Six tips to becoming a charity CEO

Sarah Gosling is an experienced charity chief executive and trustee.

Through her four years as CEO at Reach Volunteering Sarah developed a deep understanding of the skills and contribution of volunteers.  Six years at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union saw Sarah lead the creation of the Union’s first strategy in in a complex membership and student-led charity.  Recently

Sarah facilitated our first Aspiring CEO event as part of the Peridot Leadership Network.

In this special guest blog, she discusses what it takes to become a new CEO and how our aspiring CEO event helped.

Recipe for Building Charity Success – the experimental method

Ingredients:

  • 21 aspiring CEOs
  • 4 experienced CEOs
  • Slightly nervous facilitator
  • 3 passionate third sector recruiters
  • 1 large airy space with lots of tea, coffee, water and cake.

Method:

  1. Separate aspiring CEOs into small tables and let them mix gently
  2. Put aside discussions periodically and whip in four experienced CEOs, one at a time, until slightly frothing
  3. Add a new yeast-like tool to help aspiring CEOs rise well
  4. Rest group for 20 minutes while two experienced CEOs knead the mind vigorously
  5. Place in an incubator for a week, add more ideas and a few more flavours
  6. Incubate for another week and add a passionate recruiter
  7. Taste every 4-6 weeks and see how the flavour develops.

It is no secret I love cake.  When I left UoNSU where I had been chief executive for 6½ years we celebrated with cake and I was given a huge cake, HUGE. So reflecting on the first aspiring CEO event, where of course we had cake, this analogy of baking popped into my mind.

It was a leadership event with a difference.  21 experienced leaders considering the potential of that top leadership position in a charity.  Add in four experienced CEOs sharing their tips and experiences – and at times frankly whipping the room up with a radical new ingredient!

So after tasting and stirring for an afternoon what have we actually taken away from the first of Peridot’s Aspiring CEO events?  I’ve picked my top six flavours of the afternoon.

How to become a CEO - tip 1

Don’t Give Up

Not as odd a place to start as it might sound.  Whether it is the desire to be a Charity CEO, a seemingly insoluble challenge, a piece of negative feedback that eats away, if you have a vision and what you are doing is creating change for good, don’t give up.

How to become a CEO - tip 2

We all have imposter syndrome

There’s no school for CEOs, no course to qualify you as a charity CEO as you have for a barrister or an accountant or even an equity-card holding actor.

So many people in the room mentioned the sense of being an imposter, including the experienced CEOs that we realised this sense of being unprepared is within us and those around us quite rightly see our capability and competence not the lack of a driving licence for charity leadership.

Prepare – prepare well – prepare really really well and leave that strange taste of imposter syndrome out of the equation.

How to become a CEO - tip 3

You will be a facilitator of change

However you or the organisation see things, you will be a new flavour and under your leadership the charity will change.  How do you plan for change, prepare others for change, track that the change creates the right impact?

In short, how do you lead change?  Exploring the ADKAR model is a great way to think about change and recognise that 100 people can be in precisely 100 different places if we don’t spend some time planning and supporting people to take on change.

How to become a CEO - tip 4

Your first 100 days starts now

Before you even get that CEO role, prepare.  It’s very easy to run out of time once you get offered a role so plan now.  If finances aren’t your natural strong suit, gen up on managing charity finance.  If digital media is what you ask your kids about, learn about how digital transforms charities now.  Read everything about running a charity on the Charity Commission website – there’s a lot and it is generally very accessible.  And read a book like The First 90 Days – which absolutely changed how I approached my second CEO role.  Without it I suspect my tenure would have been 6½ months not 6½ years!

How to become a CEO - tip 5

Become a trustee

If you want to lead a charity, then you’ll be working with a trustee board – the hidden influence on positive charity health.  They are an incredible resource and can add greatly to the impact of your charity’s work, equally can be highly disruptive to your carefully planned recipe.

If you’ve never been a trustee this is a must for an aspiring CEO or senior charity leader so look for a role that inspires you and start a trusteeship..  And if you are a trustee, think about relevance in the size and goals of the charity you support, consider how you can deepen your understanding of its purpose, its impact and how the Board sets the tone and culture through its leadership.

How to become a CEO - tip 6

Don’t forget your Why?

Why do you do what you do?  What lifts you, inspires you, makes you thrive?  Connecting with your why, or losing sight of why you got started with this exciting new career opportunity, can be the difference between malt vinegar, malted milk and a perfectly matured single malt whisky.

Choosing your CEO Ingredients

I’ve shared my favourite ingredients from the first Aspiring CEOs event, which one caught your attention most?

Commit to one action now to help you be ready to be a charity CEO –read the book, explore trusteeship, sign up to the Peridot Partners Leadership Network, read up on ADKAR, have a longer look at your ‘Why’, talk to someone deeply about who you want to be as a leader.

Whatever it is, take one step this week.