Leading in The Unfamiliar

"A bit of blurring round the edges is a good thing. We all need to lead and follow." Meg Wright has recently taken up a new role as Scotland Director of the Engineering Development Trust. She reflects on her learning and leadership journey in this month's ACOSVO leadership blog...

I have worked in the voluntary sector for 15 years and I recently changed jobs, becoming Director of the Engineering Development Trust in Scotland. It is a totally new area of the voluntary sector and the subject of engineering was quite alien to me. I quickly found out that the aim was to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in schools and opening up opportunities for young people to take part in STEM based activity.

This has got me thinking about my career in the voluntary sector to date. I came to the sector from industry and prior to that my working life was in the NHS.

My first foray into the charity world was as a volunteer providing food for people who were homeless or working in the streets. It was all very relaxed and seemed effortless to manage and organise (how wrong can one be!)

My first paid role in the sector was to work with people with learning disabilities. That was daunting as I had never worked either in the sector or in the LD field. My role was Development Manager and I was tasked with setting up supported living services for people leaving long term care. Everyone around me knew the language, the culture and the ‘way things were done’. I felt quite out of my depth and at times wondered why I was appointed to the role as I leaned on others quite significantly to learn and fulfil what was expected of me.

Next up, Director with a health charity – that was more ‘me’. I had trained as a nurse so the client group was familiar to me and I felt that I was not such a burden on others for my learning. Other roles included leading in sexual health, addictions and now engineering development.

But is that what leadership is all about – knowledge of the subject matter? No, certainly not. It is about skills, partnerships, relationships, management, business development, listening, and learning as well as leading. These themes cut across so many organisations, no matter why the organisation exists.

I have been very lucky in my career to work with so many people who have been both generous and kind in sharing their knowledge and guiding me. Without them, it would have been a much harder task. While I focus on developing the business, relationship management and partnerships; they can get on with their roles in whatever capacity.

However, it’s not always so clean cut, we all need to shift and take on tasks that are not immediately related to our job role, a bit of blurring round the edges is a good thing. We all need to lead and follow. Even as the overall leader I still often find myself following instruction or direction from others. It’s how I learn and get the job done.

We need to keep on learning, it never ends, leadership to me is more about guiding, vision, motivation, looking ahead - as well as a dollop of followership thrown in for good measure.