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How we went viral with #ThisIsWhatACEOLooksLike

It was a cold wet Friday and Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation posted a shocking letter she received from one of the charities supporters. It stated she was "bearing too much flesh" and looked too "UnCEO like". She was rather stunned by it, and I posted back to her, "Please keep doing you, Love from, All women".


It snowballed into a conversation online where a group of us encouraged Sarah to write a press release we then helped her to refine, and we all pitched it to all of our lovely charity socials, and it snowballed into hundreds of photos and trended on twitter. What I particularly loved is people sharing heart felt photos they felt represented the real them, rather than the cosmetically made up and highly finished professional photos they felt compelled to have because of being judged.


What inspired me more is the many people saying- this is really affirming to see that chief executives are just normal people, and it gave lots of people inspiration to take the step up. If that is not a success, I do not know what is.


It is not the first time that women or chief executives for that matter feel like they get a running commentary. I got someone writing to me in earnest telling me that I looked too stern in a photograph, and have had many people comment on my dress as a chief executive over the years, and hear others comment on other chief executives.


I can't help feeling that male chief executives don't get this kind of flack and it is a particular kind of issue that female chief executives have to go through.


I am not a conventional chief executive, and certainly didn't come up through a background of the silver spoon variety. I became a chief executive by working my way up from being a volunteer, over a period of seven years hard work. I didn't come from an educated background, both my parents never went to university and expectations of my career from family were pretty low. Pushing my way up to chief executive, alot of people told me I was a tall poppy along the way. I continued to dare to be different against the odds, and regularly got mistaken for someone more junior either because I was female or because of my clothes.


At times, I bought suits for chief executive roles that I could not either afford as a single parent, nor really felt authentic wearing. When I finished my last chief executive role, I piled them all into a bag I haven't used since. It has been two years now.


Now I train chief executives and feel super proud of them turning up as authentically them, whether its in their gym gear, mum clothes, or favourite t-shirts, I love seeing their real personalities shine through what they wear. COVID has given us more liberation to not sit at home in our suits like a penguin. That's at least one brilliant thing!


We're still a long way from being able to show up authentically as ourselves in the sector and I can't wait to see a time when we can all embrace the incredible individuality and skill we all bring, and by doing so it normalises the leadership career path. It does start with us though, and so embrace a little individuality...




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