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Give and Take: Why so few charity FDs become charity CEOs

In late April it was announced that one of our members, Alex Botha, had been appointed to the post of chief executive of the British Safety Council following a stint as a charity finance director. There are other examples of individuals successfully taking the step of moving from finance CEO in our sector; inspirational leaders like Petra Ingram at The Brooke and David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK. But, prompted by some work we’ve been doing looking at building FD’s leadership skills, I have been pondering why so few FDs make the transition from FD to CEO in our sector.

A recent Robert Half survey reported that nearly half of the CEOs at FTSE-100 companies come from an accounting background. But that figure is not mirrored within the charity sector. Is it a question of the wrong skills, insufficient opportunities, desire, or lack of it? Or does the barrier lie with those doing the appointing? Do FDs have a continuing reputation for being ‘beancounters’, hatchet men/women, and is it this that puts off recruitment panels from selecting FDs for the job?

If you can spare a few minutes and you want a bit of light relief, watch the Monty Python Lion Tamer sketch on YouTube, in which John Cleese as a vocational adviser identifies the qualities of an accountant as being “lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated…and irrepressibly drab and awful”. I think accountants are often stereotyped as careful and reserved when they might not be. Paul Breckell, MD for corporate resources Group at RNID wrote an article for our 20th anniversary book in 2007 that reflected on the reputation of FDs as unfairly represented to be “…shrinking violets when it comes to up- front leadership”. 

It may be true that in the past we sought simply technical qualities in an FD, but now a much wider range of competencies are required: stewardship of cash and managing the financial performance of an organisation are a small part. Leadership, building and managing relationships internally and externally, understanding the impact of the charity’s activities, taking a pan organisation view of the state of its IT, HR and strategic direction are all qualities more frequently present than not in the best FDs and they don’t seem a million miles away from the qualities required of a CEO.  Indeed, arguably these aspects make today’s FD an ideal candidate for CEO.

In the private sector there is increased demand for CEOs with financial skills. The ability to strongly lead in fiscally-constrained times needs more than a passing consideration of the finances. So are FDs falling to the trap described by Malcolm S Forbes – “too many people over value what they are not and undervalue what they are”?  Perhaps fewer FDs in the charity sector recognise their leadership qualities and fail to see themselves as CEO material?

Another reason may be a lack of appetite for being a CEO. It may be a cliché that being a CEO puts you in a lonely place – but it’s absolutely true (I know from my own experience).  Not that I’m complaining – I absolutely love being one. It’s challenging, invigorating and rewarding, if that’s what you hanker after. Our recent salary survey findings told us that individuals in senior finance roles find their work interesting, stretching and rewarding, leading them to feel satisfaction and that they are making a difference – not dissimilar to my drivers for taking the role of CFDG’s CEO. So perhaps some see the stretch and challenge they get within their current roles, the level of strategic input and leadership, and prefer to stay put.

Of course not all FDs will be great CEOs. But in my view there are many more future sector leaders within the ranks of FDs than are taking on the challenge.  We are ahead of the private sector in terms of the diversity of our boards – but this is one area where we are definitely playing catch up. I am convinced that the sector could significantly benefit if those FDs who do have the right qualities are encouraged and supported in grasping the nettle.  Are you one of them?

Caron Bradshaw is CEO of the Charity Finance Directors’ Group and blogs regularly for Financial Director. See the CFDG website here

 

 

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