Best Boss Series -Young Leaders: Esther Swaffield-Bray, Director, UK

Esther Swaffield-Bray, is the England Director for the International Justice Mission (IJM- IJM is the world’s largest anti-slavery organisation, partnering with governements and local authorities across the world to rescue children and families from oppression. Highlighted as one of 10 non-profits “making a difference” by U.S. News and World Report, IJM’s effective model has been recognized by the U.S. State Department, the World Economic Forum, the UN and leaders around the globe. Over the last 10 years they have rescued over 50,000 people, but they won’t stop, until all are free. Esther holds a first class degree from the University of Durham and a Masters Degree in Leadership from Warwick University.

  1. What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader. 

The more time I spend with people who are excellent leaders, the more I am convinced that leaders can be high-capacity visionaries, strategic, pioneering, creative, confident and very skilled, but without kindness they lack the ability to take people with them (for the long-haul that is). Of course they must be competent in the area in which they are leading, but their character, for me, is just as (if not more so) important, and will make the difference between people being confident being led by them or not. It has been my experience that the best leaders are genuinely passionate about who they are leading as well as what they are leading: as well as aiming to build a productive and profitable organisation, they have a focus on creating a healthy, happy confident people along the way, and in turn one leads to the other.

That said, this in no way discounts the fact that the most successful leaders must be capable of working with teams to cast ambitious visions and then helping this team to communicate with passion and clarity the direction of travel. It has often been said that there is no limit to what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit, and I wholeheartedly agree. Exceptional leaders must be willing to collaborate and work with others to reach desired outcomes, aiming for a win for the team as a whole, rather than them personally.

2. When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this? 

Prior to working for IJM working to end modern slavery, I spent two years teaching secondary school English, in an inner city school as part of the ‘Teach First’ leadership development programme. This programme seeks to train leaders in challenging educational environments. The two years I spent in the classroom very much highlighted that I was capable of leadership as I was consistently challenged to step up to be resilient, to balance working long-hours during the week with restful days at the weekend, and try to always retain a sense of humour. I recognised that if if I was capable of leading the Year 11 bottom of all-boys English class to read Shakespeare on a Friday afternoon, then perhaps I was capable of leading in other environments too…

Fast forward a few years, and I am now a National Director for a large NGO so much more publicly recognised as a leader. I am grateful that the time spent in the classroom helped me recognise that I am able to communicate to ‘tricky’ audiences, capable of managing a heavy workload, and am able to lead both myself and others in the midst of stressful, often time-pressured circumstances.

3. Do you think that your age is a positive or negative thing? Do you feel that people still provide the same level of respect to you as they do to leaders who are older? 

If I am honest, my age has only become a negative thing when I have let it be. On one hand, I could spend a lot of time worrying if people respect me and agonising over every meeting where I feel out of my depth (which is often!), or I can channel that energy into diligent preparation, thoughtful contributions, and doing the very best job I can. Me playing small doesn’t serve anyone particularly well, for the organisation or for the people we serve.

When I frequently find myself sitting in meetings with people who have decades more experience than I, I have made it my mission, to ‘collect wisdom’ from them and to see each meeting as an opportunity to learn. Whenever I can, I try to ask to meet with experienced professionals to glean as much of their learning and career as I can! I have several mentors who help me navigate tricky meetings and who I can call up and ask for advice and wisdom too, and as long as I remain humble and quick to listen, I hope that I am respected for what I contribute: afterall, everyone has started their career somewhere!

4. As a young person, sometimes you may feel uncomfortable being in charge of someone older than you or perhaps someone who has more experience than you. How have you managed to assert yourself? Do people take you seriously?

Again, this is where I believe that character speaks volumes: leadership, in my opinion, should never be about throwing your authority or title around, but about a collaborative effort, asking for input, and seeking to serve the people I lead.

It might sound counter-intutive, but leading people who genuinely have more experience than I, is a gift. They often have amazing insight, wisdom and life-experience that is so valuable for the team, and should be celebrated for that.

My aim as a ‘younger leader’ is not to assert myself in an aggressive ‘prove yourself’ type of way, but to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

I genuinely value the input and insight of my team, and am building a culture of collaboration and trust where experience is recognised and celebrated. One way of doing this, is to ensure that members of the team (particularly those who are older or more experienced) have areas in which they take ownership and lead, recognising their skills and insights are valuable and to be learned from.

5. In 5/10 years’ time, where do you see yourself in terms of leadership?

I am certain that in 5-10 years time I will still very much be learning… I am sure that will be the case for the rest of my life if I am honest!

I hope to be mentoring younger leaders in the way that I am mentored- that has been so important for me in terms of building my confidence and helping me make hard decisions, and I hope I will be able to do that for many others.

Honestly though, I hope that my leadership will continue to grow across the different areas of my life- not just my workplace. Whether being a great wife or friend, or dedicating time to causes close to me heart (such as adoption or fostering with brilliant organisations like Home for Good, or being part of leading my local church), for me, the most important place my leadership will be played out will be when no one is looking: in the ways I treat my family and the people I interact with kindness, dignity and love, regardless of whether anyone recognises it or not! It is easy to be a ‘leader’ when you are being applauded for it, but for me, at home is where leadership becomes most real.

6. People often refer to millennials as “lazy”, “unambitious” and difficult to manage, what do you say to that?

The organisation where I work- International Justice Mission, UK- is overwhelmingly made up of millennials and they are some of the most passionate, dedicated, hardworking, innovative and kind people I know. Admittedly, we work for the largest anti-slavery organisation in the world, and when you are aware that you are working on projects which help to rescue children from slavery, it is very hard to be apathetic: the urgency to our work is very real!

However, the stereotype of our generation being ‘snowflakes’ or ‘entitled’, is not one that rings particularly true for me.

What I do think is interesting, is that rather than committing to one career which we will pursue for the next 40 years, we are highly aware that most of us will not be in the same job, or even the same sector for the rest of our lives: there are roles we will hold and jobs we will do in 15 years time that don’t exist currently.

Many of my contemporaries (myself included) have already held several different roles in different organisations in different sectors, as we look for opportunities to learn and gain new skills that can be transferrable.

Rather than this demonstrating a lack of commitment, I think this highlights a willingness to learn, and that we are not afraid to be pushed, challenged and frequently step out of our comfort zones.

That said, this comes with a challenge to stay in roles long enough to not only gain what you want to, but to invest in the work and gain wisdom as well as skills and to develop our character as well as our competency, rather than just bouncing from job to job.

Furthermore, within the age of social media, as a generation we are living much more of our lives online and even our work-life is much more public than it ever used to be. This can very easily lead down the road of comparison and discontent as we compare our day to day reality with other people’s highlight reel… rarely does that make us feel more content. Another challenge is not to let comparison rob our joy when we see others having a ‘better’ time than us. With any role, there will need to be a blend of more ‘menial’ tasks, with the exciting things that set your heart on fire, and recognising the important balance of those is key for our generation particularly.

7. How do people of your generation prefer to be lead? What motivates them?

As ever there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer and nor will I claim to speak on behalf of my whole generation, but what I do know from many of my contemporaries however, is that so many of them have a desire to know: does what I am doing ‘matter’? We are more motivated than ever by wanting to know how what we are doing is contributing to a bigger vision. In fact, many of my contemporaires have chosen job satisfaction over salary and are working in the voluntary, charity or public sector because we want to see that we are helping to make the world a better place with our lives!

Therefore, regular conversations that zoom out to the bigger vision of the organisation, and how we are playing a positive part in that, (however small) are really helpful: we need to know our role in that! With a strong desire to feel purposeful and to make progress, I have also found it increasingly helpful to regularly set very clear goals and priorities, which can be communicated and referred to often, and to give regular feedback in order to encourage this sense of progress towards positive goals.

Furthernore, we recognise that there is more to life than just our jobs, and we place a high value on well-being and the blend between work, rest and time with our loved ones, recongising the importance of good emotional and mental health. Therefore, wherever possible, making available the option for flexible hours, a flexible approach to location and to have a degree of choice in how we work, will mean that teams are happier and more productive for it.

8. What have you learned from the previous generation in terms of leadership?

Oh my goodness, where do I start!? Since before I can remember, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by exceptional leaders, both in my personal and professional life. There are leaders who have opened doors for me and let me sit in conversations I would never have found myself in otherwise; leaders who have invited me to speak at events much bigger than I have been used to because they had more faith in me than I did; leaders who watched me agonise about the “how” and gently encourage me to instead ask “why”; leaders who have listened to my dreams and ideas and helped me craft them into a vision; and leaders who have prioritized time laughing, having fun together and getting to know each other.

In the varying forms it has taken and continues to take, time and time again, the best experiences of leadership that I have had have been characterised by generosity. The leaders who have impacted me most profoundly have been the ones who are generous with their time, wisdom, resources, humour, trust and recognition.

One occasion stands out to me. I joined the organisation I currently work with a few years ago, and was still very “junior.” A member of the senior leadership team booked two days in their calendar to visit me where I was working and “learn from me.” What transpired was two days of rich conversation surrounding my observations of the organisation – but more than that, two days of listening and finding out who I was, my own story and my ambitions for the future. I was not only blown away by the generosity of time that they’d set aside and their willingness to travel the length of the country, but also shocked at the humility of this leader, who had been a go-to voice in the International Development sector for years, genuinely valuing my insight and reflections.

The message that I received in those two days was not only that my perspective was valuable, but that who I was mattered… in fact, more so than what I could do for the organisation. Rather than a top-down model of leadership, this example of listening and encouraging me to dream gave me incredible confidence. I felt trusted, and this trust helped to create a relationship where I felt safe to try out new things, knowing that he wanted me to grow as much as the organisation. It fostered a genuine respect for my boss and therefore, I wanted to work really hard for the organisation.

Now, a few years later, I lead our work across the country and am challenged to offer the same open-handed, people-focused, generous leadership to my team. I certainly don’t have this sorted, but I do wholeheartedly aspire to be a leader who is genuinely interested in the people they are leading, more so than the task in hand: to be a leader who asks the question “who are you becoming” as well as “what are you doing?” I aim to be a leader who is happy creating space in my diary to learn from my team, who is quick to listen and slow to speak. My dream is to emulate the leadership I have seen in order to create a safe space for my team to try new things and fail at things, sharing the joys and struggles with one another (preferably laughing a lot along the way!) which I believe will lead to success, productivity and growth in the process.

No alt text provided for this image

9. Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience. 

Towards the end of last year, I was invited to partake in International Justice Mission’s 20 year celebration: around 5000 people gathered in a conference to celebrate the progress we have seen around the world in tackling modern slavery and the 50,000+ lives that have been rescued. The senior leadership of the global organisation were speaking, as well as some of the best-known, highly regarded leaders in the sector who had travelled from around the world to be there… and me.

When I got asked to present a breakout session on the ‘why’ of “seeking justice” for survivors of modern slavery, I felt privileged and completely overwhelmed in equal measure- I was very aware it would be a very public place to fail if it all went wrong!

However, I prepared with diligence, practiced an awful lot, sought feedback from my colleagues and ultimately embraced the opportunity to use my public speaking and presenting skills. I didn’t try to do anything fancy, but was me: I spoke with passion and honesty!) I shared my own story, as to how I found myself in such work and encouraged those in the room to consider how they would play their part in the story too, whilst trying not to make too much eye-contact with the senior staff I could see out of the corner of my eye. Being invited to present at such a large conference, to share why this work matters, was really one of the highlights of my career to date. I could easily have have shied away and thought ‘I am not qualified enough, not skilled enough, not experienced enough’ but I am so glad I embraced the challenge. It was another example for me that comfort zones are moveable, and that the places we grow the most, are the places that are on the edge of what we feel comfortable with.

10. How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with a mental disorder, e.g. depression or anxiety? 

This is so very important, and one that I am learning a lot about! Where I have seen this handled best, is when conversations about mental health, or stress are open and honest and start early on. It can be really scary to talk about mental health- particularly if you are finding that challenging- but where a culture of honesty and openness is created and some of the stigma around mental health dismantled, you can begin to create a culture where people feel more safe to express when they might need support. This can be helped by including conversations about mental health, work load and well-being in CPD and training. In other words, by bringing conversations about mental health into the open, you can aim to create a space for dialogue before one of your team-mates reach crisis point.

It is so vitally important to ensure that your organisation has robust policies in place, and that you know how to access them, so that if and when situations arise, there is a clear map of how to respond in a professional manner. In addition, responding to colleagues who are struggling with such challenges can be really difficult and weigh heavily on you personally.

Therefore, it is really important to seek good advice and support for yourself personally too (albeit it whilst still keeping in line with good-practise) to share the load and ensure that you are confident that you are responding in both a compassionate and professional way.

11.  What do you think stands in the way of great leadership today?

In my (humble) opinion, great leadership can easily be de-railed by poor communication. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if aren’t able to communicate those ideas clearly and take other people on the journey too… then those things are lost. There are leaders I have been around who are incredibly competent at the core skills of their job, yet at times, unintentionally compromise on their leadership as a result of not being able to articulate the vision in a way that invites others to participate. Badly handled conflict, passive aggression, mis-managed expectations… all of those things can be allied by clear, kind and timely communication.

Alongside that, I have personally found that the biggest hurdle for me to get over is fear: the fear of failure; the fear of not making an impact on a particular issue; the fear of rejection; the fear of disappointing people and if you let fear take root, it will be an ever-present destroyer of dreams. Overcoming fear takes many forms for me, but always is a proactive response: to ‘get on the front foot’ and remind myself who I am, who I want to be, and why I am doing the work I do. Often, it looks like sharing my fears with my trusted mentors and friends and allowing the encourgaement of my supportive community carry me past these fears. Often easier said than done!

12.  How much do you value courage as a leadership skill? What does I look like?

Courage is a great leadership skill to have and one to be valued hugely, though there are a thousand different ways to demonstrate courage: yes it can look like being willing to go alone, or go first, but also it can take great courage to make ‘the right’ decision, as oppose to the easy one, or to say sorry, when you’ve got something wrong.

There is a sketch I love by one of my favourite artists called Charlie Mackesy. In it, he asks the question: “what is the bravest thing you’ve ever said”, and the response os simply, “help”. I love this sketch, and frequently return to it, as I think one of the most couragest things to do, as a leader, is to retain the humility that is able to recognise we aren’t always going to get it right, we aren’t always sorted, and that the most powerful resource we have, is to ask for the help and support of others.

No alt text provided for this image

13.  What are your top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development?

Daring Greatly- Brenee Brown

The 100X Leader:  How to become someone worth following- Kubicek & Cockram

Talk like Ted- Carmine Gallow

14. What do you hope your legacy will be?

I hope that people will leave feeling more confident in who they are as a result of being led by me: that they will feel valued, their inputs listened to and more certain that they are capable of doing brilliant things. I hope to have modelled a leadership style that works hard, and demands the very best for the team whilst also remaining kind and interested in seeking the very best for the people in front of me: these are not mutually exclusive characteristics.

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those making every day other people’s lives better.