I stepped up as a charity leader 18 months ago. At the time I was entering a new organisation, in a new sector, with a steep learning curve ahead. Add to which I was taking on my first role as executive director: CEO-cum-COO-cum-CFO, the full C-suite, as is not uncommon amongst smaller third-sector organisations. (I joke that the role is also ‘cum-Chief-Bottle-Washer’ because leading by example is also about accepting the less-than-glamorous aspects of the role.)
My first step in preparation was to read widely, including ACEVO’s The Chief Executive’s First 100 Days (click on the link to buy a copy). In many ways this proved self-affirming, and by this virtue, calming also.
In those first weeks of taking up the role of director there was a very genuine sense of anxiety that I was pursuing a high-risk personal strategy. It felt like a milestone achievement, but having successfully secured the role, I now needed to demonstrate that there had not been some terrible mistake, and prove my mettle.
Some call it ‘imposter syndrome’ and while I might not go so far, there certainly is a period of adjustment before one comfortably inhabits the role: a transition from those first, somewhat awkward early introductions and laboured projections to the desired goal of unselfconscious identification as CEO (or equivalent). I cannot now point to the moment at which I stopped acting the part and simply became, but I can highlight a couple of lessons learned along the way.
It might seem counterintuitive, but I elected to face anxiety head on, purposefully throwing myself into high-stress situations with an attitude of ‘well, what’s the worst that can happen?’ You might well pre-empt the answer: that of course the worst is that one can fail, miserably, making a fool of oneself to boot.
But actually the fear of failing that holds us back is worse still and it can be debilitating, certainly where decision making is concerned. As any senior manager knows, time-sensitive decisions frequently need to be made based on insufficient evidence: you deploy your best analytical skills, weighing up the risks against the projected outcome, and in the end make a decision that you feel, in good conscience, to be the right one. And in some instances, you will be wrong.
We all make what turn out, with the benefit of hindsight, to be not-the-best decisions – sometimes, dare I acknowledge, even, ‘bad’ decisions. But this is not failure and we are more than the sum of our less-than-good decisions.
I have found accepting this to be an important lesson in my development as a leader. Infallibility is neither achievable nor desirable, as, arguably, we learn more from making the occasional mistake (including a healthy dose of humility) than from continuous success. Absolutely do reflect on actions, good and bad: take forward the lessons to be learned, but then move on.
Accepting that not all of my tasks will be completed to an A1 standard has also been an important, if hard, lesson to learn, and speaks to the bigger issue of managing expectations of oneself.
I do not, of course, mean recourse to shoddy work, but rather, with competing priorities and pressing deadlines, often it is necessary to complete 10 work-critical tasks at the minimum standard where the alternative is perhaps eight at a high quality but two left undone. This is the reality of business. But it can, over time, have an attritional effect on confidence, serving to wear one down.
This is a matter of personal resilience, and time and again in the literature experienced leaders advise to beware of the inner critic. It is a truism that no one is as critical of you as you. For the ambitious, committed to continuous development, that critical inner voice is a keen motivator to be our best selves. But far from leading to over-confidence, this drive to ‘better our best’, this continuous competition with ourselves, can be highly destructive. This is particularly so as we progress up the career ladder and become ostensibly more successful and in turn receive less feedback, good or bad.
However senior, however experienced, however advanced in age, we all need external positive reinforcement to provide a counter-balance to the inner critic; and, of course, we all appreciate being appreciated!
The leadership journey is ongoing, with many points of departure and halting points along the way and this is my chief reason for seeking out a civil society leader, further on that journey, as mentor, together with a peer-support network of fellow travellers. Exceptionally fortunate in this respect to be participating in the ACEVO Jane Slowey programme, I very much welcome the opportunity to ‘pay forward’ the learning by mentoring a member of the following cohort.