Secret CEO: "Being a charity CEO is lonely"

As part of a new series, a secret charity CEO documents some of their issues relating to charity leadership. In this piece a CEO documennts their own struggles in the role.

I am in, right now, a cycle of failure. I keep having bright ideas to grow the charity and they keep failing miserably. I keep thinking "this is the magic bullet that will let us finally break through" and it keeps failing. Funders shake their heads (they don't: they sit on an application for four months and then send a generic no), new websites fizzle out, promising contacts go quiet and a year later I am right back where I started.

I need a win. I need something to come off. I need to feel like I'm doing more than signing off expense claims and listening to trustees.

I'm told: "Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm" (it's not Churchill, but often attributed to both him and Lincoln), but the problem is that I *am* losing enthusiasm, and I'm caught in a vicious cycle of expecting to fail. Sooner or later the staff have to notice that everything I'm trying is turning to ashes.

I feel like a football manager on a bad run of form. Sooner or later the chair of the board has to invite you in for a 'quiet chat about your future'.

Of course, now the thought of being removed means there's a personal incentive to try harder, to gamble more on success. To risk a perfectly good business model on a quest for growth.

That's the important word. Gamble. I've invested my own pride in the future of this charity and I want to see a return on my investment.

Deep breath.

This is where we step back. The problem isn't failure. The problem is that it's all on me. The problem is that I haven't been open.

I need to talk to my team. I need to say: "This year I want to double the number of people we help. These are the ways we can do it. A lot of them will fail, but sooner or later something is going to work". I need to do all of the basic things like making sure everybody buys in; showing a clear vision; and having honest discussions with staff about how we get there and what we are going to do when we get then. I need to do that because then it's going to be "we need a win", "we are trying lots of new things", and "we're going to keep going until something works".

It turns out that every problem I have in this job turns out to be the result of withholding. The root of a lot of my problems turns out to be "I didn't want to admit X to myself", the root of a lot more turn out to be "I was embarrassed to tell X about Y". All my stress and fear comes from some small lie and the best way of dealing with it always turns out to be finding out what the lie is and confessing it.

Being a charity CEO is lonely. I'm the pinch in the hourclass between staff below and trustees on top. That loneliness gets worse when I don't share my authentic self. In this job I've had to learn how to read a balance sheet, work Wordpress, talk to funders, manage staff, and a dozen other things, but the most important skill that I've had to develop is this: being honest with myself.

If you want to submit a secret CEO (or other role) piece, or talk about anything mentioned in this piece please email

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