Joanna Thornton, a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice interviews Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, as part of our series on pioneering leadership, exploring the changes in leadership style and identifying what factors make an outstanding leader in today’s society.
Can you give an overview of your career path to date?
I have been exceptionally fortunate and have enjoyed a really varied career. My early working life included running outdoor leadership courses in Zimbabwe, before training to be a priest. Having spent nine years as a priest, I became Marketing Director at Christian Aid, before taking my first CEO role at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. I have been Chief Executive of The Children’s Society since 2012 and will become CEO of Marie Curie in February 2019.
How has your experience working outside of the not for profit sector shaped your leadership style? How have you needed to adapt it for the charity sector?
My personal view of leadership has been consistent across the sectors in which I have worked. For me, it is always a combination of purpose and people. I have always sought roles which contribute to a wider social purpose in some way. However, is important for all leaders, regardless of the sector in which they are working, to give a real sense of propose and clarity to organisations and teams about the true aims of the work being undertaken, so they can energise and mobilise people to achieve the best possible results. In the case of the charity sector it is really vital that staff are engaged and see themselves as a key part of the solution to a societal problem, ensuring that they genuinely buy into the charity’s vision and charitable objects. The sector is evolving and consequently we are all responding to a changing and challenging context. Leaders now need the confidence to lead in emergent and unclear spaces. Good leaders are able to show vulnerability as well as strength. They are open to new ideas and ways of doing things. I really feel that I am learning every day in my role as Chief Executive.
What has been your career-defining moment so far?
I am lucky enough to have had several career-defining moments where I have been able to feel I have made a real impact. However, good leaders should also reflect on what could be improved upon and learn from occasions in their career when they could have handled things differently. We all build our experiences into the tapestry of who we are as leaders. Key leadership attributes include courage and bravery which allow us to work in unchartered waters and find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
The Children’s Society is undergoing a period of change in its strategic direction. Tell us about the transformation underway in the organisation.
We have really challenged ourselves to think about how The Children’s Society can make the biggest difference to children and young people i.e. the strongest impact. The need to be able to look our donors and beneficiaries in the eye and be very clear that we play a unique role in responding to the challenges experienced by children and young people was at the very heart of our recent review of how we work. We gave serious thought to the fact that some of the services duplicated those offered by other charities. As a result, we decided to stop running our lowest impact services, namely early years children’s centres. We considered there to be a much greater need to work with teenagers facing multiple disadvantage. This is very complex work and The Children’s Society is playing a unique role in it. Exiting the vast majority of our public sector contracts has, of course, been a huge shift for the organisation. It has challenged the way our teams think about what we do and required new, entrepreneurial and disruptive ways of working. It has been a truly exciting period, but one that has required considered and confident leadership.
As CEO, what have you learned about working in partnership with the Board during a time of change?
We are fortunate to have a very strong Chair and Board of trustees who act as guardians of the charity and hold me to account in my role. We are respectful of the different roles of the leadership team and the Board, challenging each other appropriately, but have shared enterprise and purpose to achieve the very best we can for our beneficiaries. As a result, we have formed a strong collectively owned strategy which is bringing out the best in our staff. This has been very important during a period of change. At the core of partnership working is the relationship between CEO and Chair. We are respectful deeply of each other’s time, opinions and roles and the relationship has worked successfully as a result.
What is the single biggest challenge facing leaders in the not for profit sector in the next 5 years?
Leading and serving teams to keep focused on their societal purpose and impact and have workable plans that work to the future rather than just iterating from the past. Deciding on how to balance achieving a social purpose with running a large organisation is another key consideration. We should constantly be questioning ourselves as leaders and challenging ourselves to be more effective leaders. Are charities being run as an end in themselves, or are we everyday genuinely building the future and achieving a real social purpose through partnership and collaboration?
How do you think that leadership will need to change in the next 10 years and what do we need to do to grow these new leaders in the sector?
The challenges faced by the not for profit sector will increasing become more complicated and the boundaries between the public, private and charity sectors will be increasingly blurred. Leaders will need to be considered and deliberate in their leadership, developing their own leadership effectiveness, the effectiveness of other leaders in their organisations, and the ability of their organisations to be a thought leader in the wider society.
To do this leaders will need to obsess about impact and be better at helping organisations and teams reimagine how to best achieve their societal aims in rapidly changing times. They will need to inclusion and embrace diversity and unlock the talent in their charities to make this happen. What has got us to where we are as charities and leaders is rarely enough to get us to where we need to be; we need to discover and practice fresh skills, a fresh language for leadership and service, and support colleagues to discover the skills to work in an agile and flexible way, leading teams to navigate through and thrive in emerging realities.
Leaders will be increasingly required to be confident at taking calculated risks, and ‘holding’ organisations as they pivot into new realties and ways of working. This may involve, as it has at The Children’s Society, disrupting the inherited business model and ways of working to better maximise efficacy. Servant leadership, a style of leading which can enrich the lives of individuals and build better organisations, creating a more just and caring world, will be increasingly important in the not for profit sector.
Current Chief Executives have a responsibility to actively support people into leadership roles and nurture new talent. I enjoy and value mentoring young leaders in the sector and consider it an important part of my role as an experienced CEO.