In the Spotlight: James Blake, Chief Executive of YHA

Joanna Thornton, a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice interviews James Blake, Chief Executive of YHA, 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 studied geography at university before going on to do a PHD. My early work was therefore in academia, lecturing, teaching and in applied research on sustainable development and environmental policy. I then joined the DoE, working on regeneration and social policy and neighbourhood renewal. I went on to do a big piece of work leading on local government strategy on behalf of national Government, includingnegotiating agreements around service delivery.  I then became Chief Policy and Partnerships Officer at St Albans City and District Council, initially on secondment and then as a permanent member of the leadership team.  This was an excellent opportunity to put policy-making into practice. During my 9 years at St Albans I became Deputy Chief Executive and then Chief Executive.

I had been a trustee of YHA for many years and knew the organisation well. When the Chief Executive role came up I saw it as a great opportunity to build on the good work undertaken in recent years and help put a large national charity back on the map, leading an organisation with which I have a strong personal connection.

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?

I have applied the key elements of leadership consistently throughout the sectors I have worked within: setting the direction of travel and vision for the organisation; engaging and motivating teams; and agreeing expectations about values and behaviours. There are, however, subtle differences between the sectors which it has been important to be sensitive to. Local Government colleagues have tended to be particularly strong on process and procedure and often skilled at navigating the complexities of working in a political environment, but sometimes less used to making judgements about commercial realities.  There can sometimes be a less obvious passion for a cause than there is in the not for profit sector, although many people in the sector are undoubtedly committed to delivering public services.  Colleagues in the Not for Profit sector have generally impressed me with their huge commitment to the cause.  This passion can occasionally result in a tendency to see issues in black and white, when tactical judgements are needed and the ability to work in shades of grey is useful.

What has been your career-defining moment so far?

I was very proud to have been instrumental in getting Local Area Agreements agreed across every local council in the country and Central Government.  This was a complex piece of negotiation that led to a new relationship between Central and Local Government.  Significant influencing skills were needed, and this helped to set the scene for future initiatives such as Total Place. 

At St Albans Council, I led the process of developing a new museum and gallery in an iconic building in the heart of St Albans.  This is a very visible legacy in a local place and one I am immensely proud of.

YHA is undergoing a period of change in its strategic direction.  Tell me more about that?

When I arrived as YHA’s new Chief Executive, the organisation was the most successful it had been in a generation, thanks to the hard work of my predecessor and members of the senior team.  The organisation had gone through a successful period of modernisation, making it commercially viable and fit for purpose.  My sense was that YHA’s reach and profile were not in line with its size and status as the 9th largest national charity in the UK.  We are therefore embracing a significant opportunity to expand our influence by sharpening our vision, which is to be a leading young people’s charity, focusing on how residentials with YHA can improve physical and mental health and wellbeing and life skills.

As CEO, what have you learned about working in partnership with the Board during a time of change?

When I joined YHA I spoke to every Board member individually for an hour, so that I could really understand their priorities. This was an exceptionally useful piece of engagement as it was clear that it was felt across the board that a process of clarification was needed to really define the organisation’s charitable mission and strategy. I took a paper to the Board which set out how YHA could sharpen its charitable focus and then when this was agreed we appointed a senior Board member to lead the charitable focus work on behalf of the Board.  In a nutshell, taking time to engage effectively, accountability and transparency are all vitally important during a period of change.

What is the single biggest challenge facing leaders in the not for profit sector in the next 5 years?

Recent negative headlines show that reputation is incredibly important. We can no longer expect people to assume we are good because of what we do or where we work.  Accountability and transparency are undoubtedly good things. However, to encourage talent into the sector and to ensure people are comfortable with measured risk taking and entrepreneurialism, it is essential that leaders can avoid driving risk averse behaviours.   It will therefore be important that leaders can demand high standards of conduct and behaviour, while allowing people to learn from mistakes.

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?

Over the next ten years, the differences and barriers between the sectors will become ever-smaller.  There will be greater opportunities to work in partnership across sectors. The skills needed to be successful in charities are becoming more like those needed elsewhere. There will need to be more frequent examples of leadership talent moving between sectors, and application of leadership skills across different contexts. When encouraging leaders of the future, it will be vital to ensure that middle managers have more frequent opportunities to work with Boards and that succession planning is carefully managed.

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