Being an SU CEO during Covid meant new priorities

Colina Wright is CEO at Sunderland Students' Union

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.

Growing up

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.

Off-balance?

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.

2 responses to “Being an SU CEO during Covid meant new priorities

  1. An excellent personal reflection …. the comments on work life balance and the way we have got used to and almost welcome the insights into the “human” part of our colleagues strike a chord with me, definitely.

  2. A refreshing and honest account which I can certainly relate to. I have every confidence in you Colina and know that you will make a significant impact on the student experience at your institution.

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