Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector
1. What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?
I am Chief Executive Officer of The Wheel, Ireland’s national association of charities and community/voluntary organisations. I’ve been in this role since October 2000.
2. How did you get to where you are today and what influenced your decision to work in your chosen field?
Like many people, I ended up working in the voluntary sector in a round-about way. I had left college in 1986 with a science degree in Experimental Physics, and subsequently I spent eight years in my 20s working in the high-tech, silicon chip manufacturing industry in Munich, Germany, followed by a couple of years travelling around the world. I arrived back in Ireland at the age of 30 with the sole ambition of figuring out how I could build a career in any field apart from Physics and Electronics! I gave myself a few months to explore the alternatives, consulted a really excellent career-guidance consultant, applied for a whole range of jobs that I felt attracted to (but didn’t have any experience in) and I didn’t get a single interview. However, I also did a lot of networking, and it was through this route that I came to work for Barretstown, the serious fun camp for children with life-threatening illnesses in County Kildare.
I worked in the fundraising (development) section of Barretstown for five wonderful years: initially as Campaigns Manager for Major Gifts and later as Director of Development. Here I learned the ‘nuts and bolts’ of fundraising and non-profit management from expert US-based consultants, one of whom is now the President of the Newman’s Own Foundation. I loved working for a charity and knew the non-profit sector suited me.
One of the board members at Barretstown, Dr Mary Redmond (one of my heroes who sadly passed away in 2016) was the founder of The Wheel, and when an advertisement for a CEO for the new entity appeared in the paper, I knew the role was for me. In October 2000, I was lucky enough to start as The Wheel’s first CEO (and indeed its first full time employee). I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity.
3. What do you love/enjoy most about your job?
I love the fact that I work in a role and in a sector that demonstrates in a very practical way, the best aspects of humanity: care, compassion, dignity, respect and love for others. These values, which underpin the work of all charities and voluntary groups, keep me focused, inspired, humble and determined to champion the people and organisations who do this great work.
I enjoy my work with colleagues (our staff, board and our members) who achieve excellence every day.
I thrive on the variety that all this brings to my working week, and I’ve often (only half-jokingly) described myself as only being an expert in being a ‘generalist’!
4. And what are the most challenging parts of your job?
To be perfectly honest, for many years, I found staff management to be the most challenging part of my role. And in fairness, it’s where I had a lot to learn (unfortunately for all concerned, learning most from my mistakes). In recent years, however, by virtue of either having made all the mistakes already, or simply through experience and the wisdom of age, I am much more relaxed in that role and actively enjoy it.
As the CEO of the largest representative body for community, voluntary and charitable organisations, I have access to a variety of government sponsored fora and committees, including the national Social Partnership of old. There is an apt saying: “if you are squeamish, don’t get too close to how two things are made: sausages and laws”. I’ll leave it at that.
At this point in my career, carving out the necessary time to think and to reflect has been a challenge that I’ve begun to address in recent years (and with some success). I will continue to find more time for thought and reflection.
5. How do you relax?
I relax in the company of my family and friends. When I am not working, I spend most of my time with my husband and 14-year-old son. We like to go for walks around the inner-city area of Dublin where we live, and we participate in the many civic events that Dublin City Council puts on. The Science Gallery is a firm favourite of ours, as is sitting in the sun in the many parks that we have access to in the summer. I have a close family and circle of friends whose company I enjoy over meals and walks. Lately, I have joined a local Park Run on Saturdays; let’s hope that habit sticks.
6. What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?
A very high tolerance for ambiguity; a strong sense of resilience and the ability to “bounce back”; a predilection and enjoyment of hard work; political acumen and a sound sense of judgement; never taking myself too seriously and always being prepared to laugh at myself and have fun; being very comfortable in my skin and surrounding myself with people who know more than I do; an ability to empathise with others and a good dose of self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
7. What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?
Keep up the networking; volunteer for a group or a cause that you care about; don’t take sides in the ‘politics’ of the sector; don’t confuse party politics with a leadership role in a charity, they are not compatible in my opinion; get comfortable with fundraising because everyone who works in a charity should be; do one of the many certificate, diploma and degree programmes on management or trusteeship in the voluntary sector, and lastly, be clear about your own values-system and what is important to you. Don’t work for an organisation or in a role that is not aligned with your values.
8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Here are a few pieces of advice that keeps me straight as a CEO:
“Don’t be anxious about what others are doing and about the external environment. Focus on your role and that which is within your control. We [the board] expect our CEO to focus on the delivery of our strategy: ensuring that we do what it says on the tin, and report to the board what’s been accomplished. Simple as that.“
“Trust your instincts”. This only started to make sense to me once I actually developed instincts, which didn’t happen for me until my forties. I’m not too sure how helpful this one was to me in my thirties. Perhaps it’s an age thing (apologies to your younger readers!).
“No surprises” is one of the best pieces of advice given to me by the second Chair of The Wheel. I learned how vitally important it is only after I had broken this rule. She was very forgiving and very wise, and I’ve never made that mistake again. Ever.
9. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
That is an impossible question to answer, as there have been so many highlights since I have joined The Wheel! Therefore, I am going to choose the moment I found the courage to leave Barretstown to join The Wheel. At the time, I seriously had no comprehension that it would be a decision that will change not only my job but my entire way of viewing the world. I am so proud of everything that The Wheel has achieved, and I’m humbled that I’ve been facilitated to play a role in that success. It’s is our staff, board members, supporters and above all, our 1,300 members who developed The Wheel into the leading champion of Ireland’s community, voluntary and charity sector
10. What are your career aspirations?
To be in a job that enables me to be as enthusiastic, inspired and stimulated as I currently am.
I’m particularly interested in helping younger people rise from within the ranks to management and leadership roles in charities. Often we see senior leaders (mostly men, according to the recent Pay & Benefits Survey) brought in from the private sector to head up the high turnover charities. I know that we have a pool of amazingly talented people within the sector who can, and should be, supported to reach the top in large charities as well as the medium-sized and smaller organisations.
The Wheel’s National Summit for the Community, Voluntary and Charity Sector, takes place on 24 and 25 May 2018. Become part of the solution by joining us as we bring together the leaders, the motivators, the thinkers and the doers in our sector to tackle our biggest challenges.
Register at: https://thewheelsummit.wixsite.com/summit2018
If you’re a professional who works in the not-for-profit sector and you’re interested in taking part in the ‘My Charity Career’ interview series, please get in touch by emailing Laura at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!