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Leadership Worth Sharing, episode #13: Sarah Hughes

Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Vicky Browning talks to civil society CEOs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.

In this episode, Vicky speaks to Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the Centre For Mental Health. Sarah talks about why we need to tackle the power dynamic in charities, how Scarlett O’Hara and Amazon boxes can help us contain our anxiety as leaders and the positives we can keep from this pandemic that will help us build a better workplace.

Previous episodes of Leadership Worth Sharing

Scroll down for the full transcription of the episode.

There is something about being pragmatic and open to the fact that a new style of leadership also has to be “I don’t really know, but I’m going to work with you and others to find out what the answer is”. And I just think that that’s an important transition we’re all trying to make.

Sarah Hughes


Vicky Browning [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Vicky Browning chief executive of ACEVO, the network for charity and civil society leaders.  Welcome to Leadership worth sharing, a podcast in which I talk to civil society chief execs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.

Today I’m speaking to Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the Centre For Mental Health. Sarah talks about why we need to tackle the power dynamic in charities, how Scarlett O’Hara and Amazon boxes can help us contain our anxiety as leaders, and the positives we can keep from this pandemic that will help us build a better workplace.

Welcome to the ACEVO podcast. I’m here in week three of the COVID-19 lockdown. I’m sitting in my bedroom because my teenage boys are slaughtering things on the front room computer. I’m here with Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Centre for Mental Health. Sarah, you’re in a room with a very nice background. You’ve got a lovely cloth behind you of some sort of woven material. Do you just want to tell us where you are?

Sarah Hughes [00:00:25] I’m sorry. I’m in my home office, which is a she shed. I have to say, it’s like, it’s like a hippie cabin of wall hangings and all sorts of things that I’m not allowed to put in the actual house. It’s a bit of a little bit of a den. I’m very comfortable when I’m away from the house, which is good because my kids are at home and they’re virtually feral. So it’s based on writing them for a few hours a day.

Vicky Browning [00:00:49] I know that feeling. So you’re chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health. Do you want to just tell me a little bit about what the centre is and does? And do you have to be a hippie to work there or does that just help?

Sarah Hughes [00:00:59] Well, it helps enormously. And, you know, if you’re not a hippie, you do look a bit like the odd one out, but we are also quite hardcore academics and people with lots of experience around mental health. And so, you know, we are actually about 40 years old and we are a mental health not for profit think tank. And that language around think tanks is always a little bit controversial. But effectively, that’s what we are. We research, we analyse policy, we evaluate services. We advocate for vulnerable groups. So that’s what we do. We’ve been at the heart of some of the biggest changes and transformation in mental health over those four decades. Yeah, a well-known organisation.

Vicky Browning [00:01:42] Tell me about how you got there as chief exec. How did you come to take up that role? What is your sort of career path to get there?

Sarah Hughes [00:01:48] I’ve worked in mental health for gosh, 28, no, 30 years on my god I forgot how old I am. So thirty years. No, but I’ve worked, I got my first job when I was 15 and then I’ve, I’ve sort of qualified in social work and I’ve had various other roles, including housing support workers in mental health services, when people were being discharged from long-stay psychiatric hospitals and one of the first jobs I had was working with people who’d been in hospital for like 30, 40 years. This is kind of how far we’ve moved on. But one of the women that I worked with, she’d been in hospital for something like 37 years. And on her medical notes, it said that she was admitted for being precocious. So you and I would not have done at all well had we been around in that time. I’ve seen a lot of stuff change in mental health. And I got to the Centre for Mental Health because I’ve been working in services, frontline services, for a long time. The job came up. If you work in mental health, you know about the Centre for Mental Health because it’s important. And it has been influential over the years. And so I really wanted the job. And I’m so glad to have got it, because it’s… we’ve got some amazing people on that team, including Andy Bell and Graham Durkin and others who are extraordinary thinkers in mental health and it’s an absolute privilege to work with them.

Vicky Browning [00:03:12] Fantastic. And that’s an extraordinary story about. About the precocious woman who was then locked up for 37 years. That’s staggering. And in the midst of difficult times, it’s nice to know that some things have improved over that time. Last June, June last year, ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health, we worked together on a report into workplace bullying called In Plain Sight, where we looked at bullying in the charity sector. It was great to work with you and your team on it. What made you want to work on this report with ACEVO?

Sarah Hughes [00:03:42] Well, first and foremost, I really admire ACEVO and the work around supporting leaders, particularly in, you know, I think that working in charities is really tricky. And, you know, that’s always grossly underestimated by everybody in society and in positions of power etcetera. And so for me, it was an easy call to do something with the ACEVO. And this opportunity came about to really think through the issues that were affecting workplace culture for charities. And this came up. This was an opportunity that we haven’t really foreseen and obviously came up at a time when charities continue to be under huge amounts of scrutiny. And so it felt like an important time to add our voice to that really.

Vicky Browning [00:04:26] Do you think, having done the report, do you think we’ve got a major problem with bullying in our sector?

Sarah Hughes [00:04:32] That’s a really tricky question, because, you know, on one hand, I don’t think we have. You know, I don’t think it’s any greater than if you were working for Boots or Tesco or a small company. You know, I don’t think that you will inevitably encounter bullying when you work in charity. I think what it did primarily was really say to charities themselves, the sector itself, you know, actually, you are not exempt from some of these things. Do you really understand and accept that ordinary things that happen in workplaces also happen to you? It also went some way I think to reminding the world at large that charities are made up of humans and human beings, you know, inevitably encounter behaviour and engage in behaviours that can be harmful to others. That’s part of our experience. So I wouldn’t say that, you know, we are rife with bullying. But I do think that we probably have been slow to surface some of those experiences for people, for all sorts of reasons that are explained very well in the report.

Vicky Browning [00:05:36] Was there anything that you found particularly shocking by the findings?

Sarah Hughes [00:05:40] Not really. I mean, I think I anticipated, having worked in the charity sector for a very, very long time, I think I anticipated that we would hear some very difficult stories. I think I probably was surprised at some of the severity of the incidents. And that was very disturbing to me. I think I probably wasn’t surprised, but certainly felt concerned about the level of trauma that people experienced. And people really articulated that well in their conversations with our researchers. And I know that that was very difficult. And really for us, that was something we needed to treat with care. So there were no huge surprises, but I think there were things that we… That made us sit up and think we really need to pay attention to that.

Vicky Browning [00:06:30] And I think that’s… To me, that was the kind of really strong message to ACEVO’s main audience, which is obviously chief executive of charities, because when we looked at the data, those of us who… sorry, those people who answered the question about who was doing the bullying, 45% had been bullied by their chief executive, 57% by senior managers. It’s something that we need to sit up and listen and pay attention to. What more do you think we should be doing as sector leaders to really look at and think about how we’re using power and maybe where we might be abusing power?

Sarah Hughes [00:07:03] You know, I think that’s probably the single biggest question facing the charity sector in many ways. I think that the power dynamic in charities very much reflects the power dynamic experienced by the people we are actually trying to serve. So when we think about our beneficiaries who are often very marginalized at the edges of society, and then you have charities who in some way reflect that dynamic, really. And what we haven’t always accounted for, again, coming back to that, the human condition means that people will develop egos. People will develop behaviours that aren’t healthy behaviours. And I think there’s something for us in the sector about really facing up to the truth of that. And we had a great conversation at the ACEVO conference, you and I Vicky and Danny from Oxfam with a great audience around, you know, moral leadership and the idea of how do we as chief execs and leaders of charities really think about all of those things? Do we reflect on them? Are we held up in moral esteem on behalf of society and if so, what’s that mean? And actually I don’t think we’ve given enough attention to that. I think ACEVO has been leading that conversation, has given space to that in recent years, which is critical because actually what we’ve seen is an assumption that charities are the same as businesses. And we’re not necessarily but that moral dilemma or projection onto us is something that we need to consider. And then what we do with it is a whole other ball game. I think in terms of how we drink it in and then act that out. And I remember during that conference and our conversation, Sophie Walker, who’s the chief exec of Young Women’s Trust. You know, her challenge was we need to get rid of the language around, you know, good and bad, very binary language around what leadership looks like. And I think that’s probably the most important feedback that we had during that event. Actually, it’s much more nuanced and we really need to have a less black and white approach to it, really. It’s much, much more complicated than that.

Vicky Browning [00:09:13] You know, you talked about egos and obviously, a few of us get to leadership positions and, you know, I suppose you don’t get to a chief exec position without a healthy dose of egos. And there is something about how we need to recognise that and keep that in check. And I do think that something about how we interact with each other as chief executive. I mean, I think, you know, you and I, I think again on that conference talked about how we would feel comfortable to an extent in calling each other out. You know, if you if you’re behaving like a…inappropriately, you know, I would feel comfortable in having a quiet word. But I wonder about, you know, one of things that I struggle with, particularly in the sense of this report, is called In plain sight. It was about how actually a lot of this stuff is happening… It was an open secret. It was not hidden under, hidden away, was actually out there. And I hear about and I know other chief execs hear about peers who bully and I always struggle about what my role should be, what any of our roles should be in addressing that. What do you think, apart from the quiet, friendly word, if you know somebody, what should our role be in calling out each other’s behaviour? Or is that not appropriate?

Sarah Hughes [00:10:20] Well, no, I think I think it is. I think the manner in which that’s done is really important. So, yeah, I mean, obviously, if you’ve got a relationship with somebody, it might be easier, but it may not be actually, because it might be very difficult to call up a friend and say, you know, you behaved a bit like a.. I’m kidding. That conversation’s difficult to happen with anybody, friend or foe.

Vicky Browning [00:10:40] That was the word I was struggling for.

Sarah Hughes [00:10:43] There you are! But, you know, there is something for me about… That insight peace, that really understanding who you are as a leader, what your boundaries are. And, you know, there is without a doubt, times when I have seen behaviour that is less than I would expect, less than I would desire or less thought than I would want for myself. Other people might have been awful to each other. You know, you see those awfully passive-aggressive emails, et cetera. And it’s and it’s really trying to understand, do you call that out directly. And I know that I’ve been in situations where it’s been much easier to turn a blind eye and so that be in the report really caught me because I know I’ve been in a situation where I just thought let them sort that out, actually. I think I got to the point now in my life and my career and I understand that I have a duty to hold those standards very highly and close to my chest in terms of what I expect from people. So if I see behaviours that aren’t what I would run in my organisation, I would robustly deal with it. And that has meant some very difficult conversations, certainly in the last 10 years in my career. I see it as a duty. So in some ways, I almost put on the armour and say, this is a conversation I’ve got to have because I am leader of this organisation. And people, whether I like it or not, people are looking to me for that clarity around what is and isn’t ok. So I’ve been in situations where somebody has told a joke in the middle of the office and I’ve had to say that’s not funny. Sit with the discomfort of that. If there is bullying or certainly somebody says that they’re being bullied, my standard is always… If you are feeling bullied… this is a massive lesson I learned. If you are feeling bullied, there is probably some element of truth to it. For instance, you know, with racism, we wouldn’t say to somebody who’s experienced racism in our organisation, certainly, that wasn’t racist. Because we accept that it’s about that person’s perception and experience in that context. So I think that’s the same for bullying. You know, we have to understand that from somebody’s perspective, there might be very serious damage being done.

Vicky Browning [00:13:01] I absolutely take that point and the report was very much written from the perspective of centring the voice of the people who were victims of bullying. One of the things that came out of the report that I found quite challenging to think about and it’s, I know that I’ve spoken to chief executives that experienced this… I mean, I talked about how chief execs can be bullies, but also they can be bullied, chief execs we know at ACEVO can be bullied by their chair, by the board, even by the SMT. And also there is this number of instances I’ve seen where a member of staff or a trustee is being accused of bullying. The chief executive investigates. And as part of that is then accused by the alleged perpetrator of themselves being a bully. So it’s then, it’s sort of turned against them as a weapon. And I know, you know, a number of chief execs have really been through the mill over that. And so, and I wonder at that point whether, you know, in that circumstance whether there is always a sense that the accuser is justified in calling out as bullying.

Sarah Hughes [00:14:01] Yeah. I mean, I think there is always a risk for people to jump on a bandwagon of some kind. You know, that, you know, this is bullying… We have this conversation in mental health a lot actually about people using mental health as a way out. I always think to myself, that’s really interesting because actually there is a situation where people are malicious in the workplace and in society where they make malicious allegations. That is incredibly rare. And so therefore, I think when somebody makes an allegation that might be perceived as malicious by an organisation or somebody is investigating, I would suggest that there is still something to it. In that not necessarily they might be bullied, but they’re in a situation where they feel so dissatisfied and worried and anxious that I think that’s their only way out. So you know, that’s worth exploring, even if you’re thinking about, you know, as organisational cultural point of view that actually if somebody is coming forward and doing that in itself is significant and symbolic of another issue that’s going on that probably also needs attention. So I’m afraid I don’t think that there is any easy way through it other than, you know, having an approach as a leader, which is not defensive, transparent, open to really exploring these problematic dynamics. And that’s not to say I’ve always conquered those things, by the way, but I think that’s the kind of level I would want to aspire to, to try and find my way through those very difficult, thorny issues, which we’ve all had.

Vicky Browning [00:15:33] We talked about at the beginning about how we are in lockdown at the moment with everything has gone online and everybody’s doing everything digitally. Do you think that moving online and in one sense kind of alleviates the challenge of bullying? Because people aren’t in the office, they’re not interacting so much with each other in that way or in a strange way, I can make it worse? I suppose establishing or re-creating a culture remotely is, as we’re all finding it, quite difficult. But is this an opportunity to kind of reset or do you think these patterns will repeat whether your face to face or online?

Sarah Hughes [00:16:07] Yeah, I just think that they manifest in whatever context you are. So I think that things that we noticed in the report, you know, people experiencing bullying through micromanagement, for instance, you can definitely do that online. You can definitely digitally over manage your people. You can definitely have expectations that are unrealistic. Everybody is working at home now. Surely you could be the most productive person on the planet. All of those things can absolutely manifest at the moment. And so I don’t think it takes it away. I don’t necessarily think it enhances it. But I think that we can’t pretend it won’t manifest somewhere and somehow. I think it would be unrealistic to assume so. And I think people are also probably much more vulnerable right now. And therefore, we really need to understand, as leaders, that our expectations are possibly unrealistic for today’s climate. And certainly… I’m writing a blog at the moment with Poppy Jaman, she’s chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance, and the title of the blog is All Bets are Off. And that speaks to that whole sense of, you know, we’re all learning how to do new things. And I think the… You know, certainly leadership is also having to adapt to both a digital environment, a remote way of working, incredibly reactive in the way that we’ve never been before. I said to somebody the other day, he was being, you know, well, we need to do this and being very focussed on process and systems and bureaucracy, and I was kind of saying, well, unless you’re 125 years old and was around in the last pandemic, we actually don’t know. We don’t really know what to do. We’re doing our very best. And whilst there are some things that are absolutely reliable and the science and of all that, that’s really clear, there is also something about being pragmatic and open to the fact that a new style of leadership also has to be “I don’t really know, but I’m going to work with you and others to find out what the answer is”. And I just think that that’s an important transition we’re all trying to make.

Vicky Browning [00:18:07] You work for the Centre for Mental Health and mental health, our staff, ourselves, beneficiaries. You know, the moment is something that people are giving a lot of thought and attention to. What measures are you taking to support, you know, well-being within your own organisation and indeed yourself?

Sarah Hughes [00:18:25] Well, first and foremost, I think we are one of those organizations that is in a financially stable position. And therefore, you know, I’m not at this moment in time having to do what my colleagues are doing around contemplating furloughing, redundancies, streamlining and all of that. So I recognise that privilege. And so all of the things I am about to say is with that caveat in mind. And my heart really does go out to my leader friends and my friends in senior places who are doing that at the moment. You know, I know close up and personal how painful it is for them. And I just kind of want to spend a second just to honour that really. But, in my organisation, you know, we’ve got about 22 staff and everybody transitioned to remote working pretty much immediately. And we were able to do that. We have a very good working at home culture. So in the main, everybody have the resources to work at home. We had to buy a couple of laptops, but otherwise everybody could do that. We then put together, you know, FAQs about what staff could expect from us. We have two virtual meetings with staff a week. We have also just identified a member of staff in our organisation who’s a senior member of staff, has a lot of years of experience in managing teams and people, who’s also a trained Samaritan. She’s now taken on a wellbeing role with staff. So she’s supporting staff on a one-to-one basis. She’s providing wellbeing resources, consistently helping people kind of resolve some of those thorny difficult issues that they might be experiencing personally as well as what is in the workplace. And we also have just today, one of the things that I’ve always done for my team, certainly for the last year since the trustees approved it, implemented a green hour a week, which was to focus staff mind on their well-being. So we gave them, gifted them an hour a week to focus on their well-being. And it’s pro rata if you are part-time. We have now just today said that everybody’s hour that they’re meant to take for exercise Monday to Friday will now be gifted from the organisation as a way of helping them manage and make sure that they take that time. And that’s partly because we know that some of them weren’t taking it because they were so busy. They don’t want to go out late at night. So we just thought, you know, let’s just cut through all of that and say, we want you to take your hour and you need to take it as part of your work day, Monday to Friday.

Vicky Browning [00:20:56] Is that separate to a lunch hour?

Sarah Hughes [00:20:57] Yes. My team only generally have half an hour lunch breaks. But yes, it’s on top of their lunch breaks. So it’s the government, you know, recommended hour you take a day. We want them now to take it as part of their workday. Now, I have always given them an hour a week, as I say, for their well-being time, because I do believe that it is critically important. I did it in my last place of work as well. It was an idea that I stole from someone else. I think it does really work well. People manage their time. They look out for each other. And I think at this moment in time we have to accept as leaders, whether we like it or not, that staff may not always work at the level that they would do under normal times. If they’ve got kids… I’ve got two kids under 10. Trying to homeschool them and do my actual job and have a relationship with my friends and family and my husband. I mean, that’s the perfect storm for me sitting on the floor with a bottle of gin. I mean, let’s not pretend. So as a result, you know, I’m trying to say to my staff, you know, I understand. And I feel… My heart actually really bleeds for those people who are in a situation where they can’t, you know, they’re just having a hard time. And my team are human beings. And some of them one day they’ll be fine and the next day they won’t. And so it’s that kind of flexibility we’re focussed on. But yeah, so we’ve got a repository of well-being resourcescthere, exercise hour a day, our well-being person, two meetings that we… And today actually we were talking about developing… I’ve got an anthem for my Covid locked in time. We as a family have got an anthem and our anthem is Under Pressure by Bowie and Queen, obviously. Now, this might change next week to something Beyonce-esque, I don’t know, but this week and last week, it’s Under Pressure. So we play that really loudly in the house, really, really loudly and upset all the neighbours. But it does kind of you know, it’s about creating memories. So today we’ve challenged everyone to work out what their Covid anthem is so that we can play them to each other. I think just injecting a bit of fun and laughter during a time of deep despair is incredibly important.

Vicky Browning [00:23:11] I completely agree. You’ve talked quite a lot about leadership today and how we need to adapt to this and there’s something about not knowing everything, you know, allowing us to not know everything. Making sure we’re not micromanaging people, giving trust and support to others. What do you think, what have you learned about yourself as a leader during all of this, or have you always known who and what you are and if you’ve stayed the same?

Sarah Hughes [00:23:37] I’m gonna sounds a bit like Caron from the Charity Finance Group, but I agree with her on this one central idea, which is leadership is a lot about love and that’s going to sound really cringy to a lot of people. So brace yourself. But there is something for me. I’ve always felt deeply privileged to be in the roles that I’ve had. Deeply, deeply privileged. Some days I wake up and I just think, why me? Because I see so much talent in so many people. So that gratitude and that sense of privilege is very strong in my mind. I’ve always been like that. I always have believed… You know, I think people that have worked with me wouldn’t always agree. So I accept that too. That I am first and foremost a compassionate leader and I care about you as a person, whoever you might be, deeply. And I do care about my people. There’s no doubt about it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t as much, actually, because my hair would probably not be as grey. But that’s the reality of it. And I think if I’ve learned anything in this situation, I guess I probably would say that the thing I’ve learned about myself is that I still, even under very difficult pressure, feel very excited and motivated by the people I work with. And I’ve been surprised about that because actually, you know, I am also quite stressed out at times. There are moments when I just think, oh, for God’s sake, I just can’t bear another Zoom meeting, please all go away. But that is very brief. Really, really brief. A friend of mine talks about I’ve got an ability to put things in boxes and I put these things in boxes and I say, right, I’m gonna think about that a week on Tuesday. And then I don’t think about it until a week on Tuesday. That skill has come in very handy during these times, and I’ve probably not realised how sophisticated it is until the last few weeks, really. But I can kind of contain quite significant anxiety and worry in a very straightforward way. But there are other times when I also can get lost in feeling anxious about the world, really. So I have to kind of separate those two things out and just focus on what I can do, what I am in control of, and just hold on to that and not worry too much about the things I can’t control.

Vicky Browning [00:25:55] I’ve got my Gone with the wind moments. So the end of Gone with the wind, Scarlett says “Tara. Tara, I’ll think about this tomorrow. I’m not going to think about this now”. And so I will literally I will sit and I’ll go “Tara, Tara”. And that means I’m going to think about this tomorrow. I’m not going to deal with this now because it’s too much for me. And that’s fine. I can push that one forward. So you have a box and I have Gone with the wind.

Sarah Hughes [00:26:19] You’ve got Scarlett O’Hara, which frankly is better. I’ve got these bloody old Amazon boxes all stacking up in my loft.

Vicky Browning [00:26:27] I like to, one of the things I do with my team sometimes when we have a meeting, we just start off with something positive. Let’s think of something positive that’s happened. And it’s not always easy. Some people ask me to come back to them at the end. Let’s just think about what do you think are the positives that are going to come out of the situation that we’re currently in?

Sarah Hughes [00:26:45] You know, I think there’s actually quite a lot from a workplace perspective. I think employers in the main will be reassured that people can work from home and get things done and they don’t sit on the sofa watching This Morning or some trashy daytime television all day. Actually, people take that gift responsibly and do work. So I think that will be a shift that I don’t think we can undo. And I’m pleased about that, because I also think thinking about my own commuting, for instance, you know, my commute on a good day can be four hours a day to London to where I live. On a bad day, it can be six hours. You know, I’m very fortunate that I do work at home and have the flexibility to do that, but not everybody does. And so I hope this changes culture in that sense. And I think it will. I think there has been and this is quite an emotional shift, really, a recognition of who the key workers are actually in this country. I think it was really powerful that, you know, we do this clap on a Thursday for carers and the nurses and doctors, you know. But I’ve been really struck by the kind of response to the people who work in shops, the cleaners, the people who are collecting our rubbish and doing all of that. And actually, I saw an interview this morning with somebody who said the kids were leaving coasters on bins to say thank you to the bin men. And I just think, you know, again, I hope that we calibrate something in our society about valuing and respecting all kinds of people. But I think there is also a real sense of shift in terms of thinking about poverty. And I hope that this sustains once we recover. The focus on inequality has been really interesting throughout this time. And I think some insights have really hit home in terms of government and arm’s-length bodies in a way that we would never have done if it wasn’t a pandemic. There is still a huge way to go. You know, I hope that we don’t go back to turning a blind eye on some of these things that now we absolutely can’t. So there is so much I want to keep. And in fact, you know, I’m part of the better way network and we had a roundtable this week talking about, you know, what is it that you want to keep? And there was so much that people talked about. It was really quite moving, actually.

Vicky Browning [00:29:01] Brilliant. Thank you very much, Sarah, it’s been an absolute delight talking to you today. Thank you very much for being part of our podcast and let me into your she shed and yeah, here’s to coming through the other side with all that positivity intact.

Sarah Hughes [00:29:15] Absolutely. Indeed. Thank you so much, Vicky.

Vicky Browning [00:30:00] This was Leadership Worth Sharing, the podcast by and for civil society leaders. Thanks for listening and we’ll meet again in a few weeks! If you want to know more about ACEVO, check our website (that’s a c e v o dot org dot uk) and follow us on Twitter, twitter dot com slash acevo. Bye!

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