Successful leadership isn’t a straight road

Posted 07 Mar 2019 | Blog | HR & Leadership | Pilotlight Programme

Three years ago, I became CEO of the charity BeyondAutism. When I started we had just one school. We now have two schools, an adult service, an early year’s service, outreach and training, and employ 170 staff. We’re really beginning to gather pace and momentum and aspire to become national. My road to leadership hasn’t been a straight one, and to inspire you on this International Women’s Day, I’ve been asked to share my leadership story and give you some tips for success.

I didn’t want to do anything ordinary

My story begins when I finished school, and I was determined not to pay to go to university. That might sound unusual, but I decided I wanted someone to pay for me to go instead. I started the process of joining the army and also knew I wanted to teach, but not in a mainstream school. I didn’t want to do anything ordinary or mainstream.

In the end teaching won out and I went to the Peto Institute in Budapest to study teaching children and adults with learning and physical disabilities. It was a sponsored course, attached to a UK university and resonated with everything I believed in. I loved every minute of it, and when I finished the course a group of us returned to the UK, bringing back the pioneering methodology we’d learnt. Unfortunately, it had the Marmite effect and, after four years of intensive studying, I ended up with a profession that no one recognised in the UK. When you’re 22 years old, that’s a really hard pill to swallow.

Climbing the career ladder

With my heart firmly focused on influencing change and having an impact on families living with disability, I started a job at Scope. I quickly climbed the career ladder, initially becoming a teacher at one of their schools, and then leading conferences that helped gain the charity national recognition. I ran training overseas (including in the Gaza strip!) in collaboration with organisations such as the International Cerebral Palsy Society and the National Red Crescent Society; and set up a service in South Africa. I then became a Head Teacher at one of Scope’s special schools, finishing my career with Scope as Director of Services for the South of England.

Working at Scope was a great experience and I learnt loads, all the time focussing on how I could have the widest reach and biggest impact possible. However, I was now at the point in my career where I wanted to experience setting something up from scratch myself, so I moved on to set up a free school for children with autism. That was undoubtedly the most challenging 18 months of my life! The school had already been approved when I took the role, so my job was planning, launching and then running it. It was exhausting, and again it taught me a lot (including how you bring on board a new staff team a week before your 30 new pupils turn up!).

Becoming CEO of BeyondAutism

Taking the position at BeyondAutism was an opportunity for me to increase the impact I can have on families, and step into a senior role back in the charity sector. Alongside my duties as CEO I’m doing an MBA, which helps me reflect on all I’ve learnt throughout my career. One of my development points is networking and getting outside my comfort zone, which is where Pilotlight comes in. As a CEO I often walk in to a room where I don’t know anybody and, despite what you might think, my natural reaction is to go and find the tea and coffee and not really engage with anyone. Becoming a Pilotlighter has been a great opportunity for me to be out of my comfort zone. The Pilotlight Programme is all about influencing and coaching a charity CEO through the challenges they face. As Pilotlighters we advise and provide a space to reflect rather than telling them exactly what to do. For me learning new ways of listening and influencing is proving really valuable.

My tips for successful leadership

As you can see my road to successful leadership hasn’t been a straight one. There were lots of turns, dead ends and precipices along the way. The test is whether you’ve got the tools and resilience to take the next step. These are the three things I’ve used to help me focus, and I hope they inspire you too, wherever you are on your leadership journey:

  • Always challenge yourself

Look at all the possibilities. Be open to the fact that there’s a whole world out there that you haven’t met. If you want to influence people you often have to get out of your comfort zone.

  • Don’t live in fear of a bad result

I’ve made applications for roles along the way that haven’t been successful, and I’ve reflected, and I’ve learnt from it. You’ll be disappointed in yourself, but you need to teach yourself resilience, so you can bounce back.

  • Believe in what you know and stand up for what you believe in

A real driver for me is seeing the discernible impact I can have on families and children, especially in the early years. A family that feels more empowered and resilient will make better choices for a child. Our early years’ service at BeyondAutism is run next door to my office, and I love popping in now and then because it’s good to be reminded why you’re doing what you’re doing.