‘Perfection was never achievable’ – Two Charity CEOs on leading in uncertainty

We’ve heard from 23 leaders during our recent peer support sessions. Here, two of those leaders share reflections about what it is like to lead through this period of prolonged upheaval.

Introduction from IVAR

Leaders of small and medium voluntary organisations are facing a ‘perfect storm’. On the one hand, increasing demand for their services from people with increasingly complex needs. On the other hand, organisational capacity weakened through a combination of exhausted staff and unstable funding. Despite their extraordinary efforts to keep going since March 2020 – tirelessly and creatively serving the needs of their users and beneficiaries – the future is, for many, ‘unremittingly bleak’.

However, for some, the pandemic has created opportunities to experiment and innovate: trying out new approaches, learning new skills, forging new relationships: ‘there are parts of the “new normal” that we should actually hold onto’. But, for most, ‘the To Do list is long and daunting’. Blended working and delivery; longer-term funding; the health and wellbeing of staff and volunteers; the isolation and vulnerability of clients; and the spectre of further restrictions and even lockdowns: all of these challenges, and more, are weighing heavily on leaders’ minds: ‘I find it difficult to make hard and fast decisions that I will potentially have to backtrack on’.

How, then, are leaders responding? What are they finding useful? How are they retaining a sense of purpose and staying true to their innate optimism: ‘I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and I just want to be at the end of the tunnel’. And what can help them to ‘create certainty during uncertain times’?

What is it like to lead in uncertainty?

Jo Allen, Chief Executive Officer, The Counselling & Family Centre:

When the question came up about what it felt like to lead in these times of uncertainty, I scratched my head to think about how it has felt different during Covid. I realised that uncertainty isn’t new to leaders. Charities have always had to operate during times of great change and many things in our sector have never been certain, such as funding or demand for services. However, through periods of uncertainty come moments for positive innovation and growth which benefit our sector and the people we support.

As a leader, my eye is always on the next chance to do things differently or better, and there have been many opportunities that arose out of the pandemic. For example, during Covid we were able to provide remote counselling within two weeks, which seemed impossible to implement previously.

That’s not to say that leading during periods of uncertainty isn’t difficult. Nothing ever seems to stand still and it can be exhausting. In particular, I found the lack of recognition of our sector during the pandemic difficult. While nurses and teachers were rightly praised for their work over the last year, it was often forgotten that charities were still open and providing essential services too.

My message to VCSE leaders is that trying to find solutions during uncertainty is difficult but worth it for the improvements it can lead to. While uncertainty is a characteristic of our sector, managing uncertainty is a strength.

The Counselling & Family Centre is an organisation that aims to improve the mental health of children, young people and adults of all ages. We currently offer 1 to 1 counselling, facilitated support groups, courses for service users and training for counsellors and related professionals. We strive to ensure our support is easy to access, flexible and responsive to need. 

Mark Turnbull, Chief Executive Officer, Out There:

This blog is a reflection on what has worked for me over the last year whilst leading in a period of uncertainty.

I think the first thing that has become a core belief of mine during this time is that perfection was never achievable and it’s even less so in a period of unpredictability. I am a big fan now of the Japanese concept of the beauty of imperfection, wabi-sabi.

Secondly, in a seemingly endless list of things to do, I found asking myself what would really add value at a particular time to the charity and its beneficiaries. This has become an important way of prioritising actions that need taking.

Lastly, I tried not to allow caring for myself to go out the window. More than ever, I prioritised a pause to stop and take a breath, to allow myself to rest and replenish. As it turned out, this period has been a longer marathon than anyone imagined, and I think we can underestimate the impact of tiredness on our work and those around us.

Out There is a charity that offers support to families who are affected by the imprisonment of a family member. We provide emotional and practical support and an information service for families of prisoners in Greater Manchester.

Through our recent #LeadinginUncertainty peer support sessions, we heard from 23 leaders based around the UK: 

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