Reflections on cross-sector leadership

James Blake, CEO of YHA, reflects on his leadership journey into the charity sector.

Just before Christmas, I found myself in the mock gothic splendour of Losehill Hall, now better known as YHA Castleton, in the heart of the Peak District. This was where I’d spent my first night as CEO of YHA 18 months previously, along with 110 young people from Hull who were on an activity residential as part of their National Citizen Service. It’s a flagship site, at the heart of YHA’s mission to transform young lives.

It got me thinking about my own leadership journey, from civil and public service in central and local government, into the charity sector. Indeed friends and colleagues have often asked: Which do you enjoy most? Was it how I expected? Is it very different?

Of course, some practical things are very different. Christmas, for one. In central government, it was always a mad scramble to get papers to ministers to read over the festive break. In local government, the annual stress around whether we should or shouldn’t upgrade the Christmas lights. Is it a real boost to local business? Or an outrageous use of taxpayers money? Would they pass the latest health and safety checks? Had we remembered to give ourselves planning permission? Don’t miss that! In YHA, we’ve been thinking further ahead. What’s our plan for the January sale? What’s our campaign focus for 2019? How do we develop our strategy for 2020 and beyond?

And day to day life is completely different. A major expedition as CEO of St Albans Council was a trip to Harpenden, 5 miles up the road. Virtually all of my staff were based at a desk within 30 seconds of mine. In YHA I am always travelling – based 3 hours away from our HQ, with a senior team who stretch the length of England and Wales, and where each week I am often on the road or train, visiting hostels, teams and partners all over the country.

But the fundamentals of leadership are similar, whatever the sector. The need to set a clear direction of travel and vision for the organisation; provide a compelling narrative to engage and motivate teams; agree on expectations about values and behaviours.  And perhaps, driven by similar government imperatives about funding, accountability, transparency and compliance, many of the issues I find myself dealing with in the third sector are similar to those I left in the public sector.

How can we be commercially savvy while maximising public benefit? How do we demonstrate openness and transparency while giving ourselves the internal space to think, to innovate and to make mistakes? How do we encourage entrepreneurialism and creativity while ensuring we have a bulletproof risk and assurance framework? How do we bring people with us on change, when it may challenge long-held cultural norms of the way we do things around here? Where do we draw the line between governance and management?

There are, however, subtle differences between the sectors which it has been important to be sensitive to. Public sector colleagues are schooled in process and procedure and often highly skilled at navigating the complexities of working in a political environment – the route from A to B is rarely direct or straightforward.  There can sometimes be a less obvious passion for a cause than there is in the not for profit sector, although almost everyone I met was there because of an underlying belief in the value of public service, however hidden that can sometimes seem from public and media eyes.

In the not for profit sector, I have been struck by the energy and ability to think big and long term and the huge commitment to the cause. It’s a big and undervalued asset. People are driven to succeed because it’s the right thing to do. In YHA I have noticed that this passion can sometimes run up against the need for more tactical judgement and the ability to work in shades of grey. Violent agreement can seem more common in my world today. Passive disagreement was a hallmark of life in the world of Sir Humphrey. People are ‘appalled’ in my new world. They were a ‘little disappointed’ in my old…

Two final reflections. The first is the value of cross-sector experience in leaders and leadership teams. In YHA, we are fortunate to have colleagues from the travel, hospitality, public, educational and charity sector in our senior team, and many who’ve moved between sectors in their career. It doesn’t always make dialogue comfortable or easy, but our organisation is better for it. And it’s increasingly the norm across the sector.

And the second is the value of strong networks. I went from knowing many people in different government and local government networks, to knowing almost no one. But – thanks to ACEVO – I was quickly introduced to fabulous colleagues who have welcomed me warmly into the sector.

So whatever the challenges that 2019 will undoubtedly bring, I look forward with optimism to a positive year in YHA and the wider sector.

*Photo by Alessia Cocconi on Unsplash

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