Why There’s Nothing like
a Dame

By Anne Sebba, Engage, November / December 2008

Interview with Dame Mary Marsh
by Anne Sebba

“Wanted: Exceptional People” If Dame Mary Marsh could design a poster, replacing Kitchener and his pointy finger with an image of herself smiling encouragingly, this is what it would say.

For Dame Mary, former comprehensive school head and CEO of NSPCC, has just taken over as Director of a pioneering new initiative, the Clore Social Leadership Foundation, which aims to develop and nurture third sector leaders. Its success depends on attracting the right talent.

“This is the smallest organisation I have ever headed and the first start up.” She is working in an office of two, herself and an administrator, which, she wryly points out, may cure one of the faults she admits to in her own leadership style: reluctance to delegate. “I won’t have a choice about that.”

Marsh told colleagues when first appointed that this was her dream job. “I couldn’t have invented a more perfect job for my range of skills,” she said. “For the last eight years I’ve been doing the best job in the world but now is the time to move on and bring in a fresh focus. It’s a completely natural progression for me,” she explains.

Dame Mary has spent most of her working life in the educational sector and exudes the sort of calm confidence required of a head teacher, a role which has enabled her to encourage members of her staff, as well as young pupils, with leadership potential. She sees herself enjoying a short window until Christmas from which to explore the new landscape and identify future talent in a range of organisations.

She believes that the critical challenge will be making sure that aspiring leaders do get to know about this programme and then put themselves forward and have the confidence to recognise this could be for them. “The lines of communication among senior people are very good within the charity sector – we all know each other at the top – but not many do at middle management level. I’ll be relying on word of mouth, the website, networking and recommendations by others,” she told me.

Her aim is, having recruited the fellows and immersed them in what Clore calls “bespoke” programmes for personal development within their own specialist spheres, there should, at the end of a five year period, be a significant group of people ready to take over as third sector leaders who are firmly connected to each other and all powerfully imbued with the leadership ethos.

“Running a school is an excellent place to study the nature of leadership,” explains Dame Mary. “It carries an incredible range of responsibilities including HR, curriculum choices, care and development of the child and on the operational side it is a small enterprise with for example contracts for catering.”

Among the many lessons she learnt during her two periods as head was the importance of building up a relationship of trust with those you are leading.
“There was one occasion when we wanted to employ a particular candidate as a senior member of the team and, in order to do so in time, could not go through the traditional engagement procedures. If your colleagues already trust you, when the crunch comes you can do unexpected and radical things and take them with you.

“Also, what you need as a leader is resilience – emotionally and physically – to ride through the rough experiences. It can be pretty lonely at times being a head teacher. And self-confidence, because sometimes you look back and say ‘How on earth did I have the courage to do that.'”
She describes her own leadership style as “intuitive, pretty open. I want to engage by listening. But that’s not enough. Yes, listen, but then be very ready to be tough, clear and determined.”

Given the current economic uncertainty, Dame Mary is well aware that demand for leaders in public and third sector organisations who have strong experience and vision will be more important than ever. But she is emphatic that this does not mean fishing in private sector waters for potential leaders. “I believe it’s critical that the next generation of third sector leaders are those who are already working there. We don’t want people who see this as a second choice. It must be a powerful first choice. It’s not something that can be available to everybody. We want exceptional people.”

Dame Mary has never been afraid to espouse what she knows is morally right. Now 62, she was born on Merseyside into a family of doctors. Her father was a GP, her mother a paediatrician and two of her grandfathers were also doctors. They all believed in a life of service to others and she recalls a childhood of fellowship, fun, laughter and play. Their strong ideals clearly influenced her choice of career.

Dame Mary began as a geography teacher in a Luton mixed comprehensive for 11- 16 year olds, then became Head of Geography at St Christopher in Letchworth, an independent boarding and day school for children aged 3-19. She returned to St Christopher in 1980 as Deputy Head after a career break as a full-time mother with her four young sons. While there she studied part-time for an MBA at London Business School (LBS). “Ever since I embarked on an MBA in the late 80’s, I realised the importance of developing leadership skills. This degree was one of the most important things I did because it gave me confidence and other people saw I had potential and then I had to convince them robustly to take me seriously.”

But the job that really tested her came in 1995 when she was appointed Head of London’s first purpose-built comprehensive school, the controversial Holland Park, whose famous ex-pupils include Hilary Benn, the politician, and Polly Toynbee, the journalist. “It’s a little like being head of a global village with a total of 1,500 pupils and very large sixth form. It’s an extraordinary community in a beautiful setting but with a great diversity of need and many pupils from hugely disadvantaged background.” In 2000 she moved from there to run the NSPCC.

“I’m very fortunate in everything I have done. I feel very privileged,” she says.

Of the many heroes and heroines who she has come across in her professional life she (reluctantly) singled out Dame Jo Williams, newly retired CEO of Mencap, for admiration “because she has made such a distinct contribution.” Dame Mary would like her own time at the NSPCC to be remembered not only for the way the organisation has grown and integrated Childline safely under its wing, “but for making certain that the growth is now sustainable, and for the degree to which what we have said as a campaigning organisation has influenced Government policy and practice across the UK. The issue of children and safeguarding their wellbeing is now at the top of the political agenda in a way that it was not eight years ago.” Her aim in her new job is to create a generation of leaders who will similarly campaign for change across a broad range

“My advice to those who might be suitable for this programme is to think about building your skills, seize opportunities and keep an open mind, be bold enough to put yourself forward and not self effacing – it’s good to have a vision. We can help you achieve it.”

Dame Mary has four grown sons in their 30’s, two of whom were married this year, and a two and half year-old granddaughter whom she absolutely adores. One son works for a major American company and she enjoys discussing global economic issues with him but the tragedy in her life is that her husband died suddenly nine years ago leaving her a widow just as she embarked on a new phase in her career.

A workaholic? “Yes,” she admits, “I work ridiculous hours but I also like to walk and swim and family life together is very important.”

Whenever she can Marsh escapes from her London base to a second home in Dorset but she obviously loves her work and has been blessed with robust health and enormous energy. In addition to the day job, she is a National Member of the Learning and Skills Council, a member of the Joseph Rowntree Committee on Governance in Public Services, and – one that gives her particular pleasure – Honorary President of the Students’ Union at her old University of Nottingham. For the last seven years she has co-chaired a voluntary sector alumni special interest group at LBS called “Grit” to remind everyone that it is the grit in the oyster which makes the pearl.

Two words keep recurring during our interview: drive and determination. Clearly Dame Mary has plenty of both but she also sees herself as the grit necessary to cultivate the next generation’s pearly leaders. She will be looking out for the same qualities in those she nurtures on the leadership scheme.

Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill : Winston’s American Mother
(John Murray pbk 8.99)