Women in Leadership – Celebrating International Women’s Day with Helen Kendall

Across the world, the 8th of March is a day to reflect and celebrate the women in our lives.

This week we are speaking to a range of incredible women throughout the athletics and running community. We caught up with England Athletics’ Non-Executive Director Helen Kendall, whose career and attitude are nothing short of inspirational! Let’s learn a little more about Helen:

How did you get involved in athletics?

“I have always been involved in different kinds of sports. I started running at school and always ended up with the 1500m because nobody else wanted to run it. I wasn’t very good, but I could do the distance. From there I went into cross country and represented my school and county.

"I took a little hiatus until work got quite hard around eight years ago. I went to my local parkrun, and it was so good for my mind. When you have all these work stresses, you are feeling pressured and then you go on a run, all you must do is keep moving your legs and breathe. You come home feeling 100x better and feel like you have achieved something!”

What is your current role within England Athletics?

“Someone sent me a note to say that England Athletics are looking for non-executive directors and I thought it was right up my street. It was something that I am really interested in and wanted to learn more about as well as offering my knowledge and support. It was a humbling moment when you see the rest of the board, they are very impressive, so I felt pretty honoured to be a part of it.”

What are you proud of in your personal life, and within your career?

“In my personal life, I have a lovely husband who I have been with for over twenty years, I have also got an eighteen-month-old son who is great. I am a very social person and I love being surrounded by people that I care about.

“From a career perspective, I have got to a place where it is all about choice. I’m in a really fortunate position where I can choose who I want to work with and the jobs that I would like to take and where I want to focus my efforts.”

What are the main barriers to women being appointed into leadership roles?

“The biggest barrier is that you often don’t have a role model. You need to have a female in leadership positions that you can aspire to.

“You tend to get boards who recruit their shadow, when one person leaves they often look to recruit someone with the same image and they get stuck in a cycle, whether intentional or unintentional. Boards and leadership teams need to take a step outside of this to make a difference.

“I had been appointed to a board when my face did not fit the bill. It was a challenging experience as they had a natural way of thinking and I wasn’t aligned with it. It was hard and quite lonely, but I had to keep reassuring myself. If you don’t think something is right you need to keep calling it and that is quite hard if you are the only voice who doesn’t agree with a strategy. In the end it did work out as it enabled me to raise some of the things which needed to be changed to move forward.”

Helen Kendall at a running event

How important is it to have a range of diversity within a board?

“It is absolutely critical. When applying for the England Athletics board I was really impressed as there are people from diverse backgrounds and experiences representing the wide range of participants in our sport. We are showing that athletics is for everyone, and there are no barriers for entry. Our sport is accessible, and the board should always be reflective of this.

“You have a much better conversation on a diverse board as you get debate and discussion, being respectful of other people encourages great opinions.”

How as a female leader do you influence people around you?

“I just love getting to know people, understanding where they come from, about their families and the things that matter to them. This allows you to then influence people as you start to learn what ticks for them, you understand what matters and their perspective.

“It’s important to be approachable and let people know they can talk to you which gains momentum and becomes pretty powerful; you can then work with a shared initiative of what you want to achieve together.

“Always remember a smile is infectious. I’m naturally optimistic and that is how I live my life. If you walk through a door and don’t acknowledge people, that is their first interaction with you, and is setting them up for the day. The power of being polite and taking an interest in people is paramount.”

Do you have any female role models?

“I admire Jasmin Paris, the ultra-marathon runner. In Scotland (2019), Jasmin smashed the Spine Race record running 268 miles in 83 hours, taking a huge 12 hours off the previous mark. She was the first woman to win the race whilst also breastfeeding her daughter. During the race Jasmin would stop at the checkpoints to express milk for her daughter which is remarkable. I read that story after having my own child and I have just no idea how she did it! She simply said that she was used to sleepless nights alongside her training so having her daughter really drove her on to achieve her success.”

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

“It is a chance to celebrate successes, shine a light and promote one another. I would encourage people to take a pause and think. Everyone has busy lives, and we are often go, go, go, but this is the time to take a moment and tell someone that they are smashing it!”