Sarah Atkinson: This is what a charity CEO looks like

08 Oct 2020 Voices

After her tweet about what a chief executive looks like went viral last week, Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, reflects on what charity leaders should look like, and why it matters

“Not a CEO look…too much bare flesh…’Friendly’ doesn’t hack it”. When I opened the letter I was sent a couple of weeks ago telling me to replace the photo I most often use for professional purposes, at first I just goggled in disbelief. 

Disbelief soon turned to embarrassment. I hate having my photo taken, and so having got a professional headshot I quite like, I have been using it for quite a while and been glad to give it little thought. As a relatively new CEO, I am still getting used to the fact that I’m the figurehead of my organisation. The idea that I was being scrutinised and found wanting – “bare flesh”, good grief – felt hugely personal, and for a few days I sat on the letter and did nothing. 

When I plucked up the courage to share it with a couple of trusted people, our conversation soon made me realise: the woman (yes, it was a woman) who wrote to me has probably experienced a lot of prejudice and misogyny disguised as friendly advice in her life, and so that is what she passes on. I began to feel sorry for her, and to reflect on the negative impact of a lack of allies and role models.

I am proud to work for an organisation that champions inclusion and breaks down barriers, in our case for young people from low socio-economic backgrounds. The students we work with are hugely talented, ambitious and determined – but without good advice and support, and allies in the form of mentors and champions to help them achieve the confidence that matches their ability, we know that potential can often go to waste.

Something positive and inclusive

It felt important to see if we could turn this minor nastiness into something positive and inclusive: to challenge the idea that there is a particular “CEO look”, and to encourage people who aspire to leadership to feel confident that, whatever their background, a CEO can look like them. So I shared the comments I’d received on social media, along with the most not-a-typical-CEO-look photo I could think of: a picture of me with my newborn son, no make-up, unwashed hair, and demonstrably not having slept for days.

I tagged it #ThisIsWhatACEOLooksLike and prodded a few fellow charity leaders to see if they would keep me company, hoping we might get a bit of positive chat going on a rainy Friday. 

The response went far beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of leaders of civil society organisations from all round the UK – and beyond – have shared a range of joyful, vulnerable, inspiring and hilarious images of themselves in all their diversity. Running marathons and weeding the garden; undergoing chemo and post-surgery; in fancy dress, in national dress and in drag; with natural hair and with shaven heads.

Thousands of people have shared and responded to my post. People have passed on much worse comments they’ve had – “too gay”, “too Northern”, “not enough gravitas”, “you don’t sound like a CEO, are you old enough?” And people have been so positive and affirming, cheering me and each other on to keep going, shake off the nay-sayers and embrace our individuality and our achievements. 

Still much to do 

I’m so delighted to have been the catalyst for this celebration of diverse leadership. I’m also deeply conscious that this whole experience underlines how much more we have to do. There were notably few images shared of leaders of colour and of leaders with visible disabilities – both significantly under-represented in the leadership of our sector. They, along with female leaders, LGBTQ leaders and leaders from working class backgrounds – also significantly under-represented in our sector – had consistent stories to share about the demands they face to be more like what we expect from a CEO, less like themselves.

Diversity is the reality, inclusion is a choice, as the saying goes, and we know we have work to do in our sector to make sure we are choosing inclusion, and calling out and tackling the barriers that marginalise. I don’t pretend a few pictures on Twitter gets us very far. But I firmly believe an important part of working for change is to celebrate progress. And if my baggy-eyed picture made just one other woman think “well if she can be a CEO, I can”, then that’s all been worth it.

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