Neal Meets...

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We recently met up with one of our good friends Cara Cash-Marley who took up the reigns at Groundwork NI last year as their new CEO. She gave us an insight into the organisation, the challenges of the sector and her own leadership style……

 

 

What is Groundwork NI?

Groundwork NI is a community development and regeneration charity, our mission is to ‘Change places, change minds and change lives.’ We do this in a variety of ways, through managed projects and funded programmes such as community gardens, shared spaces, health and wellbeing programmes for example. Another piece of the puzzle for us is employment and training programs where we deliver OCN’s in horticulture to people, to allow them to get some CV development and improve their employment prospects.  We also deliver grant management for landfills and wind farms across the province and again these are programmes which allow small community organisations to apply for funding which will change those places and change the lives of the people that live there. In short, we are all about making positive change for communities across Northern Ireland.

What have been the major challenges to your strategy?

One challenge would be ensuring we don’t suffer mission drift. Given that our aims are quite broad, so it would be easy for us to drift away from our core mission. As a charitable organisation, when an attractive tender comes on to my desk, it is tempting to think ‘is there income for us? Yes, there is. Could we deliver the work? Yes, we could. Well then let’s do it’ but we always have to ask ourselves if it would deliver on what we say that we are here to do. Sometimes these are difficult decisions to make, when times are financially tight, but we have to be brave as an organisation and stay true to our purpose. Groundwork has been here for over 20 years in NI and that work has evolved as our communities have changed. Another challenge is attracting and retaining the best quality people, both at an operational and at a strategic delivery level, to ensure we can deliver on our plans which are undoubtedly ambitious.

What is your view on partnerships and how does that work for you?

I’m a big believer in effective, collaborative working but also, I don’t think that you should jump into partnerships just for the sake of jumping into them. Again, you must be very careful that the partnership helps you deliver on what you say you want to deliver. If you are being invited to help another organisation deliver on their mission and vision and really isn’t delivering for you, then difficult decisions must be made. We are fortunate to have engaged in several partnerships with the private sector and with other community voluntary partners and I am keen that we continue to do this.

What do you think the big challenges in the sector are right now?

Well lack of Government is a challenge for us in the sector (but I suppose this is a challenge for everybody) because we would have seen the Government and the ministers here as another partner for us, as a delivery partner, so, we are sort of missing a limb because they aren’t there. Funding is always a challenge for the community and voluntary sector, sustainability is a challenge, it’s hugely competitive within the sector, lots of us are applying to the same pots with different offers. We are still dealing with an issue where that competition maybe isn’t fostered positively so charities are sort of bidding against each other and it can get quite aggressive and that’s not entirely where we all want to be. We also have a challenge in that when we find good people we have to be able to keep them, and in order to do that we need to compete with other sectors in what we offer in terms of training and development, salary, benefits etc and that can be difficult because we don’t have the same budgets as other organisations. We have a challenge in communicating clearly what we are and what we do and I think sometimes to the public, the voluntary sector can just feel like this stream of people asking for stuff, so it’s how you break through and communicate your benefit to the community and create an understanding of your purpose.

Do you enjoy your role as a leader, and do you have a definition of leadership?

I love my role and have worked hard to get to this position. There are lots of definitions that I think make sense, John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader” that is one that rings true for me and I hope one I work to. I also often share a quote from noted author Maya Angelou who said “We all have two hands for a reason, one to help ourselves and one to help someone else” I hope I do that every day.

I believe that I am a collaborative leader, it can be a lonely place as a leader and I genuinely think that collaboration with your team, your board, your partners etc makes it easier.

How do you ensure you grow as a leader?

It is a huge cliché, but I genuinely believe that every day is a school day, I am always open to learning. I think one of the dangers of leadership is that once you find yourself in a position where you are defined as a “leader”, it can be tempting to think ‘well, I’ve arrived, so I now know everything.’ Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone is ever truly in that position, so I try to always keep my mind open to learning through a variety of mediums.

Peer support and peer connections are important to me, in fact they have been throughout my career. I try to spend time with other Chief Executives and leaders because quite frankly I can still learn so much from them and it is safe place to ask, test ideas etc. Sitting on Boards is great, I sit on a board and get a lot from it and I am a big fan of the Boardroom Apprentice programme, I think it’s tremendous in terms of what it offers individuals; which is an insight into governance and we should all want fresh perspectives on our Boards so we have to be open to initiatives such as this.

I was delighted to get Groundwork NI involved this year. I also have a mentor who supports and challenges me in equal measure and I’m a big supporter of mentorship for others and have mentored several people myself.

I also grow by sharing, I have a good relationship with the Business schools in Ulster and in the Belfast Met and I go along and speak sometimes to classes there because when I go inevitably there other leaders in the room that I can learn from. I have just recently been appointed a Community Fellow for Ulster University and I see this as an opportunity to firstly give something back to communities but also for me to learn from colleagues and those in the community. I of course learn from my own Board and my own contacts, friends and family and am luck that I have a tremendous supportive team behind me.

What does Corporate Governance mean to you?

Governance is another essential tool to help us do the work we need to do. It is as important as the other aspects of the business and needs to be invested in just as much. In my opinion, if you don’t have the controls in place right top to bottom, then your organisation is not right. Boards need to be invested in, they need to be offered training and development opportunities, they need to be supported just as much as your staff team, so in my opinion good governance is a vital piece of the puzzle. I have had the pleasure of working with really incredible Board members and as a Chief Executive I have learned so much from them and am a board member myself which is a very fulfilling role in itself.

Is there anything you would change about working in Northern Ireland to do with the business in Northern Ireland?

Well a functioning assembly would be great and we are yet to feel the full impact of Brexit in whatever form it takes, but aside from that I think, in Northern Ireland we can be a little bit insular and we forget to look out and I would like us to do more of that. I think there are great lessons to be learnt from other parts of the world. We sometimes joke about how small the world is but in Northern Ireland that is felt even more, so I would like to see us all be more open, across organisations, sectors and regions

If you hadn’t embarked on your career within the voluntary sector, what do you think you would be doing now or what would you like to be doing now?

I think I am where I am meant to be, I love working in the community and voluntary sector. I am driven by helping people and making things better where I can, so it makes sense that I find myself here. Social justice has always been in and around my thinking, and I think it’s important for my son to learn that we all have a part to play in making the world around us a little better, no matter how small and he sees that through the work I do, hopefully!