Episode 78: Leadership behaviours that lift fundraising performance, with Rob Woods

Episode Notes

What behaviours and traits from the leader, help your team raise their game and perform at their very best? To answer this question, leadership expert Sam Walker sought out 16 leaders whose results were outstanding in the highly competitive field of professional sport and studied the traits they shared. He reveals his findings in the fascinating book The Captain Class.

Inspired by what Walker found, in this episode Rob explores two traits found in the 16 most successful captains in the history of all team sport, and shares examples from very successful fundraising leaders who share these characteristics. The traits were a) consistent, low key, practical communication (NOT inspiring Churchillian speeches!) and b) extreme relentlessness.

I hope you find these stories and principles helpful in relation to your own leadership / fundraising roles.

If you’d like to get in touch or share this episode, thank you! You can find me on Linked In or on twitter I am @woods_rob. You can find lots more free resources, as well as details of our training courses, on our website.

Further Resources

Want to go deeper and get 24/7 access to LOTS more inspiring training content?

Our training and inspiration club for fundraisers, the Bright Spot Members Club, has an extensive library of Rob’s best training films, a supportive community, and access to live masterclasses and problem-solving sessions with Rob and other experienced fundraising / leadership trainers EVERY WEEK. To find out more about how to get access to all these resources, go to www.brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join/

Would you like training, inspiration and support to increase fundraising income? You can find out more about our flagship 6 month programmes: the Major Gifts Mastery Programme; the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme or the Individual Giving Mastery Programme by following these links.


‘Not one of the 16 most successful captains in the history of team sport, inspired their team with Churchillian speeches like you see in the movies. They did LOTS and LOTS of low-key, almost invisible communication, but no fancy speeches.’

Rob Woods

Full transcript of Episode 78

Rob Woods:

Hey there brave fundraisers, this is Rob Woods, and welcome to Episode 78 of the ‎Fundraising Bright Spots podcast. This is the podcast for anyone who works in fundraising and who wants ideas, and maybe a little dose of inspiration to help you enjoy your job and raise more money, especially during the pandemic.

And today is going to be a slightly different show because rather than interview someone else with interesting examples to share, this time it’s going to be me telling the stories. I’m going to share with you part of a talk I did at my quarterly Breakfast Club for Fundraising Leaders back in June 2021, which is now one of the resources in the leadership track of our Bright Spot Members Club. And at that Breakfast Club event I gave a talk about leadership as inspired by what I found to be one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last decade.

The book is called The Captain Class, and it’s by a leadership expert named Sam Walker. He studied the most successful captains in the history of professional team sport, and he found some interesting, not necessarily obvious things about the way they lead, and I’ve found that these traits are similar to some things I’ve noticed about very successful leaders who work in fundraising that I’ve been fortunate to interview. We pick up the talk as I start to explain Sam’s approach.

So what he did was he was really interested in team sports and what makes the difference to help a team perform at a very high level. So the first thing Sam did was look at all data he could find over decades since record keeping began for team sports, all team sports, and he looked through that data for teams that had won most consistently over a long period of time. And when he did that, and he was looking at ice hockey and volleyball, not just the sports that, for instance, in the UK people are deliberately following, and what he found is there were 16 teams that had won even more consistently on a long winning streak than lots of other successful teams that a sports fan might think of.

For instance, within that was a New Zealand all black rugby team in the eighties that was undefeated for 49 games in a row, and playing against some really good opposition consistently, as well as winning a World Cup. He’s got a Russian ice hockey team, the women’s volleyball team in Cuba, which across a nine year period won almost every match, and won three gold medals at Olympics just slightly beyond that nine year period, and five or six World Champions.

Extraordinarily successful, in a context of sports where other people are trying to be really, really successful and competitive as well, and the bit about the book which I find really interesting is he said, as robustly as he possibly could, he analyzed, is there anything interesting and different about these most successful teams in the history of sport compared to the next level of successful teams, or all other teams? And he wanted to know, are they better funded? Was it an amazing coach? Was it a particular nationality?

It turned out there was no obvious marker for any of those, but he was fascinated to discover that according to his data, all 16 of the most successful sports teams in the history of sport, they had one thing in common, and that one thing was at the beginning of their huge success they had a particular captain was appointed leader, and their amazing, extraordinary run of success ended soon after that person left the team. And it led him who asked the question, is it possible that one person who is the leader of a team, in this case in the context of sport, could have such a disproportionate effect on the success and high performance of that group of people in a more extreme way than most people would’ve said is possible? And the argument of the book is yes, it is, because according to this data, that was the only thing that the most successful had in common.

And then the bit where I get really interested in is, then he studied as carefully as he possibly could, the traits and behaviors of those 16 extraordinarily successful leaders, and he came up with a list of seven things that they appeared to be different and more extreme at than other quite successful leaders. And what’s most interesting is lots of the things he discovered are not exactly what many people would think of as a star leader. If you ask in the office, “What does great leadership look? What do they do, these great leaders?” Sam Walker’s argument is the seven things he noticed in these most successful ones, they’re not always what you’d expect, and that’s why I find the whole thesis so interesting.

You can tell I find it interesting, I’m going to do my best to bring to life in meaningful terms ways that it might be interesting and useful in the context of leadership for charity. Part of the way I do that is for 16 years, while I’ve been training fundraisers and leaders, I’ve also been really interested in this particular angle of what makes for success in fundraising leadership, and three or four years ago I did my own deliberate study, just to be clear, not nearly as robust in data terms as Sam Walker’s study, but I did three or four years, ago on behalf of the commission on the donor experience, go out and find 16 leaders who many people who their peers felt to be extremely effective and successful, and I interviewed them and did my best to analyze things they were doing especially well.

So it’s not as robust as the other, but to try to bring to life Sam’s ideas, I’m going to take some of the research I’ve done, and interviews I’ve done in working with fundraising leaders over the last 16 years, including, for instance, in that research study I did. And so the first of these ideas, I think many of us, because of literature and just because of common sense, we have a sense that what really brilliant leaders do, one of the things they’re able to do is inspire us, for instance, with an amazing speech. So whether you’re talking about Churchillian speeches about, “We will fight them on the beaches,” and how the narrative in the UK, that that was part of the thing that steeled the nation’s resolve to hang in there, and that’s part of what won the war. Or if you’re looking at Shakespeare, Henry the V, Battle of Agincourt speech, “We happy few,” and that’s part of how he inspired a small band of men to fight brilliantly and win that battle.

Not everybody, but many people have a sense that an important thing leaders do is they’re able to move us with their words. Certainly if you watch any Hollywood film about sport, and many other kinds of leadership, that’s one of the things they do, there’s a rabble-rousing speech, and the findings of Sam Walker are really strong, not one of the 16 most successful team sport captains in the history of sport, not one of them did rabble-rousing speeches, it just wasn’t their style. I mean, push come to serve they would try, but almost always they just wouldn’t give any time or attention to going to the front of the room in the locker room and doing a speech, it wasn’t how they communicated.

So what Sam Walker found is they had a very different approach to communication, which was regular, consistent, but low key practical communication, relentlessly checking in with their team, interestingly sometimes with words, but sometimes just with a pat on the back, or a look, or a smile, and this was far more obvious than any sign of heroic, charismatic speeches. And in fundraising, I’m not saying if you are good at doing a presentation over Zoom to help your team that’s the bad thing, it can only be a good thing as well, but I’m saying if you struggle with that, or if it’s not your first instinct, it really doesn’t matter, because these very successful 16 leaders didn’t do it at all.

And just one of many examples of successful leaders I’ve had the good fortune to interview over the years, episode 23 of my podcast when I interviewed Paul McKenzie, this comes across really strongly, this was about, I can’t remember, it might have been May or June of 2020 and I was talking to him as a leader of a team, because I’d heard that his team at Depaul UK were doing amazingly well, and I wanted his take on how he was doing leadership and solving those many challenges.

And his first main point was, “Above all, I’m so desperately caring about my team, that’s most important priority. I know I’ve got to raise money, but the first thing I worry about and the last thing I worry about at night is are my team okay and what can I possibly do to help them be okay.” And then secondly I said, “Do you do a one off talk to them, or did you do that at any point?” He said, “No, it’s just I’m checking in as often as I possibly can, and when I can’t, or when people might feel like I’m being a bit overkill,” if he’s worried about someone in his team, he would set them up with a buddy in the team so that everyone was checking in regularly.

So again, not in an over invasive way, but so that this constant flow of communication between members of the team, checking that we’re doing okay, we’re getting reinspired by people who are doing well, or have got something to share, and we are sending the signal to those who are struggling somewhat, for whatever reason, that we care and that they’re safe and we’ll do our utmost to help them be well and succeed. So that was a parallel I’ve seen in other leaders as well, and the message is, it’s okay if you’re not given to speeches, don’t feel bad about it, it’s one of the least important things, in my view.

I remembered that one of the key leaders in the book is called Tim Duncan, and he’s from a very successful basketball team, I think they’re called the San Antonio Spurs, and from the outside none of the journalists, or most of the fans, saw him as a, a very good leader at all. He was fairly surly when the journalists talked to him, they never saw him string more than six words together when talking to the team. But, when it was analyzed, his leadership style, he was very regularly checking in with people, but a lot of it was nonverbal, it was literally just a raised eyebrow, or a smile to people. And so I would add to this consistent low key practical communication, this notion of it being some of it is nonverbal, now I know that’s harder on Zoom, and I appreciate that, but Rupa Dey mentioned her example earlier-

Hey there, it’s Rob, and I want to jump in briefly to explain one thing to help you make sense of my next example, which is that earlier in our Breakfast Club event we held a leaders panel during which one of the panel members, a fantastic fundraiser named Rupa Dey Amin, had shared an example of something she had done for her team three months earlier. The gist of it is in March 2021, on the anniversary of the first lockdown, she held a special team meeting over Zoom, and in advance of the meeting she went the extra mile to prepare a way to show how much she appreciated her team’s hard work and commitment in that crazy year. She explained to our audience that rather than just say how much she appreciated her team through words, she had sent them each a special package containing a fancy cocktail from a fabulous restaurant called Dishoom, which they all opened at the same time in the team meeting. So back to my main presentation as I talk about this idea.

And when I talked to Rupa Dey about this tactic, it’s not verbal, I mean, she did explain in simple clear words, “I just so appreciate how hard you’ve all worked through difficult times,” but can you see how just saying that is one thing, but going the extra mile with what I would call this wow tactic, it sends an extra signal to people just how deeply Rupa Dey cared and was grateful to them. And she mentioned to me that members of her team for weeks after, she felt an extra energy when they’re in Zoom meetings, and so on, because she’d gone the extra mile to show how much she cared about them.

Hi, it’s Rob, and I wanted to jump in really quickly to let you know about the Bright Spot Members Club, which is where we’ve published the full recording of this film, about how to apply these ideas to leadership of fundraising teams. Rather than have me explain, I thought it would be more useful as you could hear from one of our longstanding members, Hannah, who joined in March 2020, and who’s found the resources really helpful during the pandemic. In fact, her small arts charity has had a transformational year and doubled its income in 2020 compared to the year before COVID. Here’s what Hannah said about why she’s a member of the Club.

I think this way of learning, for me, just fits in much better with my workload. You’ve got so many different resources online that you can just tap into when you need them, and so many different experts that you brought to your program that actually, I think I would struggle to be able to persuade my board of trustees to spend hundreds of pounds sending me on a three, four day training course, when actually there’s really good value for money in your series. And Rob, you bring some really fantastic speakers and professional fundraisers to your series, and some of the sessions may be very short, but actually that really suits my style of learning. So I think actually I would say to someone, just give it a go.

If you’d like to find out more about how the Club works, go to BrightSpotMembersClub.co.UK/join. For now though, back to my keynote speech about the captaining class, and the second trait that Sam Walker found in every one of these 16 ultra successful captains.

Another of them that came across really clearly was this extraordinarily relentlessness which they showed, which is different to a notion of being laid back and balanced. Now balance is a good thing emotionally, but in terms of how high your standard are in certain areas of your job, what Walker found was what he called extreme doggedness and relentlessness to pursue the team goal. The bit that really brings it to life for me in the book is the captain of the Barcelona football team that I think, according to the data, they hare the most successful football team, or one of the two most successful football teams in the history of people keeping records, and he was the captain of the team between 2008, 2013, in which they won two champions leagues, four Spanish domestic championships, and lots more.

I appreciate some of you may not care about those kinds of things, but I’m just doing my best to show, this is a phenomenal level of success at a thing where lots of other people all around the world are busting their gut to win as well, they absolutely dominated, and Puyol was the captain for that extraordinarily successful period. And what was he doing? How did he, if we believe it, how did he help his team punch at such a high level, and consistently? And the bit in the book that stands out is they conducted various interviews with his teammates, and invariably, when their teammates tell them about what Puyol was like, they would always basically give a variation on this story, they would say, “Well, we were winning eight-nil against a fairly mediocre team, and it was the last four minutes of the game, and Puyol ran from defense, the length of the field, in order to take the throw in, that’s just how much he cared, he just never let up ever.”

And another really well documented one was when the team were winning five-nil in a particular match, and two of Puyol’s teammates were celebrating after their fifth goal, and again, he ran the length of the pitch to stop them celebrating, A, because he felt it was disrespectful, but B, just as a person determined to win, he didn’t want to give the opposition any excuse to find an extra motivation to come back at them. And this is, again, in the last 10 minutes. Now I think even sports fans who love winning want their team to win as well as they can, most people would say, that’s a bit extreme, clearly the game was already won.

All of these examples show Puyol wasn’t the most naturally talented player, but he just, he was more determined and more relentless than anyone else they knew, and I’m getting to the punchline in a moment to help you see why this is useful in fundraising leadership, when they interviewed him he said, “Do you know how hard it is in the 85th minute, when everyone’s exhausted, even professional athletes, to have everyone, all 11 of you, still performing at a 100% level? That’s really hard. In fact, most teams don’t manage it, but I like to think our team did achieve that level of effort, and that’s why we won, and we tended to have an output greater than the sum of our parts.”

And to cast light on how hard this is to do, and why Puyol’s method works, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of some work by a guy called Max Ringelmann, he was an en engineer in France in the 20th century. And until this time, broadly, the received belief was, view about teamwork was, if you want to create more output from a group of individuals, add more people in, and it won’t just be addition of effort, but the output of effort will multiply. More people multiply effort. Now if you pause to think about it, does that really make sense?

Anyway, Max Ringelmann proved that it doesn’t make sense, and the way he did it was with a study which became quite famous at the time, whereby he would get people doing a tug of war, and he would gradually add more people into the pulling on the rope, and he would measure how much effort they were putting in, therefore how much force was being pulled. And what he found was the more people you add, the lower, obviously overall the output goes up, but per person the average output goes down, basically more participants, effort per participant goes down.

And he did it in lots of other studies, and it’s been replicated in the last 20 or 30 years in various studies, they do a study where they get, it sounds a bit odd, but they get you shouting as loudly as you can in a room, and they measure how loudly you’re shouting, and then they see what happens to your effort level when you add more people into the room, and they found the more people you add into that shouty room experiment, effort per person go is down by 20% each extra person added. Ringelmann called this phenomenon social loafing, and what various people have found is, it’s much more common, social loafing, is a much more common thing of the human condition than we might initially realize.

And this is why, I think, is one of the reasons why someone like Carles Puyol had such an effect on the success of his team, because it was so abundantly clear to all of his teammates throughout all of training, every match, that he never lets up, never goes beyond 100%. When there is a person who’s doing that, and they care about you, it sends a signal to you to not socially loaf and just ease off by 20% when you’re exhausted. In fact, scientists have found it as well, in the shouty room experiment, the only antidote do it is if you pair someone with someone and you tell them that their partner is a high efforts performer, when you do that, both people perform at a high level, rather than drop by 20%. So I think that’s a key thing that comes out in the book as to how Puyol got everybody becoming greater than the sum of the parts, rather than ease off a bit.

And in terms of fundraising, there’s a wonderful fundraiser called Liz Tait. I think she’s now at Great Ormond Street Hospital, but three or four years ago I interviewed her for this report into great leadership for the commission on the donor experience, and many people suggested I should talk to Liz because they considered her to be a really good leader, certainly over the years, she was then at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and over the years when I had trained people from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, I just got this really strong sense of a energized, happy, high performing culture. Certainly their income demonstrated that because eight years previously their income was about 1 million a year, and across that eight years when Liz was their leader it had grown to 20 million, and I appreciate there’s other factors that could have been helping to achieve that growth, but my view is and my experience is Liz is a very successful leader, and I interviewed her for this report I was doing about what does it take?

And I asked her, “What is really good leadership about?” And I’d asked this question to lots of people for this project, and many people would give me a range responses, they’d say, “Well, it’s marrying vision with strategy and good decision making,” or, “Look out for the team and, above all else, be available and make quick decisions.” They’d give a range of answers. When I asked it to Liz, her answer was that the most emphatic of the 16 people I interviewed, and she said, “Good leadership, almost all of it, in my opinion, is about caring about your people, looking after your people, that’s most of it to me. Other people might disagree, but for me that’s the way I’ve done it.” And when I said, “Okay, and what does that mean to you? It sounds like you care a great deal about your people, can you bring that to life for me?”

She gave me an extraordinary answer, which I quote word for word in this report I wrote, because it’s just not a normal thing to say, in my opinion. Anyway, I said, “What does that look like?” She said, “Well, I think the point at which I became a somewhat better leader was when I just got this advice from a mentor of mine years ago when I was struggling somewhat, and she said,” the mentor said, “You know what, for me there isn’t a single person in my team who I wouldn’t die in a ditch for.” So this is strong stuff. I know I’m not saying that all of you guys should adopt the same thing, in fact I don’t think Liz meant it literally, I can just conjecture, but I do think there’s something about the strength of the rhetoric there, which was [inaudible 00:24:30] in Liz’s development of a leader just how much you have to care about your team, genuinely so, rather than appearing to do it, because again, because that might be helpful to look.

In my various interviews with Liz I have just got a strong sense of just how deeply she cares about the wellbeing and success of everyone in her team. Again, when I said, “Okay, so what does it look like in practice?” She said, “Well, various things, but one of the things eight years ago when I started, and I was still learning a lot about my charity,” she said she found it helpful to meet all of the people in her team, including those who weren’t her direct reports, at least once a year, and just ask them some questions about what they wanted, and what kind of culture would you like to see here? And how could we make things better? She found it so helpful that she kept doing it the next year, and the next year.

The reason I’m telling you this story is when I interviewed Liz three or four years ago, there were now 88 people in the fundraising team at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and she said she still does that same habit of a proper meeting with all 88 of them. Just as a caveat, by the way, I haven’t had a chance to chat or interview Liz at all in the last year and a half during COVID, so I don’t know if she still has this habit, but my guess is she does. But the reason I’m telling you this is at the time of this interview, Liz was chair of the convention, she was a trustee of one fairly large organization, and she was the leader of this. You would struggle to find a busier person and a more contributing person in our sector, and I was really taken aback that she was still finding times, somehow, to have these meetings with all 88 people in her team.

For one thing, can you see if you’re fairly new in post, or you’re a first rung on the hierarchy, you’ve been there for four months and you are an assistant in one of the teams, and your fundraising director really wants to meet you and value your opinion on such things, can you see what signal that send to everybody about how deeply cared for you are? And the reason I’m telling it to you now is can you see the signals it sends everybody how hard, relentlessly, Liz’s willing to work for the good of helping the team and the culture work? My view is part of the reason why Battersea Dogs and Cats Home experienced that fabulous growth is there was, like Carles Puyol, the opposite of social loafing, because everybody could see this phenomenal high standards and effort that she put in, so people worked amazingly hard for the cause there. And, in my view, some of the interviews came out, and for Liz,

Well, I hope you found my exploration of these two leadership traits interesting. To be clear, Sam found seven traits, so if I’ve whetted your appetite, I really recommend you check out Sam’s excellent book, The Captain Class, or at least listen to a podcast in which he brings them to life. I’ll put links to these further resources, as well as a full transcript of the episode, on the podcast section of our website, which is BrightSpotFundraising.co.uk.


And if you’re curious to see my full film and some guidance notes about how to do this style of leadership, it’s one of many recordings and weekly training sessions available to members of the Bright Spot Members Club. If you’re not yet a member, and you’re curious about how the Club works, go to BrightSpotMembersClub.co.UK/join. And if you found it helpful I’d like to ask you a favor, which is to take a moment to share it on so that we can get these ideas out to reach as many charities as possible during this difficult year. Just before I finish, I’d love to hear what you think about the episode. You can easily find me on LinkedIn and on Twitter I am @woods_rob.

Rob Woods:

Thanks so much for listening today, good luck with your fundraising and your leadership, and I look forward to sharing another Fundraising Bright Spots episode with you very soon.