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August 21, 2017

Caroline Savage Interview 1. Leadership

Caroline is Head of Development at the Science Museum Group. Here she shares her experience built up over a career including stints at WaterAid and Macmillan.


What does inspiring leadership look like to you?

It's good to talk about these things because I think there is a lot of mystique around this topic that just shouldn’t exist. I wouldn't say leadership is purely common sense, although there is definitely a common sense element to it. You have got to have a genuine interest in people and I don't think you can fake that; you either do or you don't. I'm quite an inquisitive person deep down and I like to listen. I spend a lot of time when I first meet someone just listening to what they've got to say and not interrupting; not trying to pre-empt or finish people's sentences. I spend a lot of time reflecting back to them; so 'I hear this' or 'that sounds like this' or 'have you had this experience?' etc. I think it is all about building trust very early in a relationship.

In a lot of scenarios I have come into, the lack of trust is very clear because it has either been eroded or was never built in the first place. As a leader, you have no divine right to be respected; that does not just come with the territory. It comes from building the relationships and spending time with people; earning their trust and showing them respect. I find respect very lacking in a lot of things today - not just work related - I have a real challenge with the lack of respect that you see.

Why should someone respect you purely for your position? They shouldn't. It is about having the track record in terms of what you stand for. My focus and priority is about enabling my team to flourish; to be the best that they can be; taking away the challenges that are standing in their way. It's not about me being the ‘do-er’ all the time, but about creating the right environment where people can flourish and learn from each other. We see everything as a team effort because if one person is struggling, we are all weak. For whatever that reason may be, we need to address it. Hence why I have no issues with challenging poor performance or poor attendance because it reflects on all of us. In just the same way, when one person does well, we all do well; there's a shared success. Within Development, somewhere along the line more than one person will have influenced a relationship, a prospect, an application or an event - they'll have touched it in different ways at different points. So, we all win!

Showing people a path of where you want to go is really important. The number of times I have come into an organisation where someone has said 'I don't really know what we're doing'. Or 'I don't know what our vision is'. 'I don't know what the bigger picture is'. Not the most motivating environment and, actually, it says a lot about an organisation if you can't communicate what you’re about, if people can't stand up and say what they're part of and what they're working towards. If they can't stand up and say something about the leader.

You need to have a presence. And when I say that, it's not about being a big character or a loud person - lots of the people I admire are quiet, measured people. You wouldn't pick them out of a crowd as being the person who always contributes first but when they do speak, people listen because the contribution is valuable. If people can't say something about you, your values and what you stand for that's probably a sign that your communication is unclear or you're not clear yourself on what you’re about and where you want to take things.

I always have a very clear view of where we are going. I'm always aware that it's probably not going to be a very easy road; there will be quite a lot of bumps. But, there will be high points along the way that we'll all be able to celebrate and when there is something that is more challenging, we'll all pull together and work with it. I think that sense of confidence and the commitment to seeing something through is important. Doing what you say you'll do for people; false promises erode trust. If you can't answer someone's question, say so. Or explain you're not at liberty to share that information for whatever reason.

Being upbeat and positive has its part to play, but that can be hard sometimes. We're all human and some days it can be hard to be positive. As a leader, you need to find your confidantes. People you can talk to and generally they are outside your organisation (for your own personal integrity and what you stand for). Of course, you'll pass comments - who doesn't!? But when something is really frustrating you, I would say you need to find confidantes outside whom you can openly talk to, be completely honest with and get honest feedback from. Get over yourself! Just because you are in a leadership role, not everything you consider to be an issue always is. You may need someone to say to you, 'Get over it! It's not that big a deal.’ Or ‘You're getting this one out of proportion. Focus on the priorities.'

What is the secret to building a loyal, happy and motivated team and what are the biggest challenges you face in doing so?

I think you've got to be clear on the starting point and where everybody is on the journey when you first come on board. You're always going to have people who are very positive ‘go-getters’ who will make it happen even in difficult environments. I think there are grades to understanding how people feel as well. You'll have people who are very committed - they're great! You'll also have people who are doing a good job - and if you're doing a good job, you're on the bus as far as I'm concerned. Then, you'll have the people who say 'we've tried that before' and who are naturally skeptical or nervous about change. It's about bringing people together under one shared, agreed vision.

The other thing I have seen is people trying to impose where they think people should be because, it seems the right thing for a leader to do. It's about real understanding if you are operating at that visionary, strategic level - I love it, it's my bag! You have to be in touch.

I find purely operational delivery quite challenging now, but I have to be in touch because fundamentally it is operational activity that is going to get us the results. I need to be in touch and responding to the challenges at an operational level to support the team. That helps people to see you have two halves of the whole (strategic and operational) and that you are doing the bit they expect from a leader.

Decision making is key. It is not unreasonable for the team to expect that you will make some decisions and stick with them. In this sector, there is an inherent risk-averseness to decisions. That creates more challenge. I say to my team, 'you've got your area of responsibility and I will back you 100%'. I believe you can do this job well - go and do it! If something goes wrong, I'll back you because I know you will have thought it through. If it proves to be a poor decision, we'll work with it. Situations can change and information available at the time a decision is made can be limited, hence as a situation develops and the picture becomes clearer, a different course of action is necessary. This is how we all learn and build our experience and we should not shy away from it.

If a decision has far reaching implications, my team will come and talk to me. I don't micro-manage anybody and never have. I think people feed off that well and the ability to have ownership encourages them to work more closely with their peers, which helps the whole team approach. You aren’t setting people up against each other; no one is Caroline’s favourite. The thing about working as a team is that everyone gets a fair share of opportunities and a fair chance to put their hand up and take on extra responsibilities or new projects (if that’s what they want). Those things should be judged on merit.

Objectivity and consistency is really important. People want to know that everyone is being treated fairly. They want to know there is consistency in how you will respond to certain situations. There is nothing worse than one day your boss being friendly and approachable, and the next day, here comes Cruella de Vil! People find it difficult to adapt to that inconsistency and they shouldn’t have to. One of the things I have had reflected back to me from a number of people is that when I’ve had to make difficult decisions, what makes it palatable (even when it’s not necessarily what you want) is the fact that I will have considered it objectively (and not in relation to the who or the what). They know it will have been fairly considered and that it will be the best thing overall, even if it isn't personally for that individual.

Being available is really important too. Thinking here about all the things like weekly team comms, sharing successes, bringing people together. At the Science Museum Group, we've just come together as a Northern team and we're going to do an away day. It won't just be a meeting. We’ll do a team activity, then get some lunch together, and host a team meeting in the afternoon. We’ll spend some quality time together. Some of these people don't know each other well, so we’re also reinforcing that shared success is not just with the people sitting next to you.

The Science Museum Group operates across the country in London, Manchester, Bradford, York and Shildon and you manage the Development Team everywhere outside the Big Smoke. What tips do you have for creating a collaborative team environment when your fundraisers may not all work from the same office base?

Regular, physical team meetings/catch ups are important. I don't put caps on that, although of course you have to manage travel costs. The benefits of building strong team relationships far outweigh the cost of a bit of travel. It's about creating an environment to keep people engaged and feeling valued.

I'm always someone who starts by saying, 'have you spoken to so-and-so over in Manchester about that because they've done a similar activity?' We then start to think more broadly than just the people we're physically sitting with. We've had examples quite recently of cross-site projects, which have encouraged people to come together and work together for a period of time. Chances to do that are really important.

Buddying relationships between new people coming onto the team with someone from your team, but based on another site work very well. That gets people across to another site to see what's happening there and meet the wider team. Again, I think away days are fundamentally important. People can feel very isolated if you're not careful. Line management structures exist and have a role to play but, at times, people can get a little bit hung up about structure and forget the key point; we are all in Development. For me it’s about coming together and have a conversation! It's working well here at the museum because I keep inviting team members to join project teams and pilots - who's to say who you'll speak to, what you'll find out, what information we'll get to take to our donors. If you're not talking to anybody, you don't know anything.

I share success stories and am now encouraging people to share their own stories - don't send them all via me. Send it out straightaway so that we can all respond then and there and profile our team and its achievements.

How do you ensure that you continue to grow personally in a senior development role?

That's quite interesting actually because, at this level, I tend to find that people are often looking to learn from you, particularly in terms of finding solutions. For example, I have experience of moving from a peer relationship to a line management relationship with people and I’ve shared that learning with a number of colleagues. It can be a challenge to achieve that respect and balanced relationship amid such change. Similarly, even if a role change is on an interim or short-term basis, you need to own the role and make the decisions necessary to deliver that role.

For me personally, I tend to find mentors elsewhere and I tend to find them outside of the sector. I've been in the sector long enough; I know its foibles and I know its good bits. I'm not going to learn much from that now, so I look for people who are working in other sectors or have done previously. I worked with a coach, whose background was all disciplines of HR within the Higher Education and Broadcasting arenas. Her different sector experience and external perspective helped me through quite a number of strategic review activities. She was someone I could ask really awkward questions of without her having to be in the situation.

I like to run things through; I'm that type of person. I know the theory, but I want to work it through. 'I'm going to do this, this and this'. 'Have I missed something?' 'Does this sound ok?' 'Have you done it differently?' 'This is the reaction I'm expecting'. To have that person respond and make suggestions is what you need. It takes a while to find those people, and make those connections but the results from a personal and professional development perspective can be invaluable.

How do you start to find someone like that if you are in a senior role?

I'd look at some of your corporate partners and corporate networks; some of those people you are meeting in a working environment. You're looking for someone who has qualities you admire. You're looking for someone who's demonstrating the leadership style you'd like to mirror. You want to see a synergy with where you want to be. I've made a couple of approaches, had a couple of introductions and some have happened by chance. A couple have been direct from me because I've seen them speak and liked what I heard them say and thought 'I could learn something from you'.

The other thing I would say is don't necessarily see these things as long term. You don't have to tie it down for a definite time period or anything like that. It might be a couple of months; a couple of conversations. It doesn't have to be anything too formal like an official mentoring scheme where you have to fill a form in.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone in the for-profit world; maybe someone who manages a big trust or foundation. That's a big business. Talk to people; that's the route I've always used. Use your network. People are flattered (whatever their level) to be invited and considered. You've got to be bold and not be afraid if someone politely declines. Usually, from my experience, if that does happen they will suggest someone else from their network or their company or link you up with their Learning & Development team.

There are also tailored programmes out there. I've completed the Common Purpose programme, although I do appreciate you need investment for that. There are sometimes opportunities for representatives from the Third Sector to have a special invitation to participate or something similar; particularly because they want people from this sector to broaden the range of experience within the group. I've had some really interesting conversations with people I would never have met before. West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue is exceptionally interesting!

Senior leaders within public sector organisations are a great one to look at if you are risk-averse when it comes to decision making and you find that challenging. Those are the people to go and talk to because then you start to understand what risk is. As I always say, no one will die from any decision I make - ever! How do you become comfortable with decision making at that level? Quite extreme, but begins to help you understand how to assess and take reasonable risks. It also challenges your thinking about mitigating the risks you have identified.

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