Nurturing future leaders

Ruth Spellman OBE
ETF Trustee Ruth Spellman OBE

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, I’d like to share a glimpse into my personal journey, one that has been marked by challenging traditional paths and navigating societal pressures. Growing up as one of six girls, I often felt the weight of conformity bearing down on me. I’d find myself seeking solace in books, dreaming of a life beyond the limited opportunities around me. Unknown to me I was learning a core skill and the most valuable leadership lesson – to adapt to my circumstances and take the positives from it. 

One learning that stuck with me came from Charles Handy’s 1976 book, “Understanding Organisations,” he noted that there are three professions in Britain that require no prior qualifications: becoming a parent, a politician, or a manager/leader. These roles, though lacking formal prerequisites, are among the most significant in society. As someone who has experienced all three, I’ve gained valuable insights, particularly regarding leadership and nurturing.   

Early in our careers, we face choices that shape the type of leader we become. It’s important to recognise that we always have the power to make new choices and adapt our leadership style as we grow and gain experience. When I returned to work after giving birth, my perception of leadership shifted. I realised that all human beings need nurturing whether at home or at work and I had a lot to learn about it. Leadership started to feel less like a set of tasks or a position in the hierarchy and more of an action, a behaviour. Whether a job title explicitly mentions leader, I came to realise that leadership qualities are needed in most roles.  

While there’s no specific path to leadership, effective leaders understand that people have both hearts and minds, and to truly make an impact, they must appeal to both. However, many individuals, particularly women and minorities, face significant barriers to progression, often finding themselves in low-wage, unstable roles without a clear path forward. To foster truly inclusive leadership, we must address these disparities and create opportunities for all individuals to thrive.  

Below I’ve illustrated three qualities of a successful, responsible leader: 

1. Thought leadership

To be a thought leader you need to be connected to relevant professional networks, access best practices and connect with the lived experience of front-line employees. At the NSPCC, I delivered a comprehensive work force development strategy as a key element in our long-term strategy. I also changed a command-and-control culture to one in which ideas were fed to the top of the organisation from the child protection teams. I contributed ideas from the workforce to the commission of enquiry into the causes of child abuse and increased the percentage of women and minorities in the most senior positions. This had a profound and positive effect in delivering our strategy for the 90s and our capability to lead a fragmented sector. Thought leadership works best if it is based on theory, practice, and diverse voices and inputs. Lead organisations are able to share new insights and collective learning. 

2. Managing stakeholders

Managing relationships with stakeholders is an essential skill and it starts with identifying who they are in order of importance. This list includes any, or all, of the following: funders, shareholders, partners, suppliers, contractors, regulators, politicians or government officials, any other beneficiaries and the wider public at large. It should always include customers or end users. All of these relationships will need managing. Meeting their needs goes way beyond setting up a CRM system and involves the senior team dividing responsibility between them. Also, stakeholder management is often best achieved through involving the non-executives.  

At the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, we identified government as a major stakeholder in the future of engineering. This led to us opening our doors to engineering technicians – many of whom went on to become Chartered Engineers, thus helping to address skill shortages and build the technical capabilities we need to achieve a carbon neutral environment. This also raised our income and profile. Similarly, at the Chartered Management Institute we developed the talent pool of middle managers through Chartered Manager and through degree apprenticeships delivered through the Higher Education sector. These results were achieved through effective stakeholder management and a responsive organisational culture.  

3. Collaboration

This is a crucial aspect of leadership behaviour which is particularly relevant when you are trying to win friends and influence people. Leading Investors in People was essentially a collaborative venture – and successful because the employer community and the delivery networks were involved in its development and implementation. We worked with the CBI, IoD, the Small Business Service, British Chambers, Trade Associations and more, to promote the business benefits. We delivered it through the Learning and Skills Councils, Business Links and a small team of professionally trained advisers and assessors. Leading the organisation was always complex and demanding. The intellectual capital was ours but the energy behind IIP was a direct result of a long-lasting collaboration between our dedicated team, our partners, funders, suppliers, and customers. 

Development for leaders

As a leader, one of my roles has always been to develop other leaders. Progression routes are often blocked by unconscious bias, and for women, the reality of balancing work and family. We need practical solutions. This may be through paid internships, work experience and mentoring and buddying mixing up people who would not normally work together. Or, to challenge traditional pathways by doing things differently – calling out organisational cultures which discriminate and celebrate those that enable self-development and fulfilment. Addressing leadership barriers and cultivating the next generation of managers and leaders requires a concerted effort. I am all in favour of gender equality, but true equality means treating women in the same way as men. By working together and focusing on talent development, we can overcome obstacles and build a brighter future for all.  

Ruth Spellman OBE, one of ETF’s Trustees, is an author and experienced Chief Executive with a diverse background in leading organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Ruth is passionate about sharing her insights and lessons learned to help others navigate the challenges they may be facing in their professional journeys. To read Ruth’s biography in full visit ETF’s board page.