otrbristol | 29th August 2019

One year and counting – a year in the life of a new CEO

I would never put myself into the category of ‘blogger’, but I had a moment the other day where I realised I’ve been doing this CEO ‘thing’ for almost a whole year! It got me thinking about those 12 months, how it has been and hopefully, in writing this I’m not alone with some of the struggles and successes I have experienced.

I have always been really selective about the jobs that I have taken – I’m not apportioning it to luck, they were definitely choices and OTR is only the third place where I consider myself to have had a proper job. I have loved it since day one. I also think it’s worth mentioning that I never actually wanted to be a CEO, I realised quite quickly in my career that I like having a manager to pass things to, so that they can stay awake at night thinking about the endless possibilities that a wrong decision could lead to – and likewise reap the rewards of the good ones.

In the hope that someone reads this and relates to it, here are a few things I’ve experienced and learned from in my first 12 months in post:

Stepping into someone else’s shoes is really difficult

My predecessor, who I had the privilege to work with for over three years, did amazing things with OTR including setting a clear direction and growing the turnover by about 500%. I spent the first nine months thinking “What would he do – is it the same as what I would do? What would he think of what I do?” …you get the idea. Being an internal appointment meant that people already knew my strengths and weaknesses, so in my eyes the strengths had disappeared and the gaps were magnified. I have slowly learned (although not fully yet) that the way we do things is different, the way that we make decisions is different, the way that we communicate those decisions is different. But that’s OK, because we are different. The insecurity could eat you alive if you didn’t have your eye on it, I think it’s called ‘imposters syndrome’.

People will ask you questions that you have no idea how to answer

For me this occurred in the first instance on day three in my new role when someone asked me what my strategy was for the organisation. My reply was “Ask me in six months and I might have some kind of answer”. If I am honest I don’t think I did, but I had a slightly clearer rationale behind my decision making, although I will say that I am still more certain of the things that are not good for the organisation rather than having a clear and focused strategy. I tend to be someone that works instinctively from my gut and this so far has served me well, but I have found that having regular coaching from an external source has helped me to ground and understand my decision making. The strategy is coming together! Tick.

It’s the money that keeps you awake

My biggest fear in taking the job was the financial side of OTR. People’s jobs, contractual requirements, public money, ensuring that our spending on young people’s mental health and wellbeing was meaningful and in line with our strategy, that’s the definition of pressure right there. I quickly realised that this is where you bring in the people with the know-how. Working closely with our finance team, asking the same question over and over again, not pretending to be the expert, using the skills that we had in house and sharing the load meant that 12 months on, its an area that I feel both confident and supported in. Now, room for error (as much as possible when working in this sector) is minimised, this equals sleep! The lesson here is that I don’t need to know/ do everything – teams are there for a reason, use them.

It’s lonely at the top

My previous boss would say to me that it’s lonely when you are the CEO.I remember thinking how can you be lonely when we sit across from each other everyday and chat about everything. But now I get it, I like a share but there are some things as CEO that you just need to sit with in silence because the ripples that the share would cause are not worth it. Even when big decisions are made by the whole management team with an agreed understanding of the consequences, the true potential fall out of those decisions rest entirely with you and you alone. That said, you can push the boundaries of what is appropriate to share, I’ve certainly shared as much as I think is necessary for the management team, and the wider staff team in some cases, to be able to fully understand OTR. The opportunities and risks mean that actually the responsibility of the role gets easier as the months go on. The more information that people have, the more empowered they are to use it in a constructive way.

You got this

I might be jumping the gun a bit with this one, but certainly as time goes on I take moments to look around and observe the thing that you are trying to do. So far, nothing is jumping out at me and telling me that I am getting it totally wrong, and I actually have a quiet confidence that I am getting quite a lot right. This comes in subtle forms quite often through the development of ideas across the services, a ‘that’s incredible’ moment when you hear what some of the young people that we work with are achieving and just the laughter and the conversations that take place around the lunch table. I find that my door being open helps, and for me sharing who I am – both strengths and vulnerabilities – has meant that people have stepped into spaces where they can fill the gap, and I’m surprisingly OK with that. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: it’s all about the team.

Key takeaway things to write on my white board:

  • You don’t need to know everything and if you try to you’re on the road to nowhere
  • Make sure you take time to pause now and then to look around, you need to take in the good stuff and make sure you’re not missing the bad
  • Keep being open to your own development and learning
  • Play to your strengths (it’s got me this far!)

I’m confident to say that a new challenge presents itself most days, and no two days are the same.

I am also lucky to say that I would not have it any other way, and I genuinely have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn’t leading this incredible organisation.