Looking after yourself in the business of looking after others

Capacity Building and Organisational Development | Housing and Homelessness

1 September 2022

Photo by Remi Walle from Unsplash

In 2021, Nicole Lawrence made history as the first African American female executive director of her organisation in its 50-year history. Leading the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN) in Philadelphia, the US, she advocates daily for safe, accessible, and affordable housing for all Philadelphia residents. With countless hours dedicated to the frontline of her organisation’s work, Kairos leadership coaching gave Nicole Lawrence a unique opportunity to invest time in her personal development. And according to her, this self-empowerment “trickles down all through my work”.

Nicole Lawrence is just one of six grantee partners in Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme that recently completed the Kairos leadership coaching. The Kairos Project provides professional support for “any person, team or organisation striving for a better future”, including leaders of not-for-profit organisations. Lucy Robson, programme officer in Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme, compiled a cohort of all-female grantee leaders. In her words, this was to “consciously support female leadership in the [housing and homelessness] sector”. Indeed, she saw coaching as a valuable way for these leaders to “feel comfortable filling those big shoes”.

Kairos coaching aims to build confident leaders who are equipped to manage complex environments and challenges. These women lead organisations that provide essential services for a variety of communities across the UK and US, from low-income families (TURN and Face to Face Germantown in the US) to survivors of domestic abuse (WAITS Action in the UK), and minority communities (Oasis Cardiff, Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation, and Lewisham Refugee Migrant Network, also all UK-based). In their tireless fight to uplift their communities, the leaders proudly discussed how coaching improved their ability to manage responsibilities, think strategically, and communicate well with staff.

For Mary Kay Meeks-Hank, executive director of FacetoFace Germantown, coaching improved the culture within her organisation, and she now transfers coaching exercises to staff meetings. This includes mindfulness exercises, which helps keep staff calm, grounded, and present throughout their demanding days. “I can’t believe how grateful I was for that [coaching] opportunity. It was wonderful,” she said. Nicole Lawrence cited improvements in problem solving, stating, “I left my sessions realising that problems are really opportunities, and it’s really how I handle them.”

The leaders mentioned in this story who have taken part in leadership coaching from the Kairos Project. Top left: Marcia Lewinson, WAITS Action. Bottom left: Mary-Kay Meeks, Face to Face Germantown. Middle: Nicole Lawrence, Tenant Union Representative Network. Top right: Reynette Roberts, Oasis Cardiff. Bottom right: Patricia Johnson, Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation

Photo: The leaders mentioned in this story who have taken part in leadership coaching from the Kairos Project.

The Kairos approach 

So how does Kairos do it? According to Peter Baily, executive director of the Kairos Project, coaching for leaders in the not-for-profit sector comes back to a simple idea: “[leaders] need to look after themselves when they’re in the business of looking after others”. The blended coaching style ranges from fine-tuning specific leadership skills, all the way to exploring emotional personal matters that may affect leadership. In coaching, meaningful conversation and a non-judgemental outside perspective builds the strengths and confidence of leaders.

“You need to be incredibly flexible and agile to deal with the kinds of things going on in this field,” Peter Baily said. “What we offer to any leader is really this obvious but very overlooked premise: the person we are in any given moment will determine the results that that we achieve.”

Addressing both personal and professional life was of huge value to this cohort of leaders. For Marcia Lewinson, CEO of WAITS Action, re-evaluating her work-life balance and addressing ‘those niggly things that keep you awake at night’ was a significant accomplishment. “The priority is always the charity,” she said. “We work well outside of our normal working hours, and we do that because of the passion. But the coaching has brought back the permission to take care of myself, which hasn’t been there for 30 years.”

Leaders for a fair and just future

Empowering this cohort of female leaders is especially important to Oak, considering that women head just 12 per cent of the largest not-for-profit organisations in the US, and 27 per cent in the UK, despite making up approximately 70 per cent of the not-for-profit workforce in both countries. [1] “There’s a lot more scrutiny on us as female leaders, and we’re not always taken as seriously as we should be,” said Pat Johnson, chief officer of the UK-based organisation Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation. “The coaching helped me with my assertiveness, and it has given me a lot more confidence to make decisions that benefit me and my organisation.”  Marcia Lewinson also stressed the value of coaching for female leaders grappling with imposter syndrome. “It really empowers you to see your value and your worth that you’re giving to the organisation and to other people,” she said

With many of the women encountering both institutional and individual racism in their everyday work, coaching further helped reinvigorate them to tackle tough challenges. Pat Johnson said, “my work can be quite contentious because I’m talking about racism and the impact on ethnic and black communities. You have to be so strong handling those conversations. After the coaching I have felt stronger and better able to deal with people who don’t have a similar opinion to us. It’s done quite a lot and the organisation will benefit from that.”

Kairos aims to equip leaders in their everyday work for a better future. “Whether it’s saving lives or saving trees or you’re up against big money,” coach Peter Baily said, “you have to wake up every morning and go: ‘I’ve got to believe that I can do something.”.

For other Oak grantee partners considering Kairos coaching, Reynette Roberts, CEO of Oasis Cardiff has one simple message: “Do it!” She says, “it may not always make you feel comfortable, but there’s good things that come out of that and you learn a lot.”

Kairos coaching is one example of Oak’s capacity-building support, designed to strengthen our partners to better achieve their mission. If your organisation is an Oak grantee and interested in receiving leadership support, please get in touch with your programme officer. If you would like to know more about this support, please check out the programme page.


[1] Martson, Ama (2013) Women in leadership: ‘It’s not going to work the way we’re doing it’. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/aug/01/women-in-leadership-international-ngos

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