“I’m going to be me and if people don’t like it, they’re going have to adapt, because this is who I am”
Sandra Skeete, CEO, Octavia
Associate consultant at Campbell Tickell and chair of the London Board of Women in Social Housing
Sandra Skeete took up the role as the chief executive of Octavia in September 2019. It seems appropriate, as the Chair of WISH London, to be interviewing Sandra who is leading an organisation founded by a woman 150 years ago.
As a leadership development specialist, I spend as much of my time helping leaders to reconnect to who they are, as I do helping them develop new skills. So, I was keen to use my time with Sandra to understand how she has negotiated leadership in all her intersectionality and how close she has stayed to her own authentic self.
How would you describe yourself as a child?
I was very active and very curious. I didn't necessarily do the things that I was expected to do as a young girl. I liked to try everything. I wasn’t necessarily into dolls, I was more into sport and playing games.
I was one of three, the middle child and I always made sure my voice was heard from a young age. I was always aware of needing to do that because I wasn’t the first and I wasn’t the baby. I think it does kind of shape who you are as a person.
I was quite studious as well – I loved books. I had small circle of friends, but really close friends who I’m still in contact with today. I’m really family oriented. A lot of the things I did as a child were with family. I remember spending school holidays with cousins and really enjoying that.
If you had to choose an animal that describes your heart as a child, what would the animal be?
Probably a cat, one that's very calm, quite peaceful, thoughtful and loyal.
So what of that child still exists in you as a leader today?
I am still very curious. That has stayed with me and has helped me a lot. I’m still quite adventurous as well. I think the love of physical activity, although I do less now, has instilled something in me where I just keep moving and have to keep doing things at pace.
I really loved netball [as a child] and I captained the netball team. Being the captain and playing centre, that kind of leadership role is something that’s also stayed with me. [As centre you’re] not quite in charge of getting the ball in the net, but you play an active role in making sure the ball gets to the right place and the right person so that someone can score the goal.
I don’t have time to read as much as I did as a child, when I’d be reading two or three books at the same time. But I think the creativity that reading inspires has stayed with me.
“Being the [netball] captain and playing centre, that kind of leadership role is something that’s also stayed with me. [As centre you’re] not quite in charge of getting the ball in the net, but you play an active role in making sure the ball gets to the right place and the right person so that someone can score the goal.”
What do you think you’ve lost from the child you?
I am not sure I have lost anything. I probably do things in different ways. I was always fairly vocal and I still do that but from a different motivation. I don’t think I have lost a lot from the essence of who I am because I’ve stayed connected with a lot people who I’ve known for a very long time and still live in the same area that I grew up in. I’ve got a lot of the similar social networks, although those networks have clearly grown socially and professionally. I’m still very connected to my family.
It is lovely to hear that you have remained true to your essence. What do you think in your character or environment has enabled you to stay so close to your authentic self?
Growing up in a fairly close-knit family with really strong identity has helped. I lived in East London for most of my life. However, my parents came to the UK from Barbados, and given a number of the challenges that they faced, building that close unit was really important to their survival. They were very proud of who they were, very clear about what they wanted for their family. They instilled in us a confidence and sense of pride.
I feel fortunate to have both of my parents still alive. I do think that the fact that they were able to encourage us to do the best, to achieve our best and stay focused was important. There was a real focus on education and also just generally being good people.
Can you think of any time in your career when you’ve been disconnected from your essence? Or have you always remained really confident in who you are?
In my very first role as a senior director, I was running a small organisation and it was my first executive role where I had overall responsibility. That was the first time where I felt under pressure to be someone else.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that this was not going to be the way I was going do it. I felt that I was constantly reminding myself about the reason why I was in this position: because I bring something unique to the table. So what is the point in losing that uniqueness? I might not be the same as everyone else in the room but that has to be my strength, my USP. I’m going to be me and if people don’t like it, they’re going have to adapt because this is who I am.
Now, I’m very clear about knowing what it is I am bringing to the table, where my strengths are, and what I need to develop: that keeps me true to who I am.
There have been work situations that have led to me questioning my values. Sometimes you can negotiate that and move forward, but there are other times where you think, actually this is not the right place for me and I am prepared to take that decision and move on.
“There have been work situations that have led to me questioning my values. Sometimes you can negotiate that and move forward, but there are other times where you think, actually this is not the right place for me and I am prepared to take that decision and move on.”
So when you said ‘no’ to changing who you were, the fallout of that was not negative, but in fact positive?
It was positive because I could confidently say: if I’m going to succeed in this role, these are the conditions, and this is what will need to happen. Some of that was in conversation with myself, but sometimes it was conversations with my peers and others to say, this is how it’s going to have to be.
I’m very clear about what drives me: real commitment to public service and to respecting people that you work with. And if you expect respect, you have to respect other people. So fundamentally, it’s that which keeps me focused.
What I hear is a clear set of values and a clear understanding of who you are, which is so powerful. Do you have a sense of what your purpose in this world is, what your uniqueness is and what you are here to do?
That is a big question! But, in my own small way, I do think I can have a positive impact in terms of work. My view is that I have to leave every organisation in a much better place than it was in when I joined, building a legacy.
It’s not solely about me, but also about making sure that whoever you are there to serve, they actually have a good experience. I want to help others, whether that’s in terms of their careers or guidance and support you can give. It’s about keeping people’s aspirations and hopes alive, in terms of having a dream and following it.
The other thing for me is really just making sure that those around me live happy lives, because it’s all very well having material wealth, but if essentially you’re not happy, then what’s it all about?
I believe that happiness shouldn’t be at the expense of others. So that’s where I feel my purpose is. It sounds a little bit cliché, doesn’t it?
It doesn't sound cliché because it’s from the heart. Everything you have said: your understanding of your uniqueness; being in the centre; making sure the game’s being played and that everyone’s in the right position – you express your essence and your values so clearly.
To finish our conversation, do you have any quotes or mottos that you think you’d like to share?
The one for me, given the points I’ve been making about curiosity, ambition, and focus, is probably the Mae C. Jemison quote:
“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”
So, dream big and do not be constrained by others.
The questions I asked Sandra are a simple way of exploring your own essence. The question about early childhood can be a way of reconnecting you with the things you found joyful before you had any limits. You can use these questions to have some fun with a close friend by interviewing each other and discovering if you are close to your authentic self.