The reluctant CEO

Blog by Clare Jacklin

When in June 2019 I took over as NRAS CEO from founder Ailsa Bosworth, little did I know what was ahead for me. 

I was resistant, for quite some time, to even considering taking on the role of Chief Executive. I really didn’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough or equipped with the requisite skill set to take on the role of leading a national organisation. I mean really, who was I to dare think I could follow in Ailsa’s footsteps and achieve even a fraction of what she had accomplished in 19 years? I mean really Clare?… Educated in a one street town in the West of Ireland, working since I was 17, no university or college degree…how dare I think I could be so bold as to assume I could be a Chief Executive!

So, what changed my mind?  It was the trust and belief of others in me that I could do the job, I just had to trust their judgement and listen to my own instincts. After all, I truly believed in what NRAS was doing and was passionate about making a difference. 

Self-doubt is nothing new amongst those in leadership roles, imposter syndrome* is abundant in the third sector, and probably in all industries. The epiphany for me was at a charity leadership session hosted by the King’s Fund. I was in a room with other leaders of charitable organisations, and we were all sharing how we worried that we were not the right person to be doing the job we held. We talked a lot that day about imposter syndrome and my light bulb moment was when I accepted that ‘everyone’ is human. We talked about how maybe because in the third sector the drive isn’t about making profits or selling more products or designing the next must have gizmo…. It’s about people and causes. 

Serving and helping people that’s what is the purpose of most charities. That concern that if we as charity leaders don’t do our job effectively, it’s people who will miss out or worse suffer. That sense of responsibility is massive. However, what I realised that day is to try to accept that we too are people doing our very best for the betterment of our causes and we should not overload ourselves with thinking we have to have all the answers and solutions to every problem that arises. 

From then on, I approached my new role slightly differently. I accepted my own abilities and identified that the road to success was to surround myself with others who share the same passion for the cause and have the skills that perhaps I don’t have.  Accepting my own limitations and trusting those who had put their trust in me that was the key. I am truly blessed that the NRAS Board of Trustees, the NRAS professional advisors, my colleagues and of course my predecessor, Ailsa. All saw something in me that, I couldn’t see myself. Since reaching this level of acceptance I’ve really started to enjoy the role of Chief Executive. I feel so honoured and privileged to be the custodian of this title for my tenure. 

During the past long, stressful months of the pandemic, it is this support from others and being able to rely on my colleagues and friends that has made such a difference to coping with the pressures of ensuring that NRAS not just survives but thrives in the face of adversity.

I am very much a glass half full kind of girl, maybe it’s my many years of treading the boards in amateur dramatics that has given me the ability to paint on a smile and encourage others to have that ‘the show must go on’ attitude. I certainly called on my ‘am-dram’ skill set for hosting the Facebook live sessions over the last year or so. Who knew that my hobby would prove quite so handy in my professional life? Or maybe it’s just my Irish heritage of having the ‘gift of the gab’ that makes public broadcasting, and hopefully offering some reassurances to people with so many questions about COVID, RA and vaccines, come naturally to me.  In the words of The Bard himself….

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…

And like actors we all depend on the other players to play their part. During this COVID crisis I’ve been so lucky to be ‘sharing the stage’ of this modern tragedy with so many other amazing players. Collaborating with Sue Brown, ARMA; Dale Webb, NASS; Shantel Irwin, Arthritis Action; Sarah Sleet, Crohn’s’ & Colitis UK; Helen McAteer, Psoriasis Association and many other patient organisations’ leads who have all pulled together to not only support our respective beneficiaries but each other as well. Every cloud has a silver lining, and this camaraderie and combined purpose has, I believe, formed long lasting bonds between the organisations.

This pandemic has truly tested each and everyone of us to the limits. As bizarre as it may sound, looking back on the past 15 months or so, I am actually glad that I had the challenge of leading NRAS. Without my work I am not sure I would have got through the personal issues I’ve also been dealing with. My timing was, I feel, rather out of kilter with going through a divorce in the middle of a national crisis but once more with the support of my colleagues, family and friends I’m pleased to say I’ve not completely lost the plot. It does make me really concerned about the thousands of people who did not have the ‘blessing’ of being able to work during the pandemic. We often moan about work but it can be so cathartic when dealing with personal life issues and I really do count my blessings each and every day, that I work for such a great organisation and in such a supportive sector. 

In closing, despite my hair having turned far greyer this past year and having put on those covid extra pounds from working too close to my home fridge, I am so grateful and consider myself lucky to be playing the role I am.

My take home message to all of you who may, like me, sometimes question your abilities or fear ‘missing your cue’ in the ongoing play of life, I say ‘trust yourself and trust others to support you’. Ask for help when you feel out of your depth and be ready to ‘prompt’ others who may be floundering with their role. Together we can all perform to the best of our abilities even when we’re left alone on stage for a while…you just have to wait for the next player to make their entrance and the show will go on!


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