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Leadership Worth Sharing, episode #15: Leadership at the top table (live from #ACEVOFest)

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.

With the voluntary and community sector struggling for recognition from government at a national level during the pandemic, the local picture in Bradford was very different. The VCS was viewed as a vital strategic partner, and sector leaders sat at the top table of local decision-making. In this special live recording of the Leadership Worth Sharing podcast, Vicky Browning chats to Kim Shutler, CEO, The Cellar Trust about being part of the Gold Command response in Bradford, and the role of local VCS leadership in strategic influencing.

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…to see the generous leadership, to see how the community is mobilised, to see that people were prepared to put everything aside, to do the right thing and to do the right thing for people (…) that brings you a lot of hope. It really helps with resilience amongst what can otherwise feel like a pretty depressing place.

Kim Shutler


Vicky Browning (00:03):

Welcome to the first live recording of Leadership Worth Sharing, which is taking place on day one of #ACEVOFest. I’m here with Kim Shutler, chief executive of The Cellar Trust, which is a multi award-winning mental health charity in Bradford. Thank you so much for joining me today, Kim, and for being our volunteer for our first ever live podcast recording.

Kim Shutler (00:25):

Thank you for having me.

Vicky Browning (00:27):

Just kick off a bit about you. Can you tell us about you and your background and how you came to lead the Cellar Trust?

Kim Shutler (00:36):

Yeah, sure. So I’ve been at Cellar Trust for almost exactly six years and I had a really, really big career change to come and do this job. So I’d always worked in the public sector. I’d always worked in universities actually in sort of comms and organisational development. Although funnily enough, my first ever job was I was the women’s officer in the student union. So I started my career in that real campaigning job, and then took a bit of a diversion. And then I trained to be a coach. And then when you train to be a coach, they really give you a good prod about what is it that you really want to do with your life? And it always came back to like, I really, really wanted to come and work in this sector. And it was all a bit scary about how do you get off a career trajectory that you’re on. And then I saw this job and I thought, I’m just going to go for that. Just take a bit of a punt. And it’d be good experience for the interview or whatever. And to cut a long story short, they, they offered me the job then and I thought, Oh now what do I do? Well, I better take it otherwise I’ll regret forever not having the guts to take it. And so, yes, I, here I am!

Vicky Browning (01:43):

And just tell me a bit about the Cellar Trust and what it does as an organisation and who you work with.

Kim Shutler (01:47):

Yeah. So we’re a mental health charity we’ve been around for just over 30 years. Mostly working with people with severe and enduring mental health problems. We work across Bradford, Airedale, Wolfdale and Craven and run a range of different services to support people recovering from mental health problems.

Vicky Browning (02:05):

And the size of the organisation?

Kim Shutler (02:08):

Um so we’ve grown quite a lot. I think this year will be about 1.7 million. So we’ve just over tripled in size since I’ve been there.

Vicky Browning (02:21):

And how many staff do you have?

Kim Shutler (02:23):

Or we’ve got probably getting on for 60 staff.

Vicky Browning (02:27):

What I’m really interested in, in you, Kim, because I came up and had a meeting with you, got the tour that was really lovely. And,uit was fascinating to see the work you do at the Cellar trust. And it’s a very, it’s an intense job that you have. Uit’s very full on. You work with a lot of,upeople with quite severe mental health difficulties. It’s quite high pressure on you and on the team. But you also, on top of all of that, you are a leading light in the wider voluntary and community sector in Bradford. I mean, you chair the Bradford voluntary community sector assembly, which is the elected leadership for the sector in the borough. You represent the sector at the local public services, executive, the wealth, the wellbeing board, and a member of the NHS England adults mental health steering group. I’m just saying all of that is exhausting. How did you take that step from running a local charity to deciding you wanted to be part of the kind of wider fabric of civil society in the area?

Kim Shutler (03:36):

So when I, when I got this job if I’m honest, you know, our reputation for partnership and being outward facing was poor. It was, you know, it wasn’t good. We were known as being sort of old-fashioned not really into partnership working and you know, when we had some big issues, like we were on our knees. And so for me, and this is even though I probably wouldn’t have given myself this job, one of the things I am good at is partnership and building relationships. So getting out and understanding the climate that was working in and the funders and the stakeholders was crucial. And building relationships, you know, most of our, but about two thirds of our money comes from the NHS or local authority. So getting to understand the wider health and care system was really, really crucial to our success. And that’s where I realized that the opportunities for the VCS that we weren’t really taking as a sector locally really there was, there was, there was loads of potential. And Ifelt frustrated that we, as a sector weren’t probably maximizing those opportunities. So I suppose in those cases, you can either sit back and grumble about what’s in place to influence, and think, well, that’s a load of rubbish or, you know, or you can step up and say, right, I’m going to be one of the people that does something about that. So that’s when I started to do more representation for the sector because I care a lot. You know, I obviously care about my organisation. I’m very, very passionate about local charities. I’m really passionate about the sector. So I think, you know, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. I mean, if you can step forward and influence in that way.

Vicky Browning (05:14):

That’s interesting. I’ll come on to that a bit more about the kind of broader environment, but just in terms of the Cellar Trust itself, and you talked about how, when you started it didn’t have a culture for working in partnership. And I recognise that I would say that ACEVO when I started was, was in a similar kind of situation. But it’s quite hard to change the culture of an organisation from something that is – I mean, let’s be generous and say autonomous to something that is reaching out and partnering with others. And it was a really interesting comment. I think it was Julia Unwin who once said to me that the collaboration has connotations of betrayal. So in a sense, you have to, as part of the partnership, you have to subsume the specific needs of your own organisation for the greater good. And that is a definite mind shift and a culture shift. So how did you just interested to see how you went about that at Cellar Trust to sort of embed that, that partnership culture?

Kim Shutler (06:19):

Like if I’m honest, I think in the beginning that was very much driven by me as an individual leader, building those relationships with key people within the sector itself or you know, in terms of our funders. Over time that, you know, that was a weakness to have that entirely sort of, you know, be so reliant on me as a single leader. So then at once that, you know, once we’d overcome that big leap, I suppose, then it was about like, how do we embed that within our organisation and culture? And that becomes the way that we do things,partnership, you know, is one of our values and how do we create a narrative around the benefit of that? I think once you start to see or once the team and start to see the benefit of working in that way, then that just becomes the nature of what we do. I’ve had a kicking from people in the sector about the way in which I operate on an integrated basis with statutory services because they’ll say, you know, you’re too in bed with the NHS or too in bed with the local authority, you know, how do you maintain your independence? And I’ve got a really strong line on that. Umou know, I think that we influence a lot better from the inside. I think they don’t, they’ll always say that I’m very, very, very challenging, but in a different way, probably to sitting on the outside and, ou know, throwing in the grenades.

Vicky Browning (07:43):

Yeah we had a conversation about that and one of the sessions this morning, actually, with Patrick Vernon in ACEVOFest about are you inside the tent or outside the tent and actually having a mixture o that within the local or even a national environment is really helpful. You, you need people on the inside who areunderstand the relationships and who can move things forward, but equally it does help sometimes to have those kind of sharper voices on the outside, driving things forward. And, and in terms of that, just sort of being on the inside of the tent, what do you see as your role as kind of facilitating other voices within those conversations?

Kim Shutler (08:25):

Once you’re in the tent, you can be a lot sharper in your, in your challenge. I’ve noticed during COVID in the work that I’ve done, you know, as part of the Gold Command, which was like the structure you put in place for the response,I’ve had to be sharper because there’s not been time for faffing around basically. So I’ve probably learned to be sharper and braver with my responses, but I think they’ve landed better because of the established relationships and the trust that I had. If I had gone in there immediately sort of new to the table with, you know, with the sharpness that I had, I don’t think it would have immediately had the – well, I don’t think I would have been invited. And I don’t think it would have had the same response.

Vicky Browning (09:10):

Yeah. You need to, you need to build up trust in order to be able to be the voice of the critical friend, if you like, don’t you. I, I love, I love that. I get very excited by the expression gold command because I got, well, I went all sort of Jane Tennyson and prime suspect and Juliet Bravo, which probably just shows my age. But I just sort of felt, it feels terribly dramatic that you were on gold command. So I wondered if you could just tell me a bit about how that works, because this has been one of the big challenges I think we’ve had as a sector and as charity leaders during the COVID crisis that we haven’t in some areas been able to make the case or persuade government that, that our sector needs to be at the table. Having conversations about, about policy and direction and, and how things should get done, but you have really bucked that trend, I think, on a regional or local basis,uand have somehow managed to be seen as a genuine strategic partner within the solution making or the decision-making process of their response to COVID. So can you just tell me a bit about how you got onto gold command without being in uniform?

Kim Shutler (10:30):

It sounds really grand, doesn’t it? I mean, I think everywhere has got a requirement for gold command, and it’s just, it’s the group of leaders that I think the chief executive of the council pulls together to create the emergency response. And it was essentially, broadly, it was the people that were on health and wellbeing board. So every local area will have one of those, but not, not with the elected members, chief execs of the hospitals, fire you know, police, all of that. And so I guess, because we’d worked really, really hard in terms of our strategic relationships locally there was probably never a question that the VCS would have been part of the gold command. So I was quite surprised that that wasn’t the case in other areas of the country. And I suppose, credit to the chief executive of the council, credit to the coastal England, credit to Helen Hurst who’s the chief executive of the CCG, who all will always invite us to the table because they, you know, they specifically know that we bring something different in terms of the voice and the challenge and the innovation and the agility so that they would miss out if we weren’t at the table.

Vicky Browning (11:36):

I think that it probably is the answer then, which is that the established relationships and the trust you’d already built up in good times really came to the fore when the crisis hits. Because I liked that sense that there wouldn’t have been any thought that you wouldn’t have been at the table. And I think if we extrapolate that to a national level I think it’s the opposite. I think government just never really, national government in many areas just didn’t didn’t really think that we would be at the table. We just weren’t, you know, we weren’t sort of front of mind. And, that I think is, is a challenge for, for the wider sector to build those relationships and build that trust within, within different levels of government,to ensure that we do have, we do have that kind of strategic voice.

Kim Shutler (12:29):

And that’s not been for want of trying has Vicky, you know, you know, I look at the work people like you and Karl and others do to influence and, you know, and literally everything within your body and soul to make that happen. I think, we’re lucky to some extent that those key individuals are of a mind that they are, you know, they are socially minded. They understand the VCS as well and the value. So it’s not all down to our influencing skills, you know, it’s a credit to those, to those leaders. I mean, we’ve worked really hard to shift the narrative, I think, from commissioner provider, which is very, very transactional relationship. So everything that we’ve done is to try and shift away from that, so that they’re not just seeing as like this, you know, with our begging bowls, you know, come on, can we have your scraps? And they’re not seeing us as always the people that are shouting at them. So,uyeah, credit to the other leaders in the system who who’ve welcomed us in, in that way.

Vicky Browning (13:33):

So what, what advice would you give to other sector leaders such as yourself, perhaps on a less on a national basis, but on a more regional local basis about how, how they can operate at that kind of level of decision-making? What would you say, where do they start? What advice would you give?

Kim Shutler (13:53):

I suppose the first thing to say is that it, you know, for example, the representation and leadership that we have in Bradford is really flawed in the, like, I do that as I do this as a voluntary job on top of, you know, running the Cellar trust, and it’s not, you know, it should be a paid job really, you know, to give it the best. What it means is that the people who represent the sector, and of course you can’t because how can you possibly be one person who represents like five and a half thousand organisations and do that justice, you can’t, you know, there’s not the mechanism to do that. But it means that you’ve got to be of a certain size organisation. You’ve got to have a board of a certain nature to release you to do that, which means that you’re never going to get that diversity of leadership at the top table, which I think is something that we’re working on locally. It’s something that I’m not very, I don’t think that the chair’s position actually is very sustainable myself. It’s also quite risky. You know, if I’ve got quite a lot of influence and, you know, I’ve got no real you know, I’m not paid to do it. There’s a challenge with accountability there. So you can use that influence, which I hope I do for the best and with integrity, but you could not do that as well. So I think it is, it’s a bit problematic in that sense.

Vicky Browning (15:13):

And how have you managed to on a sort of more personal level, how have you managed that balance, particularly during the crisis of, you know, running the organisation, coping with the wider crisis partnership work and, and potentially,uat some point having almost a bit of a life? How have you, how have you got those? Is that the bit that’s gone, in the mix?

Kim Shutler (15:38):

I was thinking about the last ACEVO conference, I did a little video about your leadership competencies and the one was, there was one about self-aware self care. And at the time I said, well, I’m a total fail on that. This was like the ultimate fail. Dead, honest for two months, I operated, like, I felt like it was operating in a parallel universe. And you know, there were not just me, there were a small number of us who were probably working sort of from half six to 11 at night on this. And, you know, I didn’t realize, you know, I was probably I was very, very close to burning out. I was very close to making myself really ill then. But I felt a huge weight on my shoulders. So I was lucky because I have got to the point that the Cellar trust and probably only just in the past year or so, I’ve gotten a really, really strong leadership team. So essentially they ran the ship, my board were very supportive of that because they saw the value of it for us in the district. So yeah, so to some extent, you know, I had my senior leadership running the Cellar Trust and just checking in with them whilst I went and did the district work.

Vicky Browning (16:54):

Hmm. So you were really, you took on another full-time job on top of your full-time job. And you were able to do that because you had a team around you that could pick up theslack when you went there, which not everybody has the benefit of. And that feeds into your point about how – sorry, carry on.

Kim Shutler (17:15):

A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that. And if we hadn’t have been in a more stable position as an organisation, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. So very, very lucky organisationally, you know, and because of the support of board to be released, to be able to most, most places wouldn’t.

Vicky Browning (17:35):

And that does feed into the comment that you made earlier on about the structure of that role. If it was a paid role, then, then actually you could have back-filled and got some extra help in the Cellar trust. And and you would have been, as it were compensated for doing the role that you, the extra role that you were doing. So it does, it does make it difficult.

Kim Shutler (17:55):

It does. And actually just within the sector, it’s difficult, you know, probably the council would have paid me to do that and to, you know, to step up and work for them. But I couldn’t take that payment because I think that would have been seen as problematic from within the sector itself. So I think there’s definitely, there’s a lot of discussion that goes on about whether or not you can be a representative and sit around the table, and fight for the sector at the same time as being a provider. And, you know, there was griping, people saying, Oh, you know, what is she blooming Mother Teresa? She must be getting some sort of backhander or, you know, so we didn’t take any payment for that because I just, it wasn’t really worth the grief from our, from our own sector actually.

Vicky Browning (18:38):

Which means that you were mother Teresa. So that’s, that’s a win. You can put that on your CV I would say. I was Mother Teresa for the sector during COVID. Not unlike mother Teresa, if I can sort of segue from that analogy you were involved in decision-making that was, there was literally about life and death stuff. That, that is what you do at that level. How did you, how did you cope with that, you know, in terms of your kind of personal resilience at a time when you were burnt out, you know, when you were bordering on burnout, just with the volume of it.

Kim Shutler (19:20):

I mean, like, I probably am I think what was interesting looking at the way that different leaders responded to the pandemic] some people really do well in under pressure, in an emergency. I probably am one of those people. Whereas I saw other leaders who really, really struggled. They like black and white and, you know, whereas I love a bit of drama. The decision-making weighed really heavily on me because sometimes when I represent the sector at some of those boards, I feel like I represent humans, that isn’t to say that my colleagues who sit around the table don’t do that. I just think that they have to, by their very nature operate in a political environment where they can’t comment, or there are rules, or they’re used to working with numbers rather than thinking about the people in the community. So I felt around the table that sometimes I was the only one around the table who was really advocating for some of that stuff. Quite often I was the only person around the table who wasn’t white that felt a huge weight to carry as well. So it, you know, it was hard. It was really hard. And, also I was the only person on the table who could probably be a little bit political and challenging. So sometimes I’d have my public sector colleagues texting me and saying, Oh, thank you for saying that. I couldn’t say that. So it felt a lot of responsibility that was difficult and we did the very, very best that we could. You know, was it perfect? No, it wasn’t, but you know, we did our best in the circumstances.

Vicky Browning (21:00):

And I’m interested in I mean, I don’t want to dwell too much on it, but the sense of like carping from the sidelines maybe that’s a bit harsh, but, but that, that you were getting, you know, there was friendly fire involved in this for you. Is there something, you know, what message would you want to sort of convey to others in the sector about the kind of role that you had and what you had to do that might just sort of ease that friendly fire another time?

Kim Shutler (21:34):

I mean, wow. I think, you know, I, when I’m at that table, like, I don’t introduce myself as Kim from the Cellar trust. I introduce myself as the chair of the assembly. I think, you know, you’re there and you’re able to influence because you’ve got individual relationships. So inevitably that’s the thing that makes you good at your job influencing on behalf of the sector. But it’s the thing that makes people suspicious because they want to know why isn’t there been a wider consultation of the sector. So it’s very, I don’t know what the answer is, to build, the trust so that people feel that when you were at the table, you’re doing the best thing or the best you can for them. I can hand on heart say that that’s what I do. And I think the results probably speak for themselves. Like we’ve done some big negotiations on behalf of the sector that I don’t think have been successful in other areas of the country. We got our CCG and local authority to pay all of our sector upfront for a full year. We’re just, you know,we’ve got them to agree to support organisations with who are having cashflow issues for next year as well, and to roll over contracts. So I think you have to probably let your results speak for themselves, and you probably have to just know that there’s always going to be the haters? And to get a bit of a thicker skin because my skin isn’t that thick. And I try really hard to work on that, but it isn’t maybe that… Could that be in the leadership competencies get, get a thicker skin?

Vicky Browning (23:03):

Is it, is it about going home and just putting Taylor Swift on, you know, haters gonna hate, just got to shake it off. Is that it, was it a bit like that?

Kim Shutler (23:11):

You know, I’ve got a little boy he’s 8, and he, you know, we’d have a kitchen disco. We’d like dress up in fancy dress and bounce on the bed. We made like a giant snakes and ladders around the house. That’s the stuff that brings you down to earth, doesn’t it? Because you literally have to put a different hat on. I mean, that’s, you know, and you have to focus on the amazing things. I met some amazing people. We did amazing work during that time. So for all the haters there’s, there’s masses of love and, you know, hope. Definitely.

Vicky Browning (23:46):

And so what would you say as a leader then what were your biggest sort of leadership lessons, do you think through this apart from take better care of yourself, Kim Shutler, if we put that to one side, what are the key things you think you’ve developed as a leader during that time?

Kim Shutler (24:06):

I think, you know, we, in terms of system leadership and operating across the district, I think what I realized is that we all live in our, even though I’m quite well networked, we live in our little silos. So I network with the same people in the mental health world or particular groups, the power of the VCS response has been, from what I’ve observed has been at, like that micro level. It’s been,it’s been in individual communities it’s been based on people’s trust. Umo I’ve learned a lot more about community development, which isn’t my background and it’s not, you know, it’s not the forte of the Cellar Trust because we deliver mental health services. So I’ve created connections, better connections to understand our communities better. And what those organisations bring to the table. And I’ve created, I suppose realized about actually, it’s the power of bringing together, not just the mental health crew, but the mental health with education, with business, all that, how do we work together for the place? Not just for our own little bit of it, has been a really valuable lesson for me.

Vicky Browning (25:19):

And I’m interested in, right at the beginning, you talked about how you had done coaching training. And I wondered about whether that training in terms of even listening skills and reflection skills and almost, putting yourself to one side and really focusing on another. Do you think those things really came to the fore in this, or am I on a red herring?

Kim Shutler (25:50):

You know what, I actually think that leadership during a pandemic is pretty command and control? Which isn’t great because that’s, that is against everything that we believe, everything I believe about really good leadership. But what I realized is that people were because everybody was waiting to pussyfoot around each other. Some people really struggled with taking some decisive action. And when you’re talking about, you actually need some really clear actions and decisions made about getting people food or getting homeless people housed safely you, you actually, haven’t got time to, to spend a great deal of time. You need to give people confidence sometimes by being, being more decisive. So so it was, you know, it’s against an instinct, I think. I think that that was in the beginning when it was very like intense, I think that it’s moved on since then. And actually we have to return to the principles of leadership that we all know and value, but in the beginning there was a need for a bit of that command and control. And when some of the leaders in the system weren’t doing that, you could see people crumbling because they were lacking in direction.

Vicky Browning (27:05):

Well, that’d be hard to give up cause there’s something quite seductive about command and control. That’s you know, things get done very quickly. There’s no messing about you’re just straight in and on. Is there something that you will regret having to segue back to the old ways of doing it? Or have you enjoyed going back to your more kind of consensual and collaborative approach?

Kim Shutler (27:33):

You know, sometimes I think, again with our sector, you know, we’re so huge. We’re so disparate, you know, sometimes it can be like knitting fog and sometimes you just think, Oh, we just need to crack on! But actually that’s not how we can operate, but you know, there’s no, there’s no mandate for me, I’m not the chief exec of the sector in Bradford. I just play a facilitative role. So, so yeah, there is, you know, I’m an impatient person, another failing. So I like to get things done quickly, but something, you know, but if you don’t bring people on board with you, then, you’re heading to nothing.

Vicky Browning (28:09):

Absolutely. And in terms of what happens next. So, so the theme of ACEVOfest this week is reflect reboot rebuild. We’ve just, we’ve done a bit of reflection today in terms of the sort of rebuilding what are your hopes for should that day ever come, kind of post pandemic life? What, what, what do you think, what are you hoping will remain from all of this to take forward into a more positive future?

Kim Shutler (28:40):

I mean, if there were people within the funders or public sector who didn’t understand the value of the VCS before they, I think they certainly do now. I think, you know, probably this is a bit of a challenging thing to say, but with a couple of exceptions, it was the local organisations who were invested in the place who mobilized. So your local VCS organisations, now the exception to that is that there are a couple of big nationals who really operate like locals, but in the main that some of those big players weren’t there, they were like, that’s not in my contract. So actually I think, I think locally, we’ll see more investment in the local VCs, which, you know, which is something I really advocate for. We’re part of the, Keep it Local work that’s done by Locality and Lloyds. I think we’ve put in new infrastructure to enable the VCs to operate a little bit differently. Like we put in a whole new volunteering infrastructure, and then we’ve been able to actually negotiate quite a lot of shift in resources, because I think they’ve recognised that we can do things that they can’t do. So, an example of that now is, you know, all the test and trace stuff, there’s been quite a big investment in the VCS because actually our communities don’t really trust some of those structures, but they do trust the community organisations. So I think there’s been a lot more recognition of our value in terms of engagement and trust which I hope we’ll see a shift in terms of how we’re involved in how organisations get commissioned going forward. Which is only positive for our sustainability, because of course, it’s, you know, it’s a tricky time for everybody.

Vicky Browning (30:24):

And was there anything fun about it? What was the fun bit in all that?

Kim Shutler (30:31):

The fun there. I mean, amongst all that stress and stuff, like I do get a kick out of that. So that’s, and do you know what it was fun meeting new people? It was fun seeing, I won’t use the word fun, but it was really, really heartening amongst all the doom and gloom. And it still is to see the generous leadership, to see how the community is mobilized, to see that people were prepared to put everything aside, to do the right thing and to do the right thing for people. And that, you know, that brings you a lot of hope. It really helps with resilience amongst what can otherwise feel like a pretty depressing place.

Vicky Browning (31:13):

Fantastic. Kim, thank you so much. Thank you for being part of our podcast today. Thank you for all you’ve done for the community during this crisis. And to people listening: thank you very much for listening to the podcast. This was leadership worth sharing. Don’t forget to check out previous episodes. Everything’s available on the ACEVO website and that’s all for today. Thank you very much, and goodbye. Thank you.

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