Would I have made it back from the brink without Clore Social?

Posted on March 10, 2015

Over a year ago, I walked into the doctors surgery and had a conversation that still sends a chill down my spine. I went to see my GP, something I rarely do, because my closest friends had encouraged me to go and get help. I didn't know what was wrong with me but I was clear that all was not well. 

The doctor told me I had modified post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I laughed. When they didn't laugh I asked them what it was. My reaction was predictable - that can't be me, I have never been in a theatre of war or killed someone, how on earth can I have PTSD of any kind?  In essence, the GP was telling me I was burned out and rapidly on the way to my final destination if we didn't take some radical and immediate action.

Some context – almost six years ago leading up to this point I had taken on an organisation that needed huge change, one that when I inherited it, was in profound trouble. I had to close things down, retrench programmes and staff, upset a lot of stakeholders and supporters and I had to do it all at breakneck speed. It was like trying to fix a car whilst hurtling down the M25 at 80mph.

I then helped the organisation relocate, rebrand, rebuild and thrive. In six years we went from working with an estimated 800 children, to knowing we were working with over 18,000.The staff count went from under 20 to over 120, our income increased by more than 300% to approx £1.5m. We also went from operating in two African countries to working in six (and training other organisations in a further three). As well as doing direct delivery ourselves we also funded and worked with four local based organisations across three countries.

What I hadn't appreciated in that time was the impact it was having on me. I had been in turnarounds before but the isolation and loneliness I experienced here was at times excruciating. I kept thinking I was having nightmares and that I would wake up but dawn never came. The burden of completely overhauling a dying organisation was like being slowly poisoned. I had great friends and colleagues and trustees around me, cycled a lot, swam when I could, played football and squash when my knee permitted and occasionally walked up a mountain or two – trying to get by.

But without realising it work had taken over, it dominated everything and had a grip on me that I was blind to. I was working outside the UK almost as much as I was in it. Meaning I became disconnected from communities and friends in both settings. I was working unsustainable hours and I had to sanitise everything I said and did. Allies were few and far between. I thought as long as the organisation is doing okay I would be okay too. I normally thrive under pressure and increased responsibility but nothing had prepared me in my career for the isolation and loneliness of being a CEO for the first time; and being a ‘self-taught’ CEO at that.

I left the GP surgery and returned to my car. I can't remember how long I sat there. I do know it got dark at some stage. The period that followed that appointment with the doctor was the scariest and most frightening of my life. Days evaporated. The simplest task of having a shower, if I even took one, would take hours. I lost track of time, worrying that I was losing my mind. It was one of the darkest moments and one of the longest moments of my life. I was broken. Some days I simply lay in bed all day.

While all this was happening to me, in the background I knew I was due to attend the first residential of the Clore Social Leadership Programme in early January. I almost hadn't accepted the offer of the place on the Programme - I wasn't quite convinced what it was or what it would do for me in the long run. But a dear friend convinced me to do it and recognise the privileged opportunity it was offering me.

I will always remember my first day, when I arrived at the venue after most other people. Exhausted I grabbed a cup of tea and sat in a corner. One of the new cohort of Fellows came and sat next to me. I steeled myself thinking ‘what do they want’? I was so used to giving all the time that I had forgotten people can sometimes simply be friendly and be there for you alone, no agenda. As it happened this person had seen I was on my own so just came to say hello. Their generosity and kindness had a profound impact on me - still does.

Whilst going to the residential felt like jumping off a cliff it was definitely the right thing to do. On one day another Chief Executive came to speak to us and mentioned how difficult things had been for them, how traumatic and horrible their tenure had been, but that they could see things turning around now and the organisation benefiting from all the change they had implemented. What I heard from them is that there is hope, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that it is possible to come out the other side. Here was someone who spoke my language, who understood the turmoil I had experienced, who truly knew what it was like to be in my shoes. And had survived to tell the tale.

Their tale was the spark that began my nascent recovery.

The thing I have learned through Clore Social is that it is not enough to throw yourself into a cause as a leader and somehow assume you personally will be okay, that you won't become unhealthy, your relationships won't suffer, that you'll eat properly and generally the world will take care of you because you are trying to take care of it. I have learned that as leaders (and ones who want to be around for a while) we can't be passive in this. Not only is it alright to look after yourself it is your responsibility to do so. It seems daft writing this down and so blindingly obvious but for me it wasn't.

Since being on the Clore Social Programme I am trying to be better at this and not working weekends and turning my work phone off and not beginning my day before 8am or finishing after 6pm. These were my equivalent of climbing Everest - changing my own practices were harder in some ways than turning an organisation around. Since being a Fellow I have come to a place where I am open again, wanting to help, being warm (I hope) and I have rediscovered how much I enjoy having fun, laughing and being generous. The Fellowship, for me, has been a place of restoration and safety.

Writing down that I had, or have, modified PTSD seems embarrassingly grand, and wrong considering the experiences some people go through, especially some of the street children I work with. I have reservations - I’m concerned that this piece could do damage to my career and future job prospects. I don't want all my colleagues and donors to know about it in case they think I am not capable to deliver as a CEO. I don't want people to judge me because now I have a mental health issue - a first for me.

However, I wonder how many other people suffer in silence and fear?  I wonder if, by speaking about it, I could help others in a similar situation? I wonder if it could change the way we work? Our sector should be different shouldn't it? Be more understanding, be more prepared to help people? The values of civil society are about caring for those who need it, and being in the spaces where no one else can or will.

Clore Social has been the best programme I have been on since being a student, the way it is curated and the wide variety of fantastic people it brings together are tremendous. I have learned so much from my fellow Fellows. I cannot recount all of what I learned here or from whom but it has been life changing and for that I am immensely grateful. I wonder if I would have made it back from the brink without Clore Social?

I still have challenges trying to grow an organisation in a healthy and sustainable way to keep up with our programme delivery and occasionally I become hard nosed again but I think I am improving and trying to put into practice what I have learned so I can do the two things I am passionate about - helping more and more street children off the street and creating a fabulous organisation that is brilliant at what it does and looks after its own staff well.

The social sector does amazing, essential, inspiring work, with a huge array of people and causes, but we need to ask what cost it has on the people who are trying, in their own small way, to deliver that work. We all talk, rightly so, about sustainability but how many of us think of that in terms of our colleagues and the people trying to build the sustainable organisations? Perhaps we need to shift the debate of sustainability towards that a little bit more.

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Diarmuid ONeill

Diarmuid ONeill

International Development Specialist & Organisational Leader

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