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My journey as a CEO in the third sector

13/11/2023 - My journey as a CEO in the third sector

Satwat Rehman is the Chief Executive Officer for One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS)

A journey started without a destination …..

I am not sure I had a strategy or planned path to where I now find myself. It was never an explicit ambition to be in the third sector, and certainly not one to be a chief executive! 

What has driven me through my life from my early teens has been a desire to make a difference – to work with others towards a society where structures and systems do not pre-determine your outcomes and journey, where a young working class girl of Pakistani origin is not laughed at for wanting to become an astronaut, where her father is not stuck in low paid work with no prospect of change and so he has no option but to start his own small business, where her mother is not regarded as unintelligent because she never went to school or where her older brother is not placed in the ‘remedial unit’  because English is not his first language, and therefore he has ‘no language’.

It was when I made sense of these experiences and understood that these were not just one-off incidents experienced only by us, that the fire in me was ignited.

My social justice journey started then and continued through my student days, into my paid work and life.  Moving to Edinburgh in 1989, to work at the Multicultural Education Centre, I became involved in Lothian Black Forum and went on to set up Lothian Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, organising rallies and demonstrations by night and supporting children and families from black and communities of colour navigate the education system by day.

I think that is why I feel so at home in the third sector, in smaller organisations that have arisen from activism and a desire to support people in the here and now with the issues they face, but not to stop there and continue the work to change things so these issues are not present in people’s lives.

Leadership isn’t about positions of power or having more authority. Leadership happens when you take a stand against or for something, it does not need to come in formal settings with formal titles. It is something each and every single one of us can bring to the jobs that we do, the organisations we work for and the activism that we take part in in our daily lives.

To me it is about being able to work with others; it’s about trusting and being trusted; it’s about being challenging and being challenged; It’s about thinking outside the box and it’s about listening to those who are thinking outside the box, to name but a few things!

What has been so critical has been the opportunity to be mentored and learn from some incredible people along the way. One of the things I have learned from my mentors is that leadership brings with it many responsibilities including the most important one (in my opinion) – to use the opportunities created by being in a position of leadership to challenge, speak uncomfortable truths, and stand your ground when necessary. To use a very hackneyed and overused phrase it is about being able to speak truth to power.

This journey through the third sector and especially through my work at One Parent Families Scotland has given me opportunities at a national level to support the development of policies and provide scrutiny and challenge on their implementation and impact on issues such as child poverty.  I have recently been appointed Co-chair of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, where a key part of my role will be ensuring we hear all voices especially those most disadvantaged and disconnected from power and decision-making and bring them together with the commissioners in meaningful ways to develop that path to a fairer and more just society.

I like to think part of my leadership style means that I walk alongside my colleagues and those from partner organisations contributing to discussions, and ideas, sharing my knowledge and experience for us to arrive at a collective decision.

What guides me in my leadership:

  • The importance of values, personal values, and organisational values; grounding us in our work.
  • The importance of creating supportive learning spaces. If we want to innovate, if we want to try new things, if we want to think about how we work alongside people and take our directions from them, then we need to be flexible and we also need to be prepared to make mistakes.
  • Facilitating and not directing – we all lead in our work, our lives, our activism.
  • Bearing responsibility and supporting others to do likewise.
  • Activism – a lifelong practise and commitment that gives me the drive to continue.
  • Last, but by no means least the desire for equity and justice.

To end, why have I remained in the third sector for most of my career?  See all the above!  I may not have actively sought a career pathway in the third sector, but I ended up exactly where I wanted to be!

Reflective Challenge: How do we ensure that our values are guiding us as leaders?

Especially at times of great uncertainty and change; how do we ensure that we do not retreat into what is safe and comfortable? How do we continue to challenge, so that people and communities experiencing structural violence and discrimination do not get pushed to the margins again? 

We’d like to thank Satwat for writing this guest blog which is part of the Leading to Change Diversity Blog Series. We want to highlight and promote the voices and experiences of diverse leaders at all levels including those working at frontline / grassroots levels. We aim to celebrate diverse leaders who can act as role models for other aspiring, diverse leaders.

Satwat Rehman

Satwat Rehman

Chief Executive Officer for One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS)

Satwat is chief executive of One Parent Families Scotland and has more than 30 years’ experience in the voluntary and public sector in Scotland and England, working in the fields of equalities, education, employability, economic development/regeneration and early years and childcare. Since joining OPFS in 2011, she has been a member of several commissions and advisory groups and is currently a member of the National Advisory Council for Women and Girls, and co-chair of the Just Transition Commission.

All information regarding our contributors was correct at the time of publishing.

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