Joanna Thornton, a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice interviews Sonya Sceats, CEO of Freedom from Torture, 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?
I started my career as a human rights expert and although I was always ambitious, this was more about making a difference by bringing legal knowledge to bear than about the pursuit of leadership. That happened in an unplanned way as I realised I could achieve more by motivating and supporting teams. I have always had a strong personal commitment to justice and an abhorrence of torture, so I jumped at an opportunity to join Freedom from Torture, initially as a policy officer before promotion to a policy management role. I loved the organisation deeply but eventually left to take up a global strategy role with Amnesty International.
When the Director of Policy & Advocacy role came up at Freedom from Torture I decided to apply and it was wonderful to come back. The previous Chief Executive resigned just before I returned from maternity leave and I was invited to act up into the CEO role – that was a struggle with a 7.5 month old baby! I never had a long-term career plan to become a Chief Executive but having spent several months leading Freedom from Torture on an interim basis, I decided to apply for the permanent role, and I was honoured to be appointed as Chief Executive in early 2018.
What has been your career-defining role to date?
Becoming Chief Executive at Freedom from Torture is undoubtedly my proudest career moment. I was really content as a senior manager, but it is a privilege to be in the driving seat now. We are one of the largest torture rehabilitation centres in the world and the only organisation in the UK dedicated solely to the treatment of torture survivors. As well as providing clinical, legal and welfare services to survivors, we also use evidence from this work and the expertise of survivors themselves to secure protection for survivors and promote a world free from torture. The survivors we work with are inspirational and I have never known such a passionate and dedicated staff team. I feel a strong responsibility to do the right thing by them all.
Tell me about your key priorities in your first year as Chief Executive
Stabilising our organisation following many leadership changes was my main priority during my first 12 months in post. A key task was to recruit fresh talent into the higher levels of the organisation while also leading the most inclusive strategy development process in our history, including involvement of survivors of torture themselves. Soon we’ll unveil our new strategy and a much stronger visual identity to help us fight harder for the rights of survivors and defend the absolute ban on torture in these dangerous times when populists like Donald Trump boast about supporting torture and whip up xenophobia against refugees.
What does placing the service user at the centre mean for leadership at Freedom from Torture? How will it impact on future strategies?
Survivor empowerment is absolutely central to Freedom from Torture and we are recognised throughout the torture rehabilitation and refugee sectors for our innovative survivor activism models and commitment to involving survivors in our own organisation. This is deeply rooted in our ethos as a human rights organisation. Now we are setting a new pace by supporting survivors to co-design our services and play stronger a role in delivery and quality assurance. We’re about to launch the first ever comprehensive survey of all our treatment clients to inform these developments and I am very proud that this is being led by survivors of torture who rehabilitated with our help and are now employed in our small but mighty service user engagement team.
As Chief Executive, what have you learned about working in partnership with the Board during a time of change?
A close working relationship is really important. I speak to our Chair Sue Berelowitz on a weekly basis and we have a more formal meeting once a month. Our relationship is one of trust and complete transparency. We have very clear boundaries in terms of responsibilities and I really value her role as a critical friend who encourages me to think about things in different ways. Our relationship works very well.
What is the single biggest challenge facing leaders in the not for profit sector in the next 5 years?
I am very worried by the backlash against human rights as populists try to take a grip over our democracies. It wasn’t so long ago that fascists almost destroyed democracy in Europe and even here in Britain, the birthplace of liberalism, politicians keep trying to roll-back our rights. Even if the worst assaults are blocked or, in the case of MI6 complicity in CIA torture, officially regretted, these authoritarian impulses are corroding our values. A third of people in Britain think torture is acceptable sometimes. To tackle this we urgently need to remake the case for prohibition not just by talking about legal rules but also by exposing the terrible human cost of torture.
Like all leaders in the not for profit sector, I am also worried about efforts to undermine the value of charities which will further corrode public trust. We need to reverse this by bringing our ethics back to the fore and demonstrating our vital role in providing services to and defending the rights of the most marginalised in our society.
How ‘future-ready’ do you think charities are and what does this mean for leadership?
Leaders of charities need to get better at focusing on longer term horizons when stewarding their organisations which is hard, especially when the financial outlook feels so insecure. Boards and funders also have an important role in this. I also feel that corporatisation of charities has hit a high-water mark and that the best leaders now are those with strong principles whom beneficiaries, staff and supporters recognise as having an authentic commitment to the cause.