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Women who lead: Stories from the third sector

In conversation with Lisa Keys: Making history as the first woman to lead the Boys' Brigade NI

Lisa Keys is making history as the first woman to lead the Boys’ Brigade in Northern Ireland (BBNI), overseeing a team that engages with over 11,500 young people weekly. Within the first few years of becoming CO, Lisa has successfully navigated the organisation through the formation of a new independent charity.  

When you first meet Lisa, you are immediately aware of her warmth and down to earth approach. It’s only as you dig a bit further that you uncover a woman with a wealth of experience in marketing, managing and mentoring and you begin to understand how she got the nickname ‘The Boss Ross’ at school! 

The origins of ‘Boss Ross’ 

Lisa grew up just outside Belfast as one of three children where her family was deeply involved in their local community and church. Lisa tells a funny story of how her management skills were evident from the start. 

“My surname was Ross and a teacher in school nicknamed me ‘The Boss Ross’ because I was the bossy one, always organising everyone else.” 

Lisa admits that her natural skills of organising and managing other people have taken years to hone into a skill that serves others well. She openly shares that her early communication style needed a bit of finesse! 

"In my early career I can think of some real clangers in meetings where I wouldn't concede on anything and looking back now, dear me, that was really not the way to do it!” 

The balancing act 

Entering a public speaking competition in primary school stands out as an activity Lisa loved. It was this interest in communication which she pursued into a marketing career. Lisa's career trajectory took her through marketing roles, including an exciting time as marketing manager at CastleCourt, where she cultivated vital communication skills. However, the balancing act between career and family became more pronounced as she navigated the demands of work alongside caring for her family. Lisa reflects on this period, saying, "My husband is a butcher, he works in retail, so Christmas was a nightmare because we both were having to work late nights. We didn't have great family support for childcare because my parents were ill and so I moved to a law firm, into a part-time role." 

Lisa looks back at the choices she made and says she doesn’t regret any time spent away from work to look after her family. Although it may not have been what she had planned, the move to the law firm turned out to be a pivotal role for Lisa’s future. This business development role led her into 3 years at the Institute of Directors as business development manager where she learned to knock on doors and build membership for the organisation. 

Transferring key skills to a role with a special purpose  

It’s easy to look back over Lisa’s career and see how all her experience made her a perfect candidate for leading a membership organisation like BBNI. After productive years in the corporate world, Lisa felt it was the right time to take all her transferrable skills into the charity world with “an opportunity to use my gifts in a Christian charity because my faith is very important for me.”  

Lisa is very clear about what she loves most about working in the third sector. It’s the opportunity to do work with a purpose in a place where her work adds value and “makes a difference in the lives of children and young people” right into their adulthood. She has obviously found the right fit as she tells us, "This is the most challenging role I have ever had and the one I'm least stressed about.” 

Lisa highlights how third sector organisations collaborate more than in the corporate world because there isn’t the same competition. It is in this collaboration that great networks are built, ideas are shared, and a collective voice can achieve so much more in advocating for the lives of those they represent or support. She says, “We collectively come together because there's strength in that.” 

The rewards are endless 

Lisa isn’t nervous about calling out some of the challenges that face the sector. Given the reliance on funding, it makes it a typically lower paid sector and contracts are often shorter term. This instability makes it a less lucrative opportunity than you might find in the corporate world, however Lisa claims that “if you can find a job in a charity that allows you to use your skills to give something back, the rewards are endless.” 

Lisa also wonders if women are more driven to find passion and purpose in their work beyond the pay packet. Her advice to women considering the sector is to find an organisation where “you align with the values and purpose” to keep you energised. She also advises newcomers to make yourself visible no matter what your title or level of responsibility. This isn’t just good for your own growth and development but can be a great way to add value to the organisation.  

Director of the Year! 

Adding to her success, in December 2023 Lisa was named the Institute of Directors (IoD) Director of the year in the third sector. She calls herself a relative newbie and receives the accolade with grace, pointing to a team effort, "It's not about me it is about what we've achieved collectively as a group” 

At the weekends you will find this ground breaking woman doing typical mum activities; cheering on her son on the sport’s pitch, trying new recipes in the kitchen or indulging in her penchant for shopping. And do you know what she does in her spare time? She sits on the board of smaller charities! 

Find out more about BBNI 


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