In previous articles, I introduced the principles of sustainable leadership and the first two areas to address: succession planning and lateral leadership. this article, a preview of our new Lasting Leadership guide, is about ensuring our organisations attract and retain new talent. The challenges are:

For emerging leaders, the absence of a well-defined career pathway can make joining the sector less attractive. Opportunities for progression are unclear and entry-level leadership roles are scarce.

 For existing leaders, taking time for self-care, mentoring and professional development are key challenges to sustaining leadership capacity. Leaders live and breathe their work, always switched on. Stress and uncertainty have led to more senior leaders moving on and the sector is losing experience and talent. Moreover, whilst there are a range of supports for CEOs, middle managers have fewer opportunities for networking and  development.

 Making the sector attractive to emerging leaders is key to future leadership sustainability. Creating more opportunities for entry and progression is vital if we are to attract younger people and new talent to the sector.



A sector attractive to future leaders

The conditions for doing our best work are already known and are possible to create in our organisations. But first we must give ourselves, and our teams, permission to break the cycle of constant stress and busyness. While the adrenaline and stress of leadership can seem heroic for a time, in the long run it leads to exhaustion and it won’t encourage new leaders to join the sector or younger leaders to emerge.

 The benefit of fresh perspectives

The world is becoming increasingly complex, requiring adaptive responses to multifaceted challenges. Recruiting younger leaders and those from beyond the voluntary sector can bring fresh insights, energy and questions, shaking things up positively. Sustaining leadership means shifting the focus from organisational survival to reviewing what skills, knowledge and experience are needed to respond to the emerging environment.

 Changing the narrative

There is a prevailing narrative that the non-profit sector is ‘well-meaning’, underpaid and overworked. And whilst resource and demand challenges do of course exist this is only part of the story. The sector is a hugely innovative, professional and rewarding place to work, full of great employers. The narrative can be changed to better share this story and attract people who are inspired by the possibilities of making a difference.

 Collaborative/systems leadership

The sector is sometimes described as competitive, with organisations competing for scarce resources. However, collective action happens frequently and is enriching. There  is a resurgence in collaborative leadership, helping sector leaders to achieve more than they could alone. It’s not always easy, but leading with shared values and joint aims, helps to shape the wider systems in which organisations make a difference to the lives of people, communities and society. Collaborative, systemic leadership requires time, trust, openness, honesty and diplomacy. This is not straightforward, but because it helps sustain leaders, organisations, and the impact they make, it is worth striving for.

 The legitimacy of self-care

We need to legitimise and talk about the essential nature of self-care and development – it is not a perk. The funding and policy environment could create opportunities to increase leadership sustainability. However, unrealistic funding and management practices currently put unsustainable pressures on leaders and organisations. Commitment to, and investment in, self-care, learning and sustainable employment practices would greatly enhance the wellbeing and development of sector leaders.


A candle running on a treadmill, at risk of blowing out its flame.

 Practices: ideas for action

 Diversify entry opportunities and pathways

When recruiting, cast the net wide and go beyond traditional recruitment methods. For example, use social media, your supporter networks or advertise posts through channels that reach wider audiences, such as equalities networks and publications that reach underrepresented  groups.

Develop routes into your organisation, such as student placements, internships and project- focused work to help emerging leaders access opportunities and gain  experience. Send out a clear message that your organisation is a place where a diverse range of people belong – and grow. We’ll say more about this in next week’s article on leadership as an equalities issue.

 Invest in development and progression

Ask your team what progression would look like for them. New ideas and ways of approaching learning and development can emerge from identifying and supporting aspirations.

Share learning and resources with others in the sector. It is likely that other organisations are thinking about and working on these ideas too. Working together can increase the range of what is available – and affordable. [Contact us about joining our Lasting Difference symbol holders network].

Explore and use support networks that already exist – membership organisations, funders and others provide development and peer support opportunities.

Mentor new and emerging leaders. Consider cross-mentoring, which allows senior leaders to learn from and about junior colleagues.

Collectively influence

Engage with funders in actively encouraging development and learning opportunities as part of their funding programmes. Develop a collective response about the importance of resources for self-care, learning and development to support sustainable leadership. Membership organisations and sector bodies can help.

 Prioritise self-care

Give yourself permission for self-care and be a role model for work/life balance. Ensure teams feel they have permission to do the same and don’t internalise the pressure to always do more. Words alone are not enough.

Work less and develop more interests outside of work – there is good evidence that this increases productivity and creativity. Could working your contracted hours, compressing your hours, shortening your working week or job-sharing your role help?

 Examples of good practice from our research:

  • Volunteer leadership programmes.
  • Mentoring programmes for under-represented groups.
  • Leadership exchanges with organisations in other sectors.
  • Supporting younger people, those with lived experience or volunteers to prepare for leadership and governance opportunities, e.g. developing user- group committees, so that when board vacancies arise people can make informed decisions about stepping up.
  • Staff volunteering programmes, allowing them to develop new skills and interests in work time, for example as trustees with other charities.
  • Joining formal and informal networks for connecting with peers for support, sharing of ideas and challenges.
  • Promoting wellbeing by providing gym memberships, employee assistance programmes and participating in workplace wellbeing initiatives (e.g. active travel and healthy working schemes).

(c) Wren and Greyhound Limited 2020. Excerpt from ‘Lasting Leadership: succession, empowerment, equality’, available from 19th February at