Joanna Thornton, a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice, interviews Kerry Smith, Chief Executive of Helen Bamber Foundation, as part of our series on pioneering leadership, exploring the changes in leadership style and identifying what factors make an outstanding leader in today’s society.
Can you give an overview of your career path to date?
As a teenager I was hugely inspired by the anti-apartheid movement and wanted to use the law to fight against oppression. With this in mind, I studied for a law degree and then became a clerk in a civil liberties firm. I worked at the Refugee Legal Centre and did my training contract with Bhatt Murphy Solicitors. I had a desire to work internationally and then moved into international humanitarian work, being posted overseas with the International Committee of the Red Cross. I spent a year in Ethiopia before taking my dream position in Columbia which I enjoyed. I experienced a real career cross-roads at this point.
I unexpectedly had to make the difficult decision to leave my dream role in South America for personal reasons when I suffered a family bereavement. As a result I found myself working in the UK for Amnesty International on a temporary basis, before taking a permanent role at Save the Children that took my career in a completely different direction from the one I had originally envisaged when working internationally. The role at Save focussed on the impact of conflict on women and children and was of great personal interest to me. I then moved to Plan International UK as Head of the Campaigns, Research and Policy team. I was excited to play a role in Plan’s desire to further develop its identity in campaigning and policy and the subject matter of girls’ rights was something I felt passionately about. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to apply global human rights learning to the UK’s context. I feel strongly that human rights are universal but should not be a colonialist endeavour, instead should be an exchange of ideas developed by different communities globally.
After an enjoyable period at Plan I was starting to think about what really motivated me and had decided I wanted to work in a leadership role that impacted more directly on individuals. The Chief Executive role at the Helen Bamber Foundation came up at the right time. The organisation provides therapeutic care, medical consultation, legal protection and practical support to the survivors of trafficking and torture. I applied for the role and was delighted to be the successful candidate. I felt in the right place to take the knowledge and experience of our clients and to use it to innovate and to expand our treatment services for individuals who have experienced trauma.
What has been your career defining moment so far?
Leaving the International Red Cross and returning to the UK completely changed my career path. Had I not experienced a family bereavement, I am sure that I would have stayed and created a life and career within the organisation in the long-term. I am delighted with where I have ended up, but it is interesting to reflect on the different path that I might have taken.
What are the specific nuances that need to be considered when leading a human rights organisation?
It is never just about the individuals you are serving as an organisation, it must also be about making a positive impact on the wider population. Additionally, human rights organisations like the Helen Bamber Foundation are bound to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others to, such as equality, fairness and diversity. It requires constant reflection to make sure we are not inadvertently slipping into bad practices ourselves and that we hold ourselves to account in everything we do.
What have you learned as Chief Executive about working in partnership with the Board?
It is vitally important for any Chief Executive to work in close partnership with their Chair and the wider Board. The relationship is not a simple hierarchy but a close collaboration.
What is the single biggest challenge facing leaders in the sector today?
The political conversation has been frozen for the past 3 years because of Brexit, which makes it very tough for leaders in the sector to move the conversation on. Improving life for our clients and service users relies on the legal and policy environment improving and we are therefore all operating in a difficult context at present.
What advice would you give to a first time Chief Executive?
In your first month in post you will be busy understanding the ‘feel’ of the organisation and the real priorities, whether it be fundraising, organisational culture, vision or a mixture of all three. My advice to new Chief Executives is that several years down the line it is important that you still regularly think about those priorities, whether they have remained the same or not and whether you are making a positive impact on those priorities. Secondly it is important to remember that change can take time and while ambition is positive, it is wise not to be too impatient. Finally, use your Chair effectively and network extensively and share information with others. Partnership is really important – internally and externally.
How do you think leadership will need to change in the sector over the next 10 years?
It is easy to think that the most important part of leadership roles is influencing the external environment. However, Chief Executives must also spend time looking inwards, ensuring that the organisations they lead can measure up to the values they promote. Our policies and cultures internally must reflect the vision and mission we are promoting externally. On another note, leaders will need to be much more open to partnership and collaboration. Given the financial climate, it is possible that we will see more mergers over the next few years.
How do we need to grow the next generation of leaders in the not for profit sector?
Diversity needs to be an absolute focus within leadership recruitment and retention planning in the sector. As a sector, we are hugely reliant on volunteers but need to balance this with considering the need to ensure that our recruitment plans allow for social diversity as well as the protected characteristics. A real challenge for small charities with limited resources is ensuring that people have the thinking space they need to develop as leaders, when often they find themselves firefighting the day to day priorities with limited resources. There is a conversation to be had about what good leadership looks like and how we make that accessible to a wider group of people.