#WomenInLeadership | Episode 2 – Nicky Murdoch

nicky murdochAs part of DSW’s Ongoing ‘#WomenInLeadership’ series, we will be showcasing some high profile women leaders – the challenges they face, how they inspire others and their views on gender parity. In this episode we feature Nicky Murdoch, a remarkable woman who is currently leading a unique and important charity. Nicky talks in depth about the challenges she has faced throughout her career


Thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule to talk to us. As CEO of Defence Medical Welfare Service (DMWS), you and your team play a vitally-important role in the welfare of service personnel and their families. Would you share a little about DMWS and the support it provides?

Yes thanks Nigel. St John and Red Cross Defence Medical Welfare Service is a small service delivery organisation that is in “the business of charity”. It has a long and distinguished history of supporting members of the Armed Forces Community when they are in hospital all over the world.

Professional welfare officers provide solutions to problems people face when they are admitted to hospital which can range from the provision of an emergency kit bag containing toiletries and all the things one needs to get through the first 24/48 hours of admission to accompanying parents and spouses to critical care units and explaining and de-mystifying the language used by the medical profession to explain a diagnosis. Our welfare officers come from a variety of backgrounds including the services and allied health professions and have life experience and excellent communication skills.

It is an exciting time for DMWS at present as we are involved in a pilot now with the Police and hope that it will be something that we will be able to develop beyond just the entire Armed Forces community.

Would you share a little about you as a person, including some of the challenges have you had to overcome along the way?

Yes of course. My father was in the Army and my mother had to give up her career to “follow the flag”. My sisters, brother and I all went to Boarding School which I think gives one a sense of independence from an early age. I joined the Army straight from school and did so because I was too short for the Police Force at the time. I had an amazing time in the Army working in roles as diverse as specialist intelligence to military music!

However the two biggest challenges for me along the way were being gay in the services when it was illegal until 2001 and when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.

Anyone hearing the word “cancer” there is always fear. I was away from work and receiving treatment in the NHS for 18 months. The NHS was absolutely fantastic and so was the Army in terms of providing support to me, my partner Jo and our 3 children who were 11, 14 and 17 at the time. Inevitably this sort of event is life changing fundamentally affects you whole being and I realised that I needed to take stock of my life. I think I did so in quite practical terms by recognising that an army career as I had perceived it in terms of promotion and completion of a full career may not be what was now on the cards. I returned to work after all my treatment and a period of restoring my own mental as well as physical health by being posted to run a programme for those who were Wounded, Injured and Sick from the 3 services. I was seconded to a youth education charity, Skill Force which had secured funding from Help for Heroes to run the programme and I designed, developed and delivered a programme that provided, training, qualifications and a work placement for service personnel who had been away from work following life changing events. It was an honour and privilege to work with all of the servicemen and women on the programme and after 2 years I left to take up the appointment of CEO at DMWS.

Thanks Nicky – I imagine that such a service is both sought-after and highly-valued by those you support. What challenges have you had to grapple with as CEO, to be able to deliver such an important service?

On my arrival at DMWS I quickly recognised that there was much to be done to turn it into a sustainable organisation. It had a single source of income from an MOD contract that came up every three years, no strategy, vision or plan to develop as an organisation and was very little known even by its main customer. However it had a great purpose and a workforce who loved their role and, despite the lack of awareness of the organisation, the staff continued to deliver support to service personnel and their families across the world and those who received the service were hugely appreciative. My values based leadership, gained from my time in the army, allowed me to identify what was required, develop a strategy with the chairman and introduce a demanding change programme to be delivered before the next contract expired.

Additionally as a female CEO in the military charity sector I was bucking the trend.

Women leaders are often described as “strident” or “ruffles feathers” as opposed to having strong leadership qualities! I needed to establish key allies to help me raise awareness of our organisation, an understanding of our role and how we could help complement the roles of the other better known, larger and wealthier charities in a very crowded space.

Internally it needed good people at every level with a work ethic, energy and pace that was not expected in third sector organisations and belief that it could be achieved. It has been a demanding 5 years but thoroughly rewarding looking back at where we were and where we are now. The greatest challenges for me in the role of CEO have been me driving the change process at a pace which not everyone has been able to match and litigation or the threat of it. Charities and small businesses are always vulnerable to litigation which costs in terms of time distracted from the main task, the emotional toll it takes on everyone, the financial cost and the attitude that “it’s happened on your watch so you must be a bad leader or manager”. However when faced with the challenge of litigation there is always a temptation to “settle or compromise” but even if there have been some things that could have been done better we engaged in defence of allegations of discrimination because they were not true and we needed to send a message that we would refute them and not settle. As it happened this decision was right but tough and the impact within the organisation was significant. It created a toxic atmosphere and generated mis-trust and became so personal for many members of staff that had potential to impair judgement and behaviour. This was a difficult and lonely time and it was at this juncture that I began working with an executive and leadership coach. This is where I first learned about the power of the Leadership Through People Skills programme.

You mentioned Executive Coaching and Leadership Through People Skills® as having been a real enabler: would you elaborate on why they have been so powerful to you?

DMWS were happy to include coaching as part of my “package” and it has been invaluable to me. This was the first time that I had an opportunity to discuss the issues I had as CEO in a “safe” environment. It gave me confidence that I was doing the right things, allowed me to prepare and plan effectively for dealing with challenges and added value in terms of my own learning, greater understanding of myself and an introduction to new models and programmes to help me become even better and to help my people to do the same. Chemistry and mutual respect were essential to get the most out of this relationship and I continue to learn and develop. One of the most valuable programmes that I have used for myself and also in developing my managers and staff has been Leadership Through People Skills. The Senior Management Team have used it to model their behaviours and understand more about how they can achieve better results and outcomes when dealing with different types of people and their reactions to situations. It has provided self-awareness for individuals and insight in to the behaviours of others.

Finally, if you were to give one piece of advice to aspiring women leaders, what would it be?

Know your people – they are your greatest asset

Know the detail of the business – only then can you re-adjust and monitor progress effectively

Take time out for yourself to think, plan and invest in your own learning and development

“Above all else to thine own self be true”

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About Nigel Jackson

Nigel heads up the leadership function at DSW, where he focuses on Leadership development, Sales Excellence and Executive Coaching. Until 2012, Nigel was a career banking professional, having worked at executive level for a number of leading financial services organisations during a period spanning three decades. Throughout his career, Nigel has developed a highly respected reputation as a trusted coach, as well as an authentic leader who inspires strong fellowship.