Tell us about yourself, Karen and your leadership journey?
I am a disciple, a wife, a mum to two gorgeous teenage girls and, I hope, a good friend. I love a challenge. I am an activist in every sense of the Word; I stand against injustice even when it is personally costly. I love spending time with people but I also like quiet days and all my days include time for prayer and reflection, without which I would feel adrift.
I am currently Head of Development and Partnerships for Zac’s, an amazing Christian based (not Christian biased) charity in Farnworth, near Bolton, in the North West of England. The name comes from the story of Zacchaeus. He climbs the sycamore tree and his encounter with Jesus transforms his life. In the same way, we lift the young people we work with (many of whom live in poverty) above the circumstances of their lives in order to show them hope and a future.
When I worked for Steve Chalke’s Oasis, the CEO Joy Madeiros (an inspirational female leader) asked me about my leadership experience. It really threw me. I had never thought of myself as a leader. It was subsequent to this I realised that, in actual fact, I had always been a leader. At 4 years of age I opened the school garden fete at my first primary school and, at my final primary school, even though I had only been there a little over a year, I was asked to be Head Girl. My leadership style is ‘alongside’ encouraging others to achieve their potential. My favourite acronym is TEAM – Together Each Achieves More. I genuinely find pleasure and fulfilment in helping people achieve their God given potential and in particular young women. I also love the phrase ‘only do what only you can do’ – I love enabling people to discover their unique gifts and hidden talents. In fact, why do something if somebody else would do it better? I don’t struggle to delegate, just ask my husband - he does most of our cooking, cleaning and ironing!!!
I am trained in counselling and in mentoring and I believe that everyone should have a mentor and be a mentor. I owe so much to the people who have mentored me over the years. I owe particular thanks to both my spiritual director and to Carol Bannerrnan, OBE. I met Carol when I was a Chaplain at the University of Bolton. On her retirement from the role as Principal of Bolton College I jokingly said that if she ever fancied mentoring somebody to achieve their potential I would be happy to be the mentee. Sometime after that I contacted her to make the request in seriousness. Her input, guidance, encouragement and support were invaluable and transformational in terms of my leadership journey.
My formal leadership training was in Interfaith Community Leadership and I still regularly meet with the alumni. We have learning action sets on a bi-monthly basis where individuals take turns to offer training in their particular area of leadership expertise. There are opportunities to bring specific leadership challenges to the table for the group to offer insights from their experience.
My role for Oasis was as Chaplain and Church Leader at the Media City Community Hub. God has a great sense of humour – the one thing I did not want to do was lead a church but, in order to be what I believe He created me to be, a chaplain, I had to be both as it was a dual role. It really was a great learning experience. I firmly believe the future of the church is chaplaincy! I am a member of the Greater Manchester FEAST (Fresh Expressions Area Strategy Team). Traditional church does not work for a large proportion of society, therefore, more creative and innovative ways of sharing the good news (gospel) of Christ in real and relevant ways need to be explored and utilised. Chaplaincy is the perfect vehicle to enable this. I describe myself, after the title of the book, as ‘called not collared’
What are you most excited about in terms of gender justice, as a trustee of Sophia?
I believe we are at an ‘Esther’ moment in the church in England today. We have a long way to go until gender justice is achieved. The consecration of women bishops really is just the beginning: ‘For such a time as this....’
As part of my personal and professional development I had been actively seeking the right opportunity as a trustee. When Aline Xavier invited me to consider the Sophia Network I knew it was the perfect charity. All of the causes I am passionate about come together under their umbrella – justice, equality of opportunity, advocacy, empowering the next generation of women leaders ... and I love that there are men on the board.
What do you think about, the phrase, 'women can have it all?'
We are a long way from a balanced world for women and men. We are still living in a patriarchal society. Even language used around male and female leaders is gender biased – with a woman being labelled ‘bossy’ as opposed to a man having ‘authority’. There still exists a huge gap between equality of earnings, opportunity, unequal ratio of positions on boards and in senior management etc between men and women.
I consider myself fortunate to be married to a man who is supportive of me, of my work, of my ambitions and dreams and who takes a (more than) equal share in the household responsibilities. I use the term ‘I consider myself’ very deliberately rather than ‘I know that I am’ - because the reality is that should be the norm, and it isn’t – not yet!
In many ways rather than women ‘having it all’ they are actually ‘doing it all’ – balancing career, child care, caring responsibilities for aging parents, housework and endless other tasks and leaving very little time for ‘being’ and ‘enjoying’ and often in danger of ending up ‘having nothing’ due to being spread so thinly across all areas. I have to be honest and say that there are times I feel like I am failing as a wife, mum, friend, family member and leader in my attempts to give equally to all areas.
Has there been a point in your leadership journey, where you have been disempowered in your leadership? How did you deal with it?
I recently went to ‘an evening with Angela Spindler’ the 2014 Business Woman of the Year. I was incredibly impressed. She was being led to be critical of men and to accuse them of standing in her path; but she graciously refused to rise to the bait.
It is unwise to deliberately ‘lock horns’ if there are more intelligent means of achieving the same end result (without compromising your values and maintaining integrity). It was obvious that she was particularly skilled in this. Yet, I have absolutely no doubt that she, like so many others – myself included, has encountered prejudice, sexual harassment (she is an attractive lady), been overlooked, had credit stolen, her ideas stolen, been ignored in meetings, men promoted above her. The biblical phrase ‘as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents’ came to mind as I listened to her. She has reached the top of her ‘game’, recruitment choices are now hers to make. Her sales team has a high proportion of women and her board has a high proportion of women – but they will be people chosen for their skills and gifts not their gender; and her ‘right hand man’ is indeed a man but he too will have been chosen because he was the best person for the role. I learned a lot that evening.
I don’t feel I have always dealt with injustice and unfairness in the wisest ways. “Sometimes it is courageous to speak out but other times it is more courageous to be silent” (Winston Churchill, I believe) but I am a lifelong learner and I am definitely not a quitter! In the 70’s there was a toy called a weeble, ‘weebles wobble but they don’t fall down’ – that’s me. If I fall I pick myself up, dust myself off and start again.
My favourite hymn is ‘Be thou my Vision’ and I love the line in one of the verses ‘Riches I need not nor man’s empty praise’ – in the past I have been hurt that things I have done have often not received the recognition (or the salary) that was deserved. It has been a long and painful path to follow reaching the point where this line is now finally becoming true for me. Each year I pray the Methodist Covenant Prayer – a dangerous prayer to pray and mean – but I still pray it!
As a mum, can you share your experience of bringing up children to be gender justice aware? What have you done or how have you approached it?
My two girls amaze and humble me. I am so proud of who they are and of the young women they are becoming. They are both very different. My eldest shuns centre stage and always has; but she is bright and witty, intelligent and articulate. She is a quietly determined, self assured young woman – really secure in her identity and openly feminist (using social media to great effect to make gender justice statements). My youngest loves centre stage – she sings and dances and acts and already knows, and has from being very young, what she wants to do. She doesn’t really think about matters of gender equality. She is resilient and determined and aspiring and self-motivated and I am sure she won’t let anyone (unfairly) stand in the way of her achieving her dreams.
I don’t believe I have intentionally influenced them but was delighted (and quite tearful) to discover that both of them, when asked about role models, gave me a place on their list! I couldn’t ask for more
How does your faith impact your leadership?
What better leadership role model could their possibly be than Jesus? In Jim Collin’s book (Good to Great), he describes the epitome of leadership as ‘level 5’ leadership – the two necessary qualities are humility and a steely will. Not two things that seem natural partners. But Jesus was a servant hearted leader who was also steadfast and unswerving in his purposes.
Leadership is hard – some days it feels impossibly hard – but I know that all things are possible through God who gives me strength. I pray each day for wisdom and discernment and to make spirit led decisions and for God’s will to prevail in all things and not my own.
Karen Openshaw is Head of Development and Partnerships for Zac's a youth charity in Farnworth, near Bolton. Her background is in community cohesion, chaplaincy, counselling and mentoring. Karen is one of the trustees of the Sophia Network and is passionate about encouraging, equipping and enabling others to achieve their God-given potential. She is married to Bill and mum to Meganne and Katie.