Sponges and Ladders

Written by Kim Shutler (CEO)


The pandemic has lead to a lot of people pondering about their career so I decided to write this for anyone who is thinking about making a change or feeling scared to reach a bit higher…

I had a brilliant career in higher education working in communications and organisational development, which I loved but I always had a niggle that there was something more.

When I trained to be a coach, my wonderful trainer hit me with 2 ‘lightening bolt’ questions…

1) If you had no excuses what would you be doing?

2) What makes your heart sing?

I had been Vice Chair of Leeds Women’s Aid for a few years and I realised that that was where my heart was. I really wanted to work in a charity.

When I saw the CEO job at the Cellar Trust, I looked at the job description and thought… ‘I can do all of that’ but then nearly didn’t apply… in fact it was only because a colleague nudged me that I applied at the 11th hour. When I got the interview I thought ‘ok that will be good experience.’ When they offered me the job which I was 100% unqualified for, I nearly fell off my chair. I took a week to make my decision and I nearly chickened out as I was so scared to fail. I realised though that I would always regret it if I didn’t give it a go.

I had never done 90% of my job before. When I came to the Cellar, it was on its knees, in huge financial difficulty with every risk and challenge under the sun. I was new to being a CEO, new to Bradford, new to the charity sector, new to mental health. I was 32 and I had a toddler. I look back now and laugh because I wouldn’t have employed me. Luckily the Board saw something in me and took a chance. It took me a good year to stop mumbling my job title or adding on ‘but it’s only little…’ That year I didn’t sleep because I thought whatever we did we might still have to close, and that would be on me.

But I am a great sponge and I took every single opportunity for help and to learn from people. People I knew, and didn’t know, were (and still are) incredibly generous with their time. I have many, many mentors… mostly unofficial ones. I take every opportunity to absorb. Throughout my career, the toughest moments, the ones where my manager has pushed me beyond my comfort zone, when they have told me things I didn’t want to hear at the time, when I have felt out of my depth… they are the ones which lead me to grow, be better and take the next step. It isn’t always about stepping upwards on the career ladder but I do believe it is about taking the steps you want and need to allow you to thrive. The day I stop learning is the day I need to go home.

I also have some amazing people around me. I am nothing without my team. That’s my team here at the Cellar but also the team of colleagues around me in Bradford. I am so lucky to be surrounded by such brilliant, supportive, inspiring people.

Next week I will have been the CEO for 7 years and I can happily say that we are no longer in a mess… in fact quite the opposite. We have almost quadrupled in size, but more importantly, we deliver amazing, amazing award winning services which I’m so proud of and we influence at a local, regional and national level. When I started we supported around 200 people a year. Last year during Covid it was around 8000. We now have almost 80 staff. One of the things I am most proud of is that all our front line staff are recruited and trained as peer support workers because we believe passionately that people with their own lived experience deliver wonderful support.

I Chair the Voluntary and Community Sector Assembly because I believe in the power of local charities and the people they serve. I can see difference we can make, in partnership with other sectors, if our collective work is strong and sustainable. There are no words to describe the breadth, depth and impact of their work. I’m proud to champion them. I also believe in paying it forwards. Lots of other charity leaders helped me when we were struggling, now it is our turn.

The final thing I have learnt is about being an authentic leader. I spent many years in corporate suits, modelling the public sector life, always feeling at odds because I wasn’t being myself. I did an Msc in Leadership… it taught me very little. It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin as a leader and to realise that to be my best, I have to be myself. I hope that at the Cellar Trust we have created a culture where everyone can do that because that is at the heart of being able to thrive and give your best.

So… when you are scared… take a deep breath and do it anyway. Life is too short not to go for what makes your heart sing. That is cheesy but it is true. Nothing brilliant ever comes without something hard and scary. And if it’s senior leadership you aspire to, when you get there… always put the ladder down… always lift as you climb.