Most Admired Chief Executive: Clare Tickell, winner

The chief executive of Action for Children has overseen her charity's recent rebrand. Now she wants to get young people's voices heard.

Clare Tickell with her trophy
Clare Tickell with her trophy

Inspirational and approachable, chief executives should have a knack for outlining their charity's vision in a way that speaks to everyone, from service-users to senior ministers. And they need to master this at the same time as turning that vision into reality.

Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, has this knack. She joined the charity in January 2005 - when it was still known as NCH - after 16 years leading voluntary sector organisations. Her CV is also littered with non-executive and advisory positions on bodies ranging from Praxis, which supports refugees and migrants, to the Howard League for Penal Reform and several government departments.

As chief executive of one of the oldest children's charities in the UK - Action for Children dates back to 1869 and is the largest single voluntary sector provider of services for looked-after children - Tickell says she is "custodian of something that has been making a difference in the lives of vulnerable children for a very long time".

She adds: "It's exciting, and it's also a huge responsibility."

She points to the people now in their 70s and 80s who grew up in homes run by the organisation. The charity's recent rebrand had to involve them and win them over because they think of Action for Children as family, not just a service provider.

Tickell describes the charity's modernisation and rebrand as a painstaking process. "We started by going back to our basic vision and mission, and did a lot of work as a leadership team involving people across the organisation in redefining and expressing our core work," she says.

"We went on to ask how we should run the organisation and how we need to present ourselves to make sure we are pursuing that core vision. You need consensus about what really matters. You spend a lot of time talking to people across the UK and have to make sure everyone is involved in and understands the process. Getting the communication right and understanding the importance of communication and accountability are crucial."

Tickell says it is also vital to have committed managers and staff. "I need to make sure that my management team and I provide proper leadership," she says.

Her confidence in her staff is reciprocated. "She's great to work for," says Polly Neate, executive director of public affairs and communications at Action for Children.

"We're in the middle of a huge change programme and it has been brilliant working under Clare's leadership. I admire the way she keeps all the different elements in mind while never losing sight of the big picture.

Neate says the charity's rebrand would not have been possible without Tickell at the helm. "She has both the courage to do it and the necessary credibility with and understanding of a demanding set of stakeholders," she says.

"The level of change she has achieved is phenomenal. She is transforming this organisation from the inside out, starting with children and young people at the centre of everything we do."

Neate's view is echoed by Stephen Bubb, head of chief executives body Acevo, who describes Tickell as "a sector superstar who combines passion and commitment with a strong intellect, as well as a good sense of humour and fun". Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau, says she is a powerful advocate for the third sector.

Tickell obviously enjoys her job. "It's fantastic to run an organisation that works for vulnerable children and makes real differences - differences you can see - in their lives," she says. So what does she see in Action for Children's future?

"A lot of the thinking behind the renaming is about getting the voices of children and young people heard more," says Tickell. "We will be speaking out more and finding ways for children and young people to speak out. At the same time, we must continue to reach out to the most vulnerable children and identify and meet their needs.

"It's very important that we meet the needs of children from a range of ethnic backgrounds and make ourselves accessible to different communities. We need to understand technology and the extent to which young people rely on it. And we need to listen to what young people are telling us about the issues they face."

It's a demanding programme, but she sounds like the woman to get it done.

 Radhika Holmstrom

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