We listened in on a conversation between one of our leadership experts, Yvette Gyles (=mc Learning Director) and Cassie Edmiston (Head of Fundraising and Communications, Prisoners’ Education Trust), discussing the challenges of leadership in 2022.
»Yvette: Thanks again Cassie for taking the time to talk to me about all things leadership. We last had a chat about leadership topics in 2019. It feels like an awful lot has changed since then! Back then we talked about the ethical challenges leaders have, and what it means to be ethical. We talked about the need for leaders to have emotional intelligence, show humanity, engage in continuous learning, be a role model, be strategic and of course, to focus on people. A tall order! The pandemic has thrown even more at leaders. What do you think the challenges are for leaders now, as we move through 2022 and the easing of restrictions?
» Cassie: It has been a tough time for everyone in the charity world, leaders included. All of those leadership qualities we discussed are still very relevant, and have been throughout the pandemic. We needed emotional intelligence to support people through all the ambiguity and change they experienced. We needed to show humanity – we all revealed ourselves and our homes over Zoom or Teams. We saw our colleagues in new ways, and the line between work and home got a bit blurry. As leaders this means we can’t ignore the reality of people’s whole selves and whole lives – boundaries have shifted. We have to be aware of that, and open to supporting people in every way we can.
We also needed to keep learning as new things were thrown at us. Right now my team are moving into hybrid working and it’s another learning curve. Some people love it, others are unsure. We need to test and learn, see what works, and be open to the idea that this too will evolve. I see hybrid working as yet another phase of change. The pandemic was obviously disruptive, but there is no solid end point – only the next phase we need to adapt to. That is a challenge for leaders – we may want to promise stability and say this is it now, this the new normal. But moving to hybrid working has shown me that can’t be true. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Just that we need to recognise there is no one way of doing things, no steady state as such, and so we have to keep listening to what everyone needs from us and be flexible. We also need to be honest about how we don’t always have the answers.
»Yvette: That is so interesting. The pace of change means we have to keep on adapting, and as leaders we have to be careful not to overpromise. Do you see benefits to the challenges the pandemic has thrown at you?
» Cassie: There have been some amazing achievements during the last couple of years. What impresses me across the sector is seeing so many organisations adapt so brilliantly. Bringing in new ways of working and new ways of serving the needs of our communities has been needed for a while now – and the pandemic really accelerated that. I’m really proud of some of the things we have done at Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET). For example, we launched our first free telephone advice line to ensure we could still support people in prison whilst our team were working from home. It was more important than ever that we were available to our community, and we really made it work. As we move into our hybrid way of working, we have to think about how to evolve that again. It can now feel a bit awkward being on the phone in a busy office, as we’ve forgotten what that is like. We need to adjust again, and keep doing the right thing for our learners. We have momentum, and I want to see that continue.
»Yvette: Last time we spoke you talked about the role of leaders in mental health support. You have already mentioned wellbeing. Clearly it was very important at the start of the pandemic that leaders gave people reassurance, as best they could, and supported people with their mental health and wellbeing. What do you think leaders need to focus on now, as restrictions are lifting in the UK?
» Cassie: My focus is always on wellbeing. If we support our teams, they can be at their best. In turn this means they can do great work, and we can deliver on our mission. If we don’t support people, we are doing our beneficiaries a disservice too. This is more strategic than it sounds. In order to keep doing the great work we do, we also need to ensure we are sustainable. We can’t keep piling pressure on people. We have to find meaningful ways to help people with wellbeing – in all sorts of situations. There is financial wellness to consider – especially here in the UK with the cost of living crisis. There is also wellness in terms of personal motivation and drive – ensuring people are progressing and developing particularly now that opportunities to learn from peers are different as we aren’t in the office all the time. And of course wellness in terms of health – making sure we support people as best we can. A big issue for me is workload and making sure my team isn’t burning out. It is so important to be aware of what your teams are working on, and what might be going on for them personally that can get in the way of that. Whilst on the one hand, having meaningful work to do has been a constant for many people – giving them focus and drive during the pandemic; it can also weigh people down – making them feel they have to give work all of their energy and attention. As a leader we need to take a flexible approach to priorities. Being aware of their capacity, their personal situation and their needs means you can help them focus on the things that matter most.
»Yvette: I absolutely agreed with this. As a leader, it is my responsibility to make sure my people are OK, and they can get the job done to the best of their abilities. It is so powerful when you can tell someone: don’t worry, that email can wait for a couple of days, that deadline can be pushed back.
» Cassie: I also want to acknowledge that it is a privilege to be able to do that. Not every leader has those options. Sometimes something can’t wait or be pushed back. For so many frontline services it is really tough right now. Making decisions in that context has very real and sometimes frightening consequences. I am always aware, and grateful, that in this role I can make decisions to empower people. Fundraising is a job that is never done, and doesn’t have a final end point, but we do have flexibility to act and make decisions that support our staff. I am also very fortunate that everyone I work with is committed to their work, and want to be at their best. They are flexible too – it’s a mutual thing.
»Yvette: You have shared your ideas on the need to support others. What about leaders leading themselves? What do we need to consider when it comes to looking after our own wellbeing? Without being self-indulgent.
» Cassie: This is such a tricky area for me. I don’t believe it is self-indulgent to think about your own needs and wellbeing, and I’d say as much to my team.. However, I do find self-care difficult. I also feel the responsibility of my team’s needs, and want to do as much for them as I can. But I am gradually learning that that also includes me!.. Partly this is about being authentic and vulnerable. I have a role in normalising conversations about physical and mental health. This isn’t about burdening other people with my stuff, but by talking about my feelings I can demonstrate to everyone that it is OK to share how they are feeling, if they want to.
»Yvette: Yes, there is a difference between sharing your feelings and talking about your feelings, to dumping them on someone else. So what have you been doing to create that safety at PET?
» Cassie: We’ve introduced a few things to create those spaces. A number of staff went on some brilliant training to become mental health first aiders (https://mhfaengland.org/). We asked the same trainer to run a session for all staff on stress and resilience. We learned a lot about ways to support ourselves and each other. We created a resource hub of links, reading recommendations, podcasts and videos to help in different scenarios. We also have to be clear on the limits of support we can offer. Sometimes we don’t have the skills to help people, and so we also have an Employee Assistance Programme which provides a confidential and private support service, for those times when people don’t want to share with colleagues. We also have lots of informal spaces and discussions, where people can share if they want to. By normalising conversations about health and wellness, this creates a culture where it is safe to come forward when you want to. For example, at the start of the first lockdown in the UK my team started a daily check in meeting. It’s still running, and whilst it is optional, people like it. Attendance ebbs and flows, and that’s fine.
»Yvette: It sounds like for you, there is no returning to the 2019 version of normal. What do you think will be your leadership focus over the rest of the year?
Cassie: Yes, that’s right. As I said earlier, change is constant. We need to keep on embracing new things and embedding new ways of working. I also think it’s important for small organisations like ours to focus on wider societal issues.. We have a role to play in improving diversity and inclusion and providing wider support to the sector, and there are issues around the climate emergency and our role as an organisation in that. The challenge for leaders is how to balance these wide-reaching activities with the direct operational needs of our mission. I think as charities we can add huge value beyond our day-to-day work by sharing ideas, insights, and initiatives with each other. With new technologies, and a flexible working mindset, there is a raft of possibilities. We now need to turn to the future, and start planning for what’s next. And to be savvy about it.
Huge thanks to Cassie for her time, and her input. To find out more about what her organisation does, visit the Prisoners’ Education Trust website. If you have thoughts on leadership in 2022, join the conversation @mgmtcentre or get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.