In the Spotlight: Howard Sinclair, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s

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Continuing her series of one to one discussions, Joanna Thornton, a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice, interviews Howard Sinclair, Chief Executive of St. Mungo’s, a charity at the forefront of tackling homelessness. Here she asks Howard about his route to the top, relationships with the board and the challenges facing the sector.

Please give an overview of your career path to date

I did not set out with a set career path in mind, beyond being motivated by working with vulnerable people. I started my career working in care roles in the social care and health sectors, working with older people and people with disabilities. My very first job at the age of 17 was as a Nursing Assistant in a Psychiatric hospital. I eventually progressed into management roles and the moved to North Wales as Development Director for Clwyd Social Services, before becoming Director of Mencap Cymru. I returned to London in 2002 as Chief Executive of Broadway, which merged with St Mungo’s in 2014 and I have been Chief Executive of St Mungo’s since the merger.


What has been your career-defining moment to date?

In an early role as a project worker Camberwell Health Authority, I worked with a wonderful training officer, who suggested I take a masters degree in applied psychology, which I studied for at the age of 26. This was an important moment for me. Through my studies, I realised that what I was doing at work was more than just a job to me and that I was genuinely motivated by and interested in the cause and issues. I gained so much from the master’s course because it not only changed my thinking about my own role, but also on a practical level it gave me skills that allowed me to progress into management positions which set my career off on a different track.  It was a defining moment in my thinking and learning which has underpinned my work since.

What do you consider to be the specific nuances of leading a charity like St Mungo’s?

Charities and their leaders are judged by a range of measures – not just financial. Leaders must get people, finances, governance, marketing and legal matters right. We are judged by our ability to run a successful business, yet also always need to be mindful of our values. There are increasing expectations of all leaders in the sector and a higher level of scrutiny.

In addition to the factors above which all charities are facing, homelessness has become high on the political agenda in recent years.  During Teresa May’s final Prime Minister’s Questions, 2 of the questions that Jeremy Corbyn posed to her related to rough sleeping. Homelessness has increased and as a result it is an increasingly high-profile issue that requires leaders in the sector who can challenge the status quo and build awareness.


As Chief Executive, what have you learned about working in partnership with the Board?

This is essential. Chief Executives must invest time in the relationship with their Chair and trustees. The Chair is an invaluable source of support and challenge. People often do not invest enough time in good governance and building strong relationships. You simply cannot operate on a basis where you do not invest time in the Board for 18 months and then come to them to ask them to make a difficult decision; the relationship needs to be invested in on an ongoing basis. The other thing I have often reflected on is charities belong to their Boards – the trustees are responsible for the organisation on a legal and moral basis. Chief Executives are there because the Board has asked them to be. Although occasionally Chief Executives will need to challenge the Board’s thinking, or say no, it is important to remember that the Board is responsible for the organisation and the buck stops with them. The role of a Chair or trustee is hard in today’s climate. I have so much respect for trustees. They have a huge amount of responsibility and we must never forget that they are offering their time on a voluntary basis. I am very fortunate that I have worked with several exceptional Chairs during my time as a Chief Executive.


What is the single biggest challenge facing leaders in the sector today?

The analogy I use for my job is that of a Rubik’s cube. If one square is out of line, then everything can derail however much you try to convince yourself all is well. And of course, whenever you do finally solve the Rubik's cube and put it down, someone sneaks up and messes it up without you noticing! Finances, systems, people, safeguarding, marketing, governance and a variety of other factors all need to be in coherent alignment for an organisation to be well-run and effective. Charities are complex organisations which require leaders who can spin many plates at once.


How do you think leadership needs to change in the sector over the next 10 years?

It is hard to answer this question for the sector as a whole, as it is so varied. However, when I consider larger charities I think there has been a growing tendency to think that candidates from the private sector have all the answers or that industry or the city knows best and I’d like to see this change. In my view a genuine commitment to the cause and the values of the organisation should not be underestimated.  Encouraging people who have started out in service delivery to work their way up is important. You can send people on leadership courses and ensure people understand how charities operate on an intellectual basis but you can’t teach a genuine passion for the cause and for helping vulnerable people.  The profile of Boards of trustees and indeed leadership teams is not diverse enough and there is a risk that people recruit in their own image. Diversity is a key consideration when talking about the future of leadership in the sector.


How can we grow the next generation of leaders in the not for profit sector?

We must grow the next generation ourselves rather than assuming we should parachute people in from the private sector. At St Mungo’s we invest heavily in management training and leadership development. We have excellent people who are good at what they do and are utterly committed to our charitable aims. The reality is that we cannot pay our staff anything close to what they might be paid in the private sector and therefore we need to offer our talented staff genuine opportunities for progression. Developing staff from all levels of the organisation also ensures we are growing a pipeline of diverse talent for the future.