Case Study: Kate Norgrove, Executive Director at WWF-UK Wavelength USA

We spoke to Wavelength USA alumni, Kate Norgrove, Executive Director Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF-UK, about her reflections on the Wavelength USA immersive leadership and executive education programme 18 months after her return. It turns out, it’s almost as fresh today as it was when she first came back. We laugh when talking about her treasured notebook from the trip: her very own holy grail of leadership and inspiration that she frequently refers back to now. 

Kate was the lucky recipient of a place on the Wavelength USA programme, having spent 25+ years working in the climate and development NGO sector, and when her boss called her up to offer her the place, she jumped at the chance.

“I can even remember where I was standing,” she remembers. “I knew it would be the development opportunity of a lifetime.”

As Kate says, these sorts of opportunities don’t come up much in the NGO sector, and it had been 15 years since she’d experienced anything close to this level of personal development. At WWF for four and a half years, Kate is in a demanding role in a high-stakes sector and with three children at home she doesn’t hesitate when we ask her what she was looking to get out of the trip: “time to reflect and think!”  As we begin talking, Kate is searching for her notebook from the trip , which she says she still refers to on a regular basis for inspiration when she makes the time to reflect. 

A bit like cats and swimming – they can but they don’t – reflection is often the  last thing that busy leaders don’t make time for and, for Kate, the US programme was the perfect time to reflect on what she needed to work on and how to best capitalise on her strengths: empathy, collaboration, people management – to be a better leader.  And of course, to work on her development areas too; which were  to be more considered, less reactive and more courageous and clear about what’s required for impact 

It was also an opportunity to build a network. A phrase that sticks with her is one of Adrian’s: the need to create a “personal boardroom” of contacts to learn from, from diverse sectors, industries and backgrounds. 

With hindsight, Kate’s third intention (and happy outcome) was to develop a strong and authentic personal leadership style that felt more conscious and considered. Kate comes across as a highly self-aware leader. A person who allows her team freedom and autonomy to thrive. Her learning from this trip though was  around the importance of a “bias towards action”,  which has remained with her since as an invaluable life mantra. 

What Kate didn’t necessarily expect to get was an “enormous confidence boost.” But more on that later….

The trip itself was “extraordinary” in the richness of the 15 attendees, the company visits and the conversations between the participants. What really struck Kate is the importance of culture and cultural change, the strongest underlying force of any business. This was validating in itself. Kate admits that working in an NGO can often leave her feeling a bit like an outsider in the corporate world, but actually the programme taught her that business and NGO leaders have more in common, and that often the common and unifying thread is culture.  Creating it, evolving it and changing it;  down to the nitty-gritty of how employees are inducted, rewarded and advanced and how values and behaviours are reinforced organisationally. 

Some of Kate’s most valuable contacts from the trip are from the finance and pharmaceutical sectors, which still surprises her. As she says,

“I thought that they wouldn’t have any of the same issues as me and I was a bit nervous about meeting a bunch of people who I felt I’d have  nothing in common with. They might also wonder why the hell was this woman from WWF coming along to this thing? And actually it was completely the opposite.  I had absolutely loads in common in terms of my day job and what they were doing and what I was doing.”

The company visits – to businesses like Meta, Southwest Airlines and Cana – were eye-opening. Kate is an environmentalist and in her role in influencing governments and corporates to create a more sustainable future, she knew she would need to raise awareness of the lack of preparedness around climate and the environment. But the site visits were heartening, including one “mind-blowing” trip to a food tech  company who have developed a molecular drinks printer, which cuts carbon emissions from drinks by 80%  and can produce any flavour you can imagine. For Kate this was inspirational:

“I’ve talked about it with everyone, she laughs.  The tech visits to Google and Meta – and the exposure to new collaboration technologies and AI – gave Kate the confidence to help shape a new hybrid work policy at  WWF. She reflects that this

 

“has enabled us to retain people. In a way that we wouldn’t have done (before)  and also it’s allowed us to recruit more diversely than we had done previously. So there were immediate impacts like that and being able to see some of the tech and where that’s headed has helped us enable that.”

Her fellow attendees were full of positive energy and came with a willingness to be open and inclusive. The conversations were “unusual and delightful” and validation for her opinions came thick and fast. From her background in NGOs, she quickly realised she brought something new to the table and a perspective that was gently challenging but necessary in a room of multi-million dollar businesses. As she says:

“We’re not going to have a human species in 100 years’ time if we carry on the way we’re going.  It’s going to be an impossible planet to live on and people are completely under-estimating what could hit them: how businesses are going to need to change in the next 50 years. We need to transition quickly and I think I did add that to the group, that sort of sense of urgency around climate and nature that I think people are sleepwalking into.”

Others brought their own unique perspectives: around diversity and inclusion, disability, regulation and tech. All, she says, felt validated by the experience and in their contributions to the group. 

Obviously it helped that the trip was taken care of down to every last (surprise and delight) detail.  For someone who’s spent a lot of time travelling with charities, this was a radically different kind of experience. 

We asked what was the most valuable part of the trip and without hesitation, it’s the people she bonded with. She was warned by Adrian that she’d come home feeling like a completely different person and the trick is to break down the elements of the programme, piece by piece; to reflect and implement bit by bit.  

Back to Kate’s confidence boost. It’s no exaggeration to say that she feels like a different person, but she’s keen to point out that this is only in a positive way, in the way it’s helped solidify her identity; as a leader and as a mum. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Kate felt she was ready to go back full-time shortly after her return:

“According to other people I’ve got much more confidence.  I felt like a different person. Really, I felt I had something even more to offer, something to contribute. It’s not like I was in a bad way before at all. It’s just that I came back more ambitious for myself and for my organisation. That’s what it felt like.”

Have her colleagues noticed?

“Yes! My boss has said that the quality of listening and what I’m saying has improved dramatically. I’m  more willing to take informed risks and decisions. It’s benefited the organisation.”

The “bias toward action” mantra has stayed with Kate and has revolutionised the way she operates – which she feels is more thoughtful, less reactive and, as a result, more impactful.  As she says herself,

“Leaders are judged on the decisions they make, which need to be thought-through and considered, as they affect so many. After all, who wants to be a busy fool?”

And with that, she’s off to find her notebook.

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