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Interview: Dr Caroline Harper, CEO, Sightsavers.


 In the first of our series of interviews with thought leaders in the sector, Dr Caroline Harper, CEO, Sightsavers gives us insight into her experiences of leadership, the good and the bad.

Dr Caroline Harper has worked successfully in leadership roles in both the private and not-for profit sectors, including Managing Director of Amerada Hess Gas and most recently taking on the role of CEO at Sightsavers in 2005. Dr Harper has a PhD in Energy Studies and was awarded an OBE for services to the gas industry in 2000.

1. Who has had the biggest impact on you as a leader? And why?

For me, this has been people who work with me, more than mentors, bosses or other leaders. Although I have been very lucky in having had great bosses for most of my career! I look back at my previous roles, and now at Sightsavers, and there have been some incredible people in my teams who have been an inspiration and at some difficult times (both professionally and personally), a tremendous support.

2. What are the qualities you most admire in other successful leaders?

The ability to communicate with different types of stakeholders without ever sounding pompous or condescending or on the other hand without being sycophantic. Authenticity. Decisiveness. Empathy.

3. What characteristics are leaders today most lacking?

I have met all kinds of different leaders with varying strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses I dislike most are people who vacillate (often hiding behind ‘I need more data’) and those who are quick to take the credit when it belongs to others, and equally quick to assign blame when as a leader it is theirs.

4. What advice would you give your younger self?

Worry less about what people think of you.

Find something as well as your career to be passionate about.

Eat less.

5. What are the most important decisions you face daily at Sightsavers?

As CEO I don’t make daily decisions – its important that I delegate that to my Directors. It can be hard sometimes to let go but you must if you want to have good people around you.

The most important decisions I make are usually about people – who to bring in, who to promote, who to let go. How to allocate resources when there are competing demands and lots of persuasive voices (strategies never give you easy algorithms which tell you the answer). Also which opportunities to chase (I am really bad at saying no, and the phrase ‘how hard can it really be’ is one that I try not to say any more).

6. Are there any decisions that you’ve made that have left you awake at night?

Yes, although the sleepless nights tend to be whilst I am wrestling with dilemmas not once I have decided. Again it’s the people issues that are hardest – if someone doesn’t fit or you have to have a difficult performance conversation that keeps you awake. I used to wake up a few years ago in a sweat about big contracts we had signed and commitments we had made thinking ‘my god can we really deliver’, but my team have proved my confidence justified and I rarely do that now.

7. What differences are there between leadership in the private sector and leadership in the not-for-profit sector?

Less than people think, so many things are the same –

  • people issues
  • financial issues (don’t run out of cash – you die in all sectors if that happens)
  • operational issues (IT, logistics) that are sometimes seen as ‘second class’ but are actually the bedrock of an organisation
  • brand questions (and we constantly debate the ‘heartstrings/suffering vs empowerment/positivity’ messaging – the former still brings in more money unfortunately)
  • management of boards – don’t wake up one morning and find you have alienated your board or you are toast.

There were more arguments about pay in the private sector, but you would be wrong to think that was the only motivator. And of course NGO staff expect fair pay and have mortgages and ambition too, even if some parts of the media think they should work out of love.

One big difference I find is that the private sector are comfortable with, and indeed expect, their leaders to make decisions. NGOs want consultation, which is fine, but some want this to be constant and will unpick decisions endlessly, meaning they end up being very internally focused. I have therefore found that leadership in an NGO is more demanding in terms of saying ‘we have debated this enough, and not everyone can have a say on everything, nor can we reach unanimity on things before moving forwards’.

8. A lot of press is given to the need for more women in senior leadership positions, do you feel that this is this representative of what is happening in the not-for profit sector?

Personally I have often thought our sector is one of the best in this area. I know a lot of really strong women leaders within not for profits – in the UK I would name Barbara Frost at Water Aid, Lesley Anne Alexander of RNIB but there are many others. I experienced discrimination only when much younger.

Actually the bigger issue I think is for people with disabilities who are under represented, including in Sightsavers.

9. What do you like least about being a leader?

Those nasty people decisions – when someone just hasn’t worked out and you have to say so. Even if you’ve had conversations about performance and it’s not a surprise or a redundancy situation because the organisation needs have changed so it isn’t personal.

I really hate it when something goes wrong that I cannot influence. We recently lost an employee in a hotel fire in India, and I sat with our India leadership team, who were in UK at the time, whilst they grieved. I felt utterly impotent.

10. What are you doing to ensure that you continue to develop as a leader?

Not enough. I used to do non-executive director roles in areas outside my own (e.g. Housing), but haven’t for a while. I would like to take this up again as it gives you a fresh perspective on leadership challenges that are different from your own.

What’s next?

If you would like to speak to one of our consultants about any of the issues discussed in this interview, or how to improve your leadership skills, call 020 7978 1516 or email Yvette Gyles, Director at

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...