Michelle Doyle Wildman: What I've learned as an acting chief executive

It was scary to become interim head of Parentkind, but the experience has taught me the value of delegation and about the abilities I have

Michelle Doyle Wildman
Michelle Doyle Wildman

Being a charity chief executive was not in my plan. I can safely say it had never crossed my mind. My lovely boss was a powerhouse in this role, serious, innovative and charismatic. As communications director in her three-woman executive team, I drew a lot of energy from her strength and leadership.

It was a massive shock to all concerned when she was afflicted by a sudden, serious illness and had to take time off to recover. As the third director had already resigned to take up a great new job, I was the last woman standing.

Although I was as rocked as anyone by this situation, I felt compelled to step up and take the reins. Only 18 months before this happened, I was an unemployed strategic communications manager, so my learning curve has been hyperbolic, to say the least.

In the first few weeks, every day seemed to reveal a new thing to be terrified by. I am being a little dramatic, of course, but whether it was an important HR matter, operational decision or financial practice I had hitherto been unaware of, a massive variety of things suddenly needed my attention and decision-making power.

My top tip here is not to wing it: get advice, bring your managers and team leaders into the process and talk stuff through so you can proceed with support and confidence.

My team have subsequently told me that I appeared to be trying to do all three executive jobs at first, and they much preferred it when I started to delegate and involve them more, allowing them to learn and develop too.

Crucial to all of this was having a strong and collaborative working relationship with my chair, who was extremely generous with his time and guidance.

After about three months things started to settle down a little. The trustees asked me to continue as acting chief executive, although I’m sure there were concerns about whether my experience and communications background would be enough to lead the organisation.

My take is that communications professionals have lots of skills and qualities that are ideally suited to executive roles: being able to devise, articulate and execute a sound strategy; bringing different people together to collaborate; having great attention to detail; and focusing on evidence and impact.

One interesting volte face was that it was now me being thrust into the limelight, speaking at conferences and being interviewed by journalists, rather than preparing others to do it.

Having the communicators’ skill of being focused on clear messaging for my audience helped me do it well (but, of course, didn’t take any of the butterflies away or lessen the need for great briefing and preparation).

In the past few months, Parentkind has also undergone a radical rebrand. It was felt that the charity’s previous name, PTA UK, didn’t reflect the breadth of support provided to members and parents, or our ambition to champion their role as essential partners in education.

I did grapple with whether going ahead with this was right, with "the real thing" not being at the helm, but after some soul searching and talking through with her, the team and trustees, I was fully committed to seeing this through. The results have been fantastic, but no doubt I will look back on this time with some sense of wonder as to how we did it.

I feel proud and privileged to have led Parentkind, a fantastic organisation with a vital mission, during this critical period and will do so as long as necessary.

Many people have asked me whether I would like to be a chief executive in the future. Even though I am a committed comms geek, one cannot walk in the shoes of a chief executive without the experience changing you and teaching you about the depths and abilities you have.

I now know that I enjoy working with trustees and improving governance, and that I enjoy supporting an entire organisation to thrive.

I would encourage senior managers and directors from communications and other disciplines or business areas not to rule themselves out of the top jobs and to take up the opportunity if they find themselves in a similar position to me. You do have the right stuff to take that seat and succeed at the top table.

Michelle Doyle Wildman is acting chief executive of Parentkind

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