IWF UK Leadership Stories: Penny Egan

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The sixth of our Leadership Stories is by Penny Egan CBE, Executive Director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, and former head of the RSA, where she was the first woman to have led the organisation. Penny describes her collaborative style, her life's biggest challenge, and the importance of being yourself.

What does being a leader mean to you?

When I look back on my career, I often ask myself where has the drive and confidence come from? And I reflect on what was then the most surprising event in my young life, when I was picked out of 75 girls to become the Deputy Head Girl. I often wonder what they saw in me at that young age, but I am convinced that the very act of being picked for this early leadership role gave me the self-assurance to aspire to lead an organisation.

My leadership model has developed from those who managed me and gave me the room to innovate and create new programmes and different ways of doing things. I try to do the same now I am in a position to lead the next generation.

I have never seen myself as ‘leading from the front’ in a 'command and control’ style. I know that I don’t have all the answers and want to lead in a way that encourages collaboration and gives space and opportunity to others. Mistakes will be made and learnt from.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

The biggest challenge in my life has been supporting a husband with an unusual form of dementia that, at a young age and over a 5-year period, rendered him unable to speak and care for himself, whilst holding down a full-time CEO role. While on the one hand it was exhausting physically and emotionally, on the other, without the commitment to my job I would not have survived this terrible ordeal. My husband died a year ago.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

I regard being appointed the first woman Executive Director of the RSA in its 250-year history to have been a very significant achievement.

I am also proud of what I have achieved at the US-UK Fulbright Commission, in turning round a programme of decreasing numbers of scholarships and shrinking funds to quadrupling our income, increasing the number of awards from 40 to 120, and introducing a social mobility scholarship programme which so far has seen $16.9m raised to support these economically disadvantaged students.

I was gratified to receive a CBE in 2013 in recognition for my contribution to international education.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

I don’t believe that my leadership style has changed over the last 20 years of being a CEO in the not-for-profit sector. I am more confident that I am who I am and I don’t need to pretend to be someone else.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

I have never thought that, because I wasn’t a man, this would preclude me from getting where I wanted to be. That said, I do think that on the whole women offer a different approach to leadership and young women should stick to their own style and not be tempted to put on an act and be someone they are not.

They need the confidence to fight for the kind of flexible workplace that will support them through child bearing and rearing if they wish to have a family – I was the partner who had the main responsibility for two children of whom I am very proud.

Penny Egan CBE

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