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YGAM is the leading UK-based charity that works to inform, educate and safeguard young people against problematic gambling and social gaming. YGAM co-founder and chief executive, Lee Willows, explains his background, his motivations, fears, aspirations and how he’s coping with the current lockdown.
What was your first job and how much did you earn?
Much to the shock of my parents, having just turned 18-yrs, I left home in Nottingham and moved all the way to Perth in Scotland to work in an outdoor activity centre. I knew from a young age I wanted to work with young people in some way and my early career started as an outdoor activities instructor. However I had no qualifications to do this job so PGL Adventure (I am sure parents have sent their children on a PGL holiday when at school) offered me a job as a kitchen assistant, paid me £35 per week, gave me board and lodgings and loads of training to become an instructor and by the age of 19, I was sailing, windsurfing and white water rafting earning £45.00 per week. Life was great,working hard and partying even harder…the joys of youth!
Is there something that you wish you’d been told before the start of your career?
Have fun along the way…… I did that for many years but the move in to leadership positions meant I had to behave in a slightly different way. That transition for me looking back was quite difficult, as being liked was more important than being a great leader. I think I have more balance and resilience now.
What motivates you?
I love to travel, see the world and experience different cultures. Not from the comfort of five star hotels, but living with local people, One of the best experiences of my life was meeting my partner and together we have travelled extensively. Obviously, during my gambling episode that was paused for a few years, but now we are back and eager to see new places. North Korea (would you believe) is on our bucket list in the next year or so, along with a trek to Everest base camp.
What would you be doing if you weren’t leading YGAM?
Two possible things,being a travel writer would be amazing and what a way to live your life and make a small personal income. Otherwise it would be remaining to work within criminal justice as I was joining before founding YGAM. Some people will know before I founded YGAM, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) offered me a role in Malawi, working at the maximum security Zomba Prison, to lead a prison reform and rehabilitation piece of work across the prison estate. That sort of challenge, the life experience that would have given me and the opportunity to work alongside colleagues in a completely different culture would have been incredible.
What keeps you awake at night?
Compared to the days when I was gambling, I am sleeping incredibly well at the moment. I care deeply about YGAM and I want us to continue to learn from others and be the very best. Therefore anything that stops that progress as we scale would keep me awake.
Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
I have been so fortunate to have some incredible mentors over the years who have coached and encouraged me. A stand out former colleague who gave me my first break to lead the largest residential activity centre in the UK At just 23 I was the Centre Manager of a 600-bed centre on the Isle of Wight, leading a senior team that line managed over 200 staff. I then progressed to become the Group HR and Training Manager for that business which ran 12 residential centres across the UK and Europe. He was without doubt one of my best mentors.
Worst career decision?
It’s not really a career decision as much as an insight. I do find that the world is full of ‘experts’ and to my experience, when you look at these people’s career history, they have not really done anything of substance. Perhaps a leadership expert may have had a short stint as a Chief Executive, for example and now they claim to be a leading authority on leadership. I have listened to such experts in the past, but perhaps now I am older I am very cautious of them. I also feel a little uncomfortable with the term ‘Experts by Experience’ – which is used to describe those with experience of gambling-harms. We are most certainly former addicts, but I am not sure we are experts per se. How we use that experience in a positive way is important.
Best career decision?
Has to be establishing YGAM and our genuine commitment to wanting to work with all stakeholders including the gambling sector. The gambling sector is full of hard working dedicated people, many of whom have families and do not want customers to experience harm. I am humbled to have been accepted into the sector and I know that together we are making a genuine difference.
Best piece of advice and from whom?
‘Be careful whom you seek counsel from’ anonymous
How are you coping with the lockdown and what tips can you share?
The YGAM team are inspirational and we are all used to working from home, as we are a remote, agile charity. We are approaching the lockdown positively to create our digital learning suite of resources, plus I am enjoying being at home as usually I work 60+ hours per week consistently on the road. I am really enjoying the thinking and reflection time, something that is often quite hard to do when you are consistently travelling.