Simon Gillespie: Leading out of a crisis needs new approaches – but it’s not too late

The leadership challenges presented by the pandemic have been an ordeal by fire, but there are lessons to be learned for the future.

There are many definitions of ‘crisis’ but simply put, it is a time of intense and immediate difficulty or danger with potentially very severe consequences. The last few years have been characterised by uncertainty with, viewed from 2019, the prospect of more to come.

For some charities, a pandemic might have featured on the risk register at the end of 2019: if recognised, it was probably consigned to the part of the grid that was ‘very severe consequences’ and ‘very low probability’, or, as we like to call it, the ‘big, scary and difficult’ box. The risk of paper cuts filling the printers – painful and potentially messy – were probably easier to conceptualise.

Many were grappling with the risks of, for example, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, limitations on funding, increasing demand for services and incomes challenged if not reducing.

So, taking a long-term and broad approach to dealing with urgent, short-term and potentially overwhelming problems and issues is possibly counter-intuitive. But it is a vital leadership role. No single charity is out of the woods with the Covid-19 crisis yet – indeed we don’t really know how big or thick the woods are.

But the charities that seem to be dealing best are those which had previously looked at the organisation’s future through the strategic lens of the outcomes and impact that they were aiming for, rather than the detailed means of achieving them through, for example, ‘targets’ or particular activities.

This strategic approach focusing on outcomes and impact drives resilience, adaptability, innovation, initiative and collaboration, which better equip organisations and people to survive and thrive in challenging times and crises.

There are three other defining features that unite the organisations that are coping better:

• Clear, unambiguous, accessible and relevant communications. In a crisis, silence is not golden. It is the fertile breeding ground of ‘fake news’, uncertainty and rumour. So regular, open multi- way communications is key.

• Modernised working practices to better utilise technology to improve efficiency and enhance effectiveness.

• High levels of trust in the organisation – shared by staff, beneficiaries, volunteers, donors, commentators and opinion formers – that enable teamwork and collaboration to be maintained, transformed and built.

But whatever the organisation’s starting point, dealing with a crisis and leading out of it needs new approaches, and it’s probably not too late to adopt them.

In my view, crises are an opportunities to use the skills and commitment of people in all parts of the organisation in different ways, to engage people from across the organisation in decision-making and build something for the future - something that focuses on the best outcomes for stakeholders, and in particular beneficiaries. Doing so helps deal with people’s natural uncertainties and fears of the unknown, and assists building and sustaining trust, hope and commitment based on what the organisation was set up to deliver.

Looking at the sector as a whole, rather than the internal operations of single charities, also reveals some issues that would be good to discuss. There are three other features of the sector at the start of the crisis that we need to deal with in the short-term and might be improved by this crucible of events, and all relate one way or another to the current size and complexity of the sector.

The first question is whether we have the right sizes and distribution of charities to best meet needs. The question of whether there are too many charities has been around for years. I’m not sure anyone really has an answer for the question or a process for answering it. But what the crisis has shown, in general terms, is that in attempting to deal with local and very individual issues, locally based charities have been really struggling: coordination has been difficult; funding has often been a nightmare.
Second, the sheer number of messages coming from so many different voices had created confused narratives.

The determination to be a loud voice in the national public space has often been characterised by competition rather than meaningful collaboration. Alongside this, whilst beginning to recover, reputational damage over the past decade from a number of issues has not put the sector in a good place to deal with government and others on the really big issues that the sector now faces.

Third, the strength of the sector in terms of expression of human desire to help those in need provides often competing views of the world and what is to be done. This dynamic is often seen as engendering innovation – competing models, if not competing organisations, are often seen as keeping everyone on their toes and thus helping deliver effectively and efficiently. I disagree. The legal structure of charities as isolated entities that can exist pretty much whatever they do as long as their objectives are charitable, and the nature of regulation that comes with that, does not help here.

We have put off taking a long hard look at sector effectiveness and efficiency, and are paying the price now – seeking to deal with a 21st century pandemic with a charity sector structured on the legal system of the late 16th and early 17th century.

Dealing with the crisis caused by the pandemic should not draw in all our attention. Before the short-term crisis, we also faced a longer-term crisis of confidence in the sector, huge difficulties in assessing the impact of work, systemic issues of exclusion from participation based on merit, poor environmental and other sustainability, and more besides.

With apologies to both animal welfare and environmental colleagues, when you are fighting off alligators, draining the swamp may not be high on your list of priorities – or may not be on the list at all. So from here on leadership, throughout the organisation – trustees and staff, entails ensuring the urgent short-term doesn’t dominate the important longer-term. It entails a fresh look at outcomes and impact, openness to the new, and sharing responsibility and accountability inside and outside the organisation.

A crisis like Covid-19 will change things, a #newnormal will emerge. It may, and probably will, look and feel very different to the old normal, but it’s an opportunity for the sector to reinvent and redefine itself.

Simon Gillespie is the former CEO of the British Heart Foundation

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