Charity Leaders Podcast - Chris Sherwood

Episode 7 and the final show in our first season of charity leaders podcasts, we were delighted to welcome the leader of the largest charity so far, Chris Sherwood, CEO of the RSPCA. The RSPCA does not need any introduction but maybe some people are not aware of how historical they are, even have acts of parliament named because of them!

Chris has been in the charity sector for his whole career and knew from an early age this was the route for him - maybe that’s why he became a CEO aged 34 and at just 37 was put in charge of the oldest animal charity in the world.

Chris is an incredibly humble man, he has achieved amazing success at such a young age but is so focused on the next leaders in both his own charity but in the sector as a while, it is truly inspiring to talk to him and I’m confident everyone will take a lot from our chat with him.

From Humble Beginning to Quick Success

Growing up in Corby was tough at times but Chris learned the importance of education at an early age and having seen the struggles in the local area, he very quickly set his mind on a career in charity and his trajectory has only gone in one direction from day one.

He has been in the charity sector for around 18 years (and is still only just 40!) starting out with Scope, before moving to Relate, where he became CEO halfway through his six years at the charity, before being asked to take on the role of CEO at one of the largest charities in the UK - as he says himself

“I’m privileged to sit in this role, it’s an amazing organisation”

It’s certainly unusual to have achieved this so early in his career, particularly in a sector that is famous for being risk-averse, traditionally charity boards appoint older leaders because they like years of experience.

Challenging Times

It is fair to say that before his arrival, the RSPCA had been through a few different CEOs in recent years, so much so that many of his close friends in the industry actually questioned if he really wanted to take the challenge on, but the thought never crossed his mind.

Chris embraced the challenge and believes in the idea that a leader of such a distinguished organisation is ‘passing the baton’, he was determined to pass it over to his successor in a better place than he found it. But he wasn’t going to come in and smash everything up, taking a very level-headed approach to the job.

“For me, it's about what's great about this organisation and what can we do differently”

He certainly knew the seriousness of what he was taking on, walking into a boardroom and seeing a massive wooden board with the names of all the previous CEOs - most of them with a ‘Lord’ in front of their name or several letters after it.

A big part of what he’s introduced and proof of his philosophy of passing the baton is the leadership and management training that he has instigated since arriving. He wants to bring through the next great leaders for RSPCA and is also helping mentor future leaders in other charities.

The Job Of The CEO

Chris was incredibly honest when asked the question what was it like to be a CEO of a charity - if you asked him when he started there would be a lot of ‘me’ in his answer but now it would be full of ‘we’. His list of what he see’s as key

  • Set the direction of where you want to go as an organisation

  • Appointments - recruitment is a big challenge. Anyone coming in has to be aligned to your values and the culture

  • Resource allocation. Where to spend your money and place your people

  • Being a role model. What are you spending your time on and how do you interact with the business

He talks about being careful about what you say to others and the impact it can have, part of which comes from an experience from early in his career.

One boss once told me that he didn't want a team of stars because he was the star! It was a terrible thing to say”

As he’s evolved in his career he has got calmer and more practical but he does like to make change. He sees it as his responsibility to set the pace. He’s careful not to rush too fast and everything falls over but he ensures things are always moving forward.

The Importance of Mentors

It is fair to say that mentors are important in his career. As a subject, it came up multiple times in relation to different stages of his career. His advice on finding a mentor is useful.

  • Think about what you want to talk about. Different people will be able to offer different advice.

  • Are looking for a short term or long term mentor? He has benefited from both during his career

  • Trade bodies are a good source of finding mentors, many have formal mentoring programmes in them

These mentors are especially important when you make big steps up in your career. Chris explained to us the two biggest steps that an individual can make during the journey to the top.

The first is department head to director level, where you move from subject matter expert to running teams where you are no longer an expert. In this scenario, it takes time to settle and realise that it is ok not to be the smartest person in the room!

The other big leap is from director to CEO. It’s a cliche for a reason - it is lonely at the top and that is why you need a support network outside of the charity. Everyone thinks you know the answer to everything at this point but the key is making it seem that way - the swan analogy fits this perfectly.

The Business Of Running a Charity

The first point from Chris on this subject is similar to many we have interviewed - profit vs. surplus. You think about things so differently as a charity. It’s about having a surplus for security but not having it too big because it should be going to your beneficiaries.