Today we launch a series of IWF UK Leadership Stories, a key pillar of our new Legacy Project to capture and share our members' accumulated wisdom and experience. The first story features Alice Maynard CBE, an experienced non-executive director in the non-profit sector and former Chair of Scope, a £100m turnover charity serving disabled people.
A restless campaigner for inclusion, Alice writes about tackling discrimination, and why we shouldn’t always listen to the ‘waffle of leadership gurus’.
What does being a leader mean to you?
Being a leader is about bringing people together to achieve something that is bigger than our individual goals. It’s about inspiring people to envision something they want to be part of creating. It’s about helping them understand how they can - and must - work together if they are to achieve that vision, then helping them work through their differences, putting some aside while recognising that other apparent differences are not so different after all.
It’s about constantly holding up the vision to people when they flag or feel we will never get there. We think of a vision as something grand, but it doesn’t need to be. It can just be improving one small thing in the lives of the community. So anyone can do this anywhere in society, and there are hundreds and thousands, and indeed millions, of people doing it all day, every day, making a difference in society and bringing about a better future for us all.
What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?
I have ‘derailed’ several times throughout my career because I have reached an impasse in the organisation, generally discrimination resulting from low expectations of me as a wheelchair user. I have tackled this by developing and listening to a network of friends and supporters who have reflected back my successes and helped me understand how to play to my strengths. Finding a route through, and rising above, the damaging effects of discrimination has been difficult but rewarding.
In my personal life, the biggest challenge has been managing my increasing support needs as my impairment worsens and I get older. As a private individual I employ around six or seven people at any time who support me at home and at work. I have all the responsibilities and challenges of an employer: recruitment and training, sickness, maternity leave and so on.
Doing that in addition to managing my career, and making sure that my home life is stable and I always have the flexible support I need for work, has been exceedingly difficult at times. But I have always sought to develop strong relationships and these have enabled me to have a wonderful career. When I went to Windsor Castle to get my CBE, one of my guests was my long-term PA who got me up every weekday morning for 15 years – without her it would have been impossible!
What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?
It’s hard just to pick out a few successes. Leadership is built of many small successes; often the ‘greatest’ of these are personal or interpersonal rather than big fanfare stuff.
One of my early personal successes was to agree to travel to Europe to launch a beta product for my company when I was not sure whether I could do it. It wasn’t so much my capacity to do the work, of which I was very confident. It was whether, as an independent wheelchair user at the time, I would be able to manage my access needs on the journey and in a different country.
Taking the plunge like that built my confidence in more than just my ability to do the detail of the everyday work. It built my confidence to conquer big challenges despite my physical limitations.
A more public success from later in my career was developing the strategy to make the rail network accessible to disabled people that still underpins today’s approach. My capacity to align the outcomes of diverse stakeholders including infrastructure owners, train operators, regulators and disabled people was pivotal in finding a way forward that we could all sign up to across the industry. I believe it was that initial alignment of outcomes that has led to the enduring nature of the core of that strategy
How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?
I am much more confident and comfortable in my own skin now than I was when I was younger. And I understand that I am a leader – not like a head of state or an army chief, but one of that army of leaders across society making a difference. So I am less diffident in taking leadership in situations where I might otherwise have held back. That confidence also helps me be content not to lead in situations where it is more appropriate for others to take that role, and instead to support them.
What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?
Don’t be put off by the management waffle about what a leader is. ‘Leadership gurus’ try to identify and distil the qualities of a leader by studying those who lead, and that isn’t an exact science! (I was inhibited for years by the leadership literature when I was a young manager – I just didn’t see myself reflected there.)
Acknowledge your leadership capacity and build it. Leadership is like a muscle - if you exercise it, it will grow stronger. But be aware of your weaknesses too, and find people who can complement your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
Don’t always seek to lead but recognise when it’s your job and get on with it!