For the past nine years I've been working with a unique charity called Pilotlight, which matches experienced business people from a variety of sectors with charities and social enterprises. This gives the organisations access to the strategic business support they need to become more efficient, effective and sustainable.
Being a ‘Pilotlighter’ involves working as a member of a team from different backgrounds and organisations, working with the charities and supporting them through the Pilotlight process. During this time I have also enabled a number of colleagues at work or through my networks to take part.
The attraction of getting involved in a scheme like this should be obvious – the opportunity to engage strategically with diverse social issues such as youth unemployment or critical community projects, while working with charity leaders and their teams, all in a completely different environment from the day job.
As most of the charities involved have been small organisations with up to 20 staff you’re able to get a deep sense of what the charity does and who is involved. The experience is very rewarding, but also humbling and inspiring to work with the incredibly talented individuals who make this their daily life.
I firmly believe that being involved with this sort of ‘live’ opportunity can prove far more rewarding, enriching and fun than the theory- or classroom-based activity you might find in the myriad conventional development options in more corporate environments.
Whether it’s getting involved with Pilotlight, becoming a school governor, a charity trustee or taking a committee role on a sports or social club, I’d heartily recommend a live development opportunity through a position of responsibility.
Getting involved with other organisations and taking responsibility in a different setting, culture and environment can be hugely developmental, with a two-way benefit for the individual and the organisation. That said, you’ve got to work smart and be disciplined as such opportunities can end up being very engaging and resource-hungry. Getting balance is important in your already busy schedule so there needs to be some degree of equilibrium – do both sides genuinely get something out of the arrangement?
In the case of Pilotlight that equilibrium is guaranteed through its managed process. Pilotlight facilitates these partnerships meaning people like myself can remain tightly focused on our core proposition. It means that we as Pilotlighters end up thanking the charities we’ve worked with just as much as they thank us.
The biggest thing I’ve observed in new Pilotlighters over the years is how quickly they learn listening and adaptability skills. I remember working with someone from financial services, very much used to a fast-paced environment, rapidly realising that she would need to adapt her style to effectively influence the decision-making of the charity leaders. The participants also learn to give more effective feedback and have difficult courageous conversations.
I recently participated in a Pilotlight event, run in collaboration with The People Director Partnership, on developing complete leaders. It might not come as a surprise that the event concluded that essentially there is no such thing as a complete leader. But the closest thing to a complete leader is one with enough self-awareness to know their own strengths, and to have well-honed adaptability. And nothing is more likely to develop those leadership skills than being thrown into a new environment.
Don't be late
HR professionals might not need more practise around difficult conversations and feedback – these are core HR skills – but one of the several things that opportunities like Pilotlight will provide is to teach more about financial strategy, risk, tendering, competition and a variety of other commercial issues from which HR professionals are sometimes one step removed.
I’d urge HR practitioners to look at external opportunities throughout their career; I wish I had done something like this earlier. What we need is for HR professionals, by the time they get to board-level leadership roles, to be rounded, experienced, strategic business leaders first and HR practitioners second.
Jane Drysdale is director of HR at Brunel University London