“Building Resilience Through Innovation” – Mind CEOs’ Conference Leads The Way

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The recent Local Mind Association CEO’s Conference set a great example of how federal organisations can respond to the new funding environment. This has huge leadership implications for CEOs and Boards.
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Earlier this month I was at the Local Mind Association CEOs’ Conference in Birmingham, co-facilitating workshops on “Strengthening the CEO-Board Relationship in Tough Times”.  I came away feeling very inspired by the conference. Paul Farmer, the CEO of Mind, used an impressively open style of chairing in the large plenary sessions, which fostered genuine dialogue with Local Mind Associations (LMAs). There was a convivial atmosphere because many CEOs know and respect each other, and are willing to share their knowledge and expertise.
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At the same time there was a sombre tone as delegates got down to business: I had some fascinating conversations about The Big Society and the new funding climate, and heard a few CEOs describe their experiences of winning big new contracts at the same time that funding was unexpectedly pulled on other major programmes of work, making complex demands on their leadership.
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The theme of the conference was “Building Resilience Through Innovation”, and the opening plenary – Critical Issues for the Coming Year – hammered home the tough external environment and the radical pressures that LMAs are facing. Emma Jones, Senior Policy Analyst at The Cabinet Office, gave a very clear presentation, elaborating the 3 pillars of  The Big Society:  Public Service Reform, Social Action, and Community Empowerment.
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Unfortunately it confirmed my concern that the model of social action and community empowerment  isn’t well suited to people with socially stigmatised and sometimes debilitating conditions like mental health problems. So it seems that the main lever for keeping mental health on the agenda will be via the third Big Society pillar of “Public Service Reform”. This means that the drive for mental health has to come via an organisational service delivery model, rather than via community action. This places a powerful burden of responsibility on networks like Mind to get it right, and to co-create innovative services with their users.
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Given this demanding context, it was excellent to see Mind and its LMAs squaring up to the challenge – recognising the importance of shaping the commissioning agenda, exploiting opportunities for new funding, and adapting to the new funding climate.  There is a sense of relationships shifting across the Mind federation: greater respect for what each party brings to the table; recognition of the need for both the national and the local perspectives; desire to forge tight working partnerships; and a growing interest in forming consortia to submit block tenders.
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All this heightens the challenges that will be familiar to federal structures: the need to protect the brand; the need to reconcile collaboration and competition between LMAs; and the need for clear accountability to ensure that each LMA pulls its weight.
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CEO-Trustee Relations Buckle Under Fire
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So what are the implications of all this change for CEO-Trustee relations? Back in our conference workshops, I conducted a straw poll and discovered that most participants rate their current CEO-Board relationships to be middling-to-good. There were only a few exceptions with lower scores, and some exceptional working relationships rated 10/10. Overall the scores were better than in straw polls that I’ve conducted in other workshops recently. (Though of course none of this is scientific!)
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Most of the workshop participants were very experienced senior people. They understand how CEOs, chairs and boards need to relate to each other. They are clear about the respective roles and relationships, and they manage to function effectively in role most of the time. However, in the workshops they explained how pressure and stress can knock everyone out of role – When anxiety kicks in, everything kicks off! This tallies with my research into executives who reached a crisis point in their working relations: When under fire, people lose their focus, they lose their sense of competence, they forget what they know, they fall out of role, and then conflict erupts.
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What I always try to emphasise in workshops, is that my model for lining up CEOs, chairs and boards in their roles and relationships is very simple, but simple isn’t necessarily easy – particularly not when people are stressed.  it is unrealistic to expect CEOs, chairs or board members to be perfectly in role all the time. Rather, they need to learn to recognise when people are out of role – and need to develop the instinct for stepping back into their roles as quickly as possible whilst challenging others to step back into their roles too.
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Fielding The Board
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When working with charities that have rather “middling” CEO-Board relationships, I often see CEOs investing their efforts in political manoeuvres to “field” their trustees, and hold their boards at arms length. As far as the CEOs see it, they have trustees who are there by default rather than by design, and don’t understand their roles clearly. The CEOs express concern that if members get too close to the operational side they will fence around looking for a purpose, and latch onto the latest hot issue.
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Again, my research that I summarised in the workshops echoes some of these concerns. It suggests that triggers for CEO-Board conflict arises when people aren’t solid in their roles, and:
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  • Trustees get swept up in informal staff complaints and rumours about the CEO.
  • Trustees and CEO take difficult decisions together, but when these prove to be unpopular with staff, the board backs out of the decision and drops the CEO in it.
  • Chairs decide on a hunch that the CEO is “incompetent” without following a proper appraisal process.
  • Boards over-react when the CEO makes an error of judgement, and put the CEO through formal disciplinary processes.
  • The CEO and board go head-to-head over the strategic direction of the organisation, and have no mechanism for resolving their strategic differences.
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So it’s not surprising that those CEOs adopt damage limitation strategies to keep their boards at arms length. It’s understandable, but it’s not a helpful state of play. A positive working relationship between CEO and Board is essential for the effectiveness of the organisation because it connects up the governance and the executive leadership, and models appropriate behaviour for the rest of the organisation.
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Fortunately there wasn’t much of this in the conference workshops, though I noticed that the widespread use of damage limitation tactics in the voluntary sector flavours participants’ expectations: whereas trustee participants were more inclined to see themselves as a resource for their CEOs, CEOs were less inclined to presume positive support from their boards – they focused more defensively on keeping the trustees’ governance role water-tight.
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Key Leadership Messages for Tough Times
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With all this in mind, when I was asked to comment on the workshops In the closing plenary of the conference, I brought in two specific themes:
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Tough times ahead could trigger fiercer fights: LMAs and many other voluntary organisations face immense pressures ahead – and we know that pressures of this magnitude precipitate anxieties and knock people out of role – which leads to intense organisational conflict.
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So CEOs, Chairs and Boards need to build resilience into their working relations now, and talk about how they will continue to manage themselves in their roles when the going gets tougher.
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Boards must be a generative resource for their organisations: The conference made it abundantly clear that most of the voluntary sector will have to totally transform the way it does business over the coming years. They need to be more entrepreneurial, explore new markets, consider securing working capital, engage with payment by results, and demonstrate social and economic outcomes. This calls for voluntary sector leaders to develop a very different skill-set from the one that most are accustomed to. And CEOs and Boards will need to develop these together to be sure that they are speaking same language.
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At the very least those trustee boards that have lacked direction and purpose in the past will have to radically up their game, just to keep up with their CEOs and to be able to govern effectively.  But more than this, the best boards will become a powerful generative resource for their organisations – a body of expertise to guide the organisation in its business, whist still stewarding the charity’s mission, values, and clinical excellence, so that these aren’t sacrificed to short term financial gain.

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