Guest Blog: The Long Term Leader

Barnardo’s Scotland Director, Martin Crewe contributes this blog (with a little help from ACOSVO Chief Exec, Pat Armstrong) discussing being a long term leader...

The genesis of this blog was when I accidentally came across a speech I gave at an ACOSVO event in September 2010 on ‘Being a Leader’.  Three years into my role as Director of Barnardo’s Scotland I spoke about various leadership challenges and speculated upon how long charity leaders should remain, concluding that five to seven years might be the ideal period of tenure.


After 11 years in post (how did that happen?), I felt I should revisit my earlier thoughts and saw a great opportunity to collaborate with another long term leader in the process. I approached Pat and she was happy to get involved and share her thoughts from her 15 years at the head of ACOSVO.


Together we agreed that the most obvious place to start was with the simple pros and cons of being a long term leader:


The pros include being known as the head of your charity, having well developed networks and an in depth knowledge of all aspects of the organisation.  Longevity should also be a sign that you have at least a reasonable level of competence … or an uncanny ability to cover up your own incompetence.


The possible cons centre on potential loss of personal energy and drive for change, fixed thinking and the stifling of upcoming talent.  A long term leader may feel there is never a right moment to go rather than an honest appraisal of whether staying on is what’s best for the charity.


Over a cup of coffee, Pat and I talked about long term leaders we have known – those who personally enhanced their charity and those where there might have been a collective sigh of relief when they finally moved on (unfortunately the new GDPR rules preclude us from going into any more detail).


We concluded that one of the key tests of a successful long term charity leader is genuinely and consistently putting the organisation’s needs first.  There might be times when a challenging voice is needed but this should be a conscious decision after careful reflection rather than just ‘shooting from the lip’ as an antidote to boredom.


A pitfall to be avoided is feeling that as a long term leader you have a unique role and knowledge which means you have to do everything; as such delegation is key.  This has to include the enjoyable tasks as well as the dross and has to be done in a way that helps nurture the talents of others.


Another interesting challenge is to have honest conversations about the risks that are being managed.  After many years it is easy to take precarious funding arrangements and mercurial stakeholders in your stride and manage this risk privately to avoid raising other people’s anxieties.  However there needs to be a balance between avoiding panic and slipping into an overly paternalistic approach.


At the end of the conversation we concluded that there are genuine advantages to being a long term leader as long as the ego is kept in check.  However, staying motivated and excited about the role is key, and it is with this in mind we now put forward the following ‘DID PACE’ test for any third sector leaders who have been in post over 10 years:


Delegation – are you really ‘delegating until it hurts’ and pushing responsibility out as much as possible?


Innovation – have you created an environment in which innovation can flourish? (rather than always trying to be the innovator yourself)


Debate – do you have people around you with a range of views and a culture in which dissenting voices can be heard?


Passion – do you still take time to communicate your passion for the cause?


Ambition – are you driving your charity to achieve everything possible for your beneficiaries with appropriately stretching success criteria?


Challenge – do you identify and embrace your own incompetence and then take action to improve and challenge yourself?


Energy – do you still derive personal energy and inspiration from seeing the outcomes achieved by your charity?


If you can answer ‘yes’ to all seven questions then the chances are that you are both a paragon of virtue and an effective long term charity leader.


In my 2010 speech I recognised that putting a time limit on leadership might create a hostage to fortune.  However I did note at the time that in the future “I will have had more time to develop a new theory on why the best leaders need to be around for seven to ten years … or maybe even longer”. 


In 2018 we may not have come up with a whole new theory but we hope that our questions above will help ensure that long term charity leaders can be just as effective, and passionate, as the newbies.


…Finally a post script from Pat: If you are a long serving leader ready for a break, maybe “Did Time” would feel more apt?

Do less
Innovate more
Deal with it

Tearing my hair
Imagine a beach
Me time is calling
Exit stage left!