Inspirational Woman: Caroline O’Connor | CEO, Migrant Help

Meet Caroline O'Connor

CEO, Migrant Help

Caroline joined Migrant Help in March 2017 as the Chief Operating Officer and became the CEO in January 2020. Her focus, integrity and commitment ensure that Migrant Help is able to do the most good it can for our clients.

Her background is in finance and operations, her last position before joining Migrant Help was Finance and Operations Director for a children’s hospice in London. She studied economics and law, later moving to finance and accountancy.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am the CEO of Migrant Help, we are a large UK charity that supports refugees, asylum seekers, survivors of modern slavery and other vulnerable displaced people. I have worked in the charity sector for the past 18 years, with charities in education, at a children’s hospice and now with Migrant Help.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve sat down and planned my career a couple of times, but life and circumstances have helped shift my direction in some pretty amazing ways.

I trained as an accountant in the private sector and planned to progress up the ranks to Finance Director. However, I was talent-scouted for an in-house leadership development programme, through which I moved into general management in railway engineering. And I loved it, seeing the bigger picture and influencing the strategic direction of our work. I was also very good at mentally connecting how all things joined together in business, so I brought a unique perspective to the role.  

However, I was frustrated working in the private sector, when the workers contribute so much to the success of the business, but the owners and management tend to reap the rewards.

It just didn’t sit well with me.

One day, I got a wrong number phone call from a recruitment consultant, who had just heard about a charity role and I jumped at the chance to turn my powers to good, so to speak.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

My biggest challenge was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 39 years old and one year in a new role. Being a woman in business is hard enough; you know that saying that women have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. There’s some truth in the adage.

On top of that, when you are considered the weaker sex, you sure don’t want to show any vulnerabilities.

I had to deal with cancer, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy (yes, sick, bald and immune-compromised), while helping to keep the plates spinning at work. My company was very supportive of me throughout, for which I’m very grateful, but it was tough. I found out, that I was tough, too. Getting through that gave me confidence to get through a lot of other tough times.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Leading through Covid. I became the CEO of Migrant Help in September 2019, just as we commenced a crucial new contract. Six months later, we were facing lockdown and a world-wide pandemic.  Luckily, in those six months we had built a strong management team with a lot of trust in each other, because we were about to be well and truly tested. It helped tremendously that our staff are deeply committed to supporting our clients; our motto through the pandemic was “may our compassion always be greater than our fear”. I’m immensely proud of everyone in the organisation, we kept it going and we were there for our clients when they needed us.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Optimism. I know it sounds a little starry-eyed, but optimism gives me that belief that I can influence a positive change. That no matter what is happening around us, together, we have the power to turn it around, to think our way to a solution and to fix it. Optimism keeps me from resting on my laurels because there is always a better way. Defeatism accomplishes nothing.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think mentoring has been critical to my success and I’ve been on both sides of the relationship. My best mentor was a peer mentor; we joined a new leadership team together. When either of us took a knock to our confidence or when our negative inner voice got the best of us, we would talk the other down of the edge.  It was empowering to see this brilliant, inspiring woman, who I thought had it so together, sometimes get nervous and shaky just like me. And when she encouraged me that I could do something, I couldn’t help but believe her.

I’ve had other mentors in each stage of my development, and I credit each one with helping me build my career in big and small ways. In turn, so many people that I’ve mentored have also helped me to grow. When someone is looking to you for guidance, you think through your own decisions differently; you look through another lens and it changes you.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

The pace of change will accelerate when a generation of children see women in leadership regularly. Representation matters. I struggled to see myself as a leader when I was younger because very few leaders looked, and even fewer acted, like me. And having worked in male dominated industries for a good part of my career, very few men were prepared to have a leader like me. That’s got to change.

We also need to be authentic; I can be compassionate and gentle and still be tough.

Women leaders need to get out there and get seen, exactly as they are.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

More people want to see you succeed than want to see you fail. I spent far too much time worrying about looking foolish or being wrong.

People won’t remember your mistakes as much as you do.

In fact, people are usually on your side, cheering for you to succeed. Harness that support and lean on people when you need to. They will often be happy to help and will welcome the chance to be part of your journey.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Helping grow future leaders. Migrant Help has grown significantly in size in the past few years and we have a great deal of talent at all levels of the organisation. I’m really excited to help people to develop that talent. Knowing that the people who come to work for charities like ours are the people who will change the world in the future – there is no better investment in the future than that.

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