To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with our CEO, Amanda Cunningham, to hear about her inspiring journey to become a woman in leadership.
Please tell us more about yourself.
I was brought up in the North East in a small coastal village, and moved into central Newcastle over 15 years ago with my children. I still have a lot of contact with the village that I lived in. I’m very passionate about animals (dogs and horses in particular), and I very much enjoy family time. I have a very family-centred approach to life really. I love nothing more than having lots of family and friends in my home and cooking for them and having a great time. I cherish the time with my children, my sister and my nephew, my numerous godchildren, and all of my friends and family.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquity. The theme seeks to recognise that each person has different circumstances, and we need to offer resources and opportunities aligned to their individual needs to reach an equal outcome. Through the process of equity, we can reach equality. What does this mean to you?
I think it is getting to know people individually and giving them the opportunity to express themselves, and having the expectation that adaptations and different approaches will assist people in achieving the same outcome.
Equality would be giving everyone the same rope and bucket to take water from a well. Equity would be realising that not everyone can use the same type of rope and bucket and providing another way for them to retrieve the water from the well.
Within the work and business environment, it is ensuring that opportunity, visibility, and progression is available to all, with the acceptance that some may not want development or progression. Supporting the diverse wants, wishes, and needs of a team and ensuring adaptability to meet business needs and outcomes, with a clear focus on positive outcomes for all of our children and young people as well as our colleagues.
What do you love most about your job?
Well, I love everything about my job.
I love every aspect of everything that I do, including the challenges that come along, because it makes you a more rounded person. It is important to resolve the challenges! It’s very easy to bring a problem, but it is the ability to solve a problem that makes a difference. And I don’t believe you can do that on your own. You need a team of subject-matter experts who are committed to the business to be able to do that.
I love being able to grow the organisation, but am very much focused on quality and on the children. I enjoy having the opportunity to guide that growth, and not just around financial performance. If you focus on finance within a person-centred business, it will never succeed because the quality has to be there first. You have to remember you are dealing with young people, children, young adults, pupils, and they have to be at the centre of everything that we do. I love working with the team, I’ve got a great team and you’ve met them. You can see how amazing they all are, and they live and breathe the company values.
I believe if we care about each other, the teams that work with the children directly will care about the children. So, we have to lead by example. I think it’s important to look at somebody’s facial expressions and how they present themselves and ask, is it any different to what they would normally be? Because you have to be able to read the signs rather than the words that are coming out someone’s mouth. You know the person with a smile on their face could be the person that’s most challenged that day.
How did you get to where you are now?
I trained as a nurse; I always wanted to be a learning disability nurse from about the age of 11 and wanted the opportunity to make a difference. I have had challenges in my own life, but I persevered, I have been very passionate and committed and I have worked really hard. Sometimes I’ve had to make personal sacrifices, such as having to travel when I wanted to be at home, but I worked hard at getting a work-life balance that I was generally happy with.
And I think the ability to learn, and listen does matter in life. It helps you relate to the people you’re working with or supporting, whether it’s somebody who’s struggling with mental health or somebody who’s struggling financially. I think you can learn from everyone you meet.
I care about all of my colleagues, and all of the children and the young people that we have the privilege of caring for, supporting and educating.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you can pass on to anyone, especially women trying to establish their careers?
Never forget where you started and what you need to perform well. Always be true to yourself, embrace your strengths and work hard to build on your areas of development. Learn from everyone you meet.
Whatever you look like, whatever your background or ethnicity, it shouldn’t make any difference. It’s just being proud of who you are, recognising your feelings and accepting your weaknesses, and trying to do everything that you can to build on those areas of weakness or learn from past mistakes, which I think is key.
And be proud, whatever your gender or however you identify. Be proud of yourself as a person and be proud of yourself for having a good heart. If you have a good heart, everything else falls into place.
As a woman, what are the most important challenges you have overcome to fulfil your role?
The physical challenges that women experience as they get older, which can be embarrassing at times, whether it be a hot flush or whatever else. But I believe that men and women both face challenges, whether in the boardroom or within their own personal lives. And I think it’s just accepting the differences.
Men and women both face challenges and with a positive mental attitude we all can be the best person we can.
Which women inspire you the most?
Florence Nightingale and my daughter.
Florence Nightingale was clearly driven to provide quality provision to patients. She set standards for compassionate, patient-centred care that addressed the needs and preferences of patients. She championed innovations designed to treat patients with dignity and respect.
The other person would be my daughter. My daughter is 29. She is kind and caring and very focused and empathetic. She accepts everybody as they are, but she’s got very strong morals and I think, in this day and age, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain that strength because of social media and peer influence. She’s always stuck on the straight and narrow, and made some very good life choices. She makes me very proud.
How do you influence your colleagues around you and the wider business?
Be kind and care. Focus on the needs of our children. I try and embrace the values. I try and give everybody a voice and listen to them. Using their subject-matter expertise to help me and guide my decision-making. I’m never going to know it all and would never presume to. We have some great educational specialists, the residential team, and the supported accommodation team as well as central services. In all, the Steven Bainbridges and the Elaine Richardsons, the Chloe Fosters – there are so many people. Anne Marie and Emma have so much experience as do the Therapy Team. We’ve got an amazing Therapy Team. We wrap around and support each other.
I have a lot of support and help to make decisions which sometimes can be in very difficult scenarios, and much of the decision-making tends to stop with me and the SET. So, when it comes to a challenge, it can be difficult at times, but the decisions need to be made. When it is a difficult decision, I focus on the needs of the children.