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Martin Edwards – “Somebody has to take the helm.”

In the latest episode of the Evolve to Succeed podcast, Martin Edwards—CEO of Julia’s House children’s hospice—talks compassionate leadership, role models and the importance of considered recruitment.

Here are some highlights from the podcast.

What was your personal ambition when you started as CEO at Julia’s House, and how has that evolved and changed?

When I was at school I studied the French play ‘Antigone’ by Jean Anouilh—the classic confrontation between Antigone and Creon in ancient Greece—and Antigone is the idealist who’s appalled by the state of the world and wants to step away from it utterly, and Creon is the realist, he’s the ruler who says, “It’s dirty but we have to roll up our sleeves and do something.”

And one phrase [in the play] which particularly stuck out was “somebody has to take the helm”—that’s what Creon says to Antigone, [that thing] may be imperfect but somebody has to take the helm and get stuck in here. That really became a motto of mine. Leadership is messy and sometimes you’re dealing with things that are very imperfect and you have to shape them as best you can. And it’s going to be bumpy; sometimes it’s going to be incredibly stressful, but my ambition is to leave the world a better place than I found it.

Obviously we’re only working in one corner of our world—we’re not a global charity—but we are changing the world one child and one family at a time and influencing the national picture as well. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by people that share that passion and that opens up an interesting point: When you have a chance to shape your own team and not just inherit a team, recruitment is absolutely vital; I think the most important decisions we ever take as leaders are recruitment decisions, not necessarily financial or strategic decisions. There’s nothing better than surrounding yourself with brilliant people who are better at what they do than you are.

I think the trap that employers fall into is that they don’t spend enough time thinking about the recruitment process, and they concentrate mainly on technical skills, whereas to some extent you can teach technical skills but you can’t teach character and values, so how much time are you actually spending in that recruitment process matching for character and values? That’s the lesson I’ve learnt over the years.

Julia’s House has featured in the Sunday Times’ Top 100 places to work for I think 12 years. What sets Julia’s House out as a great place to work and why is that recognition important?

The first thing to say is that [the top 100] is a survey of your own staff done by independent people and the scores are compared against every other organisation that enters. So it’s what your own staff think about you, being as honest as they like, anonymously, so it’s very, very honest feedback.

I treat that not as a ranking exercise to say, “Oh, we’re in the top 100,” but as a management information exercise; I want to know what our staff are thinking about the way they’re line-managed, the way their team is led, what they think about pay and conditions. And we can track the scores from one year to the next … so it’s about responding to the management information.

We also try to be a good and fair and emotionally literate employer. We train managers in advanced interpersonal skills and in emotional intelligence. I think a lot of organisations assume that if somebody’s got the word ‘manager’ in their job title they will automatically be a fair, sensitive, kind, concerned, interested person, and they might be but they might not. I want to eradicate that inconsistency and I want us to reach for a gold standard in the way that we support each other because if you look at it from an efficiency point of view—how much time does an organisation spend recruiting again because they got recruitment decisions wrong are involved in grievances and disciplinaries because relationships have broken down in the workplace? That’s where you really haemorrhage time as a senior manager, trying to sort those things out. So, getting the culture right means that you’re doing less of that overall.

We try to be a good and fair and emotionally literate employer. We train managers in advanced interpersonal skills and in emotional intelligence.

Clearly you’re an individual that leads by inspiring others and getting others to be the best of themselves. But how do you ensure you get the best of yourself? How do you find your own inspiration?

I learn from role models. I remember learning quite early in the my career how important public speaking was and I used to play over and over again speeches by Martin Luther King and I read speeches of Ronald Reagan and later Barack Obama, and I deconstructed them and thought, “How do they do that? What are the elements of those great speech makers?” And there was a pattern to it, there were techniques to it, there was certainly a regular and inspiring use of story-telling. I also looked at the cadences and emotion that Martin Luther King brought into his speeches and I prepared very carefully for key speeches at different points in my career. These are not often speeches to external audiences, they’re speeches to internal audiences, to your own staff and volunteers; there’s a world of difference between just doing it quite well and sending people out of that room walking tall and realising the pride and passion they should feel…

… I read about leadership quite widely as well and I’m constantly on the lookout for innovative, inspiring thinkers. The world of sport is full of them … I’m looking for interesting thinkers out there who do things differently or just get ahead and then I look into why they got ahead; don’t just look up to them but look into them.

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