Nic Adamson: Good leadership should be based on humility, connection and curiosity

Nic Adamson, executive director of Change, Grow, Live, discusses leadership and the pandemic with senior writer, Melissa Moody.


Melissa: How has Change Grow Live changed as an organisation and in the way it operates post-pandemic?

Nic: That’s a big question! First off, I think we’re still working out what we learned and what we should hold on to in terms of operational changes we made ‘during’ the pandemic. What does remote and flexible working mean for the people who use our services? How can we protect our staff’s wellbeing? And so on and so on… And with over 6,000 staff and volunteers spread across the UK that’s a big task.

I like to think that the organisation has become more compassionate and more connected. I see signs that we’re listening more and communicating more effectively. And I see everyone in our services giving everything they’ve got. But there’s nothing new there…

My main response to this question is we need a reality check: we’re not through this thing yet, so let’s not think or act as if it’s over.

Melissa: What do you think makes a good charity leader? How might this differ from other sectors?

Nic: All organisations are different, but I do believe some things are universal. We all want to be treated decently by the people we work with and feel valued for the work we do. So, for me, good leadership has to be based on humility, connection and curiosity, regardless of what kind or organisation you are leading.

The other thing I’d say is that good leaders recognise the talent and knowledge that exists within their people and try to keep everyone focused on their organisation’s reason for being. In the charity sector this means never forgetting that we only exist to serve the people who use our services. It’s so easy to lose sight of this, so every decision we make, , has to be checked against one fundamental question – will this help make more of a difference? If not, why are we doing it?

Melissa: I saw that you started out in the sector as a volunteer, how do you think this affected your career and leadership style? Do you think it was a valuable thing to do since you have gone to work in the sector?

Nic: I never set out with the ambition of being a leader. Volunteering inspired me and confirmed that this was what I wanted to do for a living, and I’ve been privileged to work alongside some amazing people and to have some great opportunities. But I am very aware that, as I move further and further away from the front line, it’s easy to forget what it’s really like for the people who work in and use our services. That’s why valuing the insights and expertise of people with lived experience is front and centre of my leadership style, and I work hard to keep focused on what matters to them.

Melissa: How do you think leadership has changed during and after the pandemic?

Nic: At the start of the pandemic, we solved some wicked problems in record time. We took the decision early on to work in a way where we trusted our people to do the best they could - our motto was ‘do what you can’. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed us the value of trust.

For Change Grow Live, leadership is now a team effort. It’s about knowing when others can do a better job than you and being comfortable about that. This sounds sensible, but it amazes me how hard it can be, especially when the pressure’s on.

In those early, terrifying days, and then as we started to adjust to the pandemic, we doubled down on that idea of collective leadership, using each other’s strengths, and keeping each other going. So for me, the crisis accelerated this shift away from a more individualistic style and proved to us all how strong we can be when we work and lead together.

Melissa: From your perspective, what do you think are the biggest challenges for charities to focus on in 2022? How might they overcome this?

Nic: A crisis of the scale we faced in March 2020 forces you to pull on energy reserves you didn’t know you had. But that time is over now, and my sense is that people everywhere are tired, so we’ve got to keep an eye on exhaustion and burn out. This is even more important in charities because people who choose to work in this sector do so because they care passionately about the cause. This is great, but it’s easily abused, and we have to remember that to achieve our mission we have to look after our people as well as we look after our beneficiaries.

The charity sector will continue to face financial, operational and people challenges along with everyone else, and we will all have to be adaptable, flexible, and responsive. Most importantly, we must stay focused on why we exist, what really matters, and not bite off more than we can chew.

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