Insights from the CEO of Brook

Introducing Helen Marshall, Chief Executive of Brook

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be the leader of a national charity? Meet Helen Marshall, Chief Executive of Brook, a national charity that offers sexual health services, education and wellbeing support to young people all over the UK. I interviewed Helen to find out about her leadership journey and what it’s been like for her to lead the organisation through the Covid 19 pandemic.

1. Can you share a snapshot of your leadership journey?

I started my career working for an insurance company as a PA. 10 years later, I was the youngest director and one of the only females at that level. It was tough and a sexist environment but I learned a lot! I changed career when I was 30 and joined the charitable subsidiary of a housing association. It was here that I learnt the importance of having great colleagues whose trust was invaluable. I was promoted several times and became a senior Head, acting as interim managing director. My next move was to join a youth sector organisations as director but I was surprisingly offered the CEO role after 6 months which was a huge learning opportunity. I’ve now been CEO at Brook for 4 years, which I love, and feel that all my leadership skills have been put to good use!

2. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt on this journey?

I think it’s the importance of people – whether that’s relying on your networks, investing in others, nurturing talent or having a brilliant team around you. It’s impossible to be a good leader in isolation.

3. What are your top three leadership values and why are these important now?

This was a hard one to answer as leadership values are complex and often interlinked. I’ve decided on (i) having integrity and believing in yourself (ii) being prepared to take risks and (iii) always being honest and transparent – with others and yourself. I also think it’s important to have loads of energy as being a CEO is demanding, challenging and sometimes isolating.

4. How do you think the pandemic will impact on the way you lead?

As other organisations, Brook has had to make changes to the way it operates so that we could continue to deliver our clinical and education services. This has often meant quick decisions within a fast-moving environment and ensuring that our teams are confident, and have felt safe. I enjoy working at such a speed but this doesn’t suit everyone and time for reflection has been scarce. I’ve been humbled by, and grateful for, the trust that our staff have had in our leadership team knowing that we are doing our best for the charity. I think the pandemic has made me more aware of the importance of being resilient, not being afraid to make brave decisions and trusting my instinct.

5. It’s been widely reported that countries led by women have been particularly successful in curbing the Coronavirus. What do you notice female leaders doing differently in your sector during the crisis?

Jacinda Ardern has been particularly inspirational in her handling of the pandemic in New Zealand, together with Germany’s Angela Markel and Norway’s Erna Solberg. I think what has differentiated them is their values driven leadership style. All three have put health and their

communities ahead of saving the economy, and combined this with really listening to experts and brilliant communication. The Prime Minister of Norway even held a children’s consultation, acknowledging that children were worried. These leaders seem to have managed to take their population along with them on a shared journey, which has been a stark contrast to our often confused government messages. It’s interesting whether these countries have fared better because they are led by women or because often this means that their election is a reflection of a more equitable diverse society with women having a greater presence across all positions of power.

I’m not sure that female leaders in the charity sector have done anything differently but perhaps they have continued to be consistent in their approach and how they have worked. A study by MIT in 2016 found that the presence of female leaders increased the likelihood of other women speaking up by 25%, and I think female leaders are keen to encourage other female voices; their position often gives them a responsibility to do this and to invest in other women.

6. Young people will be hugely impacted by the pandemic for many years to come. How can we support young people to develop into leaders of thefuture?

A recent report by the National Youth Agency found that there were over 1 million young people in the UK whose needs had been amplified by the pandemic, and 2 million young people with emerging needs triggered or caused by Covid-19. It will be young people who face the future economic and social hardships caused by this current crisis with its legacy of increased mental health needs, financial and employment concerns. It’s a tough background against which to develop strong leadership skills.

The main thing we can do is to listen to young people’s insight and challenge, and provide space for their voices in decision making. Specialist support from youth organisations such as Brook should be made available in schools and online, and through outreach provision in the communities in which young people live and socialise. There also needs to be a massive investment in skills training for professionals working with young people to ensure that they have the right support to be confident in their futures.

If you are interested in finding out more about Brook and it’s services or perhaps you want to volunteer or donate please visit

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