Leading differently in an era of change

Menai Owen-Jones, ACEVO trustee and CEO of The Pituitary Foundation, shares her thoughts on the key challenges facing civil society leaders today.

One of the key issues facing civil society leaders today is change. And more importantly, the speed in which change is happening. We are living in an era that is being defined by its volatility and uncertainty as well as its complexity and ambiguity.

While we may have little, to no, control over the impact of some of the challenges this change brings, such as Brexit, there are a number of challenges that we can choose to embrace both as a sector together, or within our individual organisations, through culture, innovation and public relations. These include:

  • Technology

Innovations such as block-chain, artificial intelligence and robotics will have profound effects on our society, organisations and workforce, in ways that we are not even aware of yet. Many organisations can, and may, resist some technological changes for the time being, for numerous reasons such as lack of funding, lack of skills, lack of time. However, as society develops and accepts these advancements, those that do not embrace, or plan for, these changes now will be left behind.

  • People

Staff recruitment and retention is one of the most worrying issues facing us. While this isn’t a challenge unique to civil society, our former ‘unique selling point’ whereby commitment to the cause was able to compensate for lower salaries, is being eroded by the emergence of purpose-led businesses and an increasingly sector-agnostic generation of millennials and beyond.

  • Varying levels of public trust and confidence

We are operating in an environment with a varying level of public trust. Recent fundraising and governance scandals have had a detrimental effect on the perception of charities. There has been a noticeable societal shift in the way the public view “institutions” where trust was previously taken as a given.

This era of change can present leaders with more challenges than ever before, but it’s far from doom and gloom.  In the face of such complexity and volatility, there are exciting opportunities that civil society leaders can begin to explore as a result. These include:

  • A renewed emphasis on focus

Reduced resources mean we need to concentrate more than ever on the activities that make the biggest difference and have the greatest impact. Reduced resources also mean the increased need for collaboration, diversification and finding new enterprising approaches.

  • A renewed emphasis on localism

As the state retreats from providing public services, it seems likely people will fall back on the local services around them for the support they need. Also, in a big world of globalisation, people have an increasing need to feel rooted in their local community.  There’s also an opportunity here for local charities to emphasise their local roots and relevance in their supporters’ own neighbourhoods.  Embracing the Welsh language and supporting Welsh culture could be an opportunity for organisations operating in Wales.

  • An opportunity to harness technology

Technology can be used to drive more holistic approaches to the way we serve beneficiaries.  It can be cost effective and help your charity’s services become more accessible to different audiences and generations. As well as taking over much of the unrewarding aspects of work, technology can free up people for more creative and interpersonal activity.

  • The opportunity to provide an “antidote” to technology

One reaction to accelerating technology is a greater tendency to value something simpler – something that feels local, analogue, or human. Charities can offer quality time, moments and spaces where people remember and act on our shared humanity.

If we are going to lead our organisations through this era of complex change, and to thrive, not only survive, we need to lead differently than we have before.  Here’s eight ways how:

  1. Embrace diversity, equality and values-led leadership. Drive the agenda for change.
  2. Champion digital solutions at leadership, and board level, and drive the integration of digital across your organisation.
  3. Governance is now truly in the spotlight and good governance is at the heart of any effective organisation.
  4. Produce responsive strategies: test, adapt and learn. Move away from traditional strategy (planned) models.
  5. Continue looking outwards and resist the pull to become inward looking, regardless of how challenging things can be at times.
  6. Flexibility and openness is key. Embrace change and generational change including millennials and generation Z.
  7. Help to change perceptions. The sector should reframe core costs as a long-term investment that facilitates innovation and development.
  8. Invest in ourselves as leaders, and in our teams, to build resilience.

Civil society leaders already have qualities that put us ahead in adapting to these new demands – flexibility, resilience, passion and commitment. But to keep up with a continually changing environment, we must constantly develop and learn new skills, and help others to grow and change their behaviours. And this is where ACEVO helps – whether through encouraging peer support and sharing of good practice, by offering leadership development opportunities, or by reinforcing leaders’ mental health and resilience.

There’s not much we can do about volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity – but by leading differently, we can be prepared for it.

Want to join the conversation?

Join ACEVO and the WCVA at the ‘Leading by example: a conversation for charity leaders’ event to network and share learning from 12.30pm-2pm on 7 August 2018 at Stand No. 0119 at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Cardiff. RSVP by 1 August to bookings@wcva.org.uk or 029 2043 1720.    


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s