Ten years a leader
Monday 2nd January marks for me the 10th anniversary of becoming a Chief Executive. The experience of leadership, first at Rethink Mental Illness and for the last 3 years at the Tavistock and Portman, has been a dominating part of my life since. It seems appropriate, then, to offer some reflections on what I have learnt in that time.
The last 10 years has not been an easy time to lead any organisation in the sector I operate in with the long draining impact of austerity. It has meant that “the money”, always by definition high on any Chief Executive’s list of priorities, has dominated the agenda and limited, although by no means ruled out, some of the changes which one would have wanted to focus on.
But that is the nature of the task. “Events, dear boy”, as Harald MacMillan was right to point out, are central to the fortunes of any leader. How quickly you pick up on the significance or otherwise of new developments and adapt your thinking and strategy to respond to them is a crucial skill of being the leader of an organisation. There can be many false positives, issues which for a short while seem important but, in the long term, turn out not to be, but adapting to what is truly significant is the mark of a wise leader.
After ten years as a Chief Executive I have learnt that the most important decisions you make are about people. In particular the choices you make about your team, both as individuals but also how you choose to work with and develop them as a group are crucial to your ability to deliver whatever objectives you set yourself and the organisation. No Chief Executive, however talented, can do it all themselves and those who try to are doomed to failure.
A good Chief Executive should also be interested in advancing talent and leadership more widely across their organisation. Developing opportunities across the organisation, making the organisation an attractive destination for those with ambition and building a wider leadership community, should all, in my view, be key priorities for any Chief Executive. The development of future leaders is one of a Chief Executive’s most satisfying achievements and being generous in time and advice the best way of realising it
The skills of building relationships outside the organisation are also paramount. No organisation is an island and the most important issues I have worked on, as a Chief Executive, such as the fight against mental health stigma and the development of new models of care, have been the products of partnership working between organisations. While partnerships need many ingredients to be successful, commitment from and good relationships at the top are fundamental. For very good reasons I spend an increasing proportion of my time in this kind of work.
Different Chief Executives manage in different ways but a key dilemma is always around delegation. Intuitively letting others get on with the job is the right thing to do and no one person can ever be on top of every point of detail in their organisation. However as a Chief Executive you can never delegate the ultimate accountability for what happens in your organisation and therefore you always need to have a sense of what is going on. It always angers me seeing senior leaders implicated in scandals claiming that they cannot possibly be expected to know about what was happening at more junior levels in their organisation. For me they are either lying or alternatively demonstrating a level of dereliction in their duties as a senior leader. So a good Chief Executive needs to know their organisation, know where it is most weak, delegate responsibility but have systems for receiving sufficient feedback on what is happening whether good, bad or mixed. Setting a culture of honesty and transparency is crucial here making it easy for colleagues to share problems and mistakes, at an early stage, rather than trying to hide them until it is too late to do anything about them.
The importance of choosing priorities and managing expectations is another lesson I have learnt in the last 10 years. Full of enthusiasm and ambition it can be easy to try to do too much and to make too many changes. The most effective changes I have led have been a result of persistence, picking an issue and being prepared to champion it, in some cases for years. It is very rewarding when, as a result, it is possible to stand back and notice a change in how things are done in the organisation which no longer needs your direct leadership. There is also a profound need to be disciplined in how you decide to use your own time and increasingly, I find, energy. It is crucial to spend your time on the things that matter most.
It is also crucial to find the time to get out and refresh your knowledge and understanding of the organisation and its activities and to give people the chance to meet you and share their concerns. I have always regretted it when, at times, I have deprioritised these activities. The small things matter as well. The words of thanks and, at times, consolation, the time spent in engaging with the people in your organisation as people not just cogs in the wheel are sometimes the contributions which I am most proud of.
Being a Chief Executive can be demanding, lonely and, at times, uncomfortable position. It remains an enormous privilege, however, to lead organisations of the kind I have had the chance to lead, whose purpose is clear and where the commitment of staff to make the world a better place for people with mental health problems is so palpable. If I’ve been able to do anything to make those organisations more effective and impactful the experience of being a Chief Executive, with all its stresses and strains, will have been more than worthwhile.