Transition Story: Managing Change in the Third Sector – Paul Boissier

“If this doesn’t work out – sack me!” Probably not the least ‘risk averse’ statement you could declare to your team of trustees in a new role. But as Paul Boissier has learnt, self belief and conviction are essential qualities for leadership. The particular incident in question concerned Paul convincing his board at the RNLI that three years worth of investment in contractors, would save money in the long term. As it happens, the charity made the money back within four months.

Paul’s career with RNLI is characterised by similar examples of risk taking. Pushing the boundaries of conventionality or what’s deemed ‘acceptable’ can feel uncomfortable in many situations. Not least when you’re at the helm of one of the UK’s most established, admired and respected charities, where taking risks isn’t always actively encouraged, or even sanctioned.

The lifeboat crews and lifeguards of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have saved at least 140000 lives at sea since 1824, so it has a special place in people’s hearts. However, as treasured as the charity is, Paul began to see it was on the brink of potential decline, when he took over as CEO in 2009.

On the surface it looked ‘perfect’, but as Paul dug deeper he knew the charity’s lack of any existing strategy would impact its future success – the charity couldn’t afford lifeboat capital, the boats were getting older and its future funding collateral was diminishing with a scattered population that weren’t working in collaboration.

He said: “I knew I wanted to make a difference and facilitate an organisation that’s sustainable with a clearer direction. We needed to create a more ambitious vision.”

Paul credits his personal characteristics rather than his ‘skills’ for successfully leading the charity through difficult times. But it was his business acumen, nurtured at the London Business School (LBS) that unlocked a different way of looking at the crucial nuts and bolts of money – how it’s spent and what it’s spent on – a skill that can benefit any organisation.

“It was a revolutionary eye opener”, he says of his year on LBS’s Sloan programme. “It provided me with a methodology for ‘making things happen’, a different way of problem solving and more awareness of how business works.” He adds: “In the Forces, we tend to think of people in business as better than us or more creative. But after the course I felt more confident in my roles as Chief Operating Officer in the Navy. And it completely changed my career path – from purely operations to business-based.”

Paul has enjoyed far more autonomy in the third sector, than his time in the Navy. However, he believes the roles share a similar theme. He said: “As Captain of the submarine, when you’re peering down that periscope, all eyes are on you, anticipating any potential mistakes.” He adds: “Fundamentally, I am the one who looks ahead further than anyone else and needs to make course corrections, as and when. I’d say people tend to judge your idea by the extent of the look of concern on your face.”

I knew I wanted to make a difference and facilitate an organisation that’s sustainable with a clearer direction. We needed to create a more ambitious vision.

Of course, new horizons can’t be reached alone. You need a supportive team behind you. Paul’s most important task was to get everyone on board with his vision, while favouring a non-directive style of leadership. He said: “I love the challenge of making things work, in an ‘off the wall’ and disruptive manner. Ultimately, it’s about facilitating people to trust their instincts and take those first initial shaky steps. And also learn that failure isn’t necessarily all bad, as it leads to eventual success.”

Paul is a great advocate for Lean methodology, pioneered by Toyota in the 70s. It started on their production line in Japan and is increasingly adopted by many different organisations and sectors. The ultimate goal of Lean is to eliminate waste, which is defined as anything that adds cost without adding value.

With this model, Paul has overseen changes that have had an incredibly positive effect on the charity – less duplication, wasted time and more efficient processes, which have so far identified £23m pa in recurring savings, and which the charity is now trying to increase by a further £28m pa. Importantly, these savings have been invested back into preventative work within communities to promote water based safety.

Paul says: “Ultimately though, the part I really enjoy about this job is interacting with heroes – I get to work with extraordinarily courageous people, who do this for no financial reward.”