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Leadership Worth Sharing: Catherine Johnstone, CEO of the Royal Voluntary Service

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 Catherine Johnstone, CEO of the Royal Voluntary Service. They talk about being a leader during an unexpected crisis, how the pandemic has transformed the volunteering landscape, the national versus local debate, and why collaborations are not for the faint-hearted.

Scroll down for full transcript

Normal for me will never be again. And I don’t think we should talk about the new normal either. I think it’s about communities. It’s about citizens. It’s about what are the challenges, and therefore what are the problems we’re trying to solve, and who is best placed.

Catherine Johnstone

(…) however hard it is we have to challenge ourselves as charity leaders to be open to changing and pivoting with the changed society landscape.

Catherine Johnstone

Transcript

Vicky Browning  00:00

Catherine, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. It’s lovely to see you.

Catherine Johnstone  00:04

And you.

Vicky Browning  00:05

You’ve got some lovely bunting behind you that I can see? Is that that homemade?

Catherine Johnstone  00:11

Yeah, this is homemade? Yeah. I should probably tell I like flowers, pink, bunting. And I love baking. So all sort of goes together.

Vicky Browning  00:21

I mean, that’s quite apt, isn’t it for somebody who runs RVS, run the Royal Voluntary Service, which is, works with a lot of volunteers. And I can imagine that kind of baking, crafting is one element of what RVS volunteers get up to. Can you tell me a bit more about what RVS does and is and and how it works?

Catherine Johnstone  00:40

Yep. So RVS has been around for 83 years, set up after the war to help build resilient communities, largely using women because they were at home in their community when men went off to war. We’ve done all sorts of things since. So we’ve built nuclear bunkers. We’ve responded to, you know, outbreaks of disease, we’ve stepped forward to help with floods, but I guess the common denominator of all of it is voluntary action. And if you go to the official documentation of RVS, so the strategy, you know, our vision is that Britain is healthier and happier as a result of volunteering. And mine and my organisation’s role in the sector, and in society is to inspire people to want to step forward to volunteer, you know, to inspire, motivate support, anybody who wants to volunteer, to step forward. And I think that’s obviously become very apparent over the last year, about how do you do that at pace and scale, and then sustain that effort.

Vicky Browning  01:48

And I was sort of joking a bit about bunting and baking. But actually, what your volunteers do is, is much more significant than that, you know, you’ve been pushing or working on the NHS response in terms of the vaccine. And that’s been a hugely important parts of us getting out of this. Do you think that the government actually has a good sense of the value of volunteers and volunteering? And is there is there anything else we should do to, to encourage at that level, this sense that you’re talking about, of us really recognising and encouraging this kind of diverse and army if you like, of volunteers?

Catherine Johnstone  02:29

I think it’s really mixed. We go through eras, don’t we, as leaders in the charity sector of, you know, big society, civil society, but ultimately, government changes its mind and the lens in which it looks through to see the sector. However, I don’t think we make it easy for governments. So the sector is constant. Governments aren’t. Leaders in the NHS aren’t, you know, so I don’t see it as a through the lens of it’s for us to tell government of a government to tell us, I think the sector is complimentary to the state. And, you know, sometimes the state has not behaved in a way that’s allowed us to stay complimentary. So, you know, public sector, contracts, all of that all lived through over the last 20 years. Equally, I don’t think the sector understands the value of volunteering in and of itself. So I think we as a sector have downgraded volunteering, and I don’t think it’s been a deliberate thing. And some of it’s been structural, where the funding to support volunteering, you know, giving your time, infrastructure has dissipated over the last two decades, certainly. And that’s made it difficult to get a sustained, consistent, coherent set of arrangements in local, regional and national communities. But actually, as a sector, we’re often as fickle as government. I got embroiled recently in a discussion about whether or not the distinction should be made. And this was within the NHS, about paid and non paid staff. And that actually was in the (inaudible) for paid, potentially clinical professionals versus unpaid volunteers. And I said, but that’s, that’s a really one dimensional view. Actually, we all need to challenge ourselves to think differently. And for me, it’s about people and a people force. And actually, there are some roles that lend themselves to paid employment and paid roles. And then there are some roles were actually people giving their time, their experience, their expertise, their talent is actually more appropriate than having it as a paid role and inevitably, in a very complicated world that we live in, there will be a grey area in the middle and I think often we end up focusing on that grey area, rather than actually working to celebrate the distinctiveness of both, you know. So somebody said to me yesterday, and I was pretty horrified, that they’d had a conversation with a very senior leader in one of the public sector organisations. And in response to, can we have a seat at the table for your next planning round? Because obviously, we’ve been, you know, my organisation and the organizations in my community have been absolutely pivotal to us all getting through COVID. The answer back to them was no, we’re not having seats for the voluntary community sector because this board is about saving lives. So even after a pandemic, where everybody has thrown their hat in the ring, and worked, you know, my view, amazingly well together, considering all of the challenges and the speed upon which it hits us and the, the size and scale of the problem, there are still now people who are now retrenching back in some weird way as in, we’re going to go back to normal. Normal for me will never be again. And I don’t think we should talk about the new normal either. I think it’s about communities. It’s about citizens. It’s about what are the challenges, and therefore what are the problems we’re trying to solve, and who is best placed. So I’m doing a lot of work at the moment to get people to start talking about the fact that we have a massive opportunity here to actually play forward, the active citizens. 12.7 million people stepped forward to volunteer last year. What are the things we now need to do to play that forward so that it’s good for everybody? And in my little bit of the forest, you know, I want to make sure that volunteering or being able to give your time, if people want to give their time, their talent, their expertise, their learning, their experience into their community, then how do we find ways of doing that both structurally, so let’s not make them do DBS checks or pvg checks 1000 times. I exaggerate, but one should suffice or one plus an enhanced, but how do we do that? Because it’s not for the person, that is busy, who genuinely genuinely wants to stand alongside somebody who’s having a tough time, like at Samaritans, or help with their local food bank, why are we going to make individuals do the same thing structurally 3, 4, 5, 6 times and the reality is busy people won’t. So it’s incumbent upon us, it’s not for them to have to waste that time, that talent, that expertise, because of all these ridiculous artificial hoops that we put in place, real hoops actually, we put in place to to make it more difficult. And then secondly, we have to think differently. For me, inclusion is everything. And actually, if everybody just in the charity sector set out with the ambition to make their organisations accessible to all, then actually, we’d think in a different way, you know, so rather than having a target of, we’re going to reach into 20 harder to reach communities as if it’s their fault they’re harder to reach… Royal Voluntary Service for many years now, and increasingly so as a result of the pandemic is saying, OK, what are the structural barriers, then? Because actually, my volunteer base is so much more diverse as a result of the responder scheme, and the steward volunteer scheme for the vaccinations, because the thing that bound everybody together was COVID. You know, it wasn’t about do I want to volunteer for Royal Voluntary Service. It was do I want to volunteer to help, you know, to support the NHS and to support the rollout of the vaccination? And in there is a load of vulnerable people, and scared people and people who can’t do their own shopping. And do I want to be part of that? I want to make sure that, you know, the 600, 700000 volunteers that are now with us, in those two programmes, find their way into other volunteering opportunities as we move through the crisis and into recovery. But how do we get them from being a steward volunteer into a space where they can see that journey forward without it being cumbersome, difficult, a fight between different institutions and different you know, how do we not make them feel guilty about saying Actually, I’ve done my bit now, I actually do want to carry on giving my time but perhaps not in this way, but in a very different way. So Royal Voluntary Service is there to try and help us but also to help others to work out what that means, because the landscape has completely changed.

Vicky Browning  09:51

Feels like there’s a real need for greater collaboration then, between organisations so that we stop thinking of volunteers as our volunteers, and start thinking about them as people who have got time, and talent and skills to share. So your kind of message to other sector leaders is stop being precious and start working together to be able to mobilise and keep going this incredible force.

Catherine Johnstone  10:20

Yeah. And when you say sector leaders, I mean, all sectors. So I know, in the private sector, for instance, a lot of the large and medium sized companies have had a bit of an epiphany, around COVID, and their corporate social responsibility strategies, because corporate social responsibility, like all of these sort of initiatives, had got into the sort of it was a it was the nice bit, it was a good thing to be doing. It was a bit of the company’s profits, it was often tangental, peripheral to the main board of whatever the company was. Because the pandemic has pulled everybody into a space where it’s tough for everybody, I think there’s a great opportunity to work with the private sector in a completely different way. You know, let’s not push them back into their CSR bubbles. Let’s have a conversation about how do they enable their workforces? So all the people of the 12.7 million, how many of them are in your company? How many of them would really like to carry on volunteering? How do we take what’s happened, and pivot? I’m also not naive. And I would hate it if anybody thought I didn’t understand the survival issues that are going on at the moment. So territory, funding, people, quite frankly, just being absolutely exhausted. And fighting for their own organization’s survival, because of everything that’s happened during the pandemic, is a really tough call. So I can sit here as the chief executive Royal Voluntary Service and say, we’ve got to think differently, we’ve got to behave differently, we’ve got to optimise this opportunity. And people will throw rocks, quite frankly, and I don’t blame them. Because they’ll say, Catherine, we’re tired. I don’t know what how I’ll pay my staff in three months time. What they’ll also say, is that this changing landscape, Catherine that you keep talking about, this opportunity, potentially could mean that we all have to work in a different way. And when you’re in survival mode, working in a different way, is not necessarily your first, your first port of call, because what you want to do is, is wrap your arms around what you know, and protect it.

Catherine Johnstone  12:33

I guess what I would say from where I’m sitting, and from what I’ve seen, I would say two things. One is, however hard it is we have to challenge ourselves as charity leaders to be open to changing and pivoting with the changed society landscape. And for me, that’s particularly volunteering. Because if we don’t, we’re not doing what we’re here for no matter how, how difficult that is. And then secondly, if it ends up being about territory and funding, then we will continue to perpetuate my least favourite occupation, which is this propensity to want to in some way, say: that has to be local and that has to be national. Because at the moment, the sector is playing out a really, in some cases nonsensical debate about national versus local, some of it is rooted in the current government’s policy thinking. But actually, what I have come to realise is that that policy thinking is not agreed across the public sector either. So if the sector just carries on having a very binary discussion about well, I do this in my community, and we’ll let national in if we have to, or if I was to say, well, national is everything and I’ll just trump all over local… We’ve got to be much more nuanced. We’ve got to be much more collaborative. At the beginning of the pandemic, you know, we had conversations at my trustee board. For me, Royal Voluntary Service wasn’t in a great financial state before the pandemic. And it would have been really easy for me as a chief exec with you know, 15, 16 hundred staff, 20,000 plus volunteers to go Do you know what, this is just going to be too risky. We’re going to hunker down, we’re going to mothball everything we will we’ll use the furlough scheme extensively. And we’ll see where we get to and actually will protect Royal Voluntary Service. But it didn’t take very long of that thinking, ie about a nanosecond in my case, because I’m like a crisis girl, to realise that actually, we’d be letting everybody down. And I’ve regularly said for the first six months of the crisis, if Royal Voluntary Service goes out of business, doing the right thing in the crisis, so be it. If my legacy was that actually we threw everything that Royal Voluntary Service had; staff, volunteers, all of our intellectual property, all of our collaboration efforts, and we made a massive difference during the pandemic, but couldn’t recover afterwards, that would be the right thing to do. And that’s what we all agreed, and that’s the way we’ve proceeded. And I think, you know, it will come out all right, for Royal Voluntary Service. But there have been many, many moments during this crisis, where I’ve been thinking, you know, I don’t know whether we’ll survive. But then back to today. You know, there’s 220,000 people in this scheme here, that need shopping, prescriptions, checking and chats. I guess, I’m not just talking about it, we’ve done it. And it’s not for the faint hearted, but I would encourage all sector leaders to be brave and courageous. And to go back to thinking about what we’re here for.

Vicky Browning  15:53

The description there, you said you’re a crisis girl, and a lot of sector leaders feel that we’ve been in crisis for a long time. How do you sustain that, though? And is it sustainable? You know, you’ve been working at this pace for a year, you know, how much longer can you not even organizationally but individually, as a person, as leader, and your staff kind of maintain that level of pace? There’s something we need to do differently that says, as we move out of crisis, we need to be able to continue to deliver what we’re delivering, but without having to push everybody almost a breaking point.

Catherine Johnstone  16:29

Yeah, so really good questions. And all I can do is share my experience, I am not an expert. I mean, I was at Samaritans for nearly seven years. And that gives you a massive insight into the different forms of crisis. And I guess where there are quite a lot of parallels for me between what we’ve just been through and Samaritans is that for an awful lot of the people who use the Samaritan services, so what, 5.4 million calls a year to the helpline alone. So for all the people that use that, often, the commonality is the length and duration of their crises, for them a good part of their life, or is an enduring crisis. So I think that taught me a lot while I was there. The reason I think we were quick off the mark as Royal Voluntary Service with me as the chief exec is I used to run accident and emergency unit. So my first career was in the NHS as a nurse. And I always gravitated towards accident, emergency and intensive care. So I have a natural propensity to want to be in that kind of quite acute space. But obviously, if you’re doing that, as your job as, as many of my colleagues across this pandemic, and been amazing at it, you have a different frame of reference. So for me, it was, it comes in sort of phases. And, and it’s about pivoting and adapting, flexibility, whatever, we haven’t tried to bite off too much. And we’ve also not tried to read the road ahead so far that you end up in that space of Oh, God, what’s going to happen in six months time. So the amount of people have said to me, what are you going to do if you end up from going from 20,000 volunteers to half a million volunteers as the legacy if you like, of the pandemic? And I said, you know, look, I can’t worry about that now. I could look at the systems and things and I can, you know, I can do clever stuff that says let’s invest now, let’s make sure that if we were, you know, people did want to come and belong and work with Royal Voluntary Service for a longer period at size and scale, that we can accommodate that. But I’m not going to spend all of my time worrying about that right now. Because actually, the main job in hand is there’s a quarter of a million vulnerable people needing support through the various efforts of Royal Voluntary Service, there’s then all sorts of other offers that we can make and build on. And actually, as seen more recently with the vaccination, we can actually help other organisations. So St. Johns Ambulance, so Martin Houghton-Brown and I have always worked really well together. I think if either of us were getting married after the pandemic, not to each other, obviously, but if we if we were getting married, yeah, Martin will be horrified is…

Vicky Browning  19:19

You’ve heard about it here!

Catherine Johnstone  19:20

I expect the text as soon as this goes out! The thing is, we have accelerated the way in which Martin and I have needed to work together because of the response to the NHS and the need to work really, really collaboratively. But the best thing about it has been as we’ve accelerated the relationship building across both of our organisations, so it’s not about Martin and I, although obviously we’ve been instrumental. It’s also then about how Royal Voluntary Service supported the recruitment of the 30,000 volunteers that St. John’s needed for their vaccination programme. So we had a subcontract to St. John’s to help them deliver it, because we had the systems and everything set up because of responders. And then about how we passported those volunteers from Royal Voluntary Service over for their training and deployment to St. John’s, and that has required the teams to work really closely together, it’s pushed on all sorts of cultural sensitivity. So if you’re, you know, if suddenly your job in St. John’s is to recruit, retain and mobilise volunteers, and your chief exec says, oh, by the way, we’re asking Royal Voluntary Service to do that for the next six months, you could forgive somebody for going, I’m not sure about that. You know, but actually, it has been brilliant, because when those things have happened on both sides, Martin and I have worked together with our teams and said, Look, you know, this is not about a threat. This is actually about empowering us all to do a better job. And the volunteers have said, it was a good experience. And that’s the really important thing. We’ve now built further on that. So Red Cross are now in that tent with Martin and I, and Mike (Adamson), Martin and I are looking at…

Vicky Browning  21:11

Three of you going to get married!

Catherine Johnstone  21:12

Very complicated! Although I’m definitely sure Mike Adamson would not want to marry me. Definitely not. Mike, Martin and I are now working with our three, three teams again, together at several layers in the organisation, not just the director level, to say, Okay, how do we look at what we all do individually as organisations and then make it easy for volunteers who want to move between our three organisations to do so? And actually, we’re doing a lot with the volunteers in the three organisations as part of that programme. So people stand up and say, oh the passport is a ridiculous idea. I think the fact it’s called a passport is a ridiculous idea, quite frankly. Because actually, you know, a passport is a legal document that allows you to cross borders. I think I’m looking for something that gives the volunteers the credentials, to be able to go to another organisation and say, Look, you know, I’ve got the credentials, can I come in, please? And can you please not make me do all of those things again. But of course, I’ll do whatever it is, there’s nuance to your organisation, induction about, you know, your values and your vision and mission, etc. So, so we’ve expanded it to that. And it’s going well, it’s not for the faint hearted, because collaboration is really difficult, right? Even even if you know, like, like Mike, Martin and I, we’ve got huge respect for each other. Our three organisations are coalesced and work together really closely during the pandemic at pace and scale, in a really difficult time. But ultimately, we’re really challenging ourselves now to think differently, to optimise what’s gone on, for the volunteers and for the delivery of services. I’m not sure, I can’t even remember what the question was Vicky!

Vicky Browning  23:02

We got distracted by three in a bed. But just just with those three organisations, I mean, they are three very big brand name organisations. And just going back to that, the comments you were talking about the, you know, national versus local, and how do you prevent there from being a kind of, you know, monopoly of these three giants together, kind of hoovering up all of the volunteers and and how do you kind of make it, as you talked about, incredibly inclusive, and an opportunity for charities of all sizes and locations that you engage with that? What’s your sort of thinking about, about broadening that?

Catherine Johnstone  23:43

So to the point about hoovering up. We haven’t, and we won’t. The supply of volunteers is not the issue, the deployment of volunteers is the issue. So we’ve been through an extraordinary period where we’ve needed lots more people to step forward. So of the 12.7 million, the working hypothesis is about 40% of that 12.7 million have actually volunteered for the first time. There was a report that came out recently about the rise of mutual aid. And one of the key things is that often, the people that step forward for the mutual aid type of volunteering, were already in the system somewhere. So they were running the line at their son’s football club. They were doing the washing for the kit for the netball team. They were already in giving of their time type situation. And what they did was they pivoted because the time that they they couldn’t give that time, because those opportunities weren’t there. So they moved to giving another time. So I see volunteering on a spectrum and from a Royal Voluntary Service perspective, and actually from a Catherine Johnstone perspective, I don’t think it matters whether or not you are at the more informal end or in a very, very structured volunteering opportunity. Like a Samaritans, where it’s sort of 16 hours a month and lots of training and everything else, because for me, the common denominator is, is people need to find the volunteering opportunity. If that means that sometimes you do a national call out, get volunteers, you know… I didn’t do a national call out, get 400,000 volunteers to sign up, who somehow weren’t in a local community. I just gave them the gateway by which to get back into their local community. What NHS volunteer responders has done is in some communities is acted as a safety net. And we’ve supported the local volunteering effort, you know, our high days and holidays when effort has gone down, or demand has gone up. But in lots of areas, it’s been the mainstay of provision. For me when I’ve come under criticism about, you know, you took all the volunteers and everything else. The volunteers that are in responders, and actually the volunteers that are in Royal  Voluntary Service generally don’t consider themselves to be a national volunteer, it’s nonsense. They are local volunteers, they’ve just been deployed through a national structure. And that is my footprint normally, as is Scouts. So you wouldn’t say that a scout leader isn’t a local volunteer, but Matt Hyde at Scouts, pre COVID, for many years, has been nationally recruiting in partnership with the local branches to actually mobilise the volunteers, it’s been a partnership. How do we take all of that forward? Because we need the capacity from both we need the best brains, we need the best intelligence. But we also need to make it really, really easy for volunteers to find their way, whatever their starting point is. So if the sector carries on having this binary discussion about it’s mine, it’s yours, it’s mine, it’s yours, you know, and consistently says, we’re going to go back to the landscape that it was before, when actually we’re not in my view, then actually, health, local authorities, they’ll all work out for themselves. And the only consistent loser will be the sector. You know, so again, I get it, you know, I do not want to be seen as a big top down organisation, but neither do I want to be seen as not being a local organisation, because all of my volunteers are deployed locally. I’ve got together a number of the national charities who have lots of volunteers. We’ve called it at chief exec level, it’s been really quite humbling, because they’ve all been really busy during the pandemic. And actually, what we’ve done is we’ve come together, and we’ve said, right enough, enough, we’ve got to think differently. We’ve got to look at how we play forward the crisis, how we make sure we pivot and are ready for recovery. And one of the things we’re talking about all the time is this, how do we blend the efforts of national charities with the efforts of local charities and come out with the right answer, when actually, nationals are also local? Lots of conversations with ACEVO (she meant NAVCA) at the moment because obviously, Maddy has just started and I was working with Jane before she left…

Vicky Browning  28:20

With NAVCA.

Catherine Johnstone  28:22

When you have membership organisations like this, like that, then there is that there is a tension isn’t there, there’s always going to be a tension. You know, I used to work really closely with NAVCA when I was in the CVS movement, and I’ve got huge respect for what they do. But actually, the vagaries and the variances of experience by locality, are very different to the vagaries and experience of running a national programme that is delivered locally. And therefore I think there’s a sense that if we somehow have the discussion in the middle of that, we might, we’ll get a lot further.

Vicky Browning  29:01

I want to bring it to you more personally now and your kind of leadership, your career path and how you are as a leader, and one of the words that you said a lot in this conversation, is pivot. Pivot seems to be a favourite word. And you said you started off your career as a nurse and you’ve worked at Samaritans, you’ve worked in the local CVS, you’ve worked in all sorts of different places. What causes you personally, Catherine Johnstone, to pivot?

Catherine Johnstone  29:33

Largely, I don’t know. I’ve never had a plan for my career in my life ever. Yeah, I mean, I did try…. Actually it was when I went to capacity builders. I somehow in my head thought I needed to go work for government for a while because I’ve never had. They weren’t ready for me and I wasn’t definitely ready for them. But that was the only time I actually planned sort of strategically to get some experience because I thought that was lacking from my experience at that point. I do like, sort of quite dynamic environments. I love a rescue mission. I mean, yeah, I mean, Samaritans nearly killed me at the beginning, quite frankly, because you know, Samaritans is not about rescue, Samaritans is about getting alongside people and really listening. And actually not coming up with the solutions, but helping individuals to come up with their own solutions that are much more sustainable. Samaritans was really good for me because it stopped me from being the, you know, let me in let me in, I can solve the problem kind of girl. But there’s definitely I need to be needed. And there needs to be a defined job to be done. And obviously, like everybody, personal circumstances. So, if I hadn’t had five children, I probably would never have left the NHS is my honest answer. I’d never been in the charity sector. I’d be you know, some super nurse somewhere still going. You know, I’d have been on the front line in a&e probably during the pandemic. But when you have five small children, it was just impossible. I couldn’t do weeknights A week of lates, a week of earlies. So with a heavy heart, I left and did lots of agency and did older people’s and rehab. And because I like to lead and I like a team, and I didn’t just want to be doing a bit of this and a bit of that, I started volunteering for a crossroads care scheme, which was caring for the carers. And I loved it. And I loved the volunteering. And I’d volunteered before when I was a nurse, done all sorts of stuff. So I left the NHS, ended up volunteering with crossroads. So actually, there’s lots of stuff I could do here. Because I’ve been in the NHS, I’d also done lots of training, because I love training, training people, and I set up my own company. I thought, you know what, while the kids are just in these middle years, growing up, I need to do something where I’ve got more autonomy. I set up this care business, doing manual handling, and it was for care staff. It was, you know, training care staff on emotional intelligence, emotional conflict resolution, all of those things, manual handling everything else. When I got to the dizzy heights of having 20 employees, I just thought you know, this is ridiculous, because I’m now not… I never do any training myself. I’ve completely detached from all the stuff I love doing, which is frontline service delivery. And because I’d actually been delivering for Crossroads, when a local Crossroads scheme, asked for a director, I hought you know what, I could put my hat in the ring and I became the chief exec of Buckinghamshire and Winslow Crossroads Care. And that was my first role in the sector properly. And then from there, it was, it was actually quite quick, I then went to be the chief exec of a community action. Then I got involved with the regional bodies that I went to raise as the regional infrastructure. And alongside that, I did things like set up a Disability Resource Centre and things. So I’ve always sort of done either trusteeships, chairing supported sort of entrepreneurial type developments of things. And then my first proper real national role outside of the sector was capacity builders, where I was chief except for two years. But then when I left there, I literally left there, and 10 minutes after I left, I got the call to be, would I go to Samaritans and have a come and talk to them? Because they’d had five chief execs in five years. And we’re in a bit of a pickle, and could I help? So a week after I left capacity builders I became their interim chief exec. I refused to take the national job. I mean, I said, you know, it was miles away from where I lived, I still had relatively teenage children. But after being there interim for almost a year, they’d been out and recruited, hadn’t appointed. And by that point, I was hooked, line and sinker. I just adored it. It challenges you at every level. But it taught me so much about being a leader. And I think I’m a much better person and leader as a result. Nearly seven years on, I left not because I didn’t love to work anymore. But just because after seven years of talking about, you know, suicide and suicide prevention and of the pressure of you know, none of our services can go down because actually if the helpline goes down, somebody does die. I just thought I’ve got to now move on and do something else. Because I’m also quite good at spotting when I become a less optimised leader. I think if you’d asked me up to then I’d said four years was my maximum usefulness effectiveness, whatever. I guess, having been there nearly seven, I revisited that but I think you have to challenge yourself all the time about whether or not you’re still the right leader, whether or not you’re still leading the way you should. And I think the pandemic has just done that for all of us, right. So and then when I left Samaritans, I was done. I was not going to be a chief exec again, gone out on a high, I’d done my best work, I felt that I had really given my all and done my best work. So I decided to set up, go back to my private sector period, but actually to do consultancy in the sector, but not just for the charity sector. So I started working, I was doing economic strategy with a whole group of business people in a local economic partnership, I was working with some parish councils, I was also doing some work with various charities, I was doing some pro bono coaching and things. About a year in, I was just so busy, and I’ve got this queue of work. And I was like back to where I’ve been before. So do I now take on and grow the business? Because there’s need and then I thought, you know what? No, because I’m just going to end up where I was with the care training business, you know, I’m going to just get further and further and further away again. So I got the opportunity, Migrant Help, which is the largest asylum and refugee support charity, found themselves needing some support at chief exec level. So I went for the interviews and they appointed me as their interim. I planned to be there six months I was there 16 months. What did I know about asylum seeker? Refugee? What I do know about is running organisations and I think all of the stuff that I’ve done that Samaritans in the early, you know, the early years, when I was their interim sort of came back to the forefront. I happen, I love being an interim because you’re a fixer. And actually, you don’t have to worry whether the board likes you or not, because you’re not staying. So actually, you can serve up the medicine. And actually, if they choose not to take the medicine, that’s great, that’s fine by me. But actually, they’re in to say, what’s wrong? How can we fix it? What are the things you think we need to do? So you have much more freedom and flexibility as a leader, you usually also get to wrap your arms around great people who, for whatever reason, have had a really tough time in the six months or the year leading up. I kind of like wrapping my arms around the organisation and helping it to settle and then move in. So I did that at Migrant Help. And then having left there, I thought, you know what, I think I have got one more chief exec role left in me, but I’m not going to go to one that’s got acute frontline services, I’m going to go where volunteering is the raison d’etre, where I can, you know, spend four or five, six years at the end of my career, you know, really focusing on that volunteering, but I’m not going to do another Samaritans. I had a great couple of years at RVS doing that and starting to look at all of that, kickstarting the volunteer revolution stuff that we’ve done, looking at the barriers that we create, first time for everything, looking at how people can step forward and give their time, their talent, their banter, their mother tongue, all of that great stuff that you’re doing before the pandemic and then suddenly, I found out our organisation and me back in the crisis, on the front line, and we’ve done nothing, we’ve done nothing else since basically. You know, am I sorry that I’ve been at RVS right in that spotlight at the frontline for the last 15 months? Doing what we’ve been doing? Of course I’m not. Am I absolutely exhausted? Yes. Well, I look back and you know, if I ever get called for a select committee, I will be able to say hand on heart, Royal Voluntary Service did everything that was humanly possible to give our best. And if other things didn’t happen, and if there were gaps, and everything else, you know, I hope we’ve collaborated and work with others in a way to help mitigate those. But I will look back on this year, and say that probably will have been mine and my organization’s best work for several decades.

Vicky Browning  38:27

I think as a leader, you know, there’s nothing more you can say than I absolutely gave it my best shot. I did everything we could and I’m proud of, of what we’ve achieved. So, fantastic. Catherine, thank you so much for sharing that story with us and for all the work that you’ve been doing. And I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. So thank you for joining me today.

Catherine Johnstone  38:49

Yeah, thanks. Really, Vicky for the opportunity. And just one last thing is and I’m not an expert. I’m really not an expert. I’ve just been around a long time now. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be put in lots of different experiences. Leaders don’t ever stop learning. And actually if you do you become a very bad leader very quickly.

Vicky Browning  39:09

Brilliant. Thank you so much. It’s been it’s been great to chat.

Catherine Johnstone  39:12

Yeah, and you. Thanks, Vicky.

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