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WHAT CHARITY TRUSTEES CAN LEARN FROM SOUTHGATISM

Mita Desai

13 July 2021

Gareth Southgate has been a huge part of leading the team into a final for the first time in over 55 years. Here we explore 5 ways that charity governance could take inspiration from Gareth Southgate's management style during the European Championships

While the England men’s football team may have lost the final of the European Championship, it is clear their performance was outstanding and that they have brought joy to so many communities. It’s also clear that Gareth Southgate has been a huge part of leading the team into a final for the first time in over 55 years.

When unpacking what has made him so successful as a manager, I can’t help but see parallels between good football management and good charity governance. Here are five lessons that charity governance leaders can learn from Gareth Southgate.

1. Unlocking the power from diversity of perspectives is difficult but worth it

Southgate recruited and championed greater diversity in his pool of coaches and advisors. One of these advisors, Matthew Syed, author of ‘Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking’ reflects on why this has been so transformative in unlocking the team’s potential:

“If you put Redknapp, Pulis and Pleat in a room - all good footballing men - you would have high individual knowledge, but you would also have collective uniformity. You would have an echo chamber. They would reflect each other's assumptions back to each other. It would be comfortable, chummy and consensual. It would also be monolithic and non-creative. This tendency is a problem that extends beyond English football.”

Syed argues that challenging this approach can be met with resistance. In his article, he tells the story of how the appointment of Sir Clive Woodward - a world-class rugby coach – as an assistant coach at Southampton FC a few years ago caused uproar. "But he's a rugby person", football insiders said in horror. This is similar to the resistance met by those advocating for more representative boardrooms.

Angus Roy, Charity Director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, shares why those who change the makeup of their boards , stand to benefit “One of the biggest risks is having that one dimensional view because everyone in the room looks and thinks the same,”

He goes on to argue “When we talk about risk management we talk about risk horizon scanning. If you scan the horizon and everyone in the room looks and feels the same, they are likely all looking in the direction. The risks can come from any direction, if you bring young people into the room you bring in fresh perspectives and alternative views on life so you are covering the full horizon, that can only ever lead to better decisions and better risk management.

2. Taming egos strengthens teamwork and improves team performance

There was an abundance of talent in England’s so-called “Golden Generation” which contained Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and co. But they didn’t necessarily play as a team. What Southgate has been able to do is optimise his team’s performance by making less room for egos.

Andre Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, agrees. In this article he says, "Individual talent was highly valued, generously rewarded and strictly managed – but this celebration and focus eventually bred a culture of toxic individualism.” He goes on to describe “Southgatism” – a leadership style which is “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”.

Being a trustee is a team sport, where everyone is responsible for the outcome. The Treasurer is not solely responsible for finance, the Chair is not the King or Queen of Trustees. The point of a board is having accountability from the community, and this accountability can only be achieved through the collective power of the whole board working together. One of the ways to unleash this collective power is humility.

Ego makes board members more concerned with acting like they belong in a space rather than fulfilling the duties of a trustee. Removing a culture of individualism allows vulnerability. This allows space for people to share when they don’t understand something, when they need training to be an effective trustee or how to voice when they disagree. These are all factors that enable better governance.

Trustees often tell me how creating an inclusive culture has been transformative for the whole board. One older trustee recently told me: “I feel so embarrassed to say this, but for the last 5 years I have been serving on the board, I have never felt confident enough to engage in conversations around the finances. I felt I would expose myself if I mentioned I did not understand. It was only when we were looking to onboard an inexperienced younger trustee that we talked about onboarding and training to be a trustee.”

3. Championing inclusion, means centering it in all of your choices, all of the time.

Southgate doesn't just condemn racist abuse when it is convenient or comes with little personal risk. Instead, he has proactively used his voice and privilege to create change. This is represented in an open letter Southgate wrote to fans on why England players will be taking a knee:

“I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players,” he writes “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”


Trustees need to be proactive and use their privilege and role as a trustee to change things. Otherwise, I would argue they are holding their board back, and are upholding structures that harm those on the sharp end of exclusion.

4. Having lived experience of an issue provides insights that strengthen leadership.

Everyone has “lived experience” of something. When you have lived experience of the issue you have power over, it gives you unique insights that add value to your decision making.

In terms of football, research suggests that ex-players tend to make better football managers. An example of lived experience benefitting a manager  is Southgate’s decision to prioritise the mental health of his players. Southgate has lived experience of what it is like to miss a penalty when the hopes of your country rests on your shoulders. This does not mean he has all the answers or understands what every player is going through. It does however give him a unique insight on how important mental health is, which may affect how much he prioritises it as a manager.

Unfortunately, many boards are missing out in this regard. They often don’t have people on their boards who have lived experience of the issues they are facing and therefore lack these powerful insights in decision making. I want to highlight that this is not in contradiction to the first point, which draws on the power of having external insights into the conversation. Having people with both lived experience of an issue and external insights is needed for collective knowledge.

It seems obvious in football that having lived experience of being a footballer is of value. In a similar vein, having lived experience of the issues a charity is seeking to change should be obvious but it is not the norm. If all charity boards valued the lived experience of issues their charity is seeking to change, that would be a gamechanger.

5. Making progress means being open to continuous learning.

Southgate is willing to do things differently. Writing in The Players’ Tribune, he says: “I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions — as we should — but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”

As someone who has the privilege of meeting many incredible leaders changing the face of charity governance, what they have in common is they are not tied to being a perfect tickbox. Rather, what connects them is that they are curious, open to change and willing to see things differently. Thankfully, the number of these leaders in the charity sector continues to grow. If you are willing to do things differently, in the name of better and more innovative governance,  I’d love to meet you at our next free training. 

**Additional notes:

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