By Brian Chernett, Founder, The Academy For Chief Executives
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to define a Big Society Organisation as any body that isn’t a business (and thus geared to make a profit) and isn’t run by a public body. So that would include charities, voluntary agencies, social enterprises and community groups.
Most businesses and public sector bodies are still organised around a sort of command and control structure. It may be more ‘request and review’ in some cases, but the leadership structure is most often easy to determine. At least, the official leadership structure though the unofficial structure may be very different. Big Society, on the other hand, needs 'outstanding' leadership just because those structures are less obvious and it is much more necessary to convince rather than command. Respect and ‘followership’ must be earned and there is a need to inspire, to deliver and to be accountable.
Leadership is even more necessary in the Big Society now, in the wake of massive cuts in funding. Many bodies now require creative leadership, the ability to do more with less and to make better use of charitable giving and time donations, for example by making much better use of retired people with experience to share and time in which to do it.
The Big Society is now bidding for and running contracts for government, for agencies and for communities. They are meeting sometimes critical requirements alongside funded services providing critical services like air ambulances, lifeboat services and mountain rescue. With such contracts come regulation and inspection, needing good compliance procedures and clear leadership.
The Government have seemed at times to suggest that because people are volunteering, that is all that is needed. Just because the time is given voluntarily, doesn't mean that time can be wasted or that processes can be improvised.
Running a Big Society body is no different from leadership in commercial organisations – it is about people and processes. There is a need to focus and direct their efforts towards the aims of the organisation. Having too many leaders can result in slow or no progress and is a recipe for disaster. Charity funding cuts are, in reality, meaning that some charities are capable of coping with less volunteering not more.
Leadership, as it does in business, comes only partly from the top. It is needed at all levels, is situational and the person with the right skills and knowledge is, or should be the leader.
What are the issues with managing volunteers? The first is the most obvious. People are giving their time and therefore can be less amenable to direction, choosing to withdraw their services just as quickly as they were offered, especially if poorly led.
The skill levels of volunteers can be variable and inconsistent and the roles taken sometimes don’t match up to past experience, resulting in leaders having less skill and experience than the people they lead.
Leadership development and training is still needed whilst finding the time and money to do it might be an issue. As in business generally, overlooking the need to develop and train people can be a big mistake.
The image of a Big Society body is as important as for any other business. It is important to ensure that volunteers do not damage your reputation or create a legal liability. This is especially critical where delivery is made under pressure. Leaders in Big Society bodies, whether paid staff or volunteers, have to accept liability for the activities they and their teams undertake. There is no less responsibility for areas like Health and Public Safety, employment and unfair dismissal and financial probity.
Big Society is likely to grow as more responsibility is placed on bodies in the Big Society to deliver important services. It is not just a matter of taking on more volunteers who want to do some good. Leadership makes it possible for the best possible outcomes to be achieved effectively. As I said earlier in this article, Big Society needs 'outstanding' leadership. Where will it come from?
Brian Chernett is the founder of The Academy for Chief Executives and Chairman of Academy Group ACE2. Having stepped down as Chief Executive of the Academy, Brian is now developing his own coaching and mentoring business — Wisdom Forums - for senior executives and building a new charity, The Ella Foundation, to coach and mentor Chief Executives in Charities and not for profit business.
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