“A leader has to lead from the front”: Serenity Welfare’s Emily Aklan discusses the leadership philosophy behind her success and her post-Covid ambitions

Published by Rhys Taylor-Brown on December 13th 2020, 12:02pm

Emily Aklan is the founder and chief executive of Serenity Welfare, a uniquely integrated organisation that works with UK-wide local authorities, children’s charities, schools, alternative education provisions, youth offending services and other healthcare professionals to offer a fully comprehensive 24/7 welfare service for children and young people, including those in care.

Serenity was born out of Emily’s personal horror at the revelation that children in care, some as young as the age of ten, are often transported from care home to care home or picked up from police stations following acts of absconding in handcuffs, sometimes with their feet tied together. Empowered by the desire to make a change within the care and justice systems, Emily not only devised a new and secure means of transporting at-risk young people in a dignified, comfortable and humane way, but she also masterminded the ‘Hope instead of Handcuffs’ campaign to end the handcuffing of children, and her remarkable work has continued even throughout a tempestuous 2020 which thrust the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic before the sector.

After Emily’s incredible work saw her put forward as a nominee for a Queen’s Honour, we were keen to understand the leadership that had gone into making Serenity Welfare the successful business that it is today.

Sitting down with The Leaders Council’s Matthew O’Neill, Emily revealed in a candid interview that she had always held a philosophy that leaders must understand the every day trials and tribulations of their staff working on the frontlines in order to be able to lead effectively.

Emily explained: “A leader has to lead on the frontline and as a leader you need to understand what your frontline services our doing in order to lead. My ethos has always been that you have got to understand what the frontline are doing and the only way to do that is to have actually done the job yourself.”

Recalling the early days of establishing Serenity Welfare in 2016, Emily recalled that she relished working directly with staff and administering care to high-risk and vulnerable young people.

“At the beginning of Serenity Welfare, I directly encountered and went out into the field with staff and helped them look after high-risk and vulnerable youngsters as part of our 24/7 service provision. I did actually venture out in our secure transportation vehicles and work alongside our full-time staff directly. A key part of leadership for me is understanding what everyone in your business is doing and this was the best way for me to get a feel for that.”

At the age of 18, long before the birth of Serenity Welfare, Emily embarked on a career as an estate agent and laid down roots in the construction industry after discovering that she had a natural entrepreneurial streak. She developed an enviable profile in the sector, became a director of the board for the company she worked for by the age of 31, and then went on to set-up her own project-directing consultancy which operated in the UK, Turkey, Italy and Dubai, in 2004. The hands-on approach to working and leading which she developed in this field, by Emily’s own admission, is something that has been of significant help in developing Serenity and building the business from the ground up, and it is a style she has never abandoned.

Emily said: “My day-to-day leadership style is very hands on. Of course, as the business grew I found it harder to become involved on the frontline as regularly as before but we continue to hold regular staff updates which were replaced by virtual meetings as the Covid-19 situation took hold so that I could continue supporting my colleagues. Without your staff, you have no business, and we value all of our staff, the young people we work with, and our social services clients.

“Coming from a construction background before venturing into health and social care, it was always a hands-on environment working alongside contractors to make sure buildings were being properly constructed and ensuring that people were getting the product they expected. So, I have always been hands-on throughout my career and this has carried on into working with children, which is something I have always been passionate about anyway.”

Having made the move from construction to health and social care in pursuit of this passion with the launch of Serenity, Emily feels that she has found her purpose in life.

“I do feel now that I am fulfilling my life’s duty in this line of work. Seeing vulnerable youngsters, nurturing them, and turning their lives around is so satisfying and seeing the resulting transformation is incredible. It is the single biggest reward anyone can have; changing people’s lives for the better.”

In order to aid Serenity Welfare in its mission to transform lives, much of Emily’s efforts as a leader within the business have concentrated on building up its mentoring department which launched at the end of 2018.

Emily said: “Our mentoring department has been a huge success for us and has now been running for almost two years. Even within our secure transportation we have mentors present. Of course, at Serenity Welfare we have a very different way of transporting youngsters, and this gives them a sense of self-worth and makes them feel safe. Our staff present within the transport are mentors and life coaches as well as skilled secure transportation staff.

“Our mentoring department often goes into colleges to give talks and alongside this we offer a whole set of different mentoring interventions for looked-after young people, including drama therapy.”

Emily added that the mentoring within Serenity does not just extend to the young people within their care, but also to staff members to ensure they can continue to fulfil their roles to the best of their ability.

“We do mentor our own staff too because so many have come from different walks of life and can help others by sharing their experiences. We have ex-officers on board, ex-gang members who have turned their lives around, and all these people have different experiences to share and it makes us so unique as a company. The young people in our care do relate to different members of staff for the experiences they have had, and it helps drive us forward with a full passion for learning to help us do what we do better.”

Despite a diverse set of staff with numerous different experiences, Emily revealed that she does not often have to adjust her leadership style in order to manage different members of her workforce and instead simply stayed true to another of her leadership philosophies: to, as a leader, treat others how you would wish to be treated yourself.

Emily elaborated: “Within Serenity we are all one family. I would not say, therefore, that any of our different staff members need to be led or treated any differently than anyone else. If you treat others as you would wish to be treated, whatever level of the business that may be on, it makes no difference. Treating others equally, in my view, is one of the most important factors in running a business.”

Emily took a moment to pay tribute to the Serenity family for all of their hard work during 2020, for the business had no choice but to continue its essential work throughout the various phases of restrictions and all members of staff had played a key role in helping to make sure this was able to continue successfully.

“We were obviously extremely busy and working with vulnerable people in care we had to continue to adhere to the respective court dates that some of our youngsters were scheduled in for, be that physically or virtually, and we also had to securely transport young people to various other care homes. I cannot thank our staff enough for their efforts.

“Some transportation was hindered by the fact that some care homes were closing their doors to taking on more young people because of the spread of the virus. It was difficult for us working with social services in trying to accommodate all of the upheaval within the situations young people were finding themselves in, but we have managed to adapt together.”

Emily remained under no illusions that the pandemic is likely to have a significant and long-lasting effect on young people, but she remained determined that Serenity Welfare would always be there to help, and let slip that it has big ambitions going into 2021.

She said: “The pandemic has been a burden on young people. It has affected young people more than we realised at the start and it became more apparent as we went deeper and deeper into lockdown. Youngsters found the outbreak difficult to understand and having their freedoms taken away even at the best of times is a real shock to them.

“The effect on youngsters will, I anticipate, be a longstanding one, particularly with regard to mental health and wellbeing, but we will be there. We would like to be the leading welfare service working with young people both in and out of care and we have a very big vision which we are working toward. We have already built six divisions in just over three years and we are looking to build a Serenity Village with a new head office where we can have essential homes for young people.

“In 18 months’ time we would like to have fully launched a therapeutic scheme in partnership with a local university in Cyprus where we can take youngsters abroad to a therapeutic setting and educate them about life in another country and give them a better understanding of the world. It is an out of the box way of working, but we are looking forward to bringing in some amazing new services.”

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

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Authored By

Rhys Taylor-Brown
Junior Editor
December 13th 2020, 12:02pm

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