Leadership diaries: "I'm an introvert - quite a rare thing for a chief executive"

Bejal Shah, CEO of ReachOut takes us through the final week of the charity's 2021/22 mentoring projects and the importance of collaboration, supporting each other and sharing ideas.
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ReachOut is a national mentoring and education charity rooted in local communities. Working with schools in under-resourced areas, they run 1:1 mentoring programmes, supporting young people to grow in character and confidence, sparking change in themselves and society.

Monday

At ReachOut, we run our mentoring programmes over the course of the school year, and Monday begins our last week of delivery for 2021/22. It’s been a remarkable year – after weathering the Covid storms, we’ve reached more young people and raised more money than any-time in ReachOut’s history. I couldn’t be prouder of the team and not a bad achievement for my first full year as CEO!

At midday, our 28 staff members gather on Teams for our monthly all-staff catch-up. Recently, we start every meeting with five-minutes in small groups focused on how we’re maintaining our wellbeing. We talk about what we’re looking forward to outside of work and share ideas for making the most of the long days. In today’s meeting, we’re sharing research we’ve done on ReachOut’s external communications and discussing how we can use the findings to improve awareness of our organisation and understanding of our work. It’s important to me that staff at every level contribute ideas and provide challenge and feedback – something I want us to maintain as we grow. At every meeting we also announce that month’s ‘Character Legend’ – a member of staff nominated for upholding ReachOut’s values – the character strengths of fairness, good judgement, self-control and staying ower. We aim to develop these in the young people we work with and expect our team to demonstrate and develop them too.

Tuesday

Today is a ‘business development’ day. I try as far as possible to theme my days of the week so that I’m keeping an equal focus on all the key parts of my role. In a session with the fundraising team this morning, we talk about our work to develop a network of major donors, a strategy that should eventually provide certainty over at least a proportion of our income, allow us to plan more easily for the long-term and reach even more young people in the future.

Afterwards, I start contacting some of the people on my list to engage with ReachOut. Nothing gets across the incredible impact of our work better than experiencing it first-hand so an invite to one of our mentoring sessions is always included in this communication. I’m an introvert – quite a rare thing for a charity chief executive I think. Whilst I enjoy being out and about, it can be draining. What really gives me energy and drives me forward is seeing and hearing about our impact. When things get challenging (which of course they often do in this job), I can guarantee that a visit to speak to our mentees and mentors puts everything into perspective and reminds me why I love what I do.

That evening I visit a project at a school where a group of young girls have been on our programme for five years, many with the same mentors throughout. I’ve seen them develop in character and confidence since they were just 11 years-old. They’re a prime example of
why mentoring works best as a long-term, intensive provision. Their openness and self-awareness astound me.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, I meet with one of the co-founders of Forward Culture, a CIC focusing on the empowerment of South Asian Women. They run The Browngirl Mentoring Programme – matching young South Asian girls with female adults from the same background to provide culturally-specific mentoring. I wish I had this resource when I was younger, so this is very close to my heart! I voluntarily advise them on the design and delivery of their programme and processes; I love that I can help in this way. I’m also really interested in how they’ve engaged so many mentors from a specific background. One of our key aims at ReachOut is for our volunteer mentor pool to be more representative of our young people so I’m keen to take on any learnings. Forward Culture have a very clear message in their digital recruitment campaigns for who they’re looking for and why. We can absolutely do the same.

Thursday

Being relatively new in this role, I’ve been trying to speak to lots of fellow-CEOs who have been doing the job for longer. Today, I have a meeting with the CEO of an organisation with a similar mission to ours to discuss impact measurement. It seems all of us in the youth development/education space face similar challenges and questions. What and how much data do we collect? What information is the most useful for us and for our stakeholders?

They give me some great ideas and points to consider for reviewing our methodology, but most of all, some reassurance to remember that we are doing the best we can with the resources we have. Later, I meet with the deputy head of one of our longest standing school partners to discuss the same topic. They provide feedback on how we can work with schools to continue meeting the changing needs of young people and how we can better collate evidence of successfully achieving this.

Friday

Once a month I meet with my own mentor. They listen and ask very incisive questions which help me to reflect and prompt me to come up with solutions to any issues I’m facing. Where I’m stuck for ideas, they provide practical tips and even relevant reading material. We’ve only recently started working together but I’m already getting such benefit from our interactions. I’ve carved out time immediately after this to ponder on what we covered and set out actions that I’ve taken away from our conversations.

I try to keep Friday free of internal meetings to have that ‘thinking time’ and for dealing with anything that I haven’t got around to through the week. Next week is a big one with end-of-year celebration events happening in Manchester and London, as well as a board sub-committee meeting. I finish off the day planning and noting down some bullet points for opening and closing the events. It’s so special to be able to host these again after two years online and (despite being an introvert) being around all those involved with ReachOut truly invigorates me so I’m looking forward to this time.

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