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Five things I learnt in my first year of my first CEO job

By Marchu Girma, chief executive of Hibiscus Initiatives.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

In October 2020, I became the CEO of Hibiscus Initiatives, an organisation that enables marginalised migrant women trapped in the immigration and justice systems to rebuild their lives. The difficulties of leading a charity for the first time was compounded by the pandemic, working from home and the urgent response needed to tackle racism. Reflecting on my first year, these are the key things that enabled me not only to survive but to thrive.

Go in with a game plan

During the whole of the interview process to get this job, I felt like an imposter and kept being surprised that I was getting through each stage of the interview process. Then came the day I was given the news that I had the job. What was I going to do being a CEO?

The first thing I did was to get a coach who helped me to prepare for my first 100 days on the job. I also read ‘The first 90 days’ by Michael D Watkins and ‘Your first 100 Days by Niamh O’Keeffe’. I did a lot of research to understand the organisation, to develop an understanding of the kind of leadership the organisation needs.

Having a plan meant when I felt overwhelmed in the first few weeks I had something to fall back on.

Be a sieve not a sponge

This is the greatest advice I received when I started my role. Getting to know an organisation takes time, but you will be told a lot of information and handover notes from your previous post holder.

There is a tendency to try to learn all the information you have been told, years and years of data. You are going to feel overwhelmed, but that is normal. The key is to filter the key information you need.  Don’t stress yourself for not learning things quickly enough, the first few weeks are about building a broad picture of the organisation, you will get to the detail later.  

Communicate, communicate, communicate

First principle of communication is intentional listening. When I joined my organisation, in the first month, I met with all the staff and trustees, to find out a bit about them, their role in the organisation and to ask them the same three questions:

  • What has been going well
  • What needs improvement
  • What would they like to see from me.

This gave me an insight into building a picture of the culture of the organisation as well as where staff and trustees felt the key priorities of the organisation were. I used this information to revitalise the strategy so that it spoke to where the organisation was. In particular, the pandemic/ working from home and Black lives Matter needed a strategic focus.

I joined the organisation during the pandemic, and as everyone was working from home it was difficult for staff to get to know me as their new CEO. I started a weekly Friday email to all staff, which I’ve kept up for a year. It was a way of sharing what I was doing during that week, what was coming up, exciting news, challenges, and a bit about my story so they can get to know me.

Being proactive with your board and chair is also crucial. Don’t forget they are all volunteers and probably have full-on jobs. The smoother you can make things for them the better. Make regular catch-up appointments with your chair and other trustees. Share information that is needed to do their job, but do not bombard them with emails or phone calls.

Build a DNA

When you are new to an organisation, your senior team is generally anxious about your management style and how you are going to lead. One of the best things you can do is to have a facilitated session to address responsibilities, expectations and to discuss how the value of the organisation will be practised in how you work together. Having this facilitated will help you participate fully and share your ideas as well as listen to

This can determine how you meet as a team, but also how you work to translate strategic discussions to the rest of the organisation and give shape to staff meetings and other meetings across the charity.

Build your support network

Being a CEO is lonely and hard work. You are going to need a lot of advice. Building a support network is crucial. I am a recipient of the ACEVO Jane Slowey memorial membership, which has been important in helping me network with other CEOs. Early on, I also asked my organisation to support me to get a coach and a supervisor. I have joined an Action Learning Set and have started the Black Leaders Brunch, to meet up with other leaders to talk about the pressure and expectation of being Black and a leader. These support networks have been a lifeline when I’ve felt I needed to do the impossible.  

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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