly than I’d hoped a year ago. I think we’ve lost some of the impact the pandemic gave in 2020. It accelerated so much more collaboration; people have become much less territorial, much more focused on their organisational purpose, and what they’re fundamentally there to do. There might be other organisations in a similar space, but if their purpose is different you can work together, you don’t need to compete. You don’t need to get into an ego standoff with other organisations, you need to pull together. We’re all trying to solve problems that are bigger than one organisation. The more we hold onto that in the sector, the better we will do for society.
If I have a worry now, it’s that there’s almost a gravitational pull back to 2019 and getting people back into the office. And how many days a week is that going to be? Those are all the wrong questions. Those questions are about ‘where do we need to be’ rather than actually ‘how do we make the most of what happened here?’, ‘how do we keep up with the brave, decisive, agile approaches that saw us through 2020?’ They should be what’s accelerating us forward. So, if I have a concern, it’s that the sector, which is huge and so varied, isn’t changing fast enough. I think we could get totally left behind if we’re not careful.
If you were starting your charity from scratch, and you knew you were in a crowded space but had an incredible point of difference, a collaborative approach, and a section of society that needed you to take a stand for them, what would your roadmap for success include?
I think I would start that with the questions: what would it take for us to put ourselves out of business if we fix this? and how long might we need to exist as an organisation? It might be 10 years; it might be 20 years.
I would also ask: do you need to start a charity in that situation? What’s the best vehicle for solving that problem?
Then I would move on to: If we’re going to collaborate with existing charities, how can we be a catalyst?
That’s what I’d do; I’d ask the question: how do we start with the end in mind?
There was a question around how much CEOs get paid and what proportion of the funds go into the charity helping others. These are quite common discussions across the sector and my thoughts reflect the previous Secret CEO’s. I think they did a great job in answering this question, and so I think people would benefit from reading that Secret CEO blog, too.
Overall, I thought this was really interesting. Many questions were about the path to becoming a chief executive. I hope that means there are loads of smart, driven people who really want to be chief executives! I’m hoping we’ve got some quiet – and not so quiet – revolutionaries thinking about how to do things differently who are prepared to step into chief executive roles and make change happen. Go for it if you are!