It’s been a whole year since I started at Become – a privilege, an honour and a rollercoaster. I remember walking in on my first day, fresh from 10 months of maternity leave, wondering if my brain would function ok in a work setting, both daunted and excited at the prospect of leading a team and a charity to deliver change for care-experienced young people.
That first day now seems like a different world and on reflecting on my first 12 months in the job – it’s quite hard to remember the “before days” before our worlds all got flipped turned upside down. In all the scenarios I pictured, in all the things I was apprehensive about on that first day, the devastating impact of a global pandemic did of course not feature once.
Since lockdown, Become has seen a 75% increase in the number of young people approaching us for help. Overnight we transitioned to delivering all our work online and finding new ways to connect with an increasingly isolated group of young people.
I have been inspired daily by the team and by the young people we work with – who, despite all the challenges and adversities they face, are filled with passion about making things better for others and optimism that this is possible.
So, here are some of the things I’ve learnt over the last year. Things that have become all the more important in recent months. Things I need to repeatedly remind myself of.
Be compassionate. Take the time to understand what’s going on in people’s lives, their experiences, how they’re feeling. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself.
Learn to be ok with not having the answers. As a new leader, you do not know it all. Acknowledge you actually know relatively little. The people around you, your team, the people you serve, will know a lot more. Be honest about what you don’t know. Listen, listen, listen.
Communicate regularly, repeatedly. Rarely do teams say they hear too much from their leaders. And, especially in a crisis, we often need to hear things more than once.
Get the right people around you and trust them. I feel incredibly lucky to have a supportive board, a great staff team and a network of peers across the sector. All of these are invaluable to me. Yes it can be lonely being a leader but its far better if you surround yourself with people you can trust and are prepared to be open, honest and even vulnerable with them
You will make mistakes. That’s ok. You will need to live with more uncertainty than you could have imagined and to make decisions with far less information than is ideal. Sometimes you will make the wrong call. Mistakes are inevitable - and part of the learning process. Accept that this might not feel comfortable. Try not to be too hard on yourself.
Work/life balance is important and not the same as work/life boundaries. Any work/life boundaries I had vanished pretty quickly during lockdown. I always anticipated there would be some challenges being a working parent. I did not envisage that these would include looking after a toddler full time whilst simultaneously working from home. My boundaries have become blurred – and so have other people’s. I know far more about colleagues’ home lives than before. And although people have varying degrees of comfort with this, I think in many ways seeing a whole person forges deeper, better working relationships. This is not the same as making sure there is time away from work. However busy you are, try to carve out some time for you – whether that’s family time, a run, a night in front of Netflix whatever. It matters. You won’t be at your best if you’re running on empty.
Finally, and most importantly, don’t lose your sense of optimism. I am hugely ambitious about what we can achieve together for care-experienced young people. So much needs to change and more urgently than ever. Young care-experienced people are facing increased isolation, mental health problems, hardship and homelessness. Not only are they struggling now but they are particularly at risk as we face economic uncertainty in the months and years ahead.
We simply have to continue to be optimistic that change is possible and that we can bring it about. Our plans may be delayed, we may be facing difficult times but we can, must and will do more to change things for young people.
Despite all the challenges that undoubtedly lay ahead, I am excited to put our plans into action – developing our digital offer and new approaches to supporting the most disadvantaged young people and to building our participation and campaigning work so that more young people’s voices are heard and listened to by those in power.
I hope to continue to lead with optimism and I look forward (with only a tiny bit of trepidation) to what the next year at Become brings.