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Flying the nest: reflections on ‘leaving well’ as a charity chief executive

As she prepares to leave Women in Prison, chief executive Dr Kate Paradine shares how she has been feeling, and some of the things she has been doing, in preparation for the next step – both hers and the organisation.

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

My excitement at discovering a blackbird building her nest in my garden, just as I start my last month at Women in Prison (WIP), has led me to reflect on ‘leaving well’ after the great adventure that is being a charity CEO. My plan, since deciding to step aside, has been for a few weeks break before deciding exactly what direction to take next. So, I have had the luxury of being able to focus on leaving WIP without headspace taken up by a new organisation.

I’ve had some incredible clinical supervision, coaching and guidance from peers during this time and ordered my thoughts with exercises like my ‘top tens’ – top ten memories (good and bad); achievements; regrets; things I would do if I was staying. It’s been brilliant doing this and enabled me to share with members of our team and for us to look back and forward together, including laughing about the ridiculous situations we’ve found ourselves in – and how we survived!

Inevitably, there are some regrets and low points. Feeling you are getting more and more out of your depth, waving for help with no one on the shore. The 3am cold fear of running out of money, or relentless puzzling over a complex staffing challenge that seems to have no way out. There’s the loneliness and the heavy weight of permanently carrying an organisation – its reputation, its services, its values, mission and of course its people. No matter how good your boundaries and ability to stick to annual leave plans, in a role like this the weight is always there because the buck stops with you.

Then there are the highs. The ‘out of the blue’ message from a woman or a family member passing on thanks for life-changing support, a successful funding bid or unexpected donation, an award or word of praise from a partner agency. There are brilliant team days or an ordinary day in the office when everything feels in harmony. For a campaigning charity like ours, there are the small victories of reaching new audiences with your messages– a letter in the press, an interview on Woman’s Hour, a mention in a Parliamentary debate – or achieving a change you have lobbied for.

There are also the highs of looking back at incremental change. Seeing close up that miracle of nature that is the blackbird’s nest, I think of how we build and shape our charities, making the best of what we find, and trying to fix it all together. Often it feels like unfinished business, so much still to do, such hard, slow, graft. Real culture change, which is core to so much of what we do, especially as the world changes so quickly around us, takes years. Then one day you look and there it is, that strong amazing resilient thing that came about against all the odds and which your leadership helped make happen.

Real culture change, which is core to so much of what we do, especially as the world changes so quickly around us, takes years. Then one day you look and there it is, that strong amazing resilient thing that came about against all the odds and which your leadership helped make happen.

If, like me, you have a personal connection to the charity’s values and mission that goes deeper than the ‘why of work’ all these highs can amount to an overwhelming force holding you in place, no matter what. I felt driven to apply for the role during a time of grief when my Uncle Tony had died very suddenly a few months before. He and I had visited HMP Pentonville a number of times together when his brother (my Uncle Martin) was in prison. It was the thought that they would both be proud of me, and see their hardships being put to some good, that drove me through the toughest challenges.  The hardest of all came when leading through the pandemic – providing services and campaigning during such a time was without a doubt the hardest, but most rewarding part of the WIP roller coaster. There were unique opportunities to show my grit as a leader and drive on, but also at times a feeling of being trapped and alone.

Looking now at the strong, beautifully imperfect nest that is Women in Prison and with the toughest times in the CEO role most likely behind me, I have asked myself many times why I would leave now. The group of women with experience of prison and of our services who were part of the recruitment process for WIP’s new CEO asked me that question when they were preparing for the interview process. I realised I have done many of the things I really wanted to at WIP and that for the organisation and the team it’s a strong time to hand over to someone with fresh energy and ideas who can take WIP to the next level – and drive home the broader systems change that is so desperately needed. The post-pandemic recovery also feels like a good ‘break point’ – when we are rebuilding many elements of working life and our social fabric.  So the short answer is probably the same for all the big decisions in life – driven a bit by the heart, a bit by the head, and some a mysterious force telling me I’m meant to be doing something else now – I’m just not sure what yet!

There are so many mixed emotions as I hand over to a brilliant new CEO – Sonya Ruparel: a real sense of accomplishment at what our team have built together and the way WIP has strengthened over the years with successive CEOs standing on the shoulders of the one before (Rachel Halford, now CEO of the Hepatitis C Trust, was my predecessor).

There is a bit of fear of the unknown, excitement and a real feeling of anticipation for myself and for WIP. There’s a sense of responsibility to make everything as good as it can be for Sonya and the team, but also acceptance that part of being a CEO is that your job is never done. One thing you have to get used to is that fact – this was true when I finished my first week at WIP, as I know it will be on my last day. I feel sad leaving our team – especially those of us who have been together these 7 years and women with experience of prison working in the staff and trustee teams who are so central to our leadership.  I will really miss speaking publicly against the deep injustice of women’s imprisonment that I know we can remedy, and on behalf of an organisation whose mission, vision and values are so grounded in what is right. I’ll even (this is weird I know) miss the relentless email onslaught and the firefighting required of the role (which I admit can be strangely addictive).  The overwhelming feeling I will leave with is a deep love for, and pride in, our organisation, our team, the women we work with and hope in our overwhelming case for a life-changing, world-transforming new order.

If all goes to plan with the Blackbird and her nest, around the time she and her fledglings are taking flight on new adventures so will I, Sonya and Women in Prison – for the circle of life to continue on.

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