Lessons in leadership from the Diana Award's CEO, Tessy Ojo

birmingham, united kingdom   december 07 britains prince william, duke of cambridge and the diana award chief executive tessy ojo, right, hold cards during a diversity and difference exercise during a visit to the diana award where he took part in anti bullying activity sessions at bournville college on december 7, 2015 in birmingham, united kingdom photo by rui vieira   wpa poolgetty images
Lessons in leadership from Tessy OjoWPA Pool

Tessy Ojo always knew she wanted to help people; she just didn’t always know how. Having initially studied biochemistry at Lagos State University, she found the prospect of a career in scientific research too isolating, so she changed tack and embarked on an MBA at Greenwich University here in the UK. From there, she fell into the tech industry – “but was further away than ever from what my passion was really about,” she says. The turning point in her professional development came in the year 2000, when she started a role as a programme manager at a charity called Education Extra, which provided clubs and activities outside of school hours for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. “That experience gave me such a strong desire to give back – to help build some sort of equality that allows everyone to thrive.”

birmingham, united kingdom   december 07 britains prince william, duke of cambridge and the diana award chief executive tessy ojo, right, hold cards during a diversity and difference exercise during a visit to the diana award where he took part in anti bullying activity sessions at bournville college on december 7, 2015 in birmingham, united kingdom photo by rui vieira   wpa poolgetty images
Tessy Ojo with Prince William during an anti-bullying workshop in BirminghamWPA Pool

Ojo’s first involvement with the Diana Award, which was initially set up under the umbrella of Education Extra, came five or six years later; she was brought in as a business manager, setting the operational framework for the project. Fast-forward to today and she has worked at the organisation for more than 16 years, including as CEO since September 2012. Continuing Princess Diana’s legacy of service to young people, the Diana Award has three main priorities: tackling the mental-health epidemic by boosting resilience; breaking down the social and economic barriers that determine children’s life chances; and building young people’s capacity to shape the services at their disposal. “That’s really about youth voice and youth participation,” says Ojo of the latter goal. “What we ultimately want to do is to raise the global leaders of the future.”

Here, Ojo outlines her advice for the skills and qualities needed to run a national charity…

1/ You need to have passion and empathy

"Passion is paramount, because you can’t serve what you don’t believe in. And you must have empathy so that you can advocate for and create change in a way that’s meaningful – you have to be able to walk in the shoes of the people you’re serving."

2/ Good leaders need resilience

"As a leader, you’ll get various things thrown at you, and you need to be able to compartmentalise; to create a system that enables you to survive. Mine is to create boundaries and to communicate them frequently, both internally and externally, so that people learn what they are and respect them."

3/ Integrity matters

"We will always do the right thing, whether people are looking or not. In return, we expect the same from our people, we expect the same from our funders, and we expect the same from people who follow us on social platforms. We’ve had times when we’ve had to decline money if we didn’t feel comfortable with the source of the income – that’s a painful decision to make, but it comes back to our values."

4/ Celebrate the wins

"I’m a huge believer in celebrating milestones. As a charity, you have long-term goals and ambitions – it might be to eradicate mental-health problems, which isn’t going to go away in 10 years – but in the meantime, you can be making progress year on year. I believe in reminding people of what we’ve achieved, because if you always just focus on the big things, you might never tell the public how you're doing."

5/ Be yourself

"The third sector is dominated by male chief executives, and when I started my role there were barely any women of colour in similar positions. I’m 6 foot 1, I have grey hair and I love wearing colour, so at first I struggled a bit with knowing what standard to conform to. I remember it felt like a turning point when I saw that video of Michelle Obama dancing on a TV show [with Ellen DeGeneres in 2015]. I thought, I’m going to be like the President’s wife, I’m going to do the dance she did. She in some way gave me permission to be me, and to bring my whole self to work."

6/ Never stop learning

"I’d say to any new business leader, find what you’re passionate about and follow that passion, but remember that passion should never replace research. Learn your craft and invest in your own growth."

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