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Anna McEwen, Executive Director takes up Chief Exec role for Headway East London

In this blog, Anna McEwen, looks back at her time at Shared Lives Plus. She joined the UK shared living charity in 2014. Together with Alex Fox, CEO, she has led Shared Lives schemes’ growth into all nations, as well as developed the Shared Lives model of care from its roots of supporting people with a learning disability, to now supporting 15,000 people. Shared Lives carers open their own family homes to support young people leaving care, older people needing daily support, people with mental ill health, people leaving hospital, parents in care and people who have experienced domestic abuse.

Anna starts at Headway East London in April 2021. 

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Anna reflects: “It’s the end of an era; in just a few weeks’ time I will be moving on from Shared Lives Plus to start a new and exciting role as CEO at Headway East London.

While I’m really excited to start my new role, to get stuck in to making a difference on the front line in the patch of London where I live, I’m also reflecting on my journey to this point and what it means to me.

I joined Shared Lives Plus fresh from a local authority where I’d been a commissioner in the thick of austerity so it was like a breath of fresh air to get back to the voluntary sector and feel like I could do something useful.  What a different place Shared Lives Plus was then, you could count the number of staff on two hands. I spent a long time whizzing around the country building relationships, developing opportunities, securing funding and starting to build and grow the organisation to better support our members in all four nations.

Seven and a half years on there are over 30 of us, including people with lived experience of using Shared Lives and being Shared Lives carers paid to work as part of the team.

Change brings new opportunities

My role has changed a lot over the years, as I’ve developed teams and supported managers to take responsibility there has been less need for me to be as hands on, freeing me up to develop new opportunities like working with NHS England to develop Shared Lives as a health solution.  But it’s also changed the way I support my staff, coaching rather than telling and helping them to find the answers.  I see myself as glue that sticks things together, facilitating change through my team.  And maybe because I’ve done that well, the organisation isn’t replacing me like for like, but has identified the gaps that we have and are now looking for a new Director of Development to focus our efforts on sustainability and growth, rather than simply replace me.

My best days

There have been so many highlights over the years: employing Ambassadors with lived experience in my team; taking Shared Lives to the Senedd, Houses of Parliament and Holyrood; creating a dedicated Homeshare team; and many, many stories of how shared living makes a difference to people, day in day out.  My best days have always been those days sitting in a Shared Lives carers’ front room, kitchen or even caravan. I’ve got to see first-hand the relationships and lives that people have, or working with Ambassadors to tell their amazing stories.


Letting go – slower but lasting growth

It’s not been without the challenges though, growing a small organisation at pace is never an easy process, so taking time to take staff on the journey and build trust was really important.  The never-ending issue of funding in the voluntary sector has been an ongoing challenge; grant cycles ending, struggling to balance the budget, but that has been countered by building long term relationships with supportive funders, demonstrating our impact and proving that we can deliver.  The development work has all been done with and through our members, which has meant less control but more partnership working and deepened our relationships with those members.  I have also had to take my teams through too many restructures and make people redundant. It is a difficult part of the job; it’s always sad to lose good people.

Authentic leadership

All of these things have made me stronger as a leader, and so I’m grateful for the challenges. Personally I’ve grown into my own leadership role: at first I thought I needed to be the same as Alex Fox our CEO, who is well known and respected across health and social care. But I soon learned to be me; we bring different strengths and our small senior management and manager’s team has grown and become more collaborative as a result.

Shared Lives Plus is a brilliant place to work full of wonderfully passionate and dedicated people and it has been my pleasure to watch and support that team to grow and blossom.  Over the last year of the pandemic they really have become like my extended family as we’ve laughed, cried and got through it all together.

I will miss them all terribly, but take everything they and all the others who’ve been part of my journey so far, have taught me into my new role.  I know that I’m leaving as a more confident, connected and collaborative leader than I was when I started and they’ll always have a special place in my heart.”