Zara Todd: No one should have to work in a cupboard

06 Nov 2018 Voices

As part of a series on diversity, we hear from Zara Todd, who has worked at different levels in the voluntary sector for 12 years, is currently working in the volunteering sector, and has researched how to support disabled people into leadership roles. 

I have worked for a variety of flavours of voluntary sector organisation. I have had entry level positions up to chief executive and everywhere in between. Throughout my career I have had to make decisions about whether to sacrifice my safety, dignity or general professionalism in order to get into rooms. Often I find my own inclusion has to be played out for people to see.

Without articulating it people don’t actually realise the extra effort - the amount of energy, confidence and sheer bloody mindedness - that’s needed to be in a space. When people see that in very stark terms they get outraged, but on a day-to-day basis they don’t really know what that would look like. I know disabled people that to work in the voluntary sector, have been offered jobs and have had to work in cupboards because that’s the only place that can be found that was accessible to them. No-one should have to work in a cupboard. 

Three things make inclusive leadership. First, listening. Inclusive leaders do not have all the answers. They might have a lot of questions, but they listen to what people tell them. Secondly, they’re flexible, adaptable and approachable – as a combination. If you’re an inclusive leader, you are open to doing things differently. You walk the walk, you don’t just talk about it. Finally, it’s about being creative: not being too prescriptive in how you see tasks or objectives being carried out or what you expect from a candidate. This includes recognising people that have a lot of life experience particularly around problem solving that doesn’t necessarily translate into typically valued skillsets or CV points. And we have got to recognise intersectional barriers too. A person is not just one identity.

I did a Winston Churchill Fellowship last year where I looked at inclusive leadership in the disability movement in Australia and New Zealand. Mentoring, particularly with people with the same or similar lived experience to you, is absolutely key in developing leadership for people from diverse backgrounds. You have to deal with extra shit if you come from diversity. As great as a mainstream leader can be, the tips and tricks to deal with the shit are probably what makes a diverse leader. The standard leadership skills, they can be learnt anywhere, but if the door is shut to you as someone from a diverse background, you need the little hints, the little easy routes, the easy wins.

We need to ensure that capacity building is built into everything that happens in the sector, and that conscious thought is given to who is being built, and who is putting themselves forward for being built. What I’ve learnt is that if you’re someone who’s experienced oppression, on any grounds at any point in your life, having the self-confidence to put yourself forward for a development opportunity is like the holy grail. If you have people in your organisation that are from diverse backgrounds on whatever grounds, you actually need to reach out to them and say – I think you’d really enjoy doing this, or I think you’d bring something really interesting to this. If there is someone with a spark of something but isn’t in a position to acknowledge that themselves, or mobilise it, they’re the ones you should be taking on.

But it should be anyone that wants to be a leader. If you have diversity in your pocket, and you’re good at what you do, sometimes you can feel that you’re forced into leadership positions because you’re diverse. It should be what the person wants not because it looks good for the organisation.  

This is the first of four articles curated by Ellie Munro, a social policy researcher at the University of Birmingham, for Civil Society Voices. 

Lots of people have been talking about ‘diversity’ in the voluntary sector recently. This is great; it has been encouraging to see senior leaders reflecting on what statistics tell us about ‘pale, male and stale’ boards, spaces and leadership teams. But some voices have been missing. As much as we need leadership at the top to open up room, or to get out of the way, we need to listen to people just starting out on their careers in the sector, those who have experienced oppression when building theirs, and those supporting others to develop as leaders too. This short series of articles aims to bring those voices forward, reflecting on experiences so far, what inclusive leadership looks like, and how we can foster it. 

The second piece will be published next Tuesday. 


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