Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Happy Wanderer

Saturday's experience in the Chairman's Executive box at Bolton Wanderers Football Club was all that could be hoped-for. Except of course for a BWFC win.

My team famously lacks quality and relies on physical strength to win games. In the words of veteran sports commentator Stuart Hall, who I meet afterwards: "Come to the Reebok Stadium, home of Rugby League, and get a kick in the Grampians".

Tonight I am back in the North-West. I am on a three-day Roadshow going to see our services and commissioners across the North of England. Today I was in Lincoln, tomorrow Barnsley, Thursday Sheffield.

On Tuesday I spent the day with a fascinating group of Speaking Up people on a brand new initiative we're calling Our Vision Our Future. This is all about our strategy for the 2010s.

The exciting thing about OVOF is that brings together people from right across Speaking Up, from the SMT to the Admin Team, from Barnsley to Cambridge, from Trustee through to Service User.

To introduce some new eyes I have also invited Commissioners, Funders and people from business to help us wrestle with the big challenges. We are being assisted by a superb agency, Impact Beyond, a social enterprise consultancy specialising in strategy.

So what are the challenges? In part they are the same as for all other organisations. Dealing with a recession. Coping with an uncertain political environment and major cross-cutting changes in policy. Getting to grips with a fast-changing society.

But some of the challenges relate to our rapid growth from a local to a national organisation:

How we grow to reach 000s more people without losing the heart and soul of the organisation.

How we remain edgy, fresh and opportunistic when we're having to add more structure and system to the way we operate.

How to free our people locally to give their best while maintaining a degree of `oneness' to the organisation both in terms of culture, profile and economies of scale.

What came across very clearly from the day is that we have something very precious at Speaking Up, something disabled people really like.

Our disabled Co-Chair Phil Tatt summed it up when he said that we are trusted to make a difference to people's lives that they remember and feel as real.

As a Founder, I couldn't agree with that more. The acid test of everything is how well we deliver. The challenge is that we don't have the mechanism of the market, in its purest sense, to tell us this.

The people we help can't really go elsewhere if we happen not to get it right.

Instead, in teh absence of market-signals, we make do with a combination of tools which, in combination, give us a bit of an idea of how well we are really doing. But its guesswork much of the time, something I find quite hard to deal with on a personal level.

That's why I think its so important to find better technology for capturing user experience, collating it and feeding it quickly back to staff and managers.

Until we have this in place, all we can do is work hard on our people's values & ideals, pick the right people, deliver the right kind of management and systems and hope that our funders keep up the pressure, on behalf of our users, 99.9% of whom do not have the marketplace power that funders do.

When all these stars are in alignment the results can be stunning. Achieving this alignment, however, is a beast of a task and, as a CEO you have to run very hard to get near it.

We are lucky. We hit far more often than we miss. Unfortunately, failure in the third sector is often hidden. Organisations that don't deliver are not punished in the way a failing business is. It is somehow more difficult to close a failing charity than a failing business, as though to to do so hurts the beneificiaries.

Actually, nothing is further than the truth.

I found out today that some kind soul has nominated me for Most Admired CEO. Given that I am not against Shami Chakoravorty or Victor Adebewole (the A list of the sector) I may even have a chance.

Even if I won, I doubt I would be more touched than I was when I found out via a text from a mate, that someone had put me forward.

Whoever you are, THANK YOU.

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