Back in early March 2020, I attended an interview for an SU Chief Executive role approximately 200 miles from where I live.
I told myself at the time that this was for the experience – but when the job was offered, I took it.
That in itself isn’t unusual – however I’m a woman with two young children. I took the role based on my need to challenge the patriarchal structures and show my then three year-old daughter and one year-old son that life presents us with many opportunities, whether we realise them and develop ourselves as a result is down to us – “never regret anything you do in life, only what you don’t!”
Part of me felt quite selfish in my acceptance – but another part of me queried whether this would have been perceived the same way had I been male.
Either way, when I accepted the role I had no idea the world was about to change. When it did, I recall Boris saying that we might be facing disruption for three weeks, and so my meticulously planned holiday seemingly unaffected.
And yet here we are 15 months later – I have only just been able to attend Sunderland SU in person following my handover – my thanks go to the team and the university for engaging so positively with a remote CEO.
A learning process
This is my first role as a Chief Executive and consequently I am learning more about myself in the process. I am analysing subconsciously held values – the correlation between visibility / presence and success, and the ability to balance being a good boss with a good mother.
With the support of my Board, I underwent a non-financially driven restructure and found that to be extremely challenging, both professionally and personally. I am under no illusion that this would have been the same regardless of the pandemic but, irrespective of the support I received from family, friends and colleagues, never had the saying that “it’s a lonely place at the top” been more real. As difficult as it was, I continue to believe in the decisions we took for the organisation and that we are on a journey from good to great.
I have found it harder to engage with our elected student officers the way I would have liked, and wonder whether I would have been a better manager, leader, mentor and coach had we interacted in person. Would the issues we encounter be the same or simply manifest in other ways?
Strangely this isn’t the view I have with the staff – I hope they have felt more empowered but whether this is because of my approach to management or whether it’s due to remote working is another consideration.
I recall the news interview where the man being questioned was interrupted by the sudden appearance of his children and the general stereotypical assumptions about “the nanny” covertly sweeping them away – we laughed but little did we know this would become reality for many of us. My favourite memes are where we are shown to be adapting to these challenging times – the one where the Italian woman is in a meeting and her “partner” enters the room in a state of undress and ends up almost knocking himself out by walking into a wall in blind panic. There’s another where the American lawyer is unable to change the cat filter and declares “he is not a cat”.
Sunderland’s vice chancellor has asked about my tiara-wearing daughter and dinosaur-roaring son if one or the other hasn’t attempted to “say hello to mummy’s friends” and challenge my parenting skills by making some innocuous request whilst I attempt to present an image of control. I now welcome these interruptions – particularly ones where refreshments magically appear or there’s an Amazon delivery – and photos on family walls as they remind us that we have connections and lives outside of the office environment. I am able to ask about relatives in a way that may have seemed forced previously.
I have developed the utmost respect for those with responsibility for caring / developing our children. Having spent all day every day for what seemed like an eternity with my husband and children, balancing work with home life, I felt suffocated. As much as I love my family I realised that constantly being together was difficult and would have given nursery direct access to my bank account just to relieve me of the relentless burden of being a parent – a choice I had made and a journey that has been emotionally challenging. I commend parents that continued to home-school without any choice whilst I was fortunate enough to take my children back to nursery.
Another acknowledgement for me has been that Covid has changed the parameters of work and work-life balance – and I am fortunate enough to be in a position that can determine what this looks like. Agile working is no longer an abstract concept but a reality that we figure out along the way. Our “new normal” allows us to acknowledge that work is merely a part (albeit significant part) of our lives and there is no need to return to rigid working patterns because that’s what we used to do.
In acknowledging the difficulties I had balancing a new job with shared childcare responsibilities, I hadn’t realised I’d been given a chance to really see my children, and I was unaware that my daughter could ride a bike so well, I witnessed my baby grow into a little boy. Work-life balance became more than just words that were part of the management rhetoric but an ethos to apply to my own life – and similarly staff mental wellbeing was openly discussed with what I hope staff perceive as a genuine commitment to our people.
I can’t tell you how much I love working in Sunderland and how grateful I am for the opportunity to become this person – but I am equally grateful not to have lost sight of those that inspire me to be better, I have developed a great respect for my family, and am learning how to remain visible to them too.