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 the first episode of 2022, Vicky handed the podcast reins to ACEVO’s head of influencing Alan Lally-Francis. Alan talks to Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation, about the work the organisation does to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in their professional journeys, the importance of charities participating in the social mobility index, class, and why being a mentor can help us become better leaders.
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I think class, socioeconomic background, is often the forgotten dimension of diversity. It’s often not recognised or where it is recognised people often don’t know what or how to do about it.Sarah Atkinson
Even if you aren’t actually stopping someone from joining your organisation and being part of the team, you may well find that it’s really uncomfortable for them to be a full part of the team. And you need to have to recognise that your culture may not be welcoming.Sarah Atkinson
Hi Sarah, thanks for joining ACEVO’s podcast, is a pleasure to have you here. Alright, so I think so just to kick off by just finding out a bit about kind of yourself, your journey and perhaps how you ended up as CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation.
Yeah, of course. So I, this is my first full time paying job in a charity. I’ve been involved in and around the charity sector for a long time. I was a young trustee. I was a trustee at 23 when I found myself working in government relations with a lobbying agency, really enjoying it, and slightly surprised to find myself enjoying being in the private sector. And thought, well, I’d always sort of wanted to do something in the in the third sector and values led organisation. So I volunteered to become a trustee of a brilliant charity, for Womankind. So as a trustee, I learned a lot through that about how charities run, make decisions with governance. And the combination of that interest, and my work around public policy led me to take a job at the Charity Commission in 2006, where I was I was head of public affairs, first head of public affairs the Commission have had. 13 years at the Charity Commission ended up in quite a senior role as director of strategy. Again, I really loved working at the commission, I loved working across charities and being able to take a role in helping charities, what I felt was helping charities to be stronger, to be better understood, to help drive charities and support charity leadership to be better and to do better. But I increasingly started to think maybe something I wanted to commit myself to full time I talked a lot about charity leadership, I thought maybe it’s time I thought about doing some, getting in the frontline myself. And so when the opportunity, I was looking at different chief exec jobs, some that I thought I would have been good at I wasn’t appointed to. Some of them people thought I would be good at I wasn’t interested in. Never quite came together for me until the opportunity to lead the the SMF came up. It’s an organisation I’ve volunteered with as a volunteer working with students to check personal statements, it was an organisation I really cared about the mission and really felt connected to our mission. And it was also an organisation that I thought I could contribute something to because of the stage we were at developing as a programme organisation and as a as an advocacy and campaigns organisation. It felt like things came together. Obviously, I didn’t anticipate the pandemic and all of the challenges that brought. I joined SMF in January 2020. And it has been the privilege of my life to be leading this fabulous organisation for the last couple of years.
Particularly drawn to what you were saying about your experience at the Charity Commission now, kind of Charity Commission being a sort of regulator of charities to then becoming the CEO of one. What was the transition from one to the other like?
Yeah, it was a big transition, it was a big step. It was what I thought quite a lot about and I’d been lucky enough, my job at the Charity Commission, I had a great network because I had the opportunity to meet lots of charity leaders, talk to them about their work, what they did, see inside some charities going through crises and challenges, of course, as the regulator and see things that go wrong, but also see organisations turning round, see what great leadership can bring to an organisation that’s been in challenge. So I had the chance to observe a lot of that, reflect a lot on that and also have a lot of brilliant advice and help from charity leaders. So all of that helped me. Nonetheless, I think a lot of ACEVO members will recognise this, leaving an organisation where I was part of a senior team and moving to become the CEO did feel like a big step into… it felt lonely. It feels lonely sometimes. I have a great SMT, I have a great trustee board. Yeah, I am in a very good position. But nonetheless, that sense, which was most acute of course in March 2020, thinking this is on me. This is all on me now. That’s a big challenge and I think well then you can be prepared for that you can understand it. You can have lots of tools in your toolbox to be ready for it. You also… just you have to do it and you have to feel the fear and do it anyway,
You probably had an idea of what you wanted to achieve in the role. Did you have to change course? Because of the pandemic?
Yes, I did. We did. I mean, I, the the SMF, as an organisation has been around for 15 years. We do, we do three things, really, it’s all about social mobility. Tackling social class disadvantage. And we do that in three ways, a programme working directly with young people, to support them to get opportunities and to be able to take advantage of opportunities that they deserve. We work with employers to influence them to recognise and reduce the barriers in their organisations and enterprise level. We have a relatively new advocacy and campaigns arm that we set up, which is about influencing the systems around social class disadvantage. And I thought I was going to be spending most of my time building and leading that advocacy function, which was new, I thought the programme which is 15 years old and incredibly successful, I could leave to run itself for at least the first year. As it was, dropped into the pandemic, 70 days in, we had to really think about the programme, how do we deliver the outcomes on the programme when we can’t deliver it in any respect in the way that we normally do? And advocacy and campaigns actually had to go on pause for a little while, because if you remember back in those really immediately difficult days, the news agenda, the policy agenda, everything was about this pandemic, what is it? What’s it doing to us? And how do we explore it? And no one was ready, yet, for a conversation about the consequences of the pandemic, for social class disadvantage, and social mobility. So we knew that would come, we knew that there going to be profound consequences for social mobility, as there always are from it. Any massive economic shock, will you suspect it was turned out to be right, that there will be particularly acute for young people of disadvantage, who are particularly affected, but we couldn’t get anyone to engage in that conversation for a while. And meanwhile, the programme needed to be, I needed to work with my super expert programme to say, Okay, we can’t do any of the things we normally do. But we’ve on boarded 2000 young people and promised them some help this year. What’s that going to look like? So it didn’t that first six months didn’t look anything like I thought it was going to. For me, the learning from that whole period was fantastically valuable, didn’t feel like it at the time, felt just scary. And in some ways being new, again, for me was probably helpful, because I didn’t I didn’t grieve the things that we weren’t doing, because I didn’t, I didn’t miss them. I wasn’t used to them. AndI was able to step back a little bit with the benefit fresh eyes and say, Okay, well, it’s all going to have to be different. So let’s work through that.
I think we’ll probably touch on some of the things you mentioned about the work of SMF. But one thing before I forget, I do want to talk about is social media and Twitter fame. So my Twitter fame, say, if someone, if I get three likes, I’m happy with that. Although this is kind of the first time we’ve kind of met, I knew a lot about you, because you went viral on Twitter. Back in 2020, after posting a picture, would you mind telling our listeners a bit about that?
Yes, I absolutely was the most extraordinary thing. So it came from something that wasn’t very nice. I got a letter written to me by someone who had seen my picture on the SMF website. And got some touch, tell me that I needed to change my picture because it wasn’t professional. I didn’t look like a CEO. I was too friendly. And I was showing too much cleavage. I opened this letter, and I just went absolutely bright red. It was the most awful thing. I felt really, really shocked and really upset. And then I started to get a bit cross. And then actually I started to feel a bit sorry for the person who’d written this letter. It was a woman. And from what I read in the letter, I think this was the kind of advice that she’d had in the past. And it was it was meant as good advice, because it was the kind of advice she had about how to be successful. And so I chatted to a couple of people in my team and a couple of people I know in the sector about this and one of them, Zoe Amar, works on charity digital leadership really encouraged me to share it and to share those thoughts. And what I ended up doing was sharing, sharing the experience and then sharing a picture of myself. Not my my CEO website’s picture that created all of it, but a very personal picture of me a few hours after giving birth, looking pretty gastly, sharing that picture and saying, look, I think I look like a CEO, because I am a CEO. And I think this picture looks like a CEO. And I tagged a couple of friends who are CEOs and said, maybe you know, maybe you would share a picture of you not looking at your most professional, but nonetheless, being a CEO. And they did, and it got started, something caught on about it. I think, the recognition from a lot of charity leaders, that they too have been told, you don’t look right, you’re not good enough. This, this isn’t the way to be. And a recognition that actually it’s really important to be to be the leader that you are to be the best leader that you are, and to bring what you what you do and what you are to your leadership, and also to motivate other people who might have been given bad advice about changing themselves to become something else, to say, no, you you can be a leader in the way that you are. And so it absolutely took off and resonated. At one point, I think a million people had seen that picture. I’ve got people from New Zealand and Canada, and all around this country sharing brilliant, beautiful pictures, proper, joyful celebration of diversity. And it was it was so beautiful and so joyful. It was also I have to say was also a reminder of the limitations of the diversity in our sector. There were there were awful stories shared by female CEOs, CEOs of colour CEOs of visible disability, neurodiverse CEOs. And there were not enough of those images being shared of leaders, of leaders of colour and leaders with visible disability, not enough working class leaders and working class leaders sharing stories. So it was it was it was beautiful, and it was empowering. And it was also a reminder that we’ve got work to do to strengthen and support and celebrate diversity and our leadership.
Also, I think it just galvanised a group of people, whether they were CEOs or not. Right. And I think, you know, often it comes from a place of vulnerability and hurt doesn’t it? But then being able to articulate what people are often silent about all of a sudden, it allows them permission to speak about their experience and I thought that was that was really powerful. Yeah, certainly been to me and many others. So yeah, thanks for sharing that with us. You also touched when in your answer just about equality diversity and inclusion. That’s something I just kind of want to ask you a bit about. Though there’s still a long way to go, there’s been a welcome shift, I would say, with conversations around equality diversity inclusion in the sector. That said, I still feel there aren’t enough conversations about class, especially when you consider the barriers that those from working class backgrounds face when entering the sector. Sarah, any ideas how we change this? Both in having the conversation and kind of what we do about it?
Yeah, I completely agree with you. I think class, social economic background is often the forgotten dimension of diversity. It’s often not recognised or where it is recognised people often don’t know what or how to do about it. These are really uncomfortable conversation. So we can learn a lot about recognising and leaning into the discomfort, the necessary discomfort. From experiences we’ve had understanding and pushing the envelope in terms of the discomfort and talking about race and ethnicity. It can feel really awkward to talk about money, family background, people’s personal circumstances. If you are a leader from a relatively privileged background, it can feel patronising. If you’re a leader from a low social economic background, you may feel that it’s no longer particularly relevant if you are now earning a good salary. And in quite a middle class environment, bring up your background may feel like something that is no longer particularly relevant to what, may be something that you have worked hard to get away from. You may feel, I’ve had really senior people tell me that they don’t have university degrees but they still don’t like to tell people that because despite all of their success and all of their track record, people will still think badly of them, if they find out they don’t have a degree. We have to as leaders recognise that your background is a huge part of who you are. It’s a huge part of what you bring to your to your work to your role to your life. But if you can’t talk about it, because it’s uncomfortable, then you can’t be supported in being able to overcome the barriers and bring the positive contributions. I don’t think we do talk about the positive contributions of working class people enough. There’s nothing to celebrate about poverty, there’s nothing to celebrate about people having grown up in environments where they don’t have enough to eat. But there absolutely are positives that people from working class backgrounds bring to their work to their later lives. There are this enormous strength and resilience that it takes to be able to be ambitious and successful, the brilliant, you know, the value for money cost consciousness that comes from absolutely knowing the value of things, when you don’t have a great deal growing up, that brings a real kind of sharpness and respect for money, the really kind of strong positives about connecting with people from all backgrounds understanding, if you are a charity, and we’re designing services, for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or building communities, or wanting to connect with all perspectives, all voices, if you don’t have people in that room who’ve grown up in different backgrounds, then you’re going to have to work an awful lot harder to develop that and to do that, right. And if you want people to trust you, as an organisation, trust your services, trust your mission, trust your credibility, they need to see that you are bringing them into the conversation in the decision making, that there’s a seat at the table. So there are enormous positives. And we do have to talk about those positives, I think as well, we just have to get over ourselves as a sector in in thinking that we don’t have a problem. You may not have to have a degree to get into jobs in the charity sector but a heck of a lot of people do. We sometimes, I sometimes get people in charities telling me that they need to make sure that they have the very best people, the most excellent people and they shouldn’t be apologetic about recruiting for excellence. Absolutely not. No one is talking about dropping standards, we’re just saying that people have had a more challenging start to their lives, people’s education background may be unconventional, may have as much or more excellence to bring, you need to see that. So we need to remember that we do have hard barriers in the way around qualifications, we expect, unpaid work experience that we expect. And we have soft barriers in the way if everybody in a policy team is white middle class and has been to a Russell Group University. Even if you aren’t actually stopping someone from joining your organisation and being part of that team, you may well find that it’s really uncomfortable for them to be a full part of that team. And you need to have to recognise that your culture may not be welcoming. The good news is there’s an awful lot that we can do about this. Some of these things are relatively straightforward. Thinking about how we recruit, how we offer people opportunities to experience, our sector, the roles that we do the work that we do, there’s outreach and work experience opportunities. Some of these things are hard: culture, recognition of those barriers, getting people from, from working class backgrounds into senior positions. And some of this is hard. And it’s going to take time. That it is essential that we commit to that and we commit to that conversation. And in committing ourselves to it, we already make it much more likely that we will see change.
I really liked what you said about you know, this whole narrative sometimes around like, oh, I don’t want to drop standards. I just can’t stand it, that assumption. People from certain backgrounds don’t have the qualifications or potential or ability to enter things rather than the structures they’re born within. And in some ways, I think like, surely sometimes it’s an extra positive if you have gone through all this other stuff. And you’re still there. That gives you kind of an added benefit. And I think particularly you know, from personally speaking, you know, I know we’ve got some policy experience Sarah, like you know, anyone worth their salt, we talk about lived experience. You go out to the communities, they have the good stuff, there’s a solution, bring them in, turn theory into kind of the real assessments of what’s needed, led by these communities. A lot of what you said actually ties them to the work on Social Mobility Foundation. I know you touched on it, Sarah, founded around 15 years ago, why was it set up?
So SMF was created around the very well documented set of facts around the family you grow up in the area you grow up in the school you go to determines hugely your education and career outcomes, much more than how hard you work or how talented you are. Part of that is, there are huge systemic problems around education, early years, health, food, literacy, all of those things, There absolutely are huge and systemic problems. But then again, there are things that we can do to support young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who don’t lack talent, they don’t lack aspiration, but they do sometimes lack some very straightforward and prosaic things, they don’t know what possibilities there are in their careers or education, they don’t believe they’ll be able to be welcomed, they might not believe that they would ever enjoy getting into higher education or getting into professional top career environments. They don’t know anyone, they don’t get any chances to get opportunities or access. And they often don’t know how to present their talents and capabilities in a way that will be recognised and successful. All of that, we can fix.
The bigger systemic problems and challenges are going to take, you know, not going to be solved in my lifetime. And that doesn’t mean we don’t put every strain to do it. But to ensure that young people of talent and aspiration get opportunities now, that we can do. We can connect them with mentors who support them in building their confidence and telling their story better, we can get them opportunities to get work experience, we can help them to build their understanding of the pathways and opportunities available to them, and to make an informed choice. So we support with a programme of activities, knowledge and confidence building, we help our students to unlock their own potential. Through that work we’ve built lots of relationships with employers and businesses. And we’ve built lots of insight into those barriers that get in the way of talented, hardworking young people being able to achieve their potential. And so we work with employers to help them to identify and break down those barriers. And we’re starting to shape some conversations and some support around thriving inside organisations as well. It’s not enough for young people of low socioeconomic backgrounds to get in, they want to they need to, they deserve to be able to get on and rise to the top. But the challenges and the barriers don’t fall away the minute you have a university degree or access to a graduate apprenticeship, the challenges don’t stop there. And the prejudice unfortunately, doesn’t stop there, either.
Yeah, I remember, as someone you know, growing up in the East End, first generation immigrant, didn’t speak English when I came. I worked alright, I worked hard. But for me, it wasn’t much then just having a few support a better support locally. Teacher, the youth club, people who believed in you. And I say sometimes that’s that’s all it takes, it could just take a little, people. And one thing I liked about Social Mobility Foundation is civil society is amazing and provides so many great services. But it was one of the first d of my view, where I became aware of that was stretched, addressing and tackling structural inequality that a lot of these disadvantaged groups face. But one thing I did want to talk a little bit about was, you know, one of the things you’ve done since being CEO is implement, or create the Department of Opportunities, which your advocacy campaigning on. Barriers can mean different things to different people. But I really liked your campaign video on class polish, which makes good use of humour, but also make serious points around things like the class pay gap, but also how someone’s accent could be a barrier to workplace success. Would you might just kind of talk us through what you mean when you say class polish?
Yeah, absolutely. So this is a phrase that you hear a lot. Recruiters talk a lot, you get feedback a lot in interviews, the students that we work with, hear this a lot, they get the feedback: I can see that you’ve got a lot of potential and a lot of ability, and what you’ve done is very impressive. But the candidate we’ve given the job to or the candidates that I’m taking to next round or the people that are getting promoted are more polished. It’s a such an insidious concept, because what you’re basically doing is you’re describing a set of behaviours, that present as though they are about merit, a talent. A particular way of talking confidently, compellingly often involves a certain amount of social capital, knowing the right way to dress, being very comfortable and relaxed in networking, in social environments, being able to hold a conversation whilst you navigate a wineglass and canapes or, or, or dinner knowing who to talk to. Being comfortable in those sorts of situations, having lots of good sort of political and cultural references to drop in. And we think of that as merit, we think of that as sort of objective talent and capability. And it’s not, we’re just describing the way that privileged people behave. You absolutely can learn that and young people do. Young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds absolutely do learn to change the way that they talk to change the things that they talk about. They learn to dress the right way, they learn to behave the way that’s expected in social environments. And in doing that, it’s kind of exhausting for them. Because you’re trying to do all the difficult things that you’re trying to do when you’re trying to get a job or being successful and lead. And you’re trying to remember to behave a different way. And it’s not merit. It’s not better. It’s just this insidious control that privilege has over us. We thought really carefully about that campaign, because we wanted to use humour, we wanted to be a bit a bit funny a bit silly. We wanted to point out the ludicrousness of, of this, this concept of class polish. But we wanted to make a really serious point about the harm that it’s doing. And we also, of course, wanted to be incredibly clear that the butt of the joke isn’t the working class person, isn’t the person from a low socioeconomic background, the butt of the joke is we who value that class polish.
Sarah, so I want to move to the Social Mobility Index. Now, that’s one thing that I’ve followed for quite a while. And I think it’s existed since 2017. Could you just tell our listeners why it was set up?
So the index is a key part of our, our work with employers to go beyond the work we do on programmes with young people to influence and support employers who want to understand and recognise how social class disadvantage is operating in their organisation, and who want to make change. Employers enter the index. It’s a benchmarking study, they fill in a survey with a lot of detailed questions about various aspects of their practices, their outreach, their recruitment, their progression, the data that they collect, their internal and external advocacy around social mobility. If you enter the index, as an employer, you get an individual report, which tells you the things that you’re doing well, the best practice things that you’re doing to make sure you keep doing them and build on them. And it tells you the things that you have scored less well on where you need to make some change, where there are barriers in your organisation, problems in your organisation for for social mobility, to help you to understand what to do and give you a framework for action. We in turn, we publish those broader in we publish a report every year with the broad insights from that. What employers are doing, how good practice is developing, our recommendations for further areas of focus across different employers, case studies and examples. Because it really often is difficult to know how you may know you’ve got a problem, but how do you improve your recruitment? How do you make sure you’re collecting good data on this? It’s really good to share case studies and peer learning. And we publish a top 75 employers who are leading the way in social mobility. I won’t say that even those top five don’t have a lot of work to do and a long way to go. But we highlight the employers who are prioritising this, working on this, and to encourage others and to share the message.
When I was looking at that top 75 there was a lot of household kind of businesses and organisations on there. When I looked at those, there did seem to me a bit of a distinct lack of charity representation, particularly when you compare that to the private and public sector organisations that had. Given all that we’ve talked about the kind of under representation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in our sector, and the fact that we’re certainly not exempt, how important and vital is it that charities enter this year, and how will SMF support those who do enter? You know, it could seem a bit scary…
Yeah, absolutely. So I, I am really keen personally, to work with charities to have more charities as part of this, you know, I care about our sector being better and stronger and more divers. I care about our sector having the best talent and our work and our incredibly important work, having the best, strongest people doing that work, which means we have to be open to talent wherever it comes from. And I care about our ability to connect with communities and to be reflective of the communities we support. And that means that better representation, as we’ve talked about, for charities, it can feel like something that isn’t a problem for us, in contrast to professional services, you know, where there are some very obvious structural barriers around, and the only entry is graduate entry, they cherry pick from from Oxbridge and Russel Group, the environment is stuffy, suits, you know, those those can feel like obvious problems when it comes to social mobility. And those sectors do recognise they are obvious problems and are and are working on very strong representation from law, professional services, finance, the public sector, because they recognise there’s work to do. And I’ve seen over time, that being part, starting that journey, recognising the problem and starting the journey, doesn’t mean it gets better all at once, doesn’t mean particularly that the challenges around progression to senior levels are fixed or are making the kind of progress that we would want to see. But it does mean that change starts to happen. And some of the early basics of a good diversity strategy that involves social commitment, diversity, things like collecting data, starting the conversation in your organisation, supporting your employees from those socioeconomic backgrounds to form a staff network, maybe looking at your outreach and how you how you helped bring people in from diverse backgrounds to be able to see the pathways in, those are often the early steps. And they are, they make a huge difference. And they also build confidence in an organisation to start to tackle some of the, to understand and tackle some of the more difficult areas. And so I know that we can help charities to start on that journey. And over charities can learn from each other as well, because there are charities that do great things, there are charities who’ve done radical things around their recruitment, or where there is already a really active conversation inside the organisation about socio economic diversity and the benefits. So what we’re doing bringing a group of charities together so that we can support them to enter the index this year, we can give extra support, extra help and feedback, extra guidance on filling the index in for the first time and make sure we give lots of really good detailed feedback. Also, charities can work together to talk to each other and to share. So that you know, this is something that there’s some peer learning around this. And it will really help us to make sure that the index is valuable to the sector. And we’ve got good insight into what matters for charities, the issues, and we can start to think about what else we can do to support charities to be able to go on this journey. Because I’m really confident it’s it’s not a lack of will or lack of core kind of understanding of the merits of diversity. It is about the resources, the knowledge, the challenge of prioritising this when there are so many things to prioritise and so much vital work to do. And probably a little bit of nervousness, if I if I go into this and I’m not doing it well. Does that hurt me as a mission lead organisation, and we want to support organisations to do this. There’s a lot of change that’s needed. So we start now.
So I guess we are kind of coming towards the end of our chat, but I guess I just want to flip it slightly. You know, you’re a chief executive and a trustee. You’re also a mentor. Often I’m sure people are coming to you for advice. What’s the answer, Sarah? I’ve done that certainly in this conversation. But I just want to flip that slightly. You know, let’s talk about your mentees. What’s the biggest lesson or lessons that your mentees have taught you and how these actually helped shape your leadership?
Gosh, that is a good question. Mentoring is, is fantastic because you get to work with interesting people, different people, people who are struggling with things. I often think as a mentor, the most valuable thing I’m giving them is space in which the deal is you’re going to talk about you. And I’m going to talk about you, both of us are here for you. And that’s unbelievably precious. Except it’s also completely easy. The time that I can give a mentee, it’s incredibly easy. And yet we make it so rare and so precious. So I think probably the biggest lesson that mentees and mentorig has taught me is not to make that so hard, not to apologise for sometimes needing a bit of space in which you’re going to ask someone to help you. Because I know how easy and how rewarding it is as a mentor to do that, to feel that you’ve helped someone even though you know you haven’t done anything except be on the other end of the phone or the other end of the zoom or sitting across the coffee table from them. But that by giving them that, unlocked in them so much that they could do anyway, they knew the answer. They knew that what they wanted to do, they knew what was going to have to happen, but they didn’t have the time and the space to work that out. And yet, it’s very, very easy to do that. Also that people are so hard on themselves. I’ve had mentees really beating themselves up over things. I just stand back and kind of go, you’re doing 150 amazing, difficult things. Of course, you’re finding this one amazingly difficult thing difficult, because it is difficult. And you’re trying to do a lot of difficult things to a really high standard. And so I try and remember to turn all of that advice back on myself.
Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to talk to us at ACEVO on this podcast, sharing loads, and just thank you for the work you’re doing at SMF and leading it so well. So, on that note, I’ll say goodbye for now. And thank you again.
Thank you, Alan. It’s been a real pleasure.