Lessons in Leadership #1

Originally published on LinkedIn, 23/06/2021

Get someone in your corner

Nobody ever told me how scary it would be when I became a CEO – or how alone I would feel…

I had what I thought was my dream job – running the UK’s largest ever single species conservation programme – and I had 3 years to save our gorgeous and extremely vulnerable native red squirrel from almost certain doom. 

The stakes were high – and failure was not an option. There was a lot of money being poured into the programme: lottery funding, big ticket donors, corporate sponsors, and the all important nickel and dime donations from the Great British Public (which actually amounted to tens of thousands of pounds each year).

And volunteers – did I mention our volunteers? Over 400 of them, tirelessly raising funds, collating records, managing habitat and “controlling” the imported and invasive grey squirrels that carried a deadly virus capable of eradicating the red squirrels within a matter of a decade or less.

The role was high profile – and I mean high profile. I was working with academics, conservationists, landowners, businesses, the press – and even aiming to get a Royal seal of approval (which I did thanks to HRH The Prince of Wales, and his awesome former Private Secretary, Elizabeth Buchanan).

I had a loving and supportive husband who got what I was doing, and understood the science; two amazing step children; and a beautiful near miracle baby girl who came into the world less than a year after I took the post…

I should have been on top of the world – but the reality was that I had never felt so lonely – or scared – in my life.

It wasn’t just the burden of knowing what would happen to the red squirrel if I got it wrong, but the fact that I had a team of employees who were relying on me not only for direction and support, but to ensure that their mortgages could be paid and food put on the table.

I had volunteers who were at daggers drawn with the people who owned the forests that were sanctuaries for the red squirrel: they didn’t understand – and didn’t want to understand – that timber is a cash crop. That felling trees AND saving squirrels was not mutually incompatible.

I had landowners (not many, but some) and other red squirrel conservation organisations who were outraged that a project of this nature was run by a woman.

I had conservationists who were outraged that the project was being run by someone with a business rather than scientific background.

There were death threats from animal rights organisations (yep, you heard me…)

And did I mention a project board of 53 (that’s right, 53) separate stakeholders…

And it felt like no-one outside my delivery team and my immediate family gave a damn about how I was feeling, how much stress I was under, and how close to burn out I was – particularly as the squirrel world internal politics grew nastier and more personal.

At that time, I would have almost killed for someone to take me under their wing. Someone who could be a sounding board, and a voice of objective support, so I wasn’t second-guessing my own decisions. Someone who had been there, done that, and knew the 5 or 6 key steps I could take that would make my life so much easier.

In hindsight, I was trapped by my belief that such a person could only come from the world I was currently operating in. And the problem with that belief was that I already knew all the key players in my world (and they were a big part of my challenges).

I didn’t realise that, actually, it wouldn’t have mattered what their sectoral experience was. All I needed, in hindsight, would have been their experience…

  • Of being a leader
  • Of having to make those big, scary, sometimes awful decisions
  • Of walking in my shoes.

So I struggled on, by myself, for 5 years.

And in the end, I couldn’t take it any more: I’d gone as far as I could down that road.

I’d raised another £3M plus to keep my successor going for another 3 years (which they completely pissed up against a wall, but that’s another story…), but I was burned out and extremely scarred by the last 20 months I was in post.

So I left.

But I still wonder to this day, what my life would have been like – not to mention the future of red squirrel conservation – if I’d had the sense to find a mentor to walk by my side when times got tough.

So if you’re a CEO – and particularly if you’re an owner/founder of a business: learn from my mistake.

You don’t have to walk this walk alone – and just because you’re a leader, it doesn’t mean it has to be lonely at the top…

Here endeth the lesson for today…

But seriously – you can keep banging your head against the same brick wall I did.

Or you can talk to someone like me who gets what you’re going through – because they’ve walked in your shoes.

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