Lessons in Leadership: Nationwide Foundation

In this series, we are speaking to members about their experience of foundation leadership. 

The sixth and final article in this series comes from Leigh Pearce, Chief Executive of the Nationwide Foundation.

This series first appeared in December 2017’s Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here

I joined the foundation 11 years ago as Grants Officer, then became Foundation Manager a few years later. In 2014, our Chief Executive went on maternity leave and I took on the role on an interim basis. The role became permanent in March 2015 when my predecessor decided not to return to work.

In taking on an interim role, my perception was that I would be using my organisational knowledge and experience (from having worked very closely with the CEO) to provide continuity and good leadership to the team and board and to keep things running smoothly, while driving our work forwards as we delivered a strategy in a new field of work. We had recently completed a strategy review, so there were robust plans in place. The direction we were going was clear, and I knew what the board expected us to deliver.

Broadly, my perceptions were right. But despite having worked closely with the CEO and having in-depth knowledge of the foundation, I still found the move a big leap. Things feel significantly different when you know that the buck stops with you! I would urge other chief execs and boards to include in their succession plans and support for personal development, ways to make the jump into a role where the buck stops with you a little less extreme. This could be done by giving people more exposure to higher levels of responsibility for decision-making.

I quickly found that the role of a CEO is a lonely one, and I hadn’t expected this. Not having peers within the organisation is a strange dynamic for someone like me who constantly bounces off others. Also, the structure of a charity with a voluntary board imposes a certain distance, which compounds the isolation. Not that the board wasn’t willing to help; they always were. But I didn’t want to seem needy – they had appointed me because they believed I could do the job and I didn’t want to let them down.

Well into my first year, I found out about the chief executive’s secret – that we are all out of our depth and making it up as we go along sometimes (maybe a lot of the time!). I wish I had known this sooner, so to any new Chief Executives out there – don’t worry, none of us know what we’re doing! My apologies to other CEOs for letting everyone in on the secret!

Unfortunately, the pressure of the role (alongside other things in my life), took its toll on my mental health and I have suffered from depression for a significant period of my time as Chief Executive. It took me a while to recognise it, and when I did, a lot longer to ask for help because the role requires you to be a strong leader that your team and board can rely on.

Fear prevented me from asking for help. Fear that everyone would find out that I wasn’t able to do my job; that all my feelings of being a failure would be proved correct; and that even if I got better, I would be stuck with a stigma that I wasn’t up to the job.

But when I did find the courage to ask, some of the weight instantly lifted and I have gradually realised that none of the things I feared were true. No-one saw me the way I saw myself, I was doing a good job despite how I felt, and people genuinely wanted to help me. It was really heart-warming to have had such incredible support and I am so thankful for this.

I told the Chair first, and he immediately looked for ways to help take some of the pressure off. For example, bringing in external help to support me with some large and challenging pieces of work. On the emotional side, he regularly checked in with me to ask me how I was and let me know he was happy to listen. These checkins gave me permission to say what was concerning me. My energy levels felt like a water bowser that emptied at full speed but was only being filled up by a slow drip, and the support allowed me space to work on building my resilience.

After emerging from the other side, I feel stronger than before. I am comfortable in my own skin and am no longer an imposter in this job. Of course, I have doubts and fears and stressful times, but they are at pretty normal levels. I am also confident that I will spot the signs much earlier and I take the time to ask myself how I am doing. There is a note on my desk that asks me how my water bowser is today. This reminds me to stop and breathe for a moment rather than keep battling on. We all must take time to look after ourselves as we are no good to anyone else if we don’t.

I hope that my experience and the way in which I was supported has resulted in a more open and supportive workplace where we know we can rely on each other.

I see now that depression twists your reality. Very little has changed in my external world, but how I see things has changed. This is why it can be so hard for people to know how to help – things that seem like sensible advice and logical steps towards feeling better, make no sense when your reality is skewed. Some people asked me why I didn’t leave my job, but this would have reinforced what a failure I was. Others, including my Chair, told me that I must wait until I was better to make that decision – and they were right. The support I had, on a practical and emotional level, let me build up my strength and resilience. This was the right answer for me and for the foundation. If I hadn’t had that I would have had to leave and this would have taken much longer to recover from. Now I have no desire to go anywhere!

The support we have around us is key to getting better, so talk about it, ask people how they are, do something nice for someone when you think they might be struggling, because they might not be able to see it themselves.

Leigh Pearce
Chief Executive
Nationwide Foundation


Other articles in this series:

Lessons in Leadership: Bupa UK Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Building Change Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Joseph Levy Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Cattanach Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Building Communities Trust

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