A chief executive and a parent...

A growing number of sector chief executives successfully juggle the day job with parental duties. John Plummer talks to four of them about how they make it work

Flexible working: Becky Hewitt, left, works a four-day week for Changing Faces
Flexible working: Becky Hewitt, left, works a four-day week for Changing Faces

As the chief executive of Children with Cancer UK, Dhivya O’Connor leads an organisation that has an income of almost £17m a year and 60 staff. She is also currently pregnant and has a three-year-old son.

"A lot of charities have procedures to support working parents, but the wider culture doesn’t allow for it," says O’Connor.

Her position is full-time, but she tries to work one day a week at home and encourages her senior team to do likewise to foster a flexible working culture.
O’Connor, 40, typically arrives just before 9am after dropping off her son at nursery, has a short lunch break and leaves at 4.30pm to collect her child. "It means I get to do a job I love and can also bring up my family," she says.

She admits it helped that she was appointed from within the charity. "I was a known entity and had established cred­ibility," she says. "But I do know that’s not always the case."

O’Connor praises the chief executives’ body Acevo, which has a women in lead­ership special interest group, and the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations for highlighting parent workplace issues. But she says more needs to be done.

"There has been some change compared with a few decades ago, but not enough," she says. "Unless we shout about it, it won’t change for our children’s generation."

Sixty-three per cent of voluntary sector employees are female, according to the NCVO’s UK Civil Society Almanac 2018, and with women tending to be the main carers of children, the role of juggling work and parenting still falls primarily to them.

A lack of flexible working, along with the reluctance of some boards to introduce other modern working arrangements, are among the barriers faced by parents applying for top jobs.

‘Easy to do’

Becky Hewitt, chief executive of the dis­figurement charity Changing Faces, says flexible working is easier than many think.

"I can honestly say it has never been a problem," says Hewitt, 41, who works a four-day week while raising daughters aged seven and nine. "More people should feel confident enough to ask for it."

Hewitt worked flexibly in her previous job at Girlguiding and it was a "red line" when she was offered her current position. Now three of the four members of her leadership team also work flexibly.

Hewitt says there is a "direct link" between flexible working and better recruitment. "If you get good people in and you trust them, it empowers them and doesn’t need over-managing," she says.

Working practices, says Hewitt, should feature more prominently in sector debates about diversity. "If we want more diversity, we have to model things differently," she says. "It’s something the charity sector should be taking a leadership position on."

Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation is doing precisely that by
including flexible working in job adverts. This approach is popular and attracts good staff, according to chief executive Fozia Irfan.

Irfan, 43, has four boys aged eight to 16. She is contracted to work from home for four days a week. "If I didn’t have that I would struggle to work at all," she says.

"I travel for meetings and come to the office a lot, but I don’t have the burden or restriction of having to be there."

Irfan is shocked that some still question whether chief executives can work four days a week.

"People are just used to operating in a traditional way, following a Victorian model of what work looks like," she says.

"Organisations are in danger of missing out on a lot of intelligent and articulate parents who won’t compromise on the value they give to childcare."

Juggling family and work isn’t solely a female issue. John Hitchin is chief executive of Renaisi, a social enterprise that helps to improve disadvantaged areas. He leads a 65-strong workforce while spending Fridays at home with his three-year-old daughter.

Hitchin gets treated as a full-time staff member but is paid 90 per cent of the full-time rate in return for working at home one day a week.

He says the arrangement works well, but extending flexible working to less senior staff is more challenging.

"Bluntly, it’s harder," he says. "If someone is delivering front-line employment advice it’s difficult for me to give them the same arrangement. I don’t feel guilty about this, but I do reflect on the fairness."

Seven ways to help working parents

  1. Remove the stigma attached to requests for flexible working during the interview process – any candidate should feel confident that asking to work flexibly won’t count against them and requests will be actively considered and welcomed.
  2. Think of policies and documents as positive ways to encourage flexible working rather than defensive ways to limit it. But ensure they’re clear and unambiguous so they cannot be misused.
  3. Be clear that allowing people to work flexibly is an important part of self-care, wellbeing and strong individual performance – as set out in Acevo’s new leadership framework.
  4. Encourage a results-oriented working environment and a culture that promotes work-life balance. Staff need to feel they work to deliver a result, not just fill time between 9am and 5pm.
  5. Develop digital solutions that support flexible working and improve collaboration and communications involving people who happen to be working in different locations.
  6. The sector should do more to highlight working-parent role models.
  7. Remember: diverse working models attract diverse talent.

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