Helen's Story

Helen Trenchard / 5 min read

Leadership isn’t out of reach - it starts with us.

Back in the summer my organisation invited me to apply for the American Express Leadership Academy, a course aimed at ‘Emerging Leaders in the Not-for-Profit’ sector. That sounds fancy, I thought, I’m not sure I’m an ‘Emerging leader’– so I was surprised to receive the congratulations email inviting me to join this residential Academy in London.

I’m a Fundraiser and I work at the charity Sue Ryder. We provide incredible hospice and neurological care, and I know I contribute to that by leading projects to grow our income and support our future vision. But am I a Leader with a Capital L, Making Change In The World? 

Hoping to gain a bit more belief in myself, and find out what makes other leaders successful, I headed to the Academy in October hoping I wouldn’t feel too out of place.

My four days at the Academy were a revelation.

It felt like I was at the centre of a buzzing development event, alongside 40 fascinating people from large and small charities across the UK.

The programme was a rich mix of speakers from our sector and beyond, immersive simulations, one-to-one coaching, small peer-learning groups, inspiring visits, a tiny bit of theory and a tonne of reflection. Add in three delicious meals a day shared with an incredible new network of talented sector colleagues, and it all added up to feeling enormously invested in; a very strange feeling in a sector where we’re more likely to invest in services for beneficiaries than in ourselves.

The Academy, which started in the US and has now gone global, strikes me as an effective and thoughtful CSR tactic by Amex. If you invest in those who are committed to leading the sector forward, it will have ripple effects throughout civil society.

This investment has given me confidence, belief and a feeling of responsibility to help lead my organisation towards its important goal. Far from being fancy or out of reach – it turns out that Leadership is about me. The key message is that if you understand yourself, you can lead others. 

It was a real privilege to hear Chief Execs sharing their vulnerabilities, their radical career moves and how they carve out their work/life balance. Their message was that who we are, and what happens in our personal lives, good and bad, affects our career decisions. So be yourself, be authentic, align what you think, say and do. And then anything is possible.

A month on, I’m still very inspired to work on my goals, and it’s great being in touch with my cohort ahead of our ‘Graduation Day’ next year. The Academy has taught me that you can lead from any level, and that we are all responsible for challenging and transforming our organisations.

On the final day one contributor urged me to consider, what is my unfinished business on planet earth? A huge question for sure, but one that makes me feel like I could... dare I say... change the world?

Thank you to my organisation for nominating me, to Common Purpose who delivered this inspiring experience and to Amex – for an investment I won’t forget.

Helen Trenchard is the Head of Philanthropy Transformation for the British Red Cross.
She took part in the American Express Leadership Academy, in 2016.

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