Winner of the Association Leadership Award at this year’s Association Excellence Awards was the impressive Caron Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Charity Finance Group.
I caught up with Caron to get some of her insights into successful leadership…
Q. What do you love about being an association leader?
A. When you lead an association, particularly one which is also a registered charity, you have a fabulous opportunity to blend acting for your membership and the public interest. You are not the mouth piece of your members but rather the voice of a collection of your constituent members whose position you filter through the public interest and then deliver to regulators and law makers with the purpose of improving things – not just for the members of your organisations, but also for the wider participants in that market.
Q. Why do you think the judges chose you for the Association Leadership Award?
A. Wow – that is a difficult question. I personally think that it is testimony to the work of my team. We’ve been through a tricky period of time. We re-structured and knew when we took on that challenge that we would be making some profound changes in the way we operated. We were doing perfectly well but I felt that if we wanted to really deliver on our charitable objectives we needed to change our mix of skills at a senior level and change the way we approached our business; the mix of skills, the decision making processes, risk management etc. Such profound change was always likely to encounter some difficulties and we had more than perhaps our fair share of problems. However the resilience of my team and the fabulous impact on our financial and non-financial results proved that calculated risk worth taking. We’re now reaping the benefits of having held our nerve and having taken a positive step to change our strategic approach – I do not truck with the ‘it isn’t broken so don’t fix it’ mentality – I think if you wait until then it’s too late!
Q. Besides winning an award how do you measure success?
A. Our success is measured by considering whether we are delivering on our mission and vision. We have a whole host of financial and non-financial measures. In a financial sense we were planning to replenish our reserves (which we’d heavily invested in our change programme) over three years but were able to do so in a single year. We’ve improved our controls and ability to adapt and flex our business, so that we’ve been able to predict our income to within a margin of error of 1%. We’ve been able to increase the range of products and services we provide to our members and we’ve started to measure how effective they are in supporting our members’ learning. We’ve got exacting targets (e.g. over 90% delegates reporting improved confidence/increased understanding) and exceeded those. We have increased our membership numbers, our income, our reach and range of services and the influence we are able to exert with government and regulators.
Q. Do you lead or represent your sector?
A. CFG is the only charity which specialises in supporting the finance function of charities. We believe that by increasing the standards of charity finance and by inspiring financial leadership we can ensure that charities extract the largest amount of impact and value from the monies that they are given on trust for their beneficiaries. So I think probably a bit of both.
Q. How easy or difficult was it to deliver your vision for the CFG?
A. It was probably the most challenging work experience I have encountered. When you determine a direction of travel you rarely expect that all the risk factors you have considered possible will come to fruition. However CFG’s experience did pretty much that. We planned a worst case scenario of depleting our reserves by £180k and we ended up using £161k. But we were really clear on why we were doing this. The vision and the need to change was clearly articulated and this meant that we were able to dig in and overcome the problems. The risk of doing nothing was far greater than the risk of taking on our challenges head on – this didn’t make it any less challenging!
Q. As an association leader how important is reputation management?
A. Massively – but I think it is important to also remember that things that you encounter feel much greater and more personal when you are in the grip of the moment than they do to the outside world. For me there are two elements – personal brand and organisational reputation. Reputation is managed effectively when you are able to balance those personal concerns and fears and the needs of the organisation. Ultimately when you make ‘doing the right thing’ to be your guide and to a large extent suppress those natural human fears about ‘what people will think’ you are better equipped to manage the reputation of your organisation.
Q. What was the biggest strategic challenge that you’ve faced so far in the role?
A. CFG needed to find its role in a modern context. It had to change from being seen as an exclusive club of senior financial professionals to being an inclusive network for finance professionals across charities of all sizes. We needed to build on the historic roots of the organisation but concurrently overhaul what we were all about; effectively not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Taking the stakeholders with us was incredibly challenging. Our business model would not have faltered immediately, in fact we probably would have carried on for a few years and gradually burnt out. However by being brave and spotting the longer terms trends in our performance we were able to intervene before our business model failed. But convincing stakeholders of the need for change was a challenge.
Q. Do you agree that an association should be a continual cycle of reform?
A. Definitely. If you wait until you have a problem to fix you have probably left it too long. You have to be able to spot the risks of not changing and the opportunities that you can capitalise on if you are brave enough to take the plunge and alter your approach.
Q. What challenges do you think association leaders will face in the coming years?
A. In an age where there are more and more resources available on line (often for free) proving the value of membership of an association to our members becomes essential. We are operating in an increasingly challenging environment where our members expect us to not only support the things that we know are changing but also to pre-empt the things that might change. In an ever changing world we have to be one step ahead – a big ask.
Thank you Caron.