Manjinder Purewal

How many women do you know started their working life as a receptionist and made it to Chief Officer?

Not many, I guess, because secretarial staff, typically women, are often underrated. 

So it takes an extraordinary kind of woman to achieve this particular success in a demanding profession such as Probation.  Right? 

My Page 1 Woman is indeed extraordinary. And she exemplifies the talent that organizations ignore at their peril when women employees are undervalued. 

From a traditional Indian background, my Page 1 Woman left school with a few O levels and a typing qualification. Education for Indian girls at that time was not a cultural priority for her family, but marriage and helping the family business were.   But she accepted and effectively managed the customary expectations of girls at the time alongside her burgeoning quest for challenges. “Over time, my parents were amenable to change. Being the youngest, I was able to capitalise on the difference that time and evolution made although my father gave me a checklist to follow, which I certainly did”.

Once married she began the process of carving out a career that would take her step by step to the top.  She not only took her education to a level that enabled her to train as a probation officer, but in 2007 she got her Cambridge Masters in Criminology, Penology and Management.

She is Manjinder Purewal, a leader with grit, guts, self-confidence and a huge amount of passion forwhat she does. Hers is a narrative of openness about what she wants and seeking help to get it; of giving back in appreciation for the help she has been given; of always valuing her cultural and professional roots.  And when doubts creep in, “I close my eyes and see myself as a receptionist who never even considered that she’d ever be a chief.” 

Read about her journey below.

Describe your work

Manjinder: I work in the community justice sector rehabilitating offenders so that communities are safer. As a Chief Officer, I'm responsible for what the organisation does or doesn’t achieve. 

I joined the probation service in 1989 as a receptionist. I wanted to be a social worker, but didn’t know how to get there. I took the job to earn money and then realized that probation officers were also social work qualified.

Five years later, after having my first child, I trained to be a probation officer and then commenced moving up the ranks to middle manager. I became an Assistant Chief Officer in 2008 and then Chief Officer in autumn 2015. I never thought I would be a Chief.  I've always enjoyed what I was doing and then thought, "I need to do something else now because I'm no longer challenged".  That's been my philosophy throughout. I just took each small step as it came.

Being a receptionist was important. It opened my eyes to offending and the impact of crime.  When I completed my CV for the Chief Officer role I sent it to someone in the private sector for feedback.  She said, ‘Nobody’s going to be interested that you were a receptionist. Take it out’. But I kept it in my CV. When my appointment was announced people honed straight into the fact that I started as a receptionist.  So lots of administrators began believing they could achieve more too.

What were the essential steps that got you to where you are now?

Manjinder: I enjoyed being a receptionist, but then realised I wanted more. So I worked for that “more” before getting so comfortable that I wouldn’t take chances.  Then, I had to work on self belief – that I could do it. This led to "If I know I can do it, what action should I take to make it happen?" So I gained knowledge, experience and the right qualifications. I didn't think, “How am I'm going to be a Chief Officer?” It was, “How do I get to the next step and by when?” It's always about stepping out of my comfort zone, especially as I was a relatively uneducated receptionist.  I took risks and the thought of failing didn’t stop me.

What was the most significant thing you did?

Manjinder:  It was letting people know what I wanted/my goals. If you don’t tell people what you want no one can help you.  I got here through help and support from others. The first was a female Probation Officer who encouraged me.  And then a male colleague said, "When you're ready to apply, we’ll help you with your form." Then I asked about courses, and realised I needed to do higher education courses. 

Alongside this was remaining true to myself, my family and my culture and wanting to empower people to make positive changes to their lives, helping other colleagues in the same way I was being helped.

What were the greatest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Manjinder:  Believing I could do every job that I've gone for.  Research points to women thinking that they've got to satisfy the entire job description before they apply.  I used to think that too. At some point I reframed that to "I'm not a brilliant Probation Officer but I could be.....” Then “I'm not a Manager but I could be......" I'm working to that philosophy even today, given I’m not a fully-fledged fantastic chief – but I will be.....

Another challenge came when people said, "No, you can’t do that," which certainly spurred me on to prove that I can!

I remember being the only Asian trainee Probation Officer in my cohort. I often challenged lecturers for using examples based on the stereotypes of arranged marriages and oppressed Asian women.  I questioned this and said they needed to reflect the holistic experiences that were a reality for Asian women and that if you always use stereotypical scenarios, all you will get are stereotypical responses from the students.  As this was indeed borne out by the very students, I wasn’t supported by many of them and there was significant tension and angst because of my expressing views about being Asian.  This resulted in my being isolated.   At the height of this period, I remember saying "I don't need to prove to anyone that I can be a Probation Officer because I know I can do it," and my lecturer (Jan) said, "I agree. But unless you get your qualification and a job, you won’t have proven it." And that's what spurred me on to stay because Jan was right.

What was your most revelatory moment?

Manjinder: When I was a trainee Probation Officer facing isolation and racism, I thought “I don't need this.”  However, it was also then that I realized that I wasn't alone; my family, my husband particularly,  Jan and colleagues and friends were behind me. They kept me going, listened to me and mopped up my tears. 

You can convince yourself that you must do it alone or that no-one has helped you, but many people have been involved in my career. And when you’re studying late at night or you’re bringing work home, and you’re doing your Masters whilst working as a senior manager, it impacts on the family too. But, they've all been really supportive and helped me to get to where I am today. 

What main resource has been crucial to your success?

Manjinder:  It's got to be the love, support and encouragement of my family, friends, the lecturer and work colleagues who’ve motivated me throughout.

I still remember the names of all the people who helped me when I wanted to be a Probation Officer and people who helped me overcome hurdles; for example  Nav, an Asian ACO, who supported me when I was told that I wouldn't get on to the Master’s course in Cambridge as I didn’t have a traditional education.  So it might appear as if it’s been easy but it hasn’t. I’ve challenged myself and progressed because I was open and honest about my areas of need and people believed in me and supported me.

For all the times that people have given to me, I want to give back tenfold because I’m grateful and see it as my duty to help others too.  So, I’ve encouraged many women, including administrators, to believe in themselves and go for it. And these women have gone on to succeed. 

What do you understand by leadership?

Manjinder: Leadership is all about inspiring people to see something extraordinary beyond today, to believe it could happen and then make it happen.

I believe anything is possible.  That’s what's driven me all along. It happened for me so it’s possible.  So I use that with my staff and with clients. Whoever wants more, I say, ‘It’s possible. What feedback have you had?  What do you need to work on?’ Sometimes that's not always about staying in Probation, like me.  I try to inspire people to think about achieving even if things appear untraditional. 

During my interview for Chief Officer, I spoke about how things could be different. Alot of the offender programmes in our area are different. We use farms as rehabilitation centres where offenders learn animal care, horticulture, tree cutting etc and achieve qualifications. We've also got a women's residential programme as a direct alternative to custody.  All these interventions demonstrate that I want different and creative solutions, especially when traditional methods haven’t been effective.

As a woman leader, what difference did you make?

Manjinder: I don't know if the difference is me being female. I think I just see things differently and tackle them differently. I am more interested in fact rather than perceptions and interested in what really makes a difference- the “so what?” debate.  I spent a lot more time talking to people, offenders particularly, and gathering evidence to improve service delivery.

The work with women offenders is directly linked with my being a woman and I was given the lead for this equality strand in 2012.  I examined the feedback from women’s focus groups and the equality impact assessments and got to the heart of what women needed to enable rehabilitation. The award winning women's residential programme definitely came out of that.

If I believe in something I say, “Hold your nerve.  Manage the hurdles. Stay focused; Take risks because the end goal is the right thing.”  I would have these discussions with the then Chief, my peers and others, to get buy in and team support.

What are your top 3 tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?

Manjinder:  Be true to yourself and believe in yourself.  Know your strengths and weaknesses.  And to believe in yourself, take yourself back to a time you achieved something that you didn't think you could do. What enabled you?

Then know where you want to be and share it with others in order to get help.  When people realize you want something that's when they’ll say, “This is what you need to do that job”. And suddenly you're getting a lot of assistance without having asked for it.

And go to the people that you wouldn't normally approach. For instance a couple of receptionists in my area read that I was a receptionist. They said “You've inspired me. I look at you and think at some point I could do that too.  How did you do it?”  So sometimes you just have to take a chance and ask someone who perhaps you wouldn't ordinarily ask.

Then ask for help because everyone needs it.  You’ll learn about other people's belief in you. I remember going for my first ACO interview and was unsuccessful. The feedback was that I was “very close, just missed out” to someone who had more knowledge and skills.  After picking myself up from the failure, I asked the interviewer if I could shadow ACOs in his team.  Within a couple of days the interviewer arranged this and gave me names of prospective mentors.  It gave me an opportunity to learn aswell as show them my knowledge and skills, instead of letting the rejection beat me.

Finally, make time for yourself, your family and friends. It gives you a reality check that work is great, but without the support, love and encouragement, that have got you to where you are today, it would all be meaningless.

Were you up-lifted by Manjinder's story? And if so, what impacted on you most?

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Thanks a million.


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