Women in Leadership Series: Director for Real Education Empowering Lives CIC, Charlene Burns

On March 8th 2019, International Women’s Day (#IWD2019) will be celebrated with the campaign #BalanceforBetter; calling for a more gender-balanced world. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in leadership roles. I asked a number of female leaders to answer a series of questions about their experiences to share with you right here on the Ad Florem blog.

In this interview, we meet Charlene, Director for Real Education Empowering Lives (REEL). Read our Women in Leadership Interview Series to meet the other interviewees.

Charlene left school with zero qualifications and a multitude of barriers to education. She grew up in poor social housing, with complex family issues and lived experience of Domestic Abuse as a young person. Despite this, she had positive role models within the community and extended family. Charlene was supported and encouraged by a local youth worker, community samba band leader and an aunt. All of which made her feel heard, supported her and inspired her to aim higher.

She attended college, increased her social networks, and learnt to see the world from a different perspective; from travelling with a local community band to Gambia, Europe and all over the UK. She gained in confidence and eventually identified a career, gained a degree and set off to do her bit in society.

Charlene has over 18 years’ experience working in youth, community, housing and education in private, government and voluntary sectors. With specialist experience, training and knowledge of working in Domestic Abuse and Family Intervention services, working with the payment by results service, and managing large youth teams, she has strong leadership skills and a true passion for making a real difference in society.

So, she decided to set up with like-minded others a Community Interest Company (CIC) to do the work she is most passionate about. Her role involves being responsible for the actions of the CIC and other directors.

Charlene, thank you for taking part in our Women in Leadership series. Tell us, what are the skills that you have that make you well suited to your role?

I have a can do attitude and determination to succeed.

And what does leadership look like for you?

At REEL CIC, we believe we can all engage, encourage and empower each other so that we can change our lives for the better.

Leadership for me is about sharing my skills, knowledge and experiences and also giving my time. For me, I lead by example by revealing my weaknesses as well as my strengths; and being vulnerable so that others learn, reflect and are successful in their own pursuits.

I like to keep humble, step up and step out for what’s right even during challenging times. So leadership for me looks like true integrity and being authentic. Being a leader isn’t always easy. Having a shared vision, infusing energy and passion!

I am only a good leader if I have a positive impact on other people.

Can you share one leadership lesson you have learned in your career?

Be Authentic and being my one true self. I for many years thought I had to be a certain way to fit in or to feel accepted, so I learnt to accept who I am and not to be anybody else. Aligning my own values and goals and living life authentically as to not waiver in the face of mediocrity and conformity.

So my advice is don’t waste time trying to be someone that you’re not. It’s important to talk the talk and walk the walk.

I believe people listen to what you say, but are much more focused on what you actually do. Leaders who talk a great game but don’t actually follow through are destined to fail.

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let out true selves be seen.” Brene Brown

“Authenticity starts in the heart.” Brian D’Angelo

“Authenticity over everything.” Anonymous

“If you’re your authentic self, you have no competition.” Anonymous

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Alexander the Great

This quote for me is why leadership is so crucial to entrepreneurship; the person at the top usually is the difference between success and failure.

Who inspires you, and why?

I am inspired by so many people in my personal life, however some well-known people who inspire me are detailed below.

In difficult times when I need inspiration, or even on a daily basis when I look for wisdom and inspiration, my first go to is the phenomenal woman that is Maya Angelou, She was a warrior. She faced so many struggles in her life yet she inspired many people with her words of passion, creativity and spirit. She has an incredible ever-enduring strength, she never gave up and kept on working hard for the prosperity of her life.

I look up to Maya Angelou because I believe that she is a woman of integrity, strong character and she always believed in herself. She teaches us to pick ourselves up through hard times and never lose hope no matter how bad the situation might be.

I recall when at University being very inspired by Paulo Freire. He wrote many books but one named “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in the late ’60s sticks with me.  Many important scholars, activists and educators have been inspired by his books including me.

Feminist writer Bell Hooks is also someone I have found inspiration from.  Her book “Teaching to Transgress” contains a full chapter in which she examines Freire’s work and its lasting and significant contribution to feminist thought. For me, Freire’s ideas have a close connection and deep meaning in terms of our ongoing exploration of what it means to care and to be cared for.  He wrote about the concept of love; particularly what he called “radical love”; which is quite similar to Margaret Newman’s ideas of love as the highest form of expanded consciousness.

Freire never wavered in his belief that real social change could become a reality, with the essential element of radical love; the coming together of all forms of love; as the underpinning for social change.

How do you balance work and life responsibilities? Do you have any practical tips?

I have experienced poor wellbeing due to not getting this balance before and so I’m very mindful now for myself, coworkers, team and volunteers about getting the right balance. It’s been a tough cookie this one for me on my professional journey to date. I am still learning to get a better balance.

Learning to accept the things I can do in the amount of time I have, and prioritising family time and my own relaxation time are important. Being overstretched, or poor work/life balance only leads to ineffectiveness and not achieving your best. As much as business is about reaching business goals, vision and planning ahead, it is also about simply staying present in the moment. It’s the most underrated Leadership Habit that I can think of.

Describe yourself in three words

Honest, passionate, and confident.

Have you ever suffered with ‘imposter syndrome’? What does it mean to you?

Yes I have suffered, however I am fortunate to have many understanding peers that encouraged me to work through this dark time. I’m now a much more mindful colleague and actively promote taking care of our mental health and wellbeing.

The imposter syndrome can happen to any of us, none of us are invincible to life’s challenges. It means to me when we don’t feel great or even burnt out, our minds do the negative self-talk and can impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

It’s like a high jacked attack to your personality and the negative feelings of inadequacy, dwelling on past mistakes and not feeling good enough can take hold. Talking to people about how you’re feeling and seeking support is key to working through it and managing better.

What challenges have you faced in your leadership career, and what tips do you have for how to overcome them?

Lack of leadership opportunities and unconscious bias within the workplace.

Unconscious bias at work can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion, staff development and recognition, and can lead to a less diverse workforce. Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.

I have struggled to have opportunities to develop and grow within organisations so my answer was to create my own.

What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?

Going for it and setting up the CIC.

What does gender balance in the workplace mean to you?

It means Gender equality to me, between all genders, men and women. It means that all human beings are free to develop their personal abilities and make choices, without the limitations set by stereotypes, rigid gender roles and prejudices.

Gender equality means that the different behaviour, aspirations and needs of all genders are considered, valued and favoured equally. It does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female or identify as a specific gender. Gender equity means fairness of treatment for all, according to their respective needs.

At REEL CIC our core team is predominately a strong female leadership team and males who are powered by positivity. Despite these positive signs, there are still some major hurdles for women to overcome at work.

One of the most commonly-cited reasons for the lack of women in leadership positions is motherhood and giving time freely. In the past several decades, broader cultural attitudes around parenting roles are slightly shifting to be a bit more egalitarian. Still, mothers are often strapped with a bigger family burden for the first several years of a child’s life in some families.

REEL CIC are wishing to develop routes for women including LGBT women, trans women, all women from minority backgrounds and underrepresented to develop leadership skills and create opportunities over the next 5 years for women to be in paid roles.

We are a mindful provider and ensure all our family groups do not stereotype and are inclusive regardless of gender, sexuality, age, disability, culture, faith, race and ability.

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for aspiring female leaders? Or just for leaders in general if you prefer.

  • Create your own opportunities
  • Knock on doors until one opens or build your own door
  • Be the woman you needed when growing up
  • Be the female leader you hoped would have taken a chance on you
  • Be the female leader who you wished would have hired you, encouraged you, challenged you, developed you, and inspired you when you needed it most
  • Remember you are fierce and strong
  • Take risks, be kind to yourself and keep believing in yourself.

Do you have anything else that you would like to include in the interview?

Some quotes to inspire you:

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”  Oprah Winfrey

“Don’t take too much advice. Most people who have a lot of advice to give – with a few exceptions – generalise whatever they did. Don’t over-analyse everything.  I myself have been guilty of over-thinking problems. Just build things and find out if they work.” Ben Silbermann, founder of Pinterest

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Unknown

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Steve Jobs

How to find Charlene online

Charlene Burns, Director

Real Education Empowering Lives (REEL) CIC





Read our Women in Leadership Interview Series to meet the other interviewees.

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