My journey to becoming the chief executive of a charity has been far from carefully navigated. My path has taken several unexpected and difficult turns and I have definitely fallen into some potholes! I have frequently felt terrified of making a mistake, and at times I've been pretty overwhelmed by the amount I don’t know.
So when the chief executive job at Changing Faces came up last year I was genuinely very uncertain about whether I should take this step. I took over from a very wonderful and charismatic founder who led the organisation for 25 years. Would I be able to carry on his amazing work? How would I bring about change while being sensitive to staff needs? And on a personal level would I ever see my family again?
But I was encouraged to believe in myself by a very wonderful mentor. And I genuinely feel that, given all the challenges faced by society and the charity sector, this really is the moment to step into leadership and be prepared to take the personal risks this involves.
In my first year we have completed a strategic review, have developed a new strategy for the next three years and have restructured our staff team. There have been some tough decisions – and there continue to be – but I am so glad I took the plunge.
So what I have learnt?
Build a network: make sure you can phone a friend
Before I started I spoke to five brilliant chief executives, asking them what to expect, what to prepare for, what might trip me up and what I should be focusing on in my first few months. They all had different perspectives that broadened my thinking and added more tools to my tool kit.
You can’t expect to know everything in your first year, so you need a great network of "phone a friends" to draw on. That hotline has been fairly busy and I’m looking forward to paying back in the future. Because of all this – and because I have a brilliant chair – I haven’t found it a lonely role. My experience is of being part of a very talented wider sector team.
Do the work on you
Being a new chief executive is a very vulnerable and exposed position. It’s very easy to put your guard up, but to make it work you have to show yourself to your team, your community and the people your charity supports. I know I can get defensive and withdrawn when things are challenging. But if things are challenging for you, they are for your team too, so that’s when you have to really push to make sure you are present for them.
I am someone who finds making mistakes incredibly difficult to cope with. But to really develop as a chief executive, or even just to cope with the day-to-day challenges, you have to have the grit to lean into the discomfort of learning, hearing the feedback, making mistakes, looking people in the eye and moving on honestly.
But it’s not easy. I take my courage from the amazing people with visible differences I have met since I started. One of our young champions, Nikki Lilly, who has a genetic condition called AVM, recently said to politicians: "I have to be brave every day. But I am asking you to be even braver and do what needs to be done to make change." So when I need to get over my inner critic and am in general danger of succumbing to the gremlins of self-doubt. I keep her in my mind…
I have two young children and over the past year I have frequently had to remind myself that it’s OK to be a parent and a chief executive – and to create the time to spend with my family. From the start I’ve been very open with my team about my need to work around my family commitments. When I accepted the position I agreed to do a four-day week. I find you have to protect that day off because it’s easy to slip into checking emails and responding.
But it is possible to work flexibly, while also delivering impact and pace, and that’s not something to feel embarrassed about. More people in my team are working flexibly now – to manage a range of caring commitments and other needs – and I know it is contributing positively to our productivity as a charity.
Listen and communicate
From the start I talked very openly about my expectations of people and what they should expect from me. I created a weekly chief executive update. But I underestimated how important some issues were to my team and sometimes cancelled all staff meetings because of time pressure, which led people to feel deprioritised.
So spend time with your staff team – and then spend more. It’s so easy to think you are more present than you are. Do an office walk around, have one-to-ones, attend meetings, sit out in the office – different things work for different people.
And listen! Stop talking! Don’t interrupt!
Becky Hewitt is chief executive of Changing Faces