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Stepping up: how is it to be promoted to CEO?

Sarah Taylor, joint chief executive at Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support Services, reflects on her professional journey to become a joint CEO with her colleague Katie Antill.

To read Katie’s blog about working as a joint CEO, click here.

A lot of people would be concerned about stepping up as CEO of an organisation that they’ve been working within. There could be a fear of the challenge of changes in relationships with colleagues, apprehension about changing from an operational approach to a strategic one or simply the fear of failure. My colleague, Katie Antill, and I know all about that.

I joined Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support Services, my local specialist dementia charity, in January 2016 as a coordinator for our Support at Home service. I progressed on to manage our Dementia Support Team before stepping up into a senior manager role in April 2018. I was joined by Katie, who also was appointed a senior manager, and with the then CEO we made up the senior leadership team for the charity. Katie and I quickly bonded over our experience of both having worked at a national dementia charity and our passion for demanding more for people affected by dementia.

Six months ago, our charity found itself without a CEO, so Katie and I stepped up as interim joint CEOs. We were excited at the prospect of leading the charity we are both so passionate about but were understandably apprehensive about taking on such an important role. There were positives for the charity in us stepping up to the role: we both had a full understanding of all the charity’s work and an excellent appreciation for the needs and aspirations of the people that access the charity’s service. On a personal level, sharing the role meant sharing the burden. This gave us both peace of mind as we both have young families.

The first key challenge we faced was how to adapt our relationships with our colleagues. We were fairly confident that our colleagues would be supportive of our new role, as we’d had many successes in our senior management roles that we knew the teams had benefitted from. However, there was slight anxiety as to whether they would understand our changing priorities within the role. The change was managed extremely well, the chair met with all staff to inform them that we were stepping up as interim joint CEOs and we were pleased to hear the team praise the board for this decision. To ensure we took the team with us on our strategic planning we quickly set about organising consultation sessions for staff, volunteers and service users to build up a picture of what everyone felt the charity does well, what the charity should continue doing and what the charity could do that is isn’t already doing. This certainly helped our colleagues develop an understanding of the change in our role and the priorities that go along with it.

The second challenge was our ability to transition from an operational approach to a strategic one. The main element to this challenge was that we now had no senior managers to focus on the operational aspects of the charity as we had been the only senior managers – therefore we were having to do a dual role. In response to this, we reviewed the organisational structure and put together a proposal to the board for two new senior managers, one to manage the charity’s operations and the other to manage our Dementia Care services. We also asked our existing dementia support manager to step up into a more senior role so that we would have three managers plus ourselves in the senior leadership team. Thankfully we had been involved in the charity’s budget setting in our previous roles, so we had a good understanding of the charity’s finances and its capacity to afford these changes. In all honesty, there was also an element of this challenge that was us being able to let go of the operational roles we had previously had. I’m aware that I like to take control of the things that I’ve taken ownership of so that was particularly hard for me. However, we couldn’t be more pleased with our senior managers and have found handing over the ‘operational reins’ relatively easy.

Our final challenge was to meet our fears of failure head-on. Neither of us had worked at CEO level so we both felt some outside support would benefit us. We joined several groups, including ACEVO, and have benefitted from the support available. We are also extremely fortunate that our chair on the board is an experienced CEO so we have been able to benefit from his experience and support. We felt a measure of our success would be for the board to have a better understanding of all the work that is going on within the charity. A simple introduction of a written report issued prior to each board meeting ensured that. We were very happy to be able to drop the ‘interim’ part of our job title this month after the board unanimously agreed for the joint role to be made permanent.

The best advice I’ve been given? When asking, how should I be a CEO, I was told don’t try to be a ‘CEO’, just be Sarah, the CEO. Katie and I are looking forward to the challenges ahead, of which there are many in this sector. We are confident in our joint ability to lead this amazing charity into a strong future.

You can check ACEVO’s leadership development tools here.

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