IWF UK Leadership Stories: Lynne Berry

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In this month's Leadership Story, we hear from Lynne Berry OBE. Lynne is Chair of Breast Cancer Now and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School.

What does being a leader mean to you?

For me, leadership is about hope and optimism, about being able to articulate the big picture, about inspiring others and about putting in place the capacity and resources to achieve change. It’s also about making connections and creating alliances, even in the most unlikely places.

I don't really believe in the leader as hero, the charismatic leader who sweeps people up and who guides everyone to an otherwise unachievable goal. I do believe passionately that together we can achieve more than any of us can do on our own, and that building common purpose is vital.

It involves telling stories about how the world might be different and how achieving agreed goals can make a real difference – whatever sector or activity you’re involved in.

Ultimately the role of leaders, though, is to lead and, after having identified opportunities and assessed risks, that means leaders must create a sense of optimism, that things are possible and worthwhile, especially when times are tough.

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

A professional challenge was when I was appointed to be the independent Chair of an organisation going through a merger. The two bodies had been in competition for years and, although they had agreed to merge, there was not much trust either at Board level or amongst the executive. My first task was to appoint a brilliant CEO and together we went about building that trust by creating a common purpose and getting everyone to contribute their ideas and skills in some way. We were also very clear that we needed everyone to commit not only to the vision but also to a common culture with agreed values and behaviours. Three years on – we’re doing pretty well.

A personal one was to get a decent education: my father didn’t believe girls needed to be educated, at least not beyond secondary school. I got a great education anyway, thanks to some amazing people who helped me. It taught me the value of mentors and supporters and, although things have never been quite so tough for me since, I’ve valued receiving - and giving - support throughout my career.

I’ve also, pretty obviously, still got a real passion for women’s education everywhere and throughout life. There are still too many fathers, and some mothers, who don’t take girls' education seriously.

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

As a leader I think I’ve contributed to thought leadership, as well as to organisational leadership. One of my campaigns has been to value the contribution of older people, particularly older women, to society and the economy. For a long time I have been angry that the debate about an ageing society has been framed in terms of older people being a costly burden, when they are, in so many ways, major contributors. Through many of my professional roles, and particularly through the work of a Commission on Ageing that I chaired, I think I have played a part in changing the debate. A long way to go…

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

I think it’s both more relaxed and more focused. I’m much more focused on creating a common vision and mission, and I’m less worried about exactly how others play their part in achieving it, provided what they do is accountable, ethical and effective. Most of all I’ve become much more focused on evaluating success and on stopping doing things, however enjoyable, unless they have a demonstrable impact. I’ve also become bolder in how I talk about issues and solutions. The point is to change the world, after all!

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

I’d suggest that younger women who aspire to be leaders really get to know themselves. Your greatest resource is a deep understanding of your own strengths and skills, your values and your behaviours. And you also need to understand the impact you have on others.

That’s because the second huge resource you have is everyone else – and you need to be ready for the challenge you’ll get from others and have the confidence to build alliances in the most unpromising circumstances, with the most unlikely people. In addition you need to build a network of people who can get you through the bad times and support you to be creative, to take risks and to make a real difference.

Finally, choose your battles, build your resilience and don’t waste your energy on things that you really can’t change at that time. There are plenty of things that you can change – as long as you don’t try to do it on your own.

Lynne Berry OBE

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