WIG’s Women’s Leadership Programme - A reflection from experiences by Alexandra Cran-McGreehin

I undertook WIG’s Women’s Leadership Programme five years ago, to support me as I stepped up to become a deputy director in the civil service.  It turned out to be a pivotal course for me, setting me on a new path in terms of how I fundamentally thought about leadership and work.

The setting is really supportive and feels safe – one of the first things I took on board was that it was OK truly to be myself at this course, in fact it was positively encouraged!  I think we burn so much energy and effort in presenting the “best” version of ourselves at work – always wanting to appear professional, smart, on it, or whatever it is that we think our bosses want.  And there are positive aspects to this – I know I’m more polite at work than I can sometimes be with my nearest and dearest, and this helps the office to run smoothly!  But there is a downside – if we don’t find space to be honest about ourselves and what makes us tick, eventually that will catch up with us.

Can we get so caught up in the persona we present at work that we don’t really know who we actually are and what we’re leading for?

I had been tacitly taught over the years that real leaders came in a particular mould – and that mould was pretty male-looking.  Leaders led decisively from the front, set direction, didn’t take no for an answer.  If I wanted to be a leader, my emotions were something to hide away – and don’t for goodness’ sake ever show any sort of vulnerability at work!

As my work life continued, I began to come across different examples that challenged that teaching in a positive way – leaders who were empathetic, who wanted to know the real me, who supported me to give of my best amidst all the challenges of the real world.  And sometimes what I found to be the best leadership models came from rather unexpected sources – don’t judge a book by its cover, and all that…

WIG’s Women’s Leadership Programme brought together 16 senior women from across the sectors and gave us a space over nine months to explore our real leadership questions and conundrums. No easy “follow these five steps to success” models here – this was about exploring who we really were, what we cared about and how we wanted to lead.  It was about building a supportive network where we problem-solved together. It was about recognising the powerful impact leaders have on others – when did we shine a light on others, and when did we cast a shadow?  It was about reflecting honestly on what was holding us back and why, and on how we could build our authenticity and resilience in a world that can be very draining.

I remember in particular the task we were set to write a short personal brand statement – I needed to capture the real me, my strengths and uniqueness.  After much pondering, I produced something slightly different – instead of a sentence or two, I produced a picture with an equation (made up of words rather than x and y), which summed up my blend of analytical rigour and creativity rather well I thought!

So what did I gain from the course?  Definitely an appreciation that there are so many ways to lead – that leading-from-the-front model I was brought up on absolutely has its time and place, but so do more empathetic, co-creating, perhaps even vulnerable leadership styles.  In fact, diversity of leadership approaches has been shown to be beneficial for organisational outcomes.  And I think that diversity is so vital to enable humanity to face the challenges in front of us, including climate change and environmental degradation.

I learned more about myself, and how to bring the different elements of myself together authentically – not to be the “best” that I think others want, but actually the best I can be with the whole range of my skills, talents and qualities. I’ve continued exploring these themes in the four years since the course finished, and now feel much more comfortable in my own skin as a leader, much more sure about what I champion and what I bring, and more resilient in the face of life’s challenges.  I’m also a lifelong fan of Brene Brown!

And most fundamentally, I worked out where and how I wanted to be leading. I spent twelve years in the civil service, gaining so many experiences and insights, and working in a wide variety of policy, operational and governance roles – including contributing to a spending review at the Treasury, running the public body that scrutinises the value for money of the UK’s aid budget, transforming a finance function, and setting up Defra’s centre to respond to a no-deal Brexit. But I knew that I needed to move on – I felt the pull of the third sector and it turns out that my values and range of experience fit really well with being the Chief Operating Officer at the Whitehall & Industry Group!  Its mission truly speaks to me: to connect the sectors and enable real connection and learning to achieve better outcomes for society. So in a wonderful twist of fate, WIG’s Women’s Leadership Programme led me to work at WIG.

Authenticity is the word I would use to sum up the course – there are so many ways to lead and no one right answer or approach.  Leadership isn’t easy.  But we can approach the challenge with heads – and hearts – that are open, inquisitive and honest.

To learn more about our Women's Leadership Programme and how you can embark on a truly empowering programme, please click here. 

To apply for a place on our WIG Women's Leadership Programme, please click here or email us if you have any questions.