Nancy Dent works in the People team at Restless Development and is a freelance writer. Ahead of Director’s Conference, starting in Kathmandu this week, she was dispatched behind the scenes to Restless’ Senior Management Team meeting. In this special report, she uncovers what it’s really like at the top of an international NGO.
Like many of us at Restless Development, I am lucky enough to have an extremely varied job role. One day I am figuring out how to get country directors from all ten of our country programmes to arrive safely in Kathmandu at the same time, and the next I am discussing staff wellbeing with leading emergency humanitarian responders.
Sometimes I am spending two days in a board room devoid of natural light (but full of tiny packets of shortbread and a fancy coffee machine) with the Senior Management Team. These are the days that no one hears about – who is really interested in the seventy five minutes spent discussing budget reforecasting, or the hour spent discussing the risk register? What even is a risk register?
When my Google calendar reminded me about the ‘SMT Quarterly Boardroom meeting’, I can’t say that I leapt out of my chair in excitement. Usually, the People & Performance Coordinator is invited to take the minutes at the two day extravaganza, but he was on holiday this time and so I was next in line to the laptop.
Fourteen of the international senior leadership team were in attendance. I ensured that I was the first to arrive at our partner KPMG’s offices in Canary Wharf, so that I had plenty of time to panic, worry about my scuffed shoes and get tangled up in my laptop charger before the Big Bosses found me looking incongruous in an enormous corporate meeting room on the 13th floor. Most of them arrived clutching coffees, all of them made jokes about the fancy surroundings, and a couple of them arrived late. I plugged my laptop into the desk and the meeting began. Here is what I learned:
The Senior Management Team are crazy passionate about Restless Development.
This is an obvious statement, but an important one to make. Not a single item on the agenda was met with a groan, or a resistant glance at an iPhone under the table. Dan, Head of Finance, was scheduled to present an hour and fifteen minutes of the ‘consolidated budget and reforecast position’ and despite having a Powerpoint presentation that solely consisted of graphs and bar charts, it was delivered with bone dry humour and everyone seemed genuinely gripped by his numerical jargon and tales of internal audits.
International Director, Beth Benedict, talked about two of the country programmes she supports – Zimbabwe and South Africa. She was overcome with excitement about each of them, and kept glancing worriedly at the time as she waded through an extremely detailed presentation. Beth wanted us to know about everything from the amazing work of Farai, Zimbabwe’s Country Director, to the tricky political context of the country programme, and the individual personalities of the management team. She overran her allotted time.
None of them like spicy food.
Considering the international reach of Restless Development and the fact that each SMT member has a good few years of experience working across the world, I was surprised (possibly alarmed) at the terror that greeted Perry when he suggested cooking for everyone at their next away day. Currently acting CEO whilst Nik Hartley was on paternity leave, Perry is a bearded American with a penchant for waistcoats, all the way from Tennessee. The second he mentioned hot wings and chilli, there was a clamour of “Oh, please not too spicy!!” “Mild for me!” “Not again!!!” Either he cooks with the classic fire of a chef from the Deep South, or we are led by a group of wusses.
They want to feel connected to every single young person we reach – including their staff.
I was struck by the amount of detail the team demanded from each other. They questioned everything each other said, and everything was clearly underpinned with a need to find out exactly what happens on the ground in each of our country programmes. This extended to staff too – when someone mentioned the dichotomy between the senior leadership team and the rest of the UK Hub, the others immediately needed to know precisely what was meant by this and how they could rectify it.
Suggestions flew over the table – can we bring an Officer or a Coordinator into the meetings as observers, to represent the more junior staff members? What about relaying key messages in a workshop? It was clear that the thought of a discord between themselves and the rest of the organisation was not an aspiration of anyone at the table, and that there is a need for them to feel connected to everyone in the Agency.
Leadership is not easy but if you get it right it’s a lot of laughs
Perhaps it was Dan’s deadpan delivery coupled with the chuckles of Ben Sheahan (International Finance Director), or Kate’s (People & Performance Director) breezy attitude towards spreadsheets, but the 16 hours spent in the boardroom were actually quite a lot of fun. A soft toy was lovingly passed between the tables as the team discussed top level decisions about the future of the 1.8 billion young people Restless Development aims to support. It was a tiger, and a coincidental analogy of the team around me. Fierce but fluffy.