In this blog, we were thrilled to get the opportunity to interview Louise Parkes, CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. Louise told us all about her fascinating role as head of the amazing charity, her passions and the challenges she faced on her journey to becoming a female director...
Can you tell us a bit about you and your career?
From quite a young age I had a strong sense of social purpose, whatever I did had to make a difference. I was also passionate about women's issues, and gender not being a barrier to achievement. At university, I was the Women's Officer and became actively involved in campaigns on women's issues and would speak at other universities on issues such as women's safety and sexual harassment. My first job was a 2 year paid sabbatical as President of the Students Union - a fantastic introduction to leadership and management. After a year out travelling, I took my first role at a Charity, as a Press and PR intern and three months after starting I was offered a permanent role as a fundraiser.
I had a broad remit to raise money from anything that they weren’t doing currently, and an inspirational boss who was an entrepreneur and risk-taker – it was brilliant fun and 5 years later I had raised millions, done a world record parachute jump, cycled across India, Jordan and Cuba and met my future husband! After another short break travelling, I returned to continue my career in the charity sector working at Cancer Research UK and Age UK. I was at Age UK for 7 years and had my 3 children whilst I was there – twins now age 15 and their younger brother 13. Juggling work and being a Mum had always been a challenge, but with an amazing husband, and every single combination of childcare options, we muddled through.
‘Juggling work and being a Mum had always been a challenge, but with an amazing husband, and every single combination of childcare options, we muddled through.’
The hardest step in my career was definitely securing a role as a Director, I went for about 4 roles, I got down to the final 2, and the feedback was always great, but because I hadn’t operated as a director before they felt I was more of a risk. My first Director role was at Shelter, a brilliant campaigning charity that punches well above its weight, it was nimble, agile and lean in the way it operated. I loved it! Sooner than planned, I was approached about a Director role at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), another amazing charity, but was described as a “sleeping giant” an organisation with huge potential – an opportunity not to be missed. After 5 years at BHF and growing their income and profile, an exciting opportunity arose at Barnardo’s to take on a much broader portfolio of work, not just including income generation but also service delivery. I had never been so professionally and intellectually challenged and stimulated in a role, it was tough and rewarding. The stories of the young people we supported and their triumphs against adversity were truly inspirational, this ensured I could maintain a relentless focus on generating as much income as possible to enable more young people to turn their lives around. I had always said I didn’t want to be a CEO, but the role at Barnardo’s was bigger and more diverse than most CEO roles. I had 2500 staff, a retail network of 700 stores, service delivery, consultancy, fundraising, and brand and marketing. Soon the role of CEO felt like an intuitive next step. I started as CEO at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity on 1st May 2019.
‘The stories of the young people we supported and their triumphs against adversity were truly inspirational.’
What is a typical day in your career?
There is no such thing! I have had the privilege of meeting amazing people and doing unique and interesting events. As CEO of GOSHcc, I do a lot of public speaking, for me the most important part of my role is having the stories to tell and I have never been so moved by the stories of those whose lives have been touched by GOSH, the sense of the difference we make is truly palpable and inspirational.
How did you get to where you are now and did you face any challenges along the way?
I think as is often the case, it was a bit of good luck, a lot of hard work and some brilliant mentors and bosses who championed me in my role and encouraged my development. I did not have a burning desire or a career path laid out to be a CEO, in fact, the narrative within the voluntary sector is that the path from Fundraising Director to CEO is not a well-trodden one.
‘I think as is often the case, it was a bit of good luck, a lot of hard work and some brilliant mentors and bosses who championed me in my role and encouraged my development.’
What is an important initiative that you feel passionate about in your role?
I am passionate about women in leadership and when you have the privilege of being in a leadership position, I believe you have a moral obligation to support others with opportunities, insight, and give people a helping hand.
What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?
I have always been fiercely independent and had a strong sense of purpose. I start from a perspective where I think people are inherently good and not everyone has the same opportunity so I think it is only fair if we can try and level the playing field. I am also incredibly commercially minded and success is important to me, I get a huge sense of satisfaction from generating income, it is very tangible and measurable and you can see the difference it makes.
‘I have always been fiercely independent and had a strong sense of purpose.’
What’s great about being a female in your role?
I hadn’t really thought about it but just this week I had a conversation with a coach (who happened to be male!) and he was talking about emotional intelligence and commented that I already had a head start on half the population as women tended to have a higher EQ than men. Particularly working in the voluntary sector where people are so passionate about what they do, I think it helps.
What is your biggest achievement in life?
I genuinely believe it is yet to come, although finding my soulmate, having 3 kids and being CEO of the most amazing organisation are going to be hard to beat!
What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt along the way?
To always be open to learning, you can always do more, and you can always do better.
Have you ever felt that your gender has brought unnecessary challenges to your career?
I would like to say no, but this is not the case. In an interview, I was once asked how many children I had, how old they were, and how I thought I would balance my parenting responsibilities with a busy job. Not sure a male candidate would have been asked the question. At the time the twins were 4 and my youngest was 2 – and I didn’t get the job!
Outside your work, what are your favourite hobbies and pastimes?
I love spending time with the family, walking the dog and cycling. My husband and I took part in the Ride 100 event this summer on behalf of GOSH – the challenge now is to keep up the cycling now the weather is getting colder.
Do you have a mantra you live your life by?
Be honest, be yourself and be kind.
What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?
When you see opportunities grab them, seek out opportunities to broaden your experience, and build your networks
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
I have a brilliant friend who I met as a peer about 17 years ago, she has gone on to be a successful CEO of not-for-profit organisations, she has been my confidant and sounding board. She also has the most amazing attitude to life and remained so unbelievably positive whilst going through treatment for breast cancer last year, it was very humbling ….
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
I think it is on the agenda but we have a long way to go. When I do talks on women in leadership I compare the stats of female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies when I started working in the sector 25 years ago – there were zero and as of Jan 2019, there were 6. This suggests we haven’t really come that far, and business need to do a lot more.
‘I compare the stats of female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies when I started working in the sector 25 years ago – there were zero and as of Jan 2019, there were 6.’
What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?
Build your networks, be authentic and stretch yourself out of your comfort zone.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
To admit when you get things wrong and learn from it.
What's the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I have heard it articulated in many different ways, but the advice is along the lines of “how you deal with situations is within your gift - you can’t control or change circumstances but you can control the way you react to them.”
What would you say to your 16-year-old self?
Be humble and appreciate what you have.
As well as Louise, we have many inspiring women who are also bringing us amazing content. You can find more here.