There are several challenges to working in the third sector that feel relatively unique to the 2010s. A climate of uncertainty, driven by the funding landscape, has led to a context for many organisations of what can feel like constant upheaval. Jobs are less secure, long term programme planning harder. Over the last decade organisations have become under increased scrutiny regarding how they spend their money, which necessitates a shift in how projects are set up and reported on.

Although we know intellectually, and may agree logically, that change is needed, it doesn’t make it any easier to operate within a changing organisation. If change is driven by efficiencies, then practically there can be less budget for professional support and development as we are being asked to do more with less. And psychologically it can be very difficult to work creatively when we’re under stress, induced by uncertainty. It’s a steeper hill to climb to launch a risk-taking ambitious new project if you don’t believe you have stable ground under your feet.

In this context, I’ve recently been preparing to deliver two management and leadership programmes for charity clients: the first a 1-1 coaching programme for a team of senior managers, supported by the use of a diagnostic called Emotions and Behaviours at Work, and the second a leadership development workshop and global webinar series for a globally dispersed cohort of managers and leaders.

From my work so far with these groups, resilience is emerging as a theme, both in what is said and what is not said.  Also, a need to create an adaptable style of management to best lead teams which are diverse in terms of skill, motivation and readiness for change. This last point is nothing unique to the 2010s, it’s always been helpful to be adaptable as managers, being as we manage human beings with a varying range of skills, behaviours and experience, but add in that layer of scrutiny, pressure and uncertainty and getting management and leadership right becomes even more pressing. Part of having an adaptable style is a call to focus on coaching skills, which we know can impact not only 1-1 line management relationships but can be brought into everyday organisational interactions as we use key skills of listening, powerful questioning and entering into conversations with positive intent as I talk about more in this 2013 article in Coaching Today magazine, which I wrote when Learning & Development Manager at an international development charity.

Happily the Emotions and Behaviours diagnostic I’ll be using in the coaching programme focuses on eight key competencies of effective leaders, including resilience, empathy, decisiveness, influencing  and adaptability. The diagnostic does not report on how good you are at each of these, but how much you have a drive to focus on them. It’s a fantastic starting place for understanding where we might need to adapt our approach, depending on who we are working with, and what is needed at a point, in order to be effective.

I asked two third sector leaders for their thoughts on what it takes to be a successful senior leader in the sector today: Paul Mathews, who works across different geographies to deliver successful fundraising growth for a leading NGO says ‘ it’s one thing to be a leader who can think big, and articulate a vision and inspire others to buy into it, but even more powerful and effective is someone who really understands and can drive turning this vision into an operational plan that works. And that demonstrate to their teams that they understand and challenge detail, even when empowering others to take the lead’. Michael Mapstone, Director of International at Charities Aid Foundation adds ‘Leaders often have an aptitude and energy for turning an organisation round, growing an organisation or maintaining one. Each needs a subtly different skillset’. They both agree that ‘to be a successful CEO you need to both understand each part of the business and have the humility to surround yourself with those who can fill any gaps in your own skillset or knowledge, and then listen to them’

Given the context in which we operate it seems leaders (at any level within an organisation) need an ever-expanding tool box of skills we can call upon. But the third sector is nothing if not populated by resourceful and tenacious people, and organisations and individuals are adapting and finding their way. The challenge for organisations is to take these committed, talented people along with them, fully engaged, empowering them and making space for them to take the lead on both their organisational goals and their own professional development.

I would love to hear more about your experiences of being a leader in an NGO in these uncertain times.