Becoming a first time CEO at the age of 52 in the charity sector would be considered as arriving quite late to the party, especially when most would get to that role in their ‘40s or some even in their ‘30s. That said, I was delighted and felt quite privileged to have been appointed as the CEO by the board of ActionAid UK, led by the Chair, Margaret Casely-Hayford, in August 2015 – firstly because it was a very reputed organisation in international development, and secondly because I did consider myself as an ‘outsider’, having arrived in the UK after having lived all my life in India till early 2005, and without the benefit of an international education or vast professional networks here in the UK.
I was also fortunate that while I was in my previous role with WaterAid UK, I had the opportunity of attending a course at the CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness called the Aspiring CEO course, thanks to my then CEO, Barbara Frost, which was also about making one think of whether one really wanted to be CEO. A few participants from my cohort came to the conclusion that the CEO role was not for them, but many others pursued their ambition and eventually many have become CEOs.
Having stepped down after over 5 years in the role in December 2020, I thought of looking back at my experience, reflecting on what I had learnt, and sharing that with those who, like me, are ‘outsiders’ and hence do not have a firm social or professional foundations in the UK – but also those who are considering their first ever CEO role. So this is what I have come up with.
1. Nothing quite prepares you for the role – you have to live it : As I mentioned, I did the course, I spoke to a small number of CEOs I knew, I read a couple of books. I also had coaching support, both formal and informal. All that was incredibly helpful and I would certainly recommend these and more. But you need to get into the role to feel it and navigate through all the uncertainties and complexities. I became a CEO in the year when there were huge controversies around fundraising and governance practices of charities. That was soon followed by Brexit, rapidly declining public trust in charities, safeguarding concerns, merger of DFID with FCO to create the new government department, FCDO, and of course, the massive Covid pandemic. Each one of these had a bruising impact on any international organisation, and for each one of these, one had to find one’s own way.
2. Do not underestimate the importance of governance : CEOs may have a tendency to focus more on the executive or operational side of things, especially in terms of working with their senior managers and the wider staff body. I learnt soon enough that it was of crucial importance to develop a strong understanding of the board, the role of individual trustees, their hopes, aspirations and concerns, and ensure that the senior management and the board of trustees have a strong relationship of trust, respect and accountability. And that doesn’t happen easily, especially when the external challenges can be quite draining and the expectations of the board members varied. But it is equally, therefore, more important for the CEO to prioritise and invest time in working with the board, and especially the Chair of the board.
3. Balancing internal and external engagements is not easy : There always has to be a compromise before one gets to a sweet spot, if ever there is one. Internally, the buck eventually stops with the CEO and hence, there is no excuse for not focussing on the internal issues. Yet, the organisation depends quite a lot on the CEO’s external engagement in building profile, developing networks and bringing in external intelligence. One needs to manage what works best given individual preferences and work styles, and that requires robust time management and quite often, long hours.
4. Role modelling is very important – even if it does not resolve everything : This needs to start from a place of self awareness and identity, so that the behaviours one lives and breathes demonstrates authenticity and integrity. It does not pay to try and fit into your predecessor’s shoes if it does not come to you naturally. Comparisons will often be made – take it in as an input or information. See if there is something really important that you can adopt or adapt. But be sure to model the behaviours that align with the organisation’s values and your personal ones as well. It also doesn’t mean that by role modelling alone, you can change behaviours you wish to change. Keep at it but also find other ways to communicate with perseverance.
5. Recognise individuals and their contributions – it matters : I have been surprised as how many people thought that CEOs are most likely to be quite distant and not in touch with colleagues other than the senior managers. Equally, it is surprising how motivating it is when individuals are recognised for who they are and their contributions appreciated. Make time to know as many people as you can. It is not just important for them, it is important for you as a CEO to know your colleagues much better than just in meeting rooms.
6. Trust your colleagues – you don’t need to have all the answers : Perhaps this is the most liberating of all thoughts, if one acknowledges and accepts that the CEO does not and will not have all the answers. And so, learn to step back with humility and let someone else take the space who knows better than you on a matter of their functional specialism. Use that opportunity to learn more and better, ask the right questions, challenge perspectives, but let them lead if that is the area of their expertise. That is always best for the organisation.
7. Banish the thoughts of the ‘imposter syndrome’ : It took me 2 years and 12 roles that I applied for before I landed my first CEO role. It can be very demotivating and make you think that being an ‘outsider’ means you will never make it, or worse, that you are simply not good enough, because you do not fit into the mould of the majority of CEOs in the sector. When you get the role, you may find that there was an internal candidate who had applied for the role and was quite good too. These may trigger the ‘imposter syndrome’ in you. Be confident in your own style, your approach and what you can contribute.
So once you have made up your mind to be a CEO, go for it by all means, but go for it with your eyes and ears open, be fully prepared for all the curved balls directed at you or coming your way, have your own reserves of resilience, but most importantly, believe in yourself and the mission of the organisation. And trust me, it doesn’t matter if you do not have a Masters or a PhD from a university of international repute. It doesn’t matter if you do not have a vast professional network. All that matters is you ! Once you get into the role, build a professional support network around you to learn from and share ideas. Keep looking for ways in which you can sharpen your skills. Seek feedback from those you work with. Very importantly, devote time to reflect on your journey from time to time.