The power of coffee and conversation

Menai Owen-Jones, CEO of The Pituitary Foundation and trustee of ACEVO, writes about the importance of real, in person, and impromptu conversations. 

I think I say the words “let’s have a coffee” on a daily basis to someone or other.

Over the past few months, I’ve been delivering a few talks about my leadership experience and reflections since being CEO of The Pituitary Foundation over the last seven years.  Sometimes I don’t feel particularly qualified to talk about this topic, as I’m still fairly early in my leadership journey myself.

A balancing act

I then think back over the years and reflect however how much I’ve learned in this time, especially about leading people.  It’s been a rollercoaster of learning. Leading a small national charity is a wonderfully challenging experience, a privilege, which can also be at the same time all-consuming and pretty intense.

Like a juggler on a unicycle, in any one day you can be thinking about, and involved with, an enormous amount of topics: organisation and team development, volunteers, external affairs, policy, strategy, HR, finance, fundraising, operational matters.

Focus on people first, process follows

I would say that the most important aspect of leadership is people and building relationships.  How we build relationships doesn’t have to be complex.  In fact, if we go back to basics, it’s about making time, giving your whole attention, listening and connecting.

Over the years, I’ve observed all kinds of people and behaviours.  I’ve seen some leaders who have no time, or don’t make time, to get to know the people they are working with. It’s all process, facts, and task-focused and they miss the important ingredient of connecting with someone and building trust first of all. How can you work constructively and productively with people when you don’t know them?

I have still lots to learn about leadership myself.  However, I do spend time getting to know my team and the people I work with, and I feel this really makes a difference to building a positive, progressive and an inclusive working culture. At The Pituitary Foundation, we don’t have big budgets, we don’t have lots of resources, but what we do have is a great culture and a high performing team.  We are all ‘on the bus’ together going in the same direction.

It’s not all about digital

There’s so much focus at the moment in the sector on digital.  I totally agree as charities in the sector we must innovate and think digitally and this is an important strategic priority. Digital brings many benefits. However, I feel at the same time that as leaders we must not lose sight of the importance of real human connections and relationships.

I’m just about a millennial, depending on what definition of millennial you refer to! I’m now at the point that I straddle the younger and older generations in the workplace. I see how many younger people especially default to electronic communication and can shy away from actual conversations in person, which can cause real challenges. I wonder how this increasing trend will affect our organisations in the future.

Learning for the next generation of leaders

I feel as leaders developing the next generation in our sector, one of the things we must mentor and encourage is the importance of real conversations. Sometimes you need to pick up the phone and talk, or have an impromptu coffee with someone.

I probably drink too much coffee.  But I don’t think you can ever underestimate what you learn and the impactful relationships you build over a cup.

Photo by karl chor on Unsplash

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