Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Feeding the Machine

Its been a week since I last blogged. Not been feeling that well. Feeling ground-down by one of the million bugs I seem to pick up from the kids. I used to get a cold a year. Now I feel lucky if I remain 100 percent for more than a week at a time.

Last week was one of those workaday-weeks when I struggle to remember a single thing I did. But straining hard, I recall a trip to Sheffield to meet commisssioner┼č, a meeting about strategy with Jon Sparkes (CEO of Scope) who is one of my Trustees and a day spent at the Social Enterprise East England conference at Newmarket where I was speaking.

First Sheffield. We run a few services up there. Like a lot of northern cities, there is a clannish element to the way Sheffield works. Not being local means you have to be very good indeed to stand a chance of being commissioned.

My take on the local market in advocacy services is that it is moribund and we should, by right, clean up. However, things are seldom that simple and I suspect we will make steady but slow progress. My big hope there is Josie Bennett who leads learning disability services up there. A proper leader she ain't scared to put her neck out and I sensed that out of the roomful of people we met she was the one who really engaged the most.

Sheffield a long day as my meeting with a Lincoln commisssioner cancelled once I arrived there. Diary bungle. They v v apologetic which assuaged my usual visible irritation-borderline rage.

Social Enterprise East conference held at the splendid Rowley Mile venue at Newmarket. For those not in the know, Newmarket is capital of the UK racing industry. Its green courses and 'gallops' dominate the town. Traffic stops here to let the horses - ridden by young stable lads and bedecked in the liveries of their stables
- cross the road.

I bought my first house in Newmarket and grew to like the place a lot. It brings to mind an older England. Its social structure is somehow behind the times. Lots of poor underpaid people who keep the racing scene going and a large group of wealthy people who employ them without much in the middle. As a young middle class non-horsey professional I felt v much a foreign coin in the social currency of Newmarket.

Onto the conference. I spoke quite badly I thought due to a cold and lack of adrenalin. People liked it though which was good.

The event had been very well planned by the excellent Michele Rigby and her young team. Michele brings something very fresh to the scene. Though now heading an infrastructure organisation, she is bloodied in the field having founded Pack-IT which was one of the pioneers of social enterprise in the nineties.

The event itself was populated by the usual eclectic mix at regional events. Quite a few older types - this sector seems to get people later somehow - a fair few mavericks and eccentrics and the odd brilliant person you can't believe isn't really well known.

Got to Friday with some relief. Met Jon Sparkes who, in effect, is a vice chair of Speaking Up. Jon is something of a superstar. Appointed Acting CEO of Scope at 38, he is now well into a massive turnaround there after the charity hit well publicised financial problems in 2005. Problems, of course, going back years.

Jon always good to talk to about people (he is ex HR) and strategy. His view is that we have the next two to three years to show that Speaking Up has potential to be successful in lots of locations. How well we manage to transplant ourselves from one to five places will tell us whether it can be done in fifty.

Our biggest strategic challenge, he says, is to be the organisation everyone thinks of (and naturally turns to) for services, advice and policy around Voice for excluded groups. That is the big prize. Quite right too. We feel a long way from that but it was good to have a trustee framing things so well.

My weekend dominated by Ruby and Wilf. I am feeling very close to both of them at the moment but particularly Wilf. Compared to Ruby, I have seen less of him and been a lot busier since his birth. For this reason, it has taken longer to feel close to him.

Decided recently that enough was enough and that I needed to spend more time with him. Which of course makes all the difference. Apparently, Dads in the 70s only spent 20m a day on average with their kids. Now its two hours. This has to be better for everyone.

Looking back, the time I spent going to football wth my Dad probably saved our future adult relationship, given the strains placed upon it by events. When I compare this to my brother - who didn't really have much one to one with Dad - and now barely speaks to him- I feel fortunate by comparison.

On Sunday my cold gets me an hour or two off where I catch up with the Observer and Speccie.

I always turn first to Andrew Rawnsley who writes so well and is not nearly so good on telly. Ditto Rod Liddle in the Spectator which is my 'guilty pleasure' at the weekend.
Liddle is one of funniest and most talented writers around today and never fails to make me laugh out loud. This weeks piece on 'How to Get Stabbed' was no exception.

The weekend lifted by the amazing men's final at Wimbledon which was a classic. My strongest Wimbledon memories are of listening to Borg McEnroe finals on the radio in my Dads car en route to Tenby or Great Yarmouth.

This final with its parallels of talent, tension, records-at-stake and mental head-to-head took me right back in time. But actually went one better. Sport doesn't get any more classic than this. And the young pretender won the mental battle.

Had the bleakest Monday for some time. Rain soaked the day. Energy levels lower than ever just as I sensed I had beaten my lurgy off. Went to the office and felt my grim mood was all too transparent. Just couldn't raise a smile.

Ended the day with a particularly dour meeting with my excellent COO Kathleen Cronin. I was all doom and gloom while she patiently listened to my angst about deficits and losing contracts in the future. She is a very stable and centred person compared to most I know in the sector. The only bad thing about being 'mercurial', as I am, is that the mercury is, now and then, very low in the glass.

Today woke up at four am and resolved to take a day off this Wed to try to recover from this lurgy. If possible it will be a day of fruit smoothies, Get Carter and an afternoon nap. Plus probably, my piece for 'Social Enterprise' this month. I am down to 350 words there now which is quite a discipline.

Going to speak to a load of commssioners today in Norwich. I have 15 mins on the main stage which makes it feel like a major schlepp.

Will wear my new dark suit to fit in with my mood. I have to be careful not to be too rude about public servants as they pay my staffs wages. But they wear bloody awful clothes, on the whole. Especially the men.


Just signed a letter to a major investor pledging to stay as CEO for two years. Though this definitely my plan, feel strangely empty and distressed having done so. Perhaps its the feeling that I now can't just walk away if I choose to. Or that entrepreneur thing about not wanting to feel owned.

Been thinking a lot about my options as 40 hurtles towards me. Broadly I have three. One is to make SU my lifes work. Fine if it continues to excite me and I can do other non Exec work on top plus writing. Downside is if it just doesn't develop as quickly as I need it to. Second is another business growth job. This would need to feel very special though. The third is to set up on my own as a consultant, writer, speaker etc. Occasionally this feels like the way its all going anyway - I am good at all three - but a lot of the reason I enjoy it all so much is the break it gives me from feeding the machine. Don't particularly want this fun stuff to become the machine.

Well its nearly time to get up. Half a nights sleep is better than none. A travail!

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