Investing in leadership for long-term impact

Centre for Social Impact: Social Impact Leadership Australia (SILA) program

We may know in a year. We may know in five years. Either way, there’ll be plenty of evidence emerging from the new Social Impact Leadership Australia (SILA) program to show us what an exemplary leader in the for purpose sector actually looks like.

According to Kristy Muir, CEO of the Centre for Social Impact, at the University of NSW - which will be delivering the SILA program – there is already a strong sense of the sort of leadership that will emerge from the program and their potential impact.

“At the end of it, we [aim to] have leaders who have enormous adaptive leadership capabilities, who have the ability to refresh, restore, reflect, and work in a really positive way for social change,’’ she says. “We have organisations that are therefore strengthened and we have hierarchies of leadership teams that are able to enable that and we help them lift their gaze and we have leaders who aren’t just working for the benefit for their organisation but who are really delivering on the purpose for which the organisation exists. Then we have the potential to really change the landscape around the impact that we might have on the kind of social change that we all want to see.’’

It's a bold vision for not just for leadership in the sector but also a cultural change around investing in leadership development. And it underlines the importance of the four key funders – The Myer Foundation, The Sidney Myer Fund, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Paul Ramsay Foundation – commitment to the $9 million program over the next five years as a way of developing leadership for wider social impact.

CSI carried out the original research behind the idea in late 2018, funded by the Ian Potter Foundation, to help identify the leadership and professional development needs of for purpose CEOs and to provide recommendations on the design and curriculum for a leadership development program. CSI’s final report - supported by The Myer Foundation, the Sidney Myer Fund, VFFF and the Paul Ramsay Foundation – was released in August 2019. It concluded: “The research found overwhelming support for philanthropic investment in a comprehensive leadership development program that is world-class, enables a CEO and acting CEO/step-up leader to participate, and helps to shift the culture of investment in leadership within the NFP sector.’’

The research needed to ask the key questions - what was the international evidence on leadership program in the sector? What worked? What didn’t? What did international best practice look like? What were the unique Australian considerations for a local program?

Overseas examples were important – not just the content of the program but the impetus behind their funding. As Leonard Vary, CEO of The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund, said: “We’re inspired by the success of programs in the United States, supported by foundations which see the value of investment in building the capacity of for-purpose leaders.’’

The CSI report identified some recognisable issues in the Australian for purpose sector leadership landscape. “The research showed that the problems were the problems most people would be familiar with,’’ Kristy says. “We face a whole lot of complex social problems. If we’re going to address the problems, we’ve got to have a strong and vibrant NFP sector and that has to include exceptional leadership, and our people are our greatest assets, and so we have to invest in our assets.’’ The simple comparison was with the corporate and public sector, where there was a commitment to leadership and professional development. “The research found that the NFP sector has consistently underinvested in its leaders for a very long time,’’ Kristy says.

What a closer investigation of that leadership investment shortfall revealed was a deeper cultural problem, built in part around the sector giving itself permission to embrace leadership capacity development. Some funders, for example, might focus on funding projects rather than providing organisation or leadership support. Financially struggling NFPs might, for practical reasons, find it too hard to justify spending money on building leadership capacity. Both decisions make sense in the moment.

But what CSI found was a “overwhelming need’’ for investing in the organisation’s infrastructure that helps the for purpose organisation get its work done.  “And [there was also] overwhelming support for philanthropic investment in something that was really comprehensive, that was world class, that did enable not just the CEOs but the organisations to build that leadership culture,’’ Kristy says.

Here is where the innovative part of the program come in to play. Participants in the program will be given a three month sabbatical from their role to stop, reflect and develop fresh ideas. While they are doing that, their organisation can utilise $30,000 funding to help its own development and provide support for the CEO’s deputy – or “step up leader’’ – to build their own capacities. The Step Up Leader will also have their own coach.

“Yes, this program’s about investing in leadership of the self for the CEOs and advancing their leadership but it’s also about how do we lift the leadership of the organisation,’’ Kristy says. “And to enable that to happen – and to give the CEOs the bandwith to…. rest, rejuvenate - …[to] create the space for some really big picture strategic thinking to enable the sector to go to the next level, [then] we have to be able create space. The evidence shows that sabbaticals can be really important to enable this to happen,’’ she explains.

There has also been wide consultation within the sector to ensure that for purpose board chairs and directors are comfortable with the idea of their CEO’s three-month hiatus. The conversation might have started out as a discussion about the sabbatical, but it became one about succession planning. Kristy sees the upside. “I think this enables the board to have really good oversight and investment in the leadership team, not just the individual leader,’’ she says.

The first cohort of 24 CEOs will start on the 10-month program in July. By the end of the five year program, there will potentially be 120 graduates of the program. That represents a sizable investment in the future leadership of the sector. Jo Taylor, Chief Capability Officer of the Paul Ramsay Foundation said: “To break complex cycles of disadvantage we have to enhance the capability of the for purpose sector, which plays an increasingly central role in developing new approaches and delivering support to those who need it most.’’

The CEOs will have to have been in the role for at least a year. At least a third of the cohort will be drawn from rural and regional areas. “It’s critical that we develop a truly national program,’ CEO of VFFF, Jenny Wheatley, said. “By broadening our reach in this way, we are ensuring we will be available to a diverse group of leaders and organisations from across Australia.’’

Kristy is excited about the potential impact the program can have, and the ripple effect well beyond the program’s participants.

“We have enormous hope for not just them, but the leadership teams that will grow with them, in terms of how this program has been designed, but also the potential number of beneficiaries,’’ she says. “We often think how we create social change in terms of the number of beneficiaries - when we say philanthropy invests in particular programs, how many people will benefit from this – actually the amazing thing about this lever for social change is that if we invest in leaders, one of the greatest assets we have in this sector, we have the potential to effect who knows how many people in to the future.’’

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