Inspirational Woman: Kate Adams | Chief of Staff at Comic Relief

I am Chief of Staff at Comic Relief, a charity best known for its Red Nose Day and Sport Relief fundraising and awareness raising events each March. I lead on strategy, risk and special projects. I am also Chair of Missing People, a charity that offers a lifeline to children and adults who are missing or missing a loved one.Kate Adams Comic Relief

At Comic Relief, my role is pretty fluid – a bit like a Minister without portfolio. Over the years I’ve been involved in leading some key relationships such as with Government, particularly the Department for International Development and No.10. I’ve reviewed the Governance of our Board, established risk management, delivered annual performance reports, transitioned the organisation from one CEO to another, as well as delivered events within Red Nose Day or Sport Relief campaigns.

I started my career in Management Consultancy for Towers Perrin (now Willis Towers Watson) helping many FTSE100 clients with structuring, engaging and motivating their workforce and leadership teams. After 9 years, for various reasons, I thought it was time for a new chapter – something in house and generalist – so I took a nine month sabbatical. In that time I took an interim project manager role at Comic Relief – attracted by the creativity, the phenomenal brand and worthy vision. A few months in, the CEO asked me to run his private office, special projects, relationship management and deliver key strategic initiatives. It wasn’t the easiest decision to make. The salary was almost half, the work entirely ambiguous and it meant saying goodbye to some inspirational colleagues and a promising consulting career. There is a lot to love about consulting, but I took the plunge 7 years ago and have no regrets.

I’m a working Mum with two young children and a supportive husband. I love learning, am self-motivated, ambitious and always up for a challenge. I am passionate about getting talented people on to Boards who may not yet realise the value they can bring, especially in the Charity sector as a starting point of someone’s board journey.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No. I originally wanted to be a lawyer. Then I realised I wanted to work with people in a business context so looked at HR related roles. My training as a Consultant was excellent and a tremendous start to working life. I then found myself itching to have a better general overview of business as opposed to being a specialist, as well as trying out an in-house role where I could deliver on stuff and see it through. I knew I wanted to move from consulting to an in-house role and to a company that was small enough for me to get my head around what it does. I like to tackle the big, strategic, meaty challenges and get the job done. You get to do exciting work from start to finish. Moving to Comic Relief has brought some incredible experiences that I never knew were around the corner – I’ve met two Prime Ministers, witnessed the incredible inner workings of BBC Live TV, lived on a tour bus with David Walliams, Miranda Hart and Davina McCall for 84 continuous hours and, most importantly, met people and projects that we fund who give their lives to supporting others. They’re an inspiration and I enjoy feeling grounded in something that’s meaningful. Each and every day, it’s a reminder of humanity, how fragile it can be and how together we can make the world go round that bit smoother for each other.

Taking on a trustee role at Missing People was a planned move. Becoming Chair wasn’t. It was a great opportunity to take a step up. It was terrible timing as my son was only 5 months old, but I decided to go for it and was delighted to get it. I was overwhelmed with how I could make everything work. I am highly organised, but with two young kids can’t control how much sleep I do (or don’t) get at night. I wanted to be stretched and developed in a different way. I wanted to get more experience of overseeing a small company as well as a charity that delivers a service to the public – Comic Relief is a middle man that funds operational charities. I saw it as a way to broaden my knowledge and experiences on top of a day job as well as share back what I was learning. It definitely does that and a lot more! I am always learning and loving the challenge, the people, the sense of pride. When I took it on, I hadn’t really thought through the more emotional side. I thank my lucky stars for my relatively simple life. Long may it continue. I’ve met people brave enough to share their story who have demonstrated that life is fragile and vulnerable and cruel. I have learnt that the  word hope is both critical to keep going and also tortuous.

So, no, I never planned my career, when I reach a cross roads I try to work out what it is I want to learn next, who I want to work with and where my skills and experience can take me.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Yes, plenty. A big one was adjusting to life as a working mum when I went back to work 10 months after my first child being born. I found it easier second time round as I knew what to expect.

I keep promising myself I will get better at it, but typically I am useless at saying no to work. I also like to be stretched and learn new things. The combination means I get myself into a pickle with life/work balance and can never seem to find the equilibrium I crave. I want to have my cake and eat it with work life, family life, social life and selfish time.  I deal with it in a few ways, one is by getting better at delegating and trusting others to get things done without me. Another is by setting myself annual personal goals and trying to stick to them and nothing more. In reality I frequently don’t get the balance right and have lots of room for improvement.

Taking on my first Board role at Missing People was a big step, not without its personal challenges. There were moments in the beginning when I felt like an imposter in the Board room, but as my confidence built I could see the contribution I was making. When things feel tricky or too stretching, I have found it really helpful to take time out to think, speak to mentors, I got myself a coach to support my thought processes. They have encouraged me to trust my instincts.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?

Believe in your abilities and have a go. You soon realise that everyone is just having a go and why wouldn’t your efforts be as good as theirs. Write out what you think qualifies you to do the position and take confidence from that. If you have a few skills or experience gaps, don’t let that stop you applying for the role – have a proposal for how you would manage it. Few people tick every box, but it doesn’t mean they are not a great candidate.

 

When faced with two equally-qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

I’d look at potential and people skills. You can’t be a leader without followers.

How do you manage your own boss?

I have a new boss, we’re 10 weeks in, so I am still working it out… And no doubt so is she.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

It starts with checking emails on the train to the office and mentally preparing for what’s in the diary, prioritising where my time can most valuably be spent that day, what conversations need to be had and what deadlines I need to meet. When I arrive, I check in with colleagues on how they are and whether there’s anything I should be aware of. Beyond that, a typical day is rare! I usually end the work day either sprinting out to catch the kids before bed time or if I’m organised enough, I write a quick note to myself on the next day’s priorities. If I remember, I pause and breathe and sense check whether my efforts are being spent on the right things. I really want to be someone that has impact rather than works long hours. I definitely haven’t mastered it.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

It’s something that you will probably have to take a lead on yourself. Unless you have a sponsor looking out for you, you are your own PR person. Internally (and externally) you’re only as good as what people see or hear. Have a chat to someone you trust and talk through what you are wanting to achieve, play around with a few practical things you can do. Without a sponsor it can be tough as you feel like you are pushing yourself on people. Look for opportunities to present or speak  publicly, think about which teams or departments you don’t usually work with and find a project you could take on with them. Ask yourself – honestly – how you think other people might describe you and see if it matches the answer you were looking for. If not, write down three things you can do to change their perception. Watch what your role models are doing, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and set yourself goals and a timeframe. Share it with someone, then you’re more likely to stick to it. Then, take a deep breath and go for it.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

There have been moments when I have felt stuck and my coach has been critical to helping me work out what I really want, how I might be able to get it and realistically, what are the chances! I have used a coach when I felt at a crossroads. At other times, I have used mentors as sounding boards and for sage advice. Sometimes they know they are a mentor, other times it’s unofficial. Since becoming Chair of Missing People I have had three mentors. Being Chair of an organisation is unchartered territory for me, I’m younger than average for the role and I wanted a safe place to test my instincts on what I should be focusing on. Their support and feedback has been game changing for my confidence (and sanity) levels.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker?

Yes it is, but be realistic about what you can expect from it. It can be time consuming for what you get back, so the first tip is to focus and be deliberate in your networking. Be selective about what forums you go to and work out who you want to meet and why. The second tip is to deepen relationships in your current network – they already know you. By chatting to people you already know about what you’re doing and what you’re looking to achieve, they can introduce you to people in their wider network. Thirdly, don’t be shy or nervous. Everyone is feeling the same and it gets easier.

What does the future hold for you?

With any luck a nice long drink and a good night’s sleep! In the short term, I am working with the new CEO at Comic Relief on what the new era will hold. It’s exciting times, against a backdrop of uncertainty on Brexit and global humanitarian issues. The world feels a bit more wobbly and our role more important than ever. At Missing People, we launch our strategy for the next five years in the Spring and I’m recruiting for some new Board members. Beyond that… I want to keep learning and ‘doing’, be the best I can be at work and at home and have fun.

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