Anna Bird, CEO at Contact, writes about her first 100 days in post while receiving cancer treatment.
I’m back at the helm at Contact this week, after a few months out undergoing treatment for breast cancer (now all clear, thankfully). I’m just as committed, passionate and excited to be here as I was on day one, just with a few more battle scars. And as I mark my return, I’m looking to find the positives from a situation that neither I nor Contact would have hoped for when I took the job.
We talk a lot about the first 100 days in leadership. A CEO’s first three months are a precious time for learning and listening. For establishing a relationship and bonds of trust with staff and trustees, and for meeting beneficiaries, funders and partners.
There is also an expectation to bank some quick wins and get going. It’s natural to want a concrete achievement to point to after the first few months, that tells a story of where you want to take the organization, indicating a change of pace, tone, priorities or direction.
For me, the 100-day milestone went out the window on day four when my cancer diagnosis was confirmed. I had to put on hold much of my induction. I had to say so many hellos and ‘bye for nows’ all in one breath. I had to rethink the timescales of strategy development. And together with my board and SMT, I had to find other ways to deliver the leadership of Contact while I dealt with a totally unexpected personal crisis.
So I can’t reel off my personal leadership quick wins. But actually, Contact can. Because of course the world didn’t stop turning when I went on sick leave. As ever, some of the best outcomes are borne out of adversity, and charities are expert in finding a way to keep the ship sailing, come hell or high water.
The senior team at Contact had no choice but to step in to fill the CEO gap. They did so brilliantly, pulling together to lead collectively and collaboratively, deepening our culture of shared accountability and empowerment. Many senior teams would pay good money to unlock the trust and solution-focused energy they have generated. I know it is a gift to be able to return to a team that is stronger, razor-focused, and already engaged in the business of sharing power across the organisation.
My absence also meant a change to our strategy timelines. Again, what originally felt like a setback rapidly has delivered new opportunities. The impossibility of a quick, linear, top-down business-planning process has enabled the organisation to do something more meaningful. The revised process has given more space to parents to be equal partners in the strategy development process, and more time allocated to discovery and evidence gathering. What we may have lost in pace, we will have gained ten times over in depth, insight and shared ownership.
And me personally? I’ve been reminded, through my experience as a cancer patient, of just how special the voluntary sector is.
Over the past three months, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of the system, vulnerable in a way I have never been before. And while it is the amazing care I received from the NHS that means I’ve survived cancer, it is the support I drew on from three charities – Maggie’s, Macmillan and Breast Cancer Now – that made me me again once the treatment was over. I drew on their information, advice and face to face support to help me figure out how to put myself back together as a mum, a partner, and now CEO.
Where life’s challenges can make us feel small and powerless, and underfunded state support can often feel impersonal and process-driven, great charity support can make people feel whole. Listened to, valued, respected – not just the sum of our needs or problems, but the centre of our own world, with relationships and responsibilities, hopes and dreams. It is charities who know the value of family life, meaningful occupation, wellbeing, a decent standard of living, a place to call home. It is charities who really see us.
In a world where state support and charity funding is under ever greater threat, and demand for services is growing day by day, I’m reminded that as charity leaders, our real purpose is not to lead teams or write business plans. It is to hold the line in advocating the value of care. Not the transactional business of personal support, but the deep, complex business of listening, understanding and respecting what matters to people and putting them at the centre of their lives once more. And that, as I return to the day job, is what I can’t wait to do.