Our fourth Secret CEO answers your questions on the sector’s hot topics! Here are the answers you’ve been waiting for:

How did you become a CEO?

I made a determined decision to become one. I was in a number of senior roles and a lot of people talked to me about my potential, even though I wasn’t seeing it in myself. When enough people say, “you’ve got potential” you start to think that maybe you should do something about it. 

I decided to really commit to the idea of becoming a CEO and tried to find a small to medium-sized organisation that I could take a leadership role in.

I sought out a coach to work with me and was very specific about my goal and the help I needed.

I also reached out to CEOs in large organisations to build up a network and I was really surprised and pleased with how welcoming people were. It was really great to have that support, especially through the challenges of going into my first CEO role.

It’s a bit like being a Prime Minister. You can never get the experience of being a Prime Minister until you’re actually in the role. Really the challenge was trying to convince others that I had the determination and understanding of nonprofit organisations. 

I worked hard to build up my knowledge around governance, which seemed to be an area that people weren’t so strong on and was also clear about the mix of skills I could bring to the role. I was a good fundraiser, I was a good planner, good at working with people. 

My biggest challenge was doing this as a Black woman – getting people to see beyond that and just see the skills and experience that I could bring.

I built up some good relationships with a couple of recruitment agencies, so they got to know me as a person and that meant I had somebody else really pushing and advocating for me when I was going for Chief Exec roles.

My first CEO role was exactly what I was looking for – not too far from where I was living in an area that I knew well. It was in the sector that I wanted. It wasn’t too large. It was reasonably okay in terms of finances. But all of that was how it looked on paper – you don’t really know what’s going on until you actually walk into the organisation! All of the challenges that were hidden came to the fore and I just embraced that, but I had to learn to believe in my potential, believe in myself. 

It was tough. It was a really tough job, but actually, that’s what set me on the path to want to continue being a CEO.

What do you think works better – remote working, office working or hybrid working?

I think there is value and benefits in all three ways of working. We’ve learned so much as a result of the pandemic – we can now see what’s possible with remote working.

It brings huge benefits to employees in terms of their well-being, and particularly for employees that have childcare or other caring commitments. If you’re working from home, you have so much more flexibility, you can nip down the road to see your elderly mother or father. Something that’s just not possible if you’re working at an office.

And what I’ve seen in remote working, particularly where organizations are a lot more flexible is that there’s a period of time where all staff have to be available, but apart from that they set their own hours. It’s great for people who work better in the morning or the evening. 

I think with remote working, we found a way to really blend in with what works well for some of our employees and that enables them to be more productive. And that obviously is helpful to the organisation. 

What is valuable about remote working is that organisations were able to recruit talent from across the country. You have access to a whole range of different people and expertise that you might not otherwise be able to attract.

There are downsides too, though. We’re social creatures and with remote working there isn’t that opportunity to connect in person. That’s what has led us to the hybrid model, which I think probably suits where we are now and where we are heading in the future as well. 

We do need time to come together. It’s really hard to join an organization and not to physically meet with your colleagues.

It is important to have opportunities to connect for people’s well-being and to get to know your colleagues a bit better. There are nuances that you might miss, or people might be misunderstood sometimes through digital technology. It enables a bit of that social connection.

Office working for 100% of the time? I think we’ve gone beyond that now. As CEOs, we really have to learn from some of the challenges that have been presented to us. The pandemic proved that it is possible to work remotely, you don’t have to be in the office all of the time.

It does create some difficulties because office working is how we’ve done it in the past, we have buildings and for some organisations there’s a lot of frontline work going on. Sometimes more of an office-based model will be the best choice. But again, there is the opportunity to be flexible with some work being done remotely to support the people that we are serving; that is the way of the world now, and where it’s heading in the future.

We need to be looking at how we can become more digitally savvy in how we deliver our services and how we organise ourselves, whether that’s office-based, remote or a mix. 

I think we do get the best of all worlds by taking a hybrid approach because we’re all social creatures and staff need to come together sometimes for their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the organisation. 

How do you think the financial downturn and cost of living crisis is impacting charities?

The first, most obvious area is around organisational finances. It’s having a significant impact as we move from the pandemic to the current cost of living crisis. But I just want to preface this with the fact that if we’re not learning as organisations, we will close.

If you look back in history, whether it’s health issues like the pandemic or economic issues, they will come and go. So there is no doubt there will be future challenges of this scale that we, as Chief Executives of organisations, will have to deal with.

For me, it isn’t just about looking at what’s happening now. It’s about what we can learn from this to prepare our organisations for the future. 

The second area is the well-being of the communities that we are serving and our people, our staff; it’s greater compared to the economic crisis in 2008.

In this crisis, CEOs are much more concerned and worried about the threat of closure because of a reduction in the funding that’s available to them. Added to that, we now have the cost of living crisis.

What they should be doing is looking at ways to get money in. We’ve been very fortunate with a grant-giving sector that was very responsive during the pandemic. They made it easy for people to access funds but, as CEOs we need to be looking beyond that as well, to the longer-term. 

We’ve got a situation where many organisations are experiencing the same challenges. So it’s time to look at how we can collaborate better together. To be honest, I’m not wholly in favor of mergers, just because we’re going through a difficult time. But I do think we can look at how to collaborate and make best use of sharing whatever resources we do have.

If you’ve done that and you think actually, you know what, there is no way that we will survive, and there is too great a duplication of what we are delivering, then, look at merging. 

We can also be thinking about how we can get help and support from other sectors. A corporate sector contact told me when the pandemic hit that they had braced themselves for a huge influx of requests for support from charities, but it never came because we primarily focused on grant-giver foundations and trusts.

It’s going to be important to look after our staff through this period. They will be flexible if they need to be, they will drop hours, even if it’s a temporary measure to help your organisation to get through this period. 

It is about being bold and not afraid to make what might seem like really difficult decisions. You can look at how you can reshape your organisation, but before looking at redundancies, look at reducing hours. 

Look at what’s happening now that is shaping the future, we’re moving towards a four-day week, so let’s prepare for that as well. Let’s see what that means for our staff and our budgets. Let’s see what’s possible.

How do you prevent silo working? 

For me, it’s all about building relationships with people and helping them to make connections.

You need to get a sense of who your staff are, what their needs are and what really gets them going. There are some staff who love to work on their own, but we can’t work in silos. All the staff need to connect with each other across the organisation because that’s the only way you’re going to deliver on your vision and your mission as an organisation.

I have one-to-one meetings with staff for the usual stuff on performance, but in addition I’ll have regular check-ins. In those, I ask how it’s going, find out which colleagues they’re collaborating with. It’s an easy way to influence how much connection is going on.

There also has to be an opportunity where all staff come together to ask the critical questions – what are we about? What do we feel about what we’re trying to achieve here?

Do your team building stuff like using Myers-Briggs or work out which colours are represented in the team and how the different colours mesh together. Remember or redefine what you stand for in terms of values.

Think about what that means for the organisation’s plans and how they will be delivered – whose skills and attributes are most needed for the different areas of those plans? How can we make sure that everyone is involved?

As a CEO, because you’ve got that helicopter view, you can see where different talents, experiences, and passions lie within your team. What I love doing is a matrix approach, organising task and finish groups, or identifying an individual within the team who has nothing to do with a piece of work but has a particular perspective or way of working that would be fantastic in the project team.

Communication is key in all of this. For those who want to stick with working in silos, find out why. It could be because they don’t feel that engaged with their other colleagues. It might be that they don’t understand how they fit with the bigger picture. Making sure that as a staff team we understand where we all are and where we will fit within the organization and how our role makes a difference is so important. 

It’s too much for the CEO to do all of this on their own. Bring the senior leadership team in as well. They have to be willing to relinquish a bit of power – to see potential and think, ‘this person can lead on this piece of work.’

What would you do if someone in your Senior Leadership Team isn’t working effectively?

Because they’re part of the leadership team it is always important to act really swiftly. If anyone within your senior leadership team is not working effectively, that’s going to impact all the people they are managing.

Firstly, you’ve got to find out why this member of staff isn’t working effectively. Are there difficulties at home or outside of work? If there are, you’ve got to provide support or give them time out if that’s needed.

If there’s a performance issue, it’s important to raise it early on. Don’t be afraid. What I’ve found, particularly in senior levels, is that they have a tendency to just brush things off. If you meet with the senior leader and say, “I notice you haven’t delivered on this”, and they say, “Oh yeah, I was busy with something else.” You must be very clear about what it is you want to get out of that meeting with a senior leader, because they might be able to play you in a way that junior staff aren’t able to or don’t know how to.

The next step is the same for any individual who isn’t performing well:

  • Be very clear on expectations
  • Set clear deadlines

Turn the question around to them and ask, “What do you need in order to deliver and achieve these expectations.”

Then you can monitor and if they’re not performing, you need to be clear on what the consequences are to the organisation and for them – and ask them to put themselves in your place. Say, “Tell me, if you don’t deliver what do you think the consequences should be?”

Often that’s a light bulb moment – they begin to understand that they’ve got to step up and they might come to a position where it’s clear to see that they cannot deliver. It’s about enabling them to reach that decision as well.

Then you can have a discussion about whether this is the right role and organisation for them and help them to move on, if needed.

How can boards and CEOs work well together?

The CEO and Chair have to have a really good working relationship. If they don’t, the organisation is going to suffer. As a CEO, your Chair becomes your new best friend. They are the person that you should be sharing some of the challenges that you wouldn’t share with anyone else. You have to believe that the Chair is there to support. If you fail, the Chair fails as well. There’s nothing worse for a Chair than to have a CEO that isn’t performing.

Start by building that relationship with your Chair and sitting down to talk about expectations. Set out what you would love the relationship to be like, and how you’d like to work with them – even if it hasn’t worked that way in the past. I tend to say that I would like to share my challenges and issues, but also bounce ideas around about how we move forward.

Some CEOs, I know, are not keen on having the senior leadership team involved in board meetings but I think you have to find a way for that relationship between the senior leadership team and the rest of the board to be developed as well. One of the ways to do that is to have SLT be present at the board meeting but if not, at least have them come in sometimes. Maybe when a big issue around their area of work is being discussed. 

What I tend to do is to connect senior leaders with trustees. The obvious one is the finance manager and the treasurer, but there will be other people on the board who may have an interest or an area of expertise that really aligns with a particular staff member.

Once you’ve got that, it makes it so much easier when issues and challenges come up, because Individual trustees will have a better understanding of a particular area and a bit more of an insight that they just won’t get from board reports.

One of the critical times when the Board and SLT need to come together is around the strategy and planning. If not then, there has to be at least a day, preferably two days in the year where they come together and discuss the organisation, ideas purpose and future plans. 

What are your tips for recruiting and retaining staff? 

We really do need to look at new ways of recruiting. I know that organisations are struggling to recruit some of the people that they need.

Fundraisers have become gold dust and that means you’ve got some very inexperienced fundraisers who are able to ask for a lot more money than they’re worth.

To be honest, the pandemic made people realise that they want more out of life. Some organisations are finding it incredibly difficult to find the skills they need, because people in the sector are just saying, ‘no, it’s just too much hard work.’ People have decided they want to have a complete change of life and career.

For me, one of the important things is to be planning ahead. Nurturing some of the people already in your team. 

I know one organization that uses a lot of volunteers. These volunteers are coming up through the year and some of them are very experienced. The organisation looks out for opportunities for volunteers to go into what they call a ‘sessional role’ which is very short term and paid. Then there might be a fixed-term role and then an opportunity for a permanent role. The time spent on nurturing that individual becomes really valuable. Especially because they came to the organisation for a reason that wasn’t about pay.

That approach takes time and I appreciate that sometimes we need to get people in quickly. I still use my networks (as a Black woman), but I don’t want to encourage any CEO to go out and recruit just using their own networks. You have to use networks, but consider those that you have never used before to ensure that you do get that diversity of people coming into your organisation. 

You can speak to other organisations locally or get a volunteer to do some research and find different networks that might be worth speaking to.

As Chief Execs, we also have to be open to people coming into the organisation from outside the sector – what are the transferable skills people can bring if they’re really interested in your organisation?

When it comes to salary, I really do hope that CEOs and Boards have made the decision to increase salaries to help staff meet the cost of living crisis – everyone needs to survive.

When you’re recruiting, people will be looking at what pay is on offer, but also at your other benefits. There are a huge number of freebies out there like ‘charity workers discounts’ that you can help staff access as a benefit. 

You can also create other things that are nice to have such as – free tea, coffee and biscuits, a free Christmas lunch or whatever you think will appeal – and make sure you include it on the job description. 

Any closing comments?

It’s really important, I think, for Black women in particular who are looking to move into CEO roles to reach out to people of all ethnicities who are Chief Execs. Find the people that you really admire in the sector and don’t think that they’re going to say no. They will want to support other existing and aspiring leaders, so don’t be afraid. 

And finally, be true to yourself. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but learn from them as well.