Laura Treneer was Chief Executive at CPO (Christian Publishing & Outreach), is on the board of Global Connections, and is now a consultant with Frank Analysis Ltd.
What’s the biggest lesson in leadership you’ve learnt as Chief Exec?
I was internally appointed as CEO after being appointed as Innovation Director, and spent 6 years at CPO (which was set up in 1957 to help churches and charities with their communication and outreach). My focus when I started in 2014 was on transformation in digital and design, and on building a team, following God’s calling as best I could. Then, when I was promoted, I realised that ‘taking responsibility’ has a whole other meaning when the buck really does stop with you. It is something that CEOs and church leaders will understand viscerally. There was no conference or manual which could have prepared me for the significant changes we navigated over a few years, including moving premises after 30 years. It was intense: moments of pure celebration at God’s provision, and others of huge frustration at not having more hours in the day. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many. Sometimes success can be measured by focus, faithfulness, and the quality of relationships/partnerships. Internal communication can slip down the priority list when the inbox is chucking balls at you and there are loads of decisions to make – but I learned just how much it meant to people to know what was going on and be included and informed. It was always worth the extra time and effort, even if it was just a brief email asking for prayer.
CPO staff are not all in one location. How did you get the most out of your teams?
Realistically job descriptions always end up being shaped around the person doing the job. Someone with the right character, skill, vision and capacity will manage themselves, give their all without being asked and will bring something only they can bring. To limit this potential pool of talent and calling to a radius from your office with fixed hours seems crazy. I have three school age children and a busy church life (my husband leads our Baptist church in Brighton), so flexibility is crucial for me, as it is for loads of other working mums (and dads!). It would be great to see more women in senior leadership roles in the Christian world, which might mean creating part-time options. We’re seeing right now the need for remote working options. It really wasn’t easy moving CPO’s systems to the cloud a couple of years ago, or getting people used to using different tools for different locations, but now I’m really glad it got pushed through. Properly flexible working (not just compressed or extended hours) is pure gold for quality recruitment, and a strength when it comes to responsive strategy development.
Recently you have requested to change role – can you tell us more about this?
At the end of 2019 I knew very clearly after a great deal of thought and prayer that, for a number of reasons, it was time to ‘pass on the baton’ as CEO. The trustees asked me to take on a temporary role as ‘Chief Listening Officer’ for CPO as an external consultant through my company Frank Analysis. Since then I have worked with other Christian charities to help them improve their communications strategy and content. Communication needs careful listeners, and sometimes it’s just easier for someone external to do this.
I am aware that it is highly unusual for a CEO to step aside voluntarily, and yet still be involved. It’s not easy to stick it out when it’s tough, but it’s not easy to leave either. There are so many incredible CEOs in the Christian world who don’t remotely feel ‘at the top of the tree’ – more like the guy at the bottom taking the weight. Staying on can sometimes feel a threat to health, or family, or the agility of the work, but sometimes the faithfulness to do it anyway, to fulfil a calling, is essential. Stepping aside might feel like career surrender, or a threat to relationships. An article widely shared on social media recently by Eddie Arthur on kouya.net had a headline you wouldn’t normally see: ‘I used to be important: people who described me as a really good friend when I was CEO have not spoken to me since I stepped away’. This was a brave but real admission. We see in the Bible how God’s Kingdom needs people willing to fulfil so many different roles, all needed, none more valuable than another. It can be hard as a Chief Executive to acknowledge your own dispensability, but they are issues worth exploring.
At CPO you’ve have a great view of the Christian non-profit sector in the UK. What are the common challenges you see leaders in this space facing, and how do you think we might respond to these?
In the UK we have a tight and overlapping network of publishers, cross-church charities, new initiatives and unity movements, denominations, network ‘tribes’ and regional church structures all trying to reach local churches to engender action and engagement. CPO is unusual because it works and communicates with individual churches and organisations at all these different levels. One of the challenges I see is the barrage of important messages and excellent resources. It’s a good challenge: there is so much good stuff out there. Yet what local churches experience – and I know this from my own church in Brighton as well as the breadth of churches I’ve worked with through CPO – can be too much noise, not enough time, too much choice, not enough diversity, too much church tribalism, not enough partnership, too much wheel reinvention, not enough that meets the specific local contextual need on the ground.
There are also the common challenges of speaking in a society that can seem oblivious to Christianity, of making the most of our intergenerational intercultural beauty, of contextual mission in a changing culture. No one feels they have enough resource. If we’re all struggling to match our capacity and resource to the size of our vision, I wonder whether there is more scope for pursuing creative partnerships and clever cooperation. It’s not simple, but how can we listen better to what others are doing? How can we encourage one other, rather than compete? This feels particularly true at a time like this. We all need support and encouragement. No one feels they have enough resource – but also no one feels they have enough encouragement. A little encouragement goes a really really long way!
What have you been reading recently?
‘Say Yes to Life’ by Ruth Valerio
‘We Need To Talk About Race’ by Ben Lindsay
‘Do Pause: You are not a To Do List’ by Robert Poynton
‘The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry’ by John Mark Comer
Laura Treneer helps Christian charities with their communications and marketing: www.frankanalysis.com