Three hard truths for public and third sector leaders

You have to let it all go: fear, doubt, disbelief. Free your mind.

19 January 2016


For the last couple of years I’ve been immersed in the world of charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. I’ve met hundreds of amazing people doing all sorts of things to make the world a better place. And I’ve had plenty of time to think about what we’re doing well, and how we could do things better.

One of the things I’m asked about most often is what the digital revolution means for people in leadership roles. You all know the headline answer: it’s not ok not to understand the internet anymore.

But that’s just the beginning. In this post I thought I’d jot down a few of the other themes that seem to come up time and again when I talk to people about leading and modernising a larger not-for-profit or public sector organisation in today’s connected world.

To be clear: there are plenty of folk out there doing these things well (and plenty in the private sector who need a wake-up call too). But on my travels I still see far too many public and third sector leaders for whom a short, sharp reality check is long overdue.

1. It’s OK to copy what works, even from the private sector

A social mission and a professional culture needn’t be mutually exclusive! Competency frameworks, SMART objectives, 360° feedback and constructive appraisals are all still important. Tools and frameworks to structure work, manage performance, collaborate with stakeholders and learn lessons from past experience all exist and should be borrowed from the business world, not reinvented or ignored. You still need to invest time and effort in rigorous development plans and top-quality training for your people. And high pay for senior staff is OK, provided they make a positive difference and role model the best your organisation can be (and aren’t just showing up to read the paper and shoot the breeze).

2. Your IT department alone isn’t enough

Every modern organisation needs IT, but IT won’t deliver your digital transformation. In the worst cases, letting IT throw money at technology solutions without stopping to think about culture and behavioural change is just a more expensive way to fail. If you want your organisation to thrive in the digital age they you need the full spectrum of digital professionals at your disposal. User experience researchers, content designers, delivery managers and performance analysts are all real roles, and they are not the same as setting up your broadband or fixing your PC. Seriously. For bonus points build up a strong in-house capability so you don’t end up with suppliers holding you to ransom.

3. Innovate or die

Rapid advances in technology, data and the internet are raising the bar for what’s good enough. If you see all this happening but think your organisation is immune to disruptive challenge just because its mission is not-for-profit then you are gravely, profoundly mistaken. Decline might be gradual or arrive overnight, but either way it’s coming for you. Stop agonising about sunk costs and vested interests, stop finding excuses to duck the difficult decisions, stop arguing about who will take the blame if things go wrong, and JFDI already. If you don’t then I guarantee that someone else will.