Blog

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Put up your hand and roll up your sleeves: Anna Smith’s route to CEO and advice for aspiring charity leaders

Here’s an infuriating statistic for women in charities (and women everywhere). Even though we make up 65% of the workforce, a 2017 report by Charity Finance showed that 71% of chief execs at the 100 largest charities are men.

Now, there may well be a more recent report out there with better numbers for women leaders. But I haven’t found it yet. And it got me thinking: why not interview some female charity CEOs and write some stories that might – just maybe – inspire other women in the sector?

So here’s the first of what I hope will be a series of stories about women leading charities. Huge thanks to Anna Smith from One25 for kicking things off. When we met in September, we talked about surviving blokey meetings, chucking yourself in at the deep end, parenting under pressure…and rogue lunch boxes.

Anna Smith
Anna Smith

Sitting across from me in One25’s Bristol office, Anna Smith looks and sounds like one of those impressive people who was born to be a leader. So I’m taken aback when she tells me a story about how she responded, aged 12, to a task set by a supply teacher: write about what you want to do with your life.

Anna was one of four children. Her mum was at home and her dad went to work. In rural Cambridgeshire in the 1970s, she says, this was pretty much the norm. So the young Anna wrote in her exercise book: ‘I want to have children and then I’ll stop working.’

The teacher picked her up on it. “Why would you stop working?” she said. “You could carry on working, couldn’t you?” Anna remembers a light going on in her head. “I thought, ‘Whoah! I could!’”

Thank goodness for that supply teacher – because Anna did carry on working. Four decades on from that writing task and four children of her own later, Anna has built an impressive career in the charity sector, supporting some of the most marginalised people in society along the way.

Life in the Cambridgeshire countryside didn’t suit the teenage Anna. “I was screaming to get out of the village,” she says. “I went to Covent Garden on a school trip and I thought, ‘I want to live here.’ It became my obsession. After that, I only applied to London colleges.”

Anna made it – she read English at what is now London Metropolitan University. The college’s diverse, left wing environment spurred her into activism: when she wasn’t reading, she was campaigning. She Rocked against Racism, demanded freedom for Nelson Mandela and protested anti-abortion laws.

Anna Smith in 1985
Student and activist Anna during the summer of 1985

A speedy rise through the ranks

A job helping others was the obvious next step. Anna’s early roles involved supporting vulnerable people to find employment, first with the Vocational Guidance Association and then Workforce in Hackney.

I’m not surprised to hear that Anna moved quickly through the ranks. “But it wasn’t desperately out of ambition,” she admits. “It was more out of boredom. I wanted the challenge of something new and different, so I became a manager quite young.”

Freshly promoted to deputy CEO at Workforce, 26-year-old Anna became pregnant with her first child.  How would she break the news to Graham Finegold, her CEO? “I really thought he’d tell me what terrible timing it was. But he couldn’t have been nicer about it.”

Later I ask Anna who in particular has helped her progress in her career. I’m hoping she’ll name a woman, but it’s Graham Finegold who stands out. “Graham was amazing to work with: easy, bright, focused, visionary,” says Anna. “He was a great leader, but also compassionate and aware.”

Anna in 1993
Anna during her ‘Dr Martens/Annie Lennox phase’ in 1993, just before she became a mum

Blokey meetings and bump-patting

Anna remembers the external meetings and trips she attended on behalf of Workforce as ‘very blokey and jokey’. She was often the only woman in the room. “I’d go into meetings and people would make slightly dodgy comments about me being pregnant. Graham was always incredibly supportive of me as a woman in that environment.”

I want to hear more about Anna’s experiences as a relatively young pregnant woman in a senior role in a frequently male-dominated work environment. She remembers interviewing a male candidate when she was about seven months pregnant. “I remember standing up at the end and the guy put his hands on my stomach and said, ‘Good luck.’ It was well meant, but totally inappropriate.”

Would that happen now? Anna thinks not. “I do think things have changed. I was at the mayor’s office in London a few years ago and a guy stood up and said he had to go as it was his daughter’s birthday and I thought, ‘Good for you!’” (I ask which mayor. Sadiq, surely? It was Boris. Humph.)

Jumping feet first into consultancy

Back to the mid-nineties. Anna had a baby boy, Nathan. Having separated from his father, she was struggling to stay on top of work and single parenting. Graham suggested that she could soon be CEO of Workforce but she knew it was unrealistic. “I had a little boy. I wouldn’t be able to navigate all the late meetings without a partner to pick up the slack.”

So Anna left Workforce and worked both as a consultant in her own right and, for security, for a consultancy. She did training, fundraising, bid writing – anything that was asked of her.

“I’d say ‘Yes, I’ll do Managing the External Environment training!’ And then I’d think, what IS that even? But then I’d find out more about the audience and the subject and I’d try things out… and it mostly worked.”

That’s very brave. “I think you have to throw yourself into things,” says Anna.

Maximising nap-time

I work and I parent and much of the time I feel I’m falling short at both – and that’s with a supportive husband. So how did Anna cope on her own with a young son? She didn’t even have local grandparents to lean on.

She admits it was hard. “I can remember sitting and developing training courses into the early hours, and I would be alright if Nathan slept. If he woke up – and he wasn’t the best sleeper – I’d be screwed. I’d be like, ‘I’m running this in six hours and it’s not finished!’ That’s how crazy it was. But you just go on, don’t you?”

Anna did have a strong network of friends, most of whom were flexible because they didn’t yet have kids. One particularly brilliant girlfriend, Helena, babysat Nathan once a week for six weeks so that Anna could do an evening course.

Support beyond the sink

With her own consultancy thriving, Anna made the leap to full-time self-employment. She met her partner Oliver, had her daughter Rosa (named after Rosa Parks) and moved to Spain. She kept working: it wasn’t unusual for her to hop on a plane to London, run a week’s training and fly back to Spain. Around this time she became pregnant with her third child, Maya (named after Maya Angelou).

Again I’m in awe. How on earth did she manage? What helps massively, Anna tells me, is having a supportive partner. “I don’t mean just doing the washing up and sharing the laundry. I mean turning around and saying ‘Yes, I’ll hold the fort while you run your training for a week.’ Just working as if you’re two equals.”

Then she adds: “One thing that really, really bugs me is when people say, ‘Oh isn’t Oliver marvellous!’ Because he’s only doing what I’m doing, and nobody’s saying I’m marvellous.”

YES! I’m agreeing so hard that I almost knock my recorder over. I have a similar reaction to the phrase ‘Daddy day care’.

So long consultancy, hello CEO

After a year in Spain, Anna and her family returned to the UK and settled in Bath. In 2006 she had another son, Thomas. By 2008, the economic crash loomed and Anna knew she should get out of consultancy. “Anyway, I wanted to be back in an organisation – to feel part of something again.”

CEO roles came next: five years at Survive in South Gloucestershire, and two years at Advance in London. Both charities work with people affected by domestic abuse.

Anna at One25's Bristol office
Anna at One25’s Bristol office

Working with Bristol’s most vulnerable women

In 2017 Anna joined One25, a Bristol charity supporting women who are sex working or who have had their children removed. Earlier this year it made the headlines when Meghan and Harry paid a visit, but the charity has long deserved the attention: it has been doing exceptional, life-saving work with the most marginalised women in the city for many years.

There are no blokey jokes and inappropriate bump-patting here. Men are welcome in the workplace, but the One25 team is predominantly female and always will be. The best thing about leading One25, says Anna, is that every member of the team, from case workers to cleaners to payroll staff, cares ‘very deeply’ about the women One25 works with. Those women are seen and loved and supported, ‘wherever they are and whatever they do’.

How to be a good bad guy

And then there are the tough bits. Funding is always a challenge in the charity sector. So sometimes “really hard decisions have to be made for the right reasons but getting everyone to see that can be really difficult.” And as a CEO, “there are times when you just have to suck it up and be the bad guy. And that’s not nice.”

So how do aspiring CEOs prepare for those not-so-nice aspects of leadership? “Be honest, be yourself, admit when you’re wrong,” says Anna. “Try to put your best foot forward and be your best self.”

Words of wisdom for aspiring leaders

What’s Anna’s advice for becoming a leader in general?

“Roll your sleeves up,” she tells me. Earlier in her career she and a fellow manager spent a week sitting in a meeting room stuffing envelopes for a fundraising campaign. They could have said ‘That’s not my job’. But they didn’t. They got stuck in, because that’s what the organisation needed from them.

Remember the story of Anna volunteering to run ‘Managing the External Environment’ training when she knew next to nothing about it? She just went for it. And she thinks all would-be leaders should do the same. “Put your hand up,” she says.  “Say ‘I’ll do that!’ even if you’ve never done it before. Take yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Any more wise words for aspiring leaders? “Get yourself a mentor,” says Anna, who is one and has one. All the managers at One25 have mentors too. “Find someone outside of your organisation that you can go to and say, ‘Aaaghhh, I’ve got this problem, I can’t do this, I’m worried about that’, and let them help untangle it for you.”

Mess ups – and time for self care

I may be in danger of banging on about this but…how does Anna do it? How does she stay on top of a full time CEO role and four children (now aged 24, 17, 15 and 13)?

Anna describes a massive blackboard in her kitchen which charts everyone’s movements during the week, plus a sub-board for weekends. But she messes up all the time, she tells me. Once she was running the ‘walking bus’ to school and she forgot to take someone else’s seven-year-old across the road. “He dutifully stood on the green while another parent walked him across. Then he come over and told me off! I still feel bad about that.”

Another time, when Anna had three children under five, she sent the teenage Nathan to school “with a Tupperware full of cheese rather than his actual lunch.” (That one really makes me laugh, as I too have a tub full of cheese in my fridge and it’s pretty stinky. Poor Nathan!)

I want to know about that cringey but useful phrase ‘self-care’. When does Anna squeeze it in?

Every Saturday on the hockey pitch, it turns out. “Playing hockey makes me a better mother,” she says. “It means I’ve done something for me. I get home and think, ‘Ok, I’m really willing to give you the rest of my day now.’”

No one’s indispensable

As our interview winds up, Anna remembers one last piece of advice for potential leaders: keep your feet on the ground.  “You’re never that important,” she says. “At One25, the women are the most important thing. I need to remain functional and do my job well, but I’m not indispensable. I don’t believe in hierarchies and I don’t stand on ceremony.”

And with that Anna gets up, shakes my hand and strides purposefully towards the One25 kitchen. She’s on dishwasher duty.

Do you know a brilliant woman leading a charity that I should be writing about? If so, please get in touch.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.