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Finding your people

By Fiona Ellison, director at the Unite Foundation.

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

Stepping into my first CEO role was pretty daunting. Doing so as we entered another major lockdown in January 2021 added a whole other level of complexity – getting to know my team, understanding the nuances of information people were sharing with me as well as meeting the students we support – whilst doing it all via Zoom was tough!

It also didn’t leave much time, or opportunity, to find the support network I knew I needed to really help me flourish.

I moved into a new role, in a new sector, where I knew very few others. The pandemic massively reduced the opportunity to have the informal chats with ‘friends of the organisation’ that you would normally do over a cuppa or something a little stronger perhaps! Although utilising Zoom was great to meet people quickly it didn’t give that time for the chit chat and connections in quite the same way a face to face encounter does. Whilst I was incredibly lucky and had a great team and a fantastic chair and board of trustees supporting me, I continued to have a feeling that I needed to find the trusted network of others to digest those niggly challenges that I’d bored my husband with already.

I still don’t feel like I’ve quite cracked it, or really made the circle of ‘sector’ friends that go beyond colleagues and become actual grown-up friends – but I’ve definitely found a few things that have helped.

I made a conscious effort to join some of the ACEVO sessions and off the back of one of the webinars I had a great chat with (the fabulous) Tom Andrews that there were probably other people like me who were searching for their ‘people’ and that it was something I’d found really hard to do virtually. That led to a shout out for others in the same position – and thank goodness there were others in the same boat as me! We’ve now got a great gang of fellow CEOs meeting up every six weeks, including most wonderfully a face to face full day chat last month, and they are already helping to navigate some of those niggly areas that I know about, as well as things I didn’t even know were worrying me but come out in the wash of great, safe conversations.

I know there is still more I need to do to build that group of cheerleader CEOs closer to the work that we’re doing to help tackle some of the big challenges that we’re trying to address as an organisation. However, with the return to more in-person events, those chats in the margins of events or the opportunity for a coffee are starting to open up more often.

So what have I learnt:

1. Putting yourself out there isn’t as scary as it might seem and so many others are glad when you do

2. Finding your ‘people’ is hard, but you’ve got to start somewhere and commit to being open with others to build trust and meaningful connections (I cried in our first face to face session – it definitely helped break the ice that I was the first one!)

3. Just about everyone questions themselves and no one really has their sh*t together – and that’s ok!

I’m incredibly grateful to my fellow CEOs who’ve come together to form our peer learning group (although we definitely need to find a snappier title) and can already feel a wonderfully supportive group forming to help us all navigate the crazy rollercoaster that being a charity CEO is.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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