How to change the world: Expert advice for co-op leaders

Craig Dearden-Phillips looks at social leadership models and suggests ways to make them more effective

This article is based on the book ‘How to Change the World: The essential guide for social sector leaders’, published by Craig Dearden-Phillips. He is the author of three books on social sector leadership and is a visiting lecturer at London Cass Business School. The book is on sale here.

What is the secret sauce to be a social leader?

Everyone I have met who is a leader in the social sector starts out believing they can change the world. But they often find that making a clear, measurable difference isn’t easy. Few, by mid-career, are achieving quite as much impact as they anticipated. Some leaders settle for that and focus on having a decent career.

Others don’t sit back. Instead, they look to take their effectiveness as a social sector leader to another level. But where to go for help? One sees lots of ‘Secrets of Success’ books by business gurus and entrepreneurs about being a business success. Very little exists for the social sector that explores what makes for greater success. And vanishingly little brings the wisdom of our top social sector leaders to the fore.

Social sector leadership is about making the biggest possible impact on the totality of the problem you seek to address. This isn’t necessarily about creating a big organisation. In truth, few social sector organisations achieve the breakthrough scale needed to solve an
entire problem.

Changing the world is just as often achieved by having your ideas and work carried forward by others, including governments. A big part of social sector leadership is knowing your ‘end-game’ – figuring just how your organisation can maximise its influence on problems you exist to solve.

How is leadership categorised?

The book features 27 personal profiles of leaders, who often defy easy categorisation. But, for the ease of navigation, throughout the book, the author has come up with definitions for ten different types of leadership.

Transformational Leadership introduces a group of leaders who have taken large organisations on a long-term journey of radical change, based on a new understanding of the world they are operating in and its needs.

Entrepreneurial Leadership highlights the role that three entrepreneurial leaders have played to grow the social mission of their organisations. Interestingly this includes setting up privately owned social ventures.

Digital Leadership focuses on the powerful ways in which a group of forward-thinking social sector leaders are harnessing the power of digital technology to take social impact to whole new levels, often without the need for an equivalent growth in resources.

Cultural Leadership groups people who have, in a variety of ways, challenged and changed the values, beliefs and behaviours of an organisation they have led, enabling their organisations to raise their social impact.

Team Leadership looks at the challenges for social sector leaders of building top quality teams who are capable of taking impact to the next level.

Turnaround Leadership brings together a group of leaders who have all led a rapid improvement in their organisations’ short-term fortunes, keeping the lights on and enabling them to successfully plan for the longer term.

Charismatic Leadership looks at the particular upsides and downsides of this approach to leadership in social sector organisations.

Funder Leadership gives us insight into the way progressive social sector leaders in the fields of grant-making and social finance are responding to a challenging financial environment.

Future Leadership asks what those who study key trends in our sector see as the key leadership challenges of the 2020s.

Your Leadership is a ‘workshop’ chapter designed to help you to locate where you are now on your personal leadership journey, the difference you seek to make going forward and how you’re doing to do this.

Top ten tips

So, what are the ‘Top Ten Tips’ from my book for social sector leaders seeking a bigger impact?

1. Lead from behind.

The most successful social sector leaders lead from behind as much as from the front. They lead organisations that people join by choice as much as financial necessity, be they staff or volunteers. So, outside of turnaround situations, leadership is more about engagement – convenor of the organisation rather than its commander.

Key behaviours: Talk to more people, in more depth. Listen more than you talk.

2. Build coalitions.

If they want to make things happen, leaders in the social sector have to build coalitions both inside and beyond the organisation. The authority invested in leadership in this sector is probably less than in the private sector, where the CEO is given more latitude. To get people on board, CEOs leading big transformation need to develop strong political skills.

Key behaviours: Plan who you need to deliver change. Think about what aspects will get each group on board.

3. Be authentic.

The most successful leaders are genuine people who stay human. It sounds simple, but we all know that the pressures in organisations often mean that leaders sometimes fail in this regard. Authenticity in social sector leadership isn’t the same thing as being liked. It’s about people knowing that you are authentic, stand for particular values and that you uphold them, come what may.

Key behaviours: Make clear what you believe. Prove this through your behaviour.

4. Be ambitious.

Leaders who are really changing the world are those with a vast ambition around the mission and how it can be grown. They create a sense of possibility beyond what is currently being achieved. Their skill is doing this without demeaning past achievement. And framing the future in a way that pays back to staff, volunteers and others, the organisation’s sense of its true purpose.

Key behaviours: Think big, encourage others to do the same. Frame ambition squarely in the language of mission.

5. Think impact.

First-order social sector leaders are making their organisations think hard about how to capture and communicate the difference they make (or not!). For many organisations – habituated to reporting activity not results – this is difficult.
But, if the world is to be changed, those leading it have to be clear on progress. The first step is tactfully making the challenge about the difference the organisation is making, in a way that people can cope with.

Key behaviours: Cold honesty, openness, comfort with laying down a challenge.

6. Create your culture.

Top social sector leaders understand that, for an organisation to make an impact, it has to have the right culture. When coming in new, social leaders often find a culture that’s getting in the way of progress. ‘Show me the Leader, Show me the Culture’ is a cliché, but one with some truth. While aspects of culture can remain immune to a leader’s influence, the best leaders waste no time setting out the attitudes and behaviour that they most value.

Key behaviours: Make people aware of your values and expectations of everyone. Repeat it often and model it yourself.

7. Get your team right.

Successful social sector leaders put great store by a top team which is capable, even when this means tough choices. They understand that this unit is the key to success or failure, the A Team. And that a B Team won’t change the world. Therefore, finding a top team where people trust and challenge each other, sharing in success or failure together, is essential to success.

Key behaviours: Set a high bar on senior colleagues. Look for alignment or core values, but also a diverse range of perspectives.

8. Coach, don’t manage.

The very best social sector leaders tend to act like coaches rather than bosses. In relation to the people around them, they see their primary task as drawing out the best. They know that micro-managing is a waste of time. They understand that needing to manage someone closely is a sure sign of a bigger problem. They also use their coaching skills to help people see when it’s time to go or take on a new role.

Key behaviours: Think of yourself as an enabler, not a manager. Allow people to manage their own detail.

9. Be visible.

The best social sector leaders are rarely found in their office. They understand that their key role is to be engaging with people both inside and beyond the organisation. Visibility is the hallmark of the successful, effective social sector CEO. This isn’t about ‘turning up’ to set-piece events, like a visiting dignitary. It’s about making yourself available to people to talk to, be questioned by. Or, if needs be, take criticism from.

Key behaviours: Get out of your ‘bubble’. Move around the organisation, putting yourself ‘on the line’, even if uncomfortable.

10. Look after yourself.

The most successful social sector leaders work hard, but they understand this is a long game. So, they tend to look after themselves. On a simple level, this is about time-out, the right diet, sleep and exercise. But, it’s also about professional development: creating a good network of peers, working with a coach, subjecting yourself to new learning. Such is the demand on the personality of a social sector leader, that good self-care is critical.

Key behaviours: Better ‘work-hygiene’, developing support beyond the organisation.

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