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Women who Lead: Stories from the Third Sector

In conversation with Lisa Maclean: CEO Footprints Women’s Centre. A woman committed to delivering a people centred management style whether in West Belfast or the Outer Hebrides!

Lisa Maclean, CEO of Belfast charity Footprints Women’s Centre has landed back in Northern Ireland via a lengthy period in the Outer Hebrides. On the Isle of Lewis, she led in a variety of roles in community development within the community land sector, hospitality and social enterprise.  

In a wide-ranging conversation, Lisa reflects on her school days where she is the first to admit that initially it was more about having a good laugh than hitting the books. But a switch flipped when she discovered Business Studies. The practical nature of the course set her on a trajectory encompassing a career in the third sector and the development of a creative, nurturing style of leadership.  

She explains how learning came alive for her through applied education: “This was a subject that felt so different from everything else we'd done, and I thought I love business, I love economics, I even enjoyed the accounts. I could see that it was linked to something in my future, whereas I had never been able to make that connection before. So, I think the delivery of education, the type of education, is so vitally important.” 

After studying Tourism Management in Edinburgh, Lisa and her husband set their sights on the Outer Hebrides. There, they constructed a purpose-built, energy efficient guesthouse. Lisa was also self employed as a business coach during this time, but her heart was always with social enterprise and particularly community development. She was engaged in many community ventures from serving on the board of the first Credit Union branch in the Outer Hebrides to taking on the role of managing Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, a Trust established in 2007 to run the 56,000 acres community owned Galson Estate on the Isle of Lewis. Under Lisa’s leadership the Trust flourished driving economic growth in the local community. Lisa left a legacy in the Outer Hebrides by co-founding a charitable organisation offering support and a space for sharing good practice and knowledge to other community landowners. 

During this time Lisa developed a creative management style rooted in delivering opportunities for people in the community she served. She quickly identified a need to foster talent in the pool of women in their relatively small population as many of the men had jobs working on the offshore oil rigs. Long before working from home became the norm Lisa spearheaded this practice, “to retain staff and to ensure we're making best use of skills, we offered flexible working from the beginning because people could be travelling from over 20 miles away.” 

Returning to Northern Ireland in 2022, Lisa faced the challenge of working in large organisations with rigid hierarchies. It didn’t quite match her style of leadership, "I absolutely thrive on working with teams of staff. I love managing and supporting them and sometimes I'm sure that somebody from the outside would think it's not entirely professional as I become part of the team. I’m not about egos and titles and believe everyone is an important part of the organisation. I know I will have worked hard to build trust and will have developed a culture that permits me to have this unique and trusted role within the team.”   

Footprints Women’s Centre is an organisation that has felt like a perfect fit for Lisa. Here, she’s all about direct contact with the clients in an environment where she can work as one of the team to achieve positive outcomes for people. When reflecting on her experience of leadership structures within various organisations Lisa says:  

“In my leadership roles I have generally been at the top of the hierarchy, but I like to take a person-centred approach to everything I do. I find that sometimes where there are additional layers of bureaucracy and a rigid hierarchy some of that can become lost. I have learned that I want to create a culture of emotional safety that allows, not only an organisation to flourish, but allows people to thrive. Servant leadership is what I subscribe to and for me that isn’t what I consider weak leadership, in fact the complete opposite.”   

Lisa still knows the struggles of dealing with bureaucracy and tight budgets, describing the childcare sector as characterised by stringent regulation and poor pay for staff. Running a day-care centre and social enterprise isn’t easy but she’s all about investing in her team and championing professionalism in the sector so that they are ready to tackle whatever comes their way.  

“We just continue to be the absolute best we can be, operating at a high standard and then we can never fall foul of the inefficiencies of the system. We just do what we do and continue to focus on our service users and the children that we're entrusted to care for.” 

Despite the hurdles, she’s laser-focused on making a real difference in people’s lives, one person at a time. “It's people. I just think in a big scary broken world why would you not use your skills and experience to try and change even a tiny wee bit of the world. I am committed to radical compassion.” This nurturing management style is something which Lisa champions as a method of delivering for staff but also allowing her to be her authentic self, “nurturing and business can and should go hand in hand.” 

For Lisa, leadership is all about the people. Whether it’s supporting her staff or making an impact in the community, she’s driven by a deep-seated belief in the power of human connection. And while her journey to the heart of West Belfast has not been conventional, she has carried with her an instinct to find creative solutions to meeting industry challenges. Her management style serves as a template for how to enrich a third sector organisation by raising others up and intentionally working alongside the team.  


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