Becky Hewitt: Why does no one tell you the second year as a chief executive is just as challenging?

Continuing to learn and build resilience is vital after the first year of leadership

Becky Hewitt
Becky Hewitt

I can’t believe it has been nearly a year since I wrote about surviving my first year as a chief executive. In those early days I had a stack of books so well read they look like I’ve been chewing them.

But there’s no book that guides you through the second year, especially when it comes to going beyond the theory and starting the hard work you need to do on yourself. The learning gets tougher because it’s more personal, and there’s a nagging feeling that you should really have it all sorted by now. Combine that with the added pressure that you are now firmly in the driving seat and you feel even more responsible for the route you take.

So this is what I’ve learnt in my second year.

A different kind of energy

Year one was tough. A strategic review in three months, a new leadership team recruited, service transformation and new fundraising strategies. When we got to the end of that year successfully together, I expected us all to feel great, but I just felt exhausted. How was I going to do it all over again?

I felt frustrated with myself for not being more resilient and my first instinct was to throw more pace, more change and more energy into the equation. Luckily, my wise coach raised an eyebrow and asked: "Are you sure you need to do the same thing again this year?" If I was tired, how close was the rest of the organisation to burning out? Perhaps a different type of energy was needed.

Generally, my personal style is to be very positive, but in our all-staff end-of-year review I decided to talk to my team about how hard I had found the challenges we faced together. We ask our community to talk honestly about the challenges they face when it comes to having a visible difference – to share the dark and the light – so I felt we needed to do that as an organisation too.

Talking openly in that meeting was the start of us telling a new story about year two: a focus on consolidating our new approaches, strengthening our knowledge and expertise and developing our culture. As another brilliant chief executive said: "Each year you need to ask yourself what does Changing Faces need most from me now?"

Allow your leadership team to lead

In my first year, it felt very tempting – and sometimes necessary – to hold on to things tightly and take control. I like to think I have a hands-off leadership style, but looking back I was more directional than I had realised. I felt a lot of pressure to make my mark.

The thought in my head was: "If I’m not leading on these things, am I doing enough?" But there’s no point in having a brilliant top team if they don’t have space to lead. I’m now talking less and listening and asking questions a lot more. I knew things were moving in the right direction when I was taken aside after one meeting and asked if I was feeling all right because I’d been so much quieter than usual.

It’s so easy to feel you are an effective leader only if you are involved in everything, visible and quick with the answer. Of course, the opposite is often true.

Embrace challenge

I am not someone who naturally enjoys conflict. It’s particularly hard to embrace in a new role where you feel exposed. Consensus feels much more comfortable. I’m learning that challenge and debate are often where the best thinking happens, but I need to be comfortable with that myself if I’m going to expect it of our team.

Take time to celebrate the good things

I’m often so busy thinking about the things I haven’t done and looking forward to the next challenge that I can forget to pause and reflect on how much our team has achieved.

People across Changing Faces have done incredible things this year: balanced embracing change with day-to-day delivery, adapted to new ways of working, welcomed new colleagues and delivered amazing impact. It’s important to celebrate people’s successes and say thank you. I know I need to take even more time to do that.

Always learning

It’s so easy to get caught up in the things you didn’t get right early on and beat yourself up. But if you don’t learn and move on, how can you expect your team to do so? I try to be as open as possible: if it’s feeling a bit raw, I know I’m probably getting it right.

Being a charity chief executive will always be a steep learning curve. But it is without a doubt one of the most brilliant and rewarding jobs, so that personal challenge is definitely worth it.

Becky Hewitt is chief executive of Changing Faces

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