04.04.17 – Online Editors
Dee Ahearn, chief executive, Barretstown
My biggest discovery through my working life has been that communication is the single most important requirement in order to lead an organisation successfully. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if you can’t communicate – which involves both explaining and listening – then you won’t lead your organisation to where you want it to go.
The people in any organisation are all different and need to be motivated and communicated with in different ways. So if you are going through a process of change, of course you write out your plan, your goals, the steps towards those goals, timelines and so on. But then you have to go out and explain it to a group of diverse individuals, persuade them it is a good idea, and motivate them to implement it.
Some will disagree with what you are proposing, they may say it won’t work for the organisation. Sometimes this may not be out of real concern for the organisation, but because the changes proposed will affect them personally. But at times they will be speaking out of genuine concern for the organisation, because they understand things that you may have overlooked. In other words they may be right.
Surrounding yourself with the best people, and knowing their strengths has been really important to me throughout my career. If you do this, then as CEO you don’t need to know all the answers, but collectively, your team will have them and you must listen to them. Empathy is also crucial and is part of communication. You have to empathise with people who do not like how they believe your strategy will affect them. And you have to listen carefully to the critics, to identify those who have something valuable to say.
When criticisms from staff make sense, you have to change your plan. This brings me to another thing I wish I’d known before I started: Changing your mind does not show weakness, it shows strength. It shows you are confident enough to say you were wrong. It also shows staff that their views are listened to, and that they are valued members of a team.
Another important lesson is that when people within your organisation do not like proposed change, and are upset at the impact it will have, you must not take this on board as a cause of personal anxiety. Yes, you must listen, empathise, explain, and explain again. But ultimately you need to have courage and stick to your plan. It takes courage to change your mind when required, but it also takes courage to stick to your plan if it is right, even if people don’t agree.
I lead a children’s charity with a fundraising target of €5m, with up to 100 staff and up to 1600 volunteers on an annual basis. The Barretstown camp in Co Kildare provides therapeutic recreation programmes for over 6,000 children and families affected by serious illness through both on- and off-site programmes throughout the year. Charities must have the same standards of efficiencies as private sector businesses. Our donors want their money to go to a charity that is as efficient as it can be.
In 2011 we began to take Barretstown through a complex change management programme to ensure we could ultimately increase the number of programmes we provide bringing the Barretstown magic to more children and families affected by serious illness. From a business perspective, we had to make sure the organisation was operating to maximum efficiency and give complete transparency to our donors while becoming a leader in corporate governance.
The result is we have seen a 106pc increase in the number of campers we have served with no increase in costs. In 2014 we asked the NSAI to assess us under the Excellence Through People programme. We scored over 80pc which placed us in the top 30pc of companies in Ireland, one of only three charities to achieve this standard. We scored particularly high on leadership and people management, and on business planning and continuous improvement.
It is people management that is the hardest part, and the most important part. Our team is proud to work for this organisation because they can see the difference they make to children and their families every day. But they also feel part of Barretstown because they do not just implement a plan handed down from the top, they contribute to that plan.
Finally, on a personal level, I wish that when I was starting out I had the confidence to speak up when I had an idea or a proposal, no matter how many people were in the room, and not to be afraid of being wrong. There is nothing wrong with being wrong from time to time, so long as you have the best people around you, that are not afraid to tell you that you are wrong, and you are willing to change your mind.