Friday, June 20, 2008

The Whites of Their Eyes

Sitting drinking coffee in the shadow of Ely Cathedral isn't something you should really be paid to do. But today was my day and I spent a welcome couple of hours in the pleasant company of my former deputy James Baddeley who is now running his own show and my talented young Head of Grants Gemma Platt.

We were meeting to discuss James' re-engagement in our fundraising. A conversation with my FD this morning brought home just how much we've got to do to achieve any kind of surplus this year. After 12 years of turning a profit, we're running a gaming chance of filing our first loss. Not because we're a crap outfit or losing money on silly projects. Quite the opposite. Because we're ambitious, trying to grow and having to shell out on all sorts of infrastructure ahead of the business flying in.

My number one challenge is finding social investment. I'm doing pretty well but I need more. Grants preferably as we can't yet generate the returns in our sector to pay off loans. We also have to deal with a few `cliff-edges' on major projects next April. We've been here before (many times) but money-worries right now form a dark spot on the x-ray of my well being. Like many CEOs, the spectre of failure haunts me. I worry about my capacity to deal with it if it ever happens. I walk in its long shadow, taking comfort in the words of Andy that "only the paranoid survive". I am in for a long life if this is true.

Vigilence is one of those things you need in these jobs. Its easy to get a bit of success and bask in it for too long. Liam Black once pulled me aside and told me not to lose a grip on my business with all the other stuff I am now doing. These were wise words. I have, in the last few months, slightly lost sight of things, on reflection. As a CEO you should know exactly where you are in finances, ops, people and development. At best I have had a grip on two. At worst, one.

One of my extra-mural activities is the Ambassador Programme. This brings 35 (!) of the country's top social entrepreneurs together to promote social enterprise. We're about 8 months in and this Wednesday we all came together Admirality House on Whitehall. For once the `celebrity' Ambassadors all rocked up (they don't normally bother) including Tim Smit and Tim Campbell (winner Series 1, the Apprentice). The meeting was, overall, a bit of a disappointment for me. Not because of what was put on. No, we had Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secs, some excellent presentations, a superb venue and some good food. Rather because a few of the Ambassadors used the occasion to kick off a little too hard about the shortcomings of the programme to date.

The rest of the afternoon was huge fun. My first Futurebuilders Investment Committee. This is life Dragons Den for Grown-ups with real business-plans and serious characters up there for scrutiny. In two hours, my group saw four organisations and deployed several million in loans and grants. Bang bang bang. Most of the Committee come from the world of private finance and eat spreadsheets for breakfast.

My usefulness is that I know the sector and can sniff out the issues, particularly around deliver or commissioning. We funded three and knocked back one. The failed bid had a lot in common with those popping up on Cause for Concern lists of investments gone pear-shaped over the last three years. All of these relied on too much - five or six separate things - all going right. Which of course never happens.

The ones that got the money were those which just needed a couple of things to line up. On top of this, the people really mattered. The quality of the people has a big impact. All of the successful groups had exceptional people present. So much of this sort of things comes down to credibility.

And so it was Friday. My usual day at home. The day I take Ruby to nursery and look after Wilf a bit. But today I was off to Wisbech. Or so I thought. The guy leading the young people's project we run up there left a message in the morning saying the whole thing was off because the girl running it was ill. I felt a bit gutted. I wanted to go. I like meeting our young people, it keeps me aware of why we're here.

Which brought me back to Ely. Business done we all reminisced on old times together. For me this was a time when we just did things rather than debated whose role it was to do things or created a bloody flow chart to describe how to write a bid.

I think the Management Gurus of the 2100s will look back on our period as part of the hang-over from FW Taylor and Henry Ford. When we still hung on to this mechanistic world view despite the evidence that screamed out that this wasn't the way things actually got achieved. By then I am convinced we'll be out of large organisations, working mainly from home, like the pre-capitalists, and mostly self-employed or in network type organisations which work a bit like self-organising teams. The best analogy for what life will probably be like is the internet. If you don't believe me, read Gary Hamel's `Future of Management' then think again.

Our parting conversation in the Ely sunshine was about personal brands. Even how we look. Take Camilla Batmanghelli. Love her or loath her, she knows how to build a brand. My brown suit is nothing next to her glittering turban and drapes. Perhaps I should add a Fez. And a 1980s mobile phone. Or maybe not.

Got home to find my daughter not wanting to see me. Kids occasionally do this but I find it a bit upsetting. No eye contact. Crying when I went near her and running to her Granny. She loved me yesterday! Now she's breaking my heart. This parenting business is too much.

Arrived home to the news that we've had an offer accepted on a house in the country. If it all comes off we're moving to Pakenham in Suffolk, a classic village with a Post Office, pub and, no doubt, a few heroin addicts too. Still, I'm not getting excited. Anything can happen. Our buyers are Doctors so fairly safe and the woman we're buying off is a Granny now in an OAPs home. However, we're now in property freefall, the era of Gazundering. Not to mention, raw fear.

The house we're buying is a bloody mess which it will take years to sort out. Just when we finished this one. I sometimes feel like I live in an episode of Property Ladder. If this goes through I'd be in more debt than Zambia and I just don't want to think about it. Its High Risk as you get really. Part of me will be relieved if it doesn't happen. But its our dream. A place in the country to raise our kids. Big garden. Changing seasons. Meadows and streams. Now doesn't that sound nice?

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