Katharine Sacks-Jones: Trainers and teddy coats – as leaders we should bring our full selves to work

The face of leadership in the charity sector is changing. We should be willing to share more of our lives

Katharine Sacks-Jones
Katharine Sacks-Jones

I became chief executive of Become, the national charity for children in care and young care-leavers, last summer, straight after finishing my maternity leave.

I joined with a huge sense of excitement, but also with apprehension. Would I be up to the job? How would I come across to the board, to the team and to young people? Would they see me as a leader? Did I see myself as one?

Over the past six months I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership: what it looks like and what it means to me.

When I was younger, if I had an important meeting I used to dress up. There was a joke among my former colleagues that they could always tell if I was on my way to Westminster because I had my “MP outfit” on. This tended to consist of a skirt, shirt and smart blazer, with me dressing older than my years. It never felt quite “me”.

I guess that’s what I thought you had to look like to be taken seriously.

Now I don’t feel the same pressure to look a certain way. I have a big teddy coat that I wear to work most days. Often I wear trainers and sometimes jeans. I think I look more consistently “me”.

What we wear is not what matters. What matters is what we say and do, and what we believe. For me, that is about being authentic and bringing my full self to work. I realise this approach isn’t for everyone, but for me this style of leadership feels right.

I share with my colleagues and on social media not just things about my life and family, but also about what matters to me, why I got into this line of work, things that I find challenging, even my mistakes. In turn, they talk to me about their lives.

This isn’t always easy or comfortable. But a large part of the reason I feel more comfortable sharing in this way is that I look across the third sector and see other leaders doing the same, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

The face of leadership in the charity sector is changing. Leaders are more willing to be authentically themselves and to share more of their lives. The digital age is helping this happen. We are living at a time when social media means for many that the personal and the professional blur.

For some it is showing what they do out of work, such as sharing family or holiday or cat snaps. This is trivial on the one hand, but on the other it is important that people see leaders as multi-dimensional and more than just their work.

For others, it’s more personal: they share their mistakes, their struggles with mental health, how they’re living with grief. This to me feels like a brave and new kind of leadership and one that is both meaningful and inherently powerful.

Being myself and genuinely connecting with people – my team, the young people we support, the wider community – matters. I want people to feel comfortable around me. I also hope that they will see leadership as something they might do.

I’m still at the beginning of my leadership journey. But one thing I am clear about is that I want people to get to know the real me. And I hope this means they will in turn give me the opportunity to get to know them.

For me, this authentic connection is one of the greatest pleasures of leadership.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is chief executive of Become

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