Vulnerable people in society are entitled to advocacy under pieces of legislation such as the Mental Health Act, the Mental Capacity Act and the Care Act. My organisation SWAN (South West Advocacy Network) is a charity that provides advocacy under those acts, so that people can get their voices heard at times when that may be difficult or challenging.

We also work with local community groups and other charities to provide workshops that enable people to self-advocate, which is something we also regard as a social priority.

If we weren’t performing well as an organisation, we wouldn’t be able to provide vulnerable people in our community with the critical help they need – so it’s important that we’re functioning effectively.

What tends to come as a surprise to many people is that the voluntary sector is highly competitive. And as a charity, we’re very lean – so we can’t just throw money at problems. We have to focus on other types of solutions.

Firm foundation

For me, the answer is to build a healthy culture. We have to work in a way that’s sustainable for us as an organisation, and the people we serve. I want to build a culture that brings out the best in people. And my vision of that is a culture of trust an accountability – which is essentially the opposite of blame and micromanagement.

My whole ethos around work is rooted in strengths. The majority of charity workers have a desire to help others lead better lives. It’s not the type of industry people get into to earn lots of money – and, as most charities are quite small, staff tend not to be motivated by career progression either. So, workers are driven mainly by wanting to help people and to do a good job.  Those are really great strengths that make a firm foundation to build on.

If I turn to myself for a moment, I believe that I’m an honest, hardworking person with genuine intentions. And if I take that view of others – which I have no reason not to, given the above motivations – it becomes obvious to me that trust and accountability underpin how our workforce performs.

I don’t want to be micromanaged. If I am, I don’t perform well. I want to be trusted that I will work to the very best of my ability – so my starting point is that my staff will want to do their jobs in exactly the same way.

Wealth of ideas

In 2017, the Harvard Business Review published a report called The Neuroscience of Trust by Paul J Zak, who reported that employees in high-trust organisations have 76% higher engagement, 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity and 13% fewer sick days.

At SWAN, the work we do is very demanding indeed. We represent some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged members of society, often under difficult circumstances. That’s been particularly true over the past two years when, for example, the pandemic has prevented people from seeing their loved ones in care homes. So, we work in some pretty tough environments.

But every day, I hear great stories about all the fabulous work that my employees are doing and all the things they’ve achieved – and I’d be a fool to think that I know more about their day-to-day work than they do. So that needs to be reflected in how the organisation approaches work.

When you give people autonomy, it promotes creativity. My executive team often connects with the workforce in forums that we’ve set up to ensure we can engage with our people and take in their views about how they’d like things to work – and I’m always stunned by the wealth of ideas that comes back to me.

If I wasn’t open-minded enough to accept that feedback, I wouldn’t receive such huge gifts of imagination and insight from my staff. I want them to know that it’s okay to say stuff. I may not always be able to act on it. But my job as CEO is to make those choices – not to block the ideas from ever coming through.

Learning together

The biggest challenge to that approach is making sure staff properly grasp the concept of personal responsibility – which, for some, can be a real learning curve.

In essence, if I trust you to do your job to the best of your ability, and have a rationale for why you do what you do that grants you as much autonomy as possible, you must be accountable for your decisions and outcomes.

That’s the part where some people get scared: they want the autonomy, but not necessarily the accountability – and that’s quite a hurdle. If something goes wrong, and an employee claims that they didn’t know something they did know, or tries to pass the buck to somebody else, half of that crucial ‘trust and accountability’ equation breaks down.

Getting that right is particularly important in SWAN’s space, because we’re providing people with representation that, in each case, must be grounded in an underlying rationale. So that model must be echoed in how we manage our staff, too.

An important point to bear in mind here is that for me as CEO, providing my staff (and I have 80, plus some volunteers) with trust and autonomy is quite a risk – a big weight. But I’m not interested in blaming people for anything. So, if something goes wrong, put up your hand and tell me you got it wrong. As long as you can show me what you were trying to do, and take me through your decision-making process, we can talk about it and learn from it. And then we can come up with solutions and ways of ensuring we can avoid the relevant issue(s) in the future.

If you have a blame culture, everything just ends up being passed upwards. That clogs up decision-making, slows down the organisation and, ultimately, harms performance.

Strategic outlook

My main way of meeting that challenge is to be consistent and transparent, and to support people who are going through that learning curve.

I have to provide good training for my managers that underpins how we lead teams and make decisions – in fact, I’ve just put my middle managers though a course from the Institute of Leadership & Management with that very purpose in mind.

It’s also important for me to ensure that staff understand my role as much as I appreciate theirs. Often, as CEO, my view of the organisation is very strategic and long term, while the view of my staff, who are organising and providing the advocacy, is much more immediate.

That can cause tensions – and there will be times when I make a strategic decision that sparks a backlash.

I don’t consider myself ruthless, because I do feel the pain of those moments. But I must always help staff understand how I want to make the best possible decisions for as many people as I can – including the people we work with, our employees, trustees and all our other stakeholders.

Voices from our community: Vikki Holloway FInstLM is CEO of SWAN (South West Advocacy Network)