Leadership in a Rivers Trust

Geoff Roberts
August 9, 2020
Conducting an orchestra
Leading a rivers trust is like conducting an orchestra

Some readers may be aware that as well as being Chairman of The Aire Rivers Trust, I am also a specialist in organisational/personal development and leadership (that’s what earned me money for 30 years and what still occasionally contributes to the bank account). So I read this article from Harvard Business Review with increasing recognition of its relevance in the charity sector, including Rivers Trusts. It’s ostensibly about leadership in professional services firms, typical in the accountancy, legal and other consulting fields. So what’s the relevance to our areas of interest?

Well, I submit that in many ways  we operate on the same basis as those organisations. I have been a trustee of  3 charities and recognise that they are typically reliant on volunteers, sometimes at both grassroots and board level, those volunteers do what they do because they like it, we have to motivate them through their intrinsic drivers not those of the trust. Many senior volunteers bring specialist skills upon which the trust comes to rely. In 'managing' those voluunteers, we cannot rely on traditional hierarchical power structures, we quite often have a few highly opinionated individuals as part of the team, we often have people who are not willing to be led nor do they want to lead (they just want to get on with what they are doing)…  To quote the article

"...leadership is a collective, not an individual, endeavor, created through interactions among powerful peers."

So how do we lead in such an environment? That is where the article rang so many bells. Their prescription seems quite a good fit for us. I have quoted it below, and you will see the need for a little ‘translation’

Guiding Principles for Leading in a Professional Service Firm

Focus first on the fundamentals.

Your peers will accept you as a leader only if they recognize that you’re at least as good at their job as they are. (This is what the article said, my personal proposition is slightly different - that you must be at least as good at your job as they are at theirs - and they must understand the difference between the jobs.) You need to establish a reputation for doing and winning outstanding work early on in your career. Once you’re in a senior leadership role, don’t become so immersed in it that you neglect to keep bringing in new business.

Hone your political skills.

Understand the subtleties of organizational politics—don’t assume that colleagues who do it well are not to be trusted. Think about the last time someone changed your mind about an important issue. What did that person say and do? Then think about what you did and didn’t do the last time you failed to get something you wanted. Strategically influencing others doesn’t make you insincere; it’s just common sense.

Take time to build consensus, but be ready to assert control.

If you have a strong vision, you may be in a hurry to implement it. Don’t be. You’ll need to win over competing interests, listen respectfully to objections, and give way to some demands (to prove that you’re listening). Remain patiently on the sidelines while your colleagues exercise their prerogative to “mess things up,” because they’ll ultimately do better if they learn things for themselves. But you also have to take control at the right time, or colleagues will complain of a leadership vacuum.

Be ambitious for your firm (and for yourself).

Your enthusiasm and concern for the firm must be perceived as genuine, regardless of the extent of your personal ambition. Make your peers believe that you care as much about their interests as your own.

Know when to be a good “follower.”

There will never come a time when you can safely stop stroking your colleagues’ egos. The higher you rise, the harder you will have to work to convince people you haven’t got “above” yourself. As a leader of a professional service firm you should aspire to be a few steps ahead of your fellow partners but also be able to judge when to step back and show you are prepared to follow the will of the partnership.

I happen to be currently interested in the political skills (note the small ‘p’, large ‘P’ stuff is best left to others imho) associated with being a leader in a trust. In our reliance on grant income, we need to influence widely and anyone involved in influencing is involved in politics. In my next blog, I will explore one way of looking at ‘office politics’ in a positive light and starting to understand how to be more effective.

© Copyright Aire Rivers Trust 2020
The Aire Rivers Trust is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales No: 07464227 and a Registered Charity No: 1145609
Registered Office at: 38 Morton Lane, East Morton, Keighley BD20 5RS
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