Episode 79: Leading from the back, with Rob Woods

Episode Notes

In his fascinating book The Captain Class, Sam Walker found that not one of the 16 most successful captains in the history of sport, was the teams’ star player, scoring the goals. In fact, all of them shared a less showy style of captaincy. They led from the back.

This finding is in contrast to the enticing ‘Roy of the Rovers’ image of what great leaders do.

In this episode Rob explores why leading from the back is so effective and he shares examples of very successful fundraising leadership that shares this style. And he explains three practical things that leaders of fundraising teams can do to improve their ability to lead in this way, including a technique that empowers others to be at their best.

If you’d like to get in touch or share this episode with other charities, THANK YOU VERY MUCH! You can find me on Linked In or on twitter I am @woods_rob.

Further Resources

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‘None of these phenomenally successful leaders were the team’s charismatic star who scored the goals. There were always other players who were more skillful and got more glory.’

Rob Woods

‘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 79

Rob Woods:

Hello and welcome to Episode 79 of the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast. My name’s Rob Woods and this is the show for anyone who works in fundraising, who wants ideas and maybe a little dose of inspiration to help you enjoy your job and raise more money, especially during the pandemic.

Rob Woods:

And today, if you are the leader of a fundraising team or you have any leadership role in your personal life or you’re just curious about what makes a difference in successful leadership, then I hope you’re going to find this episode helpful. Because today I’m sharing another section from a keynote speech I originally did at my Breakfast Club For Fundraising Leaders and which is now available as one of many learning bundles we provide for fundraisers through our Bright Spot members club. The talk was inspired by a fascinating book called The Captain Class by Sam Walker. If you want more of the story, go to episode 78 of this podcast, where I explain it bit more detail. But for now, the gist is that, he looked at all the data he could find showing the success of professional sports teams, going back since records began. And he found the 16 most successful teams, including for instance, an All Blacks rugby team in the 1980s that didn’t lose for three and a half years.

Rob Woods:

In this top 16, he found teams from a broad range of sports, including a stunningly successful Brazilian women’s volleyball team and one extraordinary Russian men’s ice hockey team, as well as a couple of teams you’re more likely to have heard of, like the Barcelona men’s football team that won four domestic titles and two champions league titles across a six year period in the late noughties. Then Walker searched to see if there was one factor that all of these successful teams had in common. What he discovered was that there was only one and it was that, their extraordinary success began around the time that one individual was made captain. He argues that, it is possible for an individual leader to have an extraordinary influence on the performance of those around them. And he was curious as to what those 16 captains did, in particular, that had this powerful effect on success. In the book, he explores seven traits, many of which are not what students of sport and leadership would necessarily predict.

Rob Woods:

In episode 78 of this podcast, I shared two traits, in particular, and drew parallels to what I’ve studied about outstanding leadership in fundraising. Firstly, none of these 16 ultra successful captains gave inspiring Churchillian speeches but instead, they engaged in consistent, often very low key, practical communication with their teams. And secondly, they were relentless to an extreme degree. They displayed a dogged determination, as well as a willingness to do the unglamorous tasks, whatever necessary, to achieve the goal. Crucially, these behaviors had a powerful effect on the commitment and effort levels of those around them. In today’s episode, I’m pleased to share another excerpt from my original talk, in which I look at the unhelpful myth of the heroic leader, which we’ve been given from Hollywood movies and lots of other popular culture.

Rob Woods:

And I share what Sam Walker found in his research into the traits of very successful leaders, that confounds this enticing myth. And I go on to share some things that I’ve noticed very successful charity leaders do, that’s consistent with Walker’s findings. We pick up my talk as I start to explore the third idea I got from Sam’s book, The Captain Class.

Rob Woods:

I definitely think there is, sort of, a misunderstanding, definitely in sport and also, I think, in some other kinds of leadership, that to be a great fundraising leader you’ve got to be an amazing fundraiser, it’s part of the mix. And, certainly, in sports, if you look at comics like Roy of the Rovers, Roy, the captain, is the one who scores all the girls. Or cult figures like Michael Jordan, stars like Zinedine Zidane, must have been the captain, mustn’t they? And one of the really emphatic things that I took from the book is, in sport, these top 16, very successful leaders, were never the team’s number one charismatic star who scored the goals and so on. They just weren’t. There were always other players who were more skillful and got more glory and did more scoring.

Rob Woods:

And my view is, the same is true in fundraising, that you don’t need to have amazing attention to the detail and skill, in the various bits of fundraising, to help your team succeed phenomenally. The most telling bit, probably, I’ve done now 65 podcast interviews in the last year and a half. One of the most telling moments in the whole series is in episode 53 when I was talking to Paula Radley from Greenpeace UK. And I don’t know if you know the story of just some brilliant things Greenpeace UK did in the summer of 2020, with all that fear and worry about safety and so on. This is after the first lockdown, the government is encouraging us to go out about our business, albeit in a safe way and Greenpeace were cautious about whether they could or should get their face-to-face fundraising team out the door, seeing if people who still care about the environment wanted to donate and sign up and so on.

Rob Woods:

Hardly any charities I’m aware did do that. Understandably, they were cautious about risk but intriguingly, Greenpeace UK and Paula, the leader of this team, she managed to get her team out for, I think, several months in some of UK and they went door-to-door and one of the… I mean, there’s various interesting innovative things they did in order to manage that risk, crucially, for the fundraisers themselves, as well as the householders. But one of the eye-catching details is to reassure fundraiser and householder, in addition to doing a door drop in advance, so you could signal you didn’t want them to ring your doorbell. One of the eye-catching things was, they created a two metre long mat with a lovely picture of an orange Orangutan in a rainforest with his arms open.

Rob Woods:

And they unrolled that on the door mat before they rang the doorbell and they had a metal hook to ring the doorbell, so they weren’t touching it. They would stand two meters back and went, can you imagine a householder opening their door, seeing a polite and respectful two metre back Greenpeace clad person and they can’t help but see an image which brings to life something to do with their values and the environment and what a difference that made. Now, they did a bunch of other things. The good news story is, they raised 20% more money through this campaign than in equivalent pre-COVID campaigns the year before. The most telling bit of the interview is near the end I say, is there anything else you learned or that you thought was interesting about why this success managed to happen?

Rob Woods:

And Paula was really clear she said, the most important element in why all of this heroic thing happened was, our senior leadership it trusted us and empowered us to make the decision. They empowered me, as the leader of this team, to judge the risk appropriately, look after my team and manage the risk for the organization and for householders. It’s because I’m so trusted here, without that it wouldn’t have happened. And to be honest, my view is, in lots of organizations, that sounds easy but in practice, that is actually one of the hardest things in leadership, is to create that culture where people are empowered to be at their best. To be, in the sporting metaphor, at their best, doing their skill, going and scoring goals. And the leader’s job is to empower you and create an environment in which you can go out and do that. Leading from the back, not the front, is a thing that the 16 sports captains did.

Rob Woods:

And another of the seven is, actually, a willingness to do the thankless jobs in the shadows. Now, lots of you are wholly aware how much you’ve been doing thankless jobs in the shadows for the last year and a half. And my message is, I get that and well done, it’s the right thing to do. So much of leadership is not about limelight or is even seen but the best leaders find a way to do what’s necessary, do what it takes, so that, for instance, in this context, the face-to-face team can go out and succeed. So, when I said to Liz, to go back to the area of their example, what do you think the balance is between time you spend on looking after team and culture and looking after people versus how important is the donor? She said, almost all of her energy is spent thinking about team and colleagues rather than donors.

Rob Woods:

Now, again, big caveat, lots of you on this call, you’re in an organization where you’ve got to do lots of fundraising and some leadership. So, I get that, I’m not saying you don’t have to spend lots of energy on donors and decisions about data and fundraising as well. So, of course, you do, because you’re doing both jobs. But when you’re doing your leadership bit of your role, Liz was emphatic that she does everything she can to empower the other person to be at their best and do their skill. But her role is making that possible. I thought it was really interesting that various people I’ve interviewed, they said they were good leaders but their greatest Achilles heel, two or three people said to me is, I should spend more time with my team. But I end up not spending enough time with my team because I know fundraising in and out and I end up spending time on fundraising and then, some of my time with my direct reports drops.

Rob Woods:

Joe Jenkins, when he was in our Bright Spot members club, he put it this way. Originally, years ago, there was a notion that you have to be all knowing and clever and the expert and when life’s moved slower, that was a bit more possible. Actually, it was never very effective anyway, because you need to empower people with agency even then. But Joe Jenkins, when he spoke, a couple of years ago for my club, he said, emphatically, now what the most effect leaders tend to do in fundraising is, they spend their energy being a gardener of culture and helping people feel confident, proactive and skillful. They spend time as gardeners, not chess masters. And that’s part of, again, part of the rationale, in my view, for why the very successful Bee Campaign for Friends of the Earth years ago was so successful. It wasn’t one person’s clever strategy, it was dozens and dozens and dozens of strategies and tactics consistent with the whole, that people were empowered to creatively implement.

Rob Woods:

On breakfast club, couple of months ago, Davinia shared a really similar thing. And if you want to check it out, episode 62 of my podcast. Although, her charities had stunning results in the last year, hardly any of what Davinia talks about is fundraising technique. Almost all of it is what she’s done as a leader and with the team, to help them do really well. And, again, I appreciate that you guys understand this. Maybe the intention of my presentation is just to reassure you to keep doing what you’re doing. If you care deeply about your team and you sometimes struggle to make time for that, my signal is, of course, you’ve got to get your own fundraising done. But I have observed, any time you can create to do this kind of water carrier leadership, unglamorous tasks, to help someone else succeed, that’s what I’ve observed in sport and in fundraising.

Rob Woods:

In terms of doing it practically, this is so… I appreciate, you might be really struggling and fed up now. And the last thing you need is me telling you to do more of this and less of that. So, that’s not my intention. But one of the most valuable things I’ve noticed in the last year and a half, if you possibly can, is literally look after yourself first. So, A, mentally, you can’t help someone else if you are struggling, because of the understandable demands and pressures and decision-making and lockdown. But also, literally, by which I mean, years ago, I wasn’t at my best during the day because I’d intended to do a bit of meditating or intended to go for a little walk or intended to read a book to inspire me and I didn’t get round to it because the day came at me. One of the most powerful shift I made, years ago, was to read this book called The Miracle Morning. And I mean, it’s not a sexy thesis but it’s an effective thesis.

Rob Woods:

He says, do the thing that looks after your own wellbeing first thing in the morning. And for some of you, that’s a walk. For Di Gornall, it’s 25 minutes of exercise on her static bike. For some of you, it’s just pausing to be… What am I grateful for? For five minutes or do some journaling. Whatever the thing is, do it early in the day before the day comes at you, that gives you maximum chance of being able to do this other stuff I’ve talked about, about being relentless and working so hard to look after your team and so on. Look after yourself first is still among the most valuable habits I could recommend you try. Again, you might have a tiny baby who’s up at five in the morning anyway, so I appreciate, not all of these things work for everyone but I think this is a crucial thing. Across the day, get it done early and then, you have the resources to do this other really challenging stuff for the rest of the day.

Rob Woods:

Give it time. Rich Turner was a very successful leader of Solar Aid years ago and they achieved fabulous growth, a small charity. And when I asked him, as a leader, what’s the single most interesting improvement you’ve made in your career as a leader? He said, I listened to a podcast and it sounds so obvious Rob, but I realized I wasn’t doing it. The podcast said, at a minimum, for half an hour each week, make sure you have half an hour with each of your direct reports in your team. And that sounds so obvious but he said to me, because I love fundraising and I’m good at fundraising and often I intend to do that but it ends up getting nudged away. And sometimes you go two or three weeks without having that regular catch-up with your team. And Richard said, once I started doing that and locking it in, not bumping it for a donor or fundraising things, apart from in an extreme emergency, he said, I was amazed how amazing it was.

Rob Woods:

And his little recipe was to do… at least, 10 minutes of it was just listening to the other person, what they wanted to talk about, rather than Richard control the agenda. Be careful what role you play. It’s just really tempting, every day, as a leader, people come to you with problems and often they’re problems you know more about because you’ve got fundraising experience before you got promoted, beware how easy it is to just give them the answer. And the good news about this tip is, you have a chance, at some point, across the next couple of days, to practice this, because someone will come to you, oh, what should I do about that failed sponsorship proposal? In that moment my advice is, pause. Don’t jump in with the easy answer and say, well, what do you think? And often they’ll say, well, I don’t know.

Rob Woods:

But if you just hold your nerve and believe in their abilities, and say, ‘well, what do you think are some of the issues?’ In that moment, it’ll take a tiny bit longer but you send a signal to them that you believe they’re capable and have some of the answers, that massively pays you back in the medium-term because people become more and more empowered and likely to think for themselves, rather than come to you for advice. So, what great leaders do, in my view, is they empower everyone else around them to become the best they can be to become great leaders. And that tactic, though easy to explain, is not always easy to do, because it’s so tempting to just give the answer and save time.

Rob Woods:

Well, I hope you found these ideas were helpful food for thought. If you did, please do remember to subscribe to the Fundraising Bright Spots Podcast today, so that you can get access to lots more episodes, including for instance, Episode 78, which is on the same subject of outstanding leadership. If you’d like a full transcript and a summary of the episode, as well as a couple of helpful links, go to the podcast section of our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk. And if you’re curious to see my full film and our notes about how to do this style of leadership, it’s one of many dozens of films in our learning library, for fundraisers who are part of the Bright Spot members club. If you don’t have membership but you’re curious about how the club works, both for individual and for teams, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join.

Rob Woods:

Now, I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who’s been commenting and sharing this podcast on social media or to your colleagues, helping us to get this free content out to as many charities as possible during this difficult year. And if you are able to take a moment to share today’s episode, I’d be really grateful. Also, I’d love to hear what you think about this episode. You can find me easily on LinkedIn and on Twitter, I’m @woods_rob. Thank you so much for listening today, best of luck as you develop your fundraising and your leadership skills. And I look forward to sharing another Fundraising Bright Spots episode with you very soon.