I started my role as Chief Executive at Career Ready exactly a year ago today. This is my second charity CEO role and even though my leadership journey began 15 years ago I still cherish the opportunity to reflect and learn from my experiences and colleagues. Here’s five lessons I’ve learnt in 2020:
Many people give flowers, I tend to give cupcakes! On my very first day as CEO, I arrived bearing gifts. I got some of the best cupcakes in the capital delivered to our London office. I also wore one of my favourite ties with a west African print on it (think Jon Snow kind of vibe). These were two small yet genuine actions that reflect who I am, made me feel good and I didn’t overthink them.
When a colleague asks me how am I doing? I tend to pause and answer the question honestly rather than provide a robotic retort. Although it was a crazy year, I felt really comfortable being my authentic self and appreciating my agency. Earlier in my career I spent way too much time deliberating about how much of myself to leave at the door.
My diary is transparent by design for all of my staff to see what I am doing and when. That even includes when I have multiple scheduled 15-minute breaks slotted in across the week to do some colouring in my 90s hip-hop colouring book.
Trusting my instinct
Nobody saw Covid-19 coming and for a charity that exclusively delivers its offer within schools and colleges across the UK we were impacted significantly. When the first lockdown was announced, I had only been CEO for nine weeks and yet critical decisions had to be made and fast. I trusted my instinct and using the expertise of my team, I made the most informed decisions I could at that point in time. My instinct is not just a gut hunch, it’s a cocktail of my experience, wisdom and emotional intelligence that has been proactively nurtured over time.
Getting to know and trusting colleagues
The overall responsibility of delivering our charitable objectives sits with me, but I definitely do not have all the answers. Hence why I value the concept of team. Inheriting a team can understandably come with its challenges and I did not want to be that new organ transplanted into a body that rejects it. Quality, trusting relationships take time to develop, and unfortunately due to the pandemic there is still about 40% of my UK-wide dispersed staff team that I am yet to meet in person.
The circumstances meant I had to show an immense level of trust within my team before even really knowing and understanding who they were as individuals. I understand my style of leadership might not resonate with every staff member and that’s ok. I focused on the importance of presenting a level of vulnerability, which did not just say I trusted my team but showed them that sentiment too. 12 months in I am still getting to understand my staff team as people and professionals, but prioritising their wellbeing and productivity feels like it has helped build respect, mutual understanding and the vulnerability has been reciprocated.
Managing my pace
Career Ready ticked all three boxes of what I wanted in my next role and it also resonates with my lived experience of social mobility. Because of that, my creativity and enthusiasm for swift development can sometimes come across overzealous. Context is good and my senior management team do a great job of grounding me with regards to where we were pre me to where we are now to where I want us to be. The rapport I have with my direct reports has supported me in finding a pace of travel that works. It’s ambitious enough to reflect my vision for the charity, takes my team alongside me and also appreciates the sturdy foundation that we can now build upon.
2020 is obviously a year we’ll never forget. It was a year where attending funerals of loved ones and friends via zoom became too much of a norm. A year where being a Black male brought much suppressed trauma to the surface through rage. A year where the annual budget of our charity suddenly looked very different overnight. Regarding the high volume of Covid-19 fatalities, it got to the stage where I had to provide my team with some context and transparency about what I was dealing with on a personal level. I find discussing racism in society exhausting, but still knew I had to send a very personal email to my entire charity following the death of George Floyd last May titled ‘The reality of racism in 2020.’
When it came to how the pandemic would impact the charity, it led to us suspending all face-to-face delivery, creating an online offering and cancelling over 1,000 summer paid internships for young people across the UK. In addition, we communicated to our employer partner network with an ask for additional support that reinforced how much they value our existence.