SCVO’s Senior Leaders Programme – a reflection

By Eilidh Little on 16th Sep 2019

Kicking off in 2016, our Senior Leaders Programme has worked with over 90 voluntary sector leaders. Using an action learning set approach, we have helped and supported them to successfully navigate the digital landscape and be a leader in the 21st Century.

Our participants attend an initial residential session before splitting into two smaller cohorts for six monthly action learning sets, supported along the way through online communication as part of a peer network to safely explore organisational challenges.

Learning on our Senior Leaders Programme has been enhanced through access to digital and voluntary sector experts to stimulate ideas and discussion on the following topics: 

  • Leading effectively and creating an ambitious and curious culture  
  • Being driven by data  
  • Becoming cyber secure  
  • Understanding the importance of digital, user experience and service design  
  • Using flexible technologies to organisational advantage 

Reflecting on the 7 groups of leaders who have been supported through our programme to date we’ve noted some key observations and learning that are useful to share.

Meeting demand for different change makers 

Over the past few years our programme has become increasingly oversubscribed as word of mouth about its impact has spread.  Whilst this is great news for us to have such a wide pool to pick from, we know it means we can’t include everyone.  Additionally, we’ve found that several applicants are middle management who could successfully effect change in certain areas of the business rather than wholesale.   

To meet this need, we created an ‘Accelerator Programme’ - a 2 day residential with similar content but delivered in a more condensed way. This allowed us to offer support to those leaders who couldn’t be part of our fuller programme and future change-makers who wouldn’t be eligible at this time.

I found the [Accelerator Programme] really useful not because I have become a digital whiz but because I have integrated the benefits and efficiencies that digital approaches give into my strategy and tactics for developing and improving our business and [ways of] working

Morag Arnott, Executive Director, Winning Scotland Foundation

Finding common ground; seeing things differently 

In a programme that encompasses such a range of organisations, in terms of both size and remit, we anticipated that the diversity of the organisations and leaders would add strength to the programme, allowing for fresh perspectives to be shared. Additionally, we anticipated supportive peer networks would be created through shared experiences that are common in any voluntary sector organisation. This proved to be the case and added value to the leader’s experiences.

Spending time with the other leaders and hearing them describe similar issues in their own organisations helped me to realise that I'm not alone on this journey.

Dawn Ewing, Head of Strategy and Development, Bumblebee Conservation Trust

One uniting factor for all participants was that they were seeking answers whilst on a journey to digital leadership. Many were at the start and didn’t know where to begin and others had taken steps but were now facing barriers. Whether a CEO of a small charity trying to solve multiple IT problems with limited resources, to a senior manager trying to make service delivery change happen in a medium-sized charity, common ground was easily found, and challenges were explored from different viewpoints to aid progression.

Peer Support is invaluable  

Working in small groups of between 8-10 participants, the leaders bonded together from the offset.  Following an initial residential session, 6 x monthly action learning sets and regular communication via Slack they were able to build a solid peer network. Our leaders were able to share their experiences and challenges and provide solutions and learning from the different approaches they’ve put into practice. 

Underpinning this peer network were the facilitators - Maddie Stark of SCVO and Ross McCulloch of Third Sector Lab – and a range of speakers whose highly regarded knowledge, networks and advice were (and still are) utilised regularly by the leaders.

The peer support of the cohort members was a massive help over the course. They were a great group and have been so generous with their learning. I am always willing to say if I don't understand something (including to my team), but there is a comfort and confidence that comes from being with peers and learning together which is definitely unique.

Justina Murray, CEO of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs

Many of the leaders anticipated that the answers to their organisational challenges would be digital ones, from designing an app to investing in a bespoke CRM system.  Often this was based on what other organisations were doing rather than an evidenced need.  Once deconstructed and reviewed within the action learning set environment those expensive apps and CRM systems were parked as it was clear that the answers were more often about adapting the organisational culture than a ‘digital’ solution.   

It was about people, from getting buy-in from Boards, up-skilling staff and giving them ownership, to engaging with service users to understand how they wanted to engage. The digital element was about using appropriate tools and approaches to enable this change.

The course has enabled us to break down our challenges into manageable pieces. It has provided a direction - a road map. I have a better idea of what I am doing and having the tools I learned during the sessions will inspire others to follow.

Caroline Swales, Finance Manager at Aberdeen Foyer

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know 

Depending on the challenges the leaders were focusing on, certain topics had more relevance – some wanted to become data driven whilst others were keen to learn more about flexible tech.  Nevertheless, all topics were important to form a fuller picture of digital evolution in the voluntary sector, becoming layers of knowledge to assist their ongoing digital leadership journeys.   

For instance, several leaders utilised flexible tech in order to gather key data to improve service user experience, creating a more responsive work culture. This demonstrated a more integrated approach to the topics covered in the programme to meet their wider organisational needs.

The programme highlighted the scale of digital activity underway across the sector. This single reassurance helped normalise digital [evolution].

Neil Richardson OBE, CEO of Turning Point Scotland

An unexpected outcome for some on the programme was the way in which they embraced issues they had little engagement with or didn’t expect to connect with yet proved to have a significant impact on their organisation. A good example of this is Cyber Security, which became an important focus for many.

Cyber resilience wasn’t really on our radar before the [programme] but we have now completed a risk assessment and have a long-term plan to work towards Cyber Essentials accreditation.

Dawn Ewing, Head of Strategy and Development, Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Confidence has been the key outcome  

For many leaders ‘digital’ seemed like pioneering work before taking part in the programme. Through the ongoing activities, digital evolution became 'the norm’, broken down into manageable elements that could be easily applied to the sector and to their organisations. They also gained digital knowledge, and more importantly a steer on where to find the answers to future challenges. This resulted in the leaders feeling more confident to lead the way!

The main thing for me was confidence...I felt that I have been given the ‘digital’ remit within my organisation but not felt equipped to move it forward. The programme has helped me build that confidence and realise that we are all on a journey and we don’t have all the answers, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t lead the process.

Maria Ashley, Head of Communications at Firstport

Every step counts towards the journey 

Our Senior Leaders didn’t waste any time and applied their learning and adopted approaches whilst the programme was ongoing and have continued to do so since completion.   From gaining Board endorsement for investment to undertaking digital skills audits and providing training for staff or embracing flexible tech tools like Slack and Trello to gaining cyber essentials accreditation - all steps, big or small, are contributing towards a wider step shift in the sector for embracing digital for a positive change. 

The programme was just the beginning of a journey for some of our Senior Leaders, and for others it was a key point to stop, re-evaluate and progress in a more focused and effective way. The cultural shift for all will be ongoing, and the leaders now have the skills, confidence, roadmap and networks to lead their organisational change successfully.

We’ve made a huge amount of progress since starting the programme. I think having a framework to guide my thinking has helped me to focus on smaller chunks of work and make changes happen in a manageable way.

Jane Griffin, Head of Partnerships at LGBT Youth Scotland

You can read more about the impact of the programme and what our Alumni have been doing on our website here.

We’re still making a Call to Action! 

Our early ‘Call to Action’ continues to be relevant and whilst our Senior Leaders Programme has helped to make significant progress for the voluntary sector in digital leadership, it continues to drive us forward. 

We’ll continue to support - by delivering future Senior Leaders Programmes to create brave, bold and curious voluntary sector leaders.   

We’ll continue to promote – the importance of digital leadership across the voluntary sector and its real impact to organisations and their beneficiaries.  We’ll also look to influence across other sectors and funders to continue to support and collaborate.  

We’ll continue to develop - utilising participating leader's regular feedback and input to adapt and improve our offer.  We’ll also remain responsive to emerging digital trends, for example, Cyber Resilience has become a key component as its importance across the sector increases. 

We’ll continue to be sustainable – we’ll keep fees low and offer value for money.  A shift from fully funded places to a small fee is to ensure the longevity of the programme and its continued impact.