by Emma Hutton
I’m lucky enough to live by the banks of the Forth Estuary. On my regular walks along the foreshore, I often see ducks and geese swimming along. Sometimes gliding, sometimes pushing against the tide, always paddling away underneath the surface.
After a year in post as JustRight Scotland’s first CEO, and as a first time CEO, I can relate!
When I shared the news of my appointment on social media last year, an old friend and colleague immediately sent me a link to ACOSVO’s “First Year in Post” service. A top tip! I greedily gobbled up the practical guide provided, which helped me feel as prepared as possible.
Walking into my new workplace on day one, I felt some nerves – naturally – but I was mostly excited and keen to get stuck in. A year later, I’m pleased to say I still feel the same way – but it has certainly been a journey of discovery and challenge.
Looking back, what have I learned?
The first thing is how different the role of CEO is compared to other leadership roles I’ve held. The difference is tangible – and it can be tough.
Curveballs, complex decisions and crunchy, knotty problems come in thick and fast – from all directions and departments. I’ve always thought of myself as decisive and I’ve never shied away from responsibility. Even so, the pace and pressure of making difficult decisions with limited time and information, and with high stakes, has been hard.
It’s also lonelier than any job I’ve done before.
I am blessed to work with an exceptional senior team (including two of our founders). I couldn’t ask for more support, insight, wisdom and skill from them, the wider staff team, and my Board of Trustees. Nonetheless, some of the worries and anxieties that come with the job are for me and me alone – or at least, that’s how it feels.
That said, the ACOSVO programme has been a great way to tap into some much-needed peer support. I’ve also been fortunate in accessing executive coaching (thanks Kerry Freeman), which I think of as CEO therapy!
The wider environment for our work at JustRight Scotland has been the third and biggest challenge for me. We are a young organisation battling to defend and extend the rights of people who are under attack from populists, and worse. The last ten years has seen a horrifying and intensifying downward spiral in these attacks and, in some cases, in legislation that strips people of their rights. This makes our work more necessary than ever; it also makes it harder than at any time I’ve known. Our clients of course bear the brunt of this hostility.
While working hard to swim against that tide, we are also working hard to become sustainable and stable as an organisation. In a cost-of-living crisis with standstill grants, that is really challenging.
As an action-oriented, practical kind of person, I tend to just roll my sleeves up and get stuck into all these challenges as best I can. Occasionally though, I look around and I feel awed by the scale of it all and the sense of responsibility – towards the people we exist to support and towards my incredible staff team.
So much for the tough stuff. What about the highs?!
Without a doubt, those highs come from seeing our work in action. Hearing about wins, big or small, for our clients and their rights. Seeing our campaigning efforts pay off when the law changes because of our hard work. Meeting people whose lives have been made better because of what we do.
People like Kacper and Oliwia who left Poland with their parents and arrived in Scotland when they were six and two years old. Our lawyers helped them when their parents divorced because of their father’s abusive behaviour, assisted them to apply for settled status and to gain their British Citizenship. They are now thriving in their studies: Kacper is hoping to become a chef and Oliwia would like to be a pilot!
Or someone like Mei, giving evidence in a court case against her traffickers, with our specialist advice and support. They were found guilty and we supported Mei during her journey to become a refugee and to starting a new life in Scotland.
Or Ola, who we supported to take the Scottish Government to court because of their discriminatory rules on student fees affecting young people who are migrants and have lived in Scotland for years. Thanks to her, our lawyers and a brilliant grassroots campaign, student support is now going to be made available to many more young people from migrant backgrounds, ending what was a clear injustice.
This is what we do. We use the law, including the Human Rights Act, to stand up for people whose rights are at risk, and who find it hard to access justice elsewhere.
That’s what makes all the tough times worthwhile.
And on a personal note, there is also huge joy for me in working with a band of incredibly dedicated and talented people, many of whom are much younger than I am. Their fierce determination, allied with immense skill, gives me huge hope for the future. As a leader, if I can do my bit to support this next generation of social justice warriors to fight on into the future, I will feel I’ve done my job.
So one year in, I take my inspiration from the ducks and geese in the River Forth. Onwards, despite the headwinds!