Lessons from the C-suite: Lisa Pinney, CEO of the Coal Authority

Lisa Pinney talks controlling HR, challenges for 2020 and the mistakes she's learned from.

I started out... as an environmental science student working for the Environment Agency part-time around my studies. Part of my job was going out to collect dead otters and swans that were reported to us so that they could go to the lab for analysis. I walked miles in that job and often the poor animal had disappeared in the intervening time.

I knew this was the right career path for me when... I worked on my first major incident, the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001. I like to make a difference, help to solve complex problems and find opportunities to make things better for people along the way.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way… is to trust my instincts. Sometimes you need to be brave and ask for help, suggest a way forward or an opportunity and then believe in yourself. I worked on the Somerset flooding incident in 2014 because I’d been asked by the CEO to help change the narrative of our response, but I had no formal role. So I had to believe in myself and the value I could bring. It worked because I trusted myself, mucked in and listened and then found a way to show what else could help.

My proudest achievement was... when I helped lead a transformation at the Environment Agency from a very technical organisation that ignored some uncomfortable truths, like homophobia, gender bias and other aspects of diversity to one which has been in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index for 13 consecutive year.

My biggest mistake was… in my first executive job, as head of strategy. I was the youngest female executive ever at the organisation and I let myself get too personally invested in feeling responsible for everything. The launch of our new corporate strategy went well overall but some of the directors didn’t liked a video which was used as part of the launch.

I hadn’t designed the video but I took the feedback personally and got things out of proportion. Following that I worked with a great coach and joined a fantastic women’s coaching club which helped me to learn to be more resilient.

My biggest inspiration… is Lord Chris Smith. He’s not only an LGBT+ icon but a brave, principled person with a great sense of humour. I was lucky enough to work closely with him and learnt a great deal from him.

Keeping me awake at night right now… our response to COVID-19. There is no manual for leading through this sort of crisis and we are working to balance the health and wellbeing of our staff with the need to provide essential operational services that protect people and the environment.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be… truly adapting to achieve net zero carbon – and the societal changes we need in order to do that. I believe that there will be a lot of learning from COVID-19 that will help us to do that: flexibility of working, confidence with remote meeting technology meaning that we travel less.

I need my HR director… to think about what we can be after the intensity of the COVID-19 response. I don’t just want to transition back to where we were – I want us to take what we have learnt together and be even better for the future

It annoys me when HR… tries to be in control. I think they are most powerful when they coach, encourage, inspire, provide information and risks or opportunities so that the managers and leaders of the organisation can be the best people leaders they can be.

It takes confidence to lead in that way but the best HR leaders I’ve worked with can do that and make such a difference when they do.

More HRDs would become CEO if… they had the opportunity to broaden their business understanding and experience.

What I’m reading right now… Trans Britain – Our Journey from the Shadows, edited by Christine Burns.

My top leadership tip… none of us has all the answers. I believe leadership is about being comfortable with that and confident to bring in people with different perspectives to challenge you and help you to lead in the best and most inclusive way you can.