This is the fourth and final part of our series from 2017 Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary winner Steve Brooks, National Director of Sustrans Cymru. Here he rounds up what he’s learnt thanks to the bursary, and what helped him on his journey.
‘You guys look busy, I see you’re recruiting again’.
It was a throw away comment, said to me last month by a director in the rail industry, but it’s stuck with me. It was a signal that Sustrans is heading in the right direction.
Like most charities, Sustrans has had to refocus and restructure, in large part because of austerity. European and lottery funding had enabled Sustrans Cymru to expand pedestrian and cycling facilities across Wales for a number of years. I’m proud of our work on schemes like Pont y Ddraig in Rhyl, Pont y Werin between Cardiff and Penarth, and the Valleys Cycle Network. There was still much work to be done, but a worsening economy and a more challenging funding environment forced Sustrans Cymru to change the way it worked…
I joined Sustrans Cymru as National Director in October 2016. The organisation had been forced to reduce in size, and whilst operations were still financially viable and delivering a social benefit, there was a mood amongst some that our best days were behind us, not ahead of us. My plan for my first 12 months focused on three priorities:
- Organisational mindset – shifting the charity’s thinking from nostalgia to opportunity
- Raising our external profile and influence
All three are interdependent, but central in my mind to the idea of ‘entrepreneurial leadership’ – the approach the Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary seeks to foster.
‘Authentic leadership isn’t about you being you, regardless of anyone else. It’s about you being the you other people around you need you to be…’
For me, entrepreneurial leadership is just as much a way of working as it is a type of individual. It’s about identifying a need for change and coming up with a workable solution that’s financially viable (and crucially for social-entrepreneurs) delivers a benefit beyond profit.
I did two things with the bursary. I used the funding to enroll at Oxford University’s Global Challenges in Transport programme and spent time on the Copenhagenize Design Company’s Master Class. This gave me a theoretical and practical look at how we can enable people to choose more sustainable means of traveling from A to B, both of which I’ve discussed in my previous blogs.
But the bursary was also a catalyst to undertake some extra-curricular work on leadership. I think the old cliché ‘it’s important to spend time on your business as well as in your business’ rings true, and the bursary allowed me to do just that.
‘Understand the difference between what you need to know, and what you don’t need to know. There are no shortcuts to acquiring knowledge…’
Three books influenced my thinking, two of which were re-reads. ‘You’re in Charge, now what’ by Neff & Citrin provides an excellent ‘how to’ on strategic leadership; and Alistair Campbell’s ‘Winners: And how they succeed’ unpacks strategy, leadership, teamship and the winning mindset. WCVA chair Peter Davies introduced me to ‘How to Change the World, the essential guide for social sector leaders’ by Craig Dearden-Phillips which features interviews with charity and social enterprise leaders.
Laura McAllister’s keynote speech at the WCVA AGM in 2017 also resonated with me strongly, especially her call for leaders in Wales to be less timid. And Sue Essex, former minister in Rhodri Morgan’s government, shared her insights with me at an event I hosted earlier in the year with Capital Law called ‘Heads Up’.
Whilst there’s a million ways to cut this cake, for me it boils down to the following 11 lessons:
- Have a vision and tell a story. Paint a vision of the future. Define it; own it; repeat it, endlessly. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and it probably won’t be the story you want told.
- Have a personal master plan. This is not your organisational strategy. It’s not even your personal objectives. It’s an articulation of your long-term agenda. What you want to achieve in your role. Nobody starts a job talking about when they’re going to leave, but leaders have limited time. Appreciate how long you have, know what you want to do, and when its mission accomplished and time to hand over to someone else.
- Live your leadership style. An alcohol dependency charity wouldn’t host a party conference drinks reception to talk about minimum alcohol pricing, because it obviously undermines their mission. Your behaviours as a leader should be consistent with your personal master plan. Want to lead a charity that places beneficiary involvement at the heart of its work? Don’t be an autocrat with a closed office door. Authentic leadership isn’t about you being you, regardless of anyone else. It’s about you being the you other people around you need you to be. Be prepared to change and work outside of your comfort zone. Lead by example.
- Create space to think. It’s not a luxury – it’s essential. The charity leader who humble-brags ‘I’m too busy’ isn’t doing their job properly. It’s your responsibility to see other perspectives, talk to your beneficiaries, ask questions, challenge assumptions, interrogate evidence, really understand your funders, think about the future. Advisory boards and trustees can support and challenge you – but that’s no substitute for creating your own space to think.
- Invite challenge – a lesson from Rhodri Morgan. Actively encourage those around you to challenge you. The former first minister purposely sought out people who would challenge him, debate him, argue with him. It expands your thinking and sharpens your argument. Understand that previously staff may not have been encouraged to do this, so support people to challenge you.
- Collaborate. But, do it well. A coffee and a catch-up with another charity whose mission loosely overlaps yours is not collaboration. Take the lead and find people you want to collaborate with. Having defined your vision, ask yourself who do you need to help you deliver it? Who shares your vision? Find them, work with them, but respect them – don’t use them. You should still buy them coffee
- Build your team and treat people with respect. Don’t engage in turf-wars, or office politics. Don’t make things personal. Nurture your team and the people you want to work with. Build them up. Support them. Spend time with them. Recognize you need talented people and buy-in from those you are leading. But understand that it is your responsibility to deal with people who can’t or won’t do the job. Suck it up – that’s why we’re paid more.
- Read. And read more. And then read some more. A notepad full of ideas is better than an inbox empty of emails. At Oxfam, the executive directors had a study week together each year. Understand the difference between what you need to know, and what you don’t need to know. There are no shortcuts to acquiring knowledge.
- Understand your context. Think about your external, operating environment. Think about threats and opportunities. Analyze. You can’t predict your organisation’s future, but you can plan for it.
- Never take anything for granted. If your charity has an advocacy or campaign mission, never assume that you have won. Consistently reinforce your position whilst at the same time, push the agenda further forward. Consolidate and progress.
- Never ignore the nuts and bolts. Spend time at the right level (vision, strategy, team, profile, innovation) and don’t get sucked into the mundane. But never, ever neglect compliance and day to day delivery. It is the small things going wrong that people notice and can bite you. If you’re a leader and not a manager, have good managers around you.