Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday's Endings

Sometimes I get to Friday evenings feeling full of energy and achievement, still wanting more. Other times, I limp past the finish line like a cramped marathon runner, all achy and tired. This was one of those Fridays. It hasn't been a bad week, on the whole. Quite the opposite in fact. A good meeting with my excellent senior team. A successful trip to London and, today, the launch of Speaking Up's Youth Parliament, comprising young people from Cambs, Suffolk and Peterborough. Seeing our excellent teams in action and the enthusiasm of all the Mums and Dad's was lovely.

Spoke to Jim Paice, our local Conservative MP who, unlike Lib Dem David Howarth, fulfilled his commitment to come along. We mused about the £60 billion annual budget deficit facing the next Government and say we're glad that the newly rebuilt school we're standing in will be completed by then. Paice thinks its a lot more than £60 billion, which, if true would mean we're trying to plug a 12-15% gap between known income and planned expenditure in just 2 years time.

Earlier in the week I had been on an ACEVO Working Group looking at how CEOs can better engage staff in their organisations. Although this is considered to be a strength of third sector organisations, the truth is we get more tribunals than any other sector. The group was actually quite good with a range of people from all kinds and sizes of organisation. It was chaired by the genial and super-bright Jon Sparkes, CEO of Scope and also, I am delighted to say, Trustee of Speaking Up. Unlike some clever people who wear their intelligence like bling, Jon is under-stated and keeps it all simple. This makes his gift something to admire rather than grimace at, or feel envy for.

The problem we all face, we discovered, was the disjunction between attempts to de-machine our organisational cultures (more personal appearances, a clearer, more human organisation voice) and the clunking machinery of the Employment Law and personnel rules which many of our organsiations contain. And no time is this clanking louder than in a downturn when the `At Risk' letter go out, formal `consultation' has to take place with about 5000 people who might be affected by 20 job losses and the secrecy about restructure has to be absolute in order to prevent the odd rascal suing you for some breach of employment law.

The solutions are not to be defeated by the machine. To continue to be human. To use your HR people to formalise informality and to keep beating away at the message that there is no conspiracy. Many of us too are seeking to involve staff in strategy and create an organisational conversation. We, for example, use a fortnightly e-bullet called `Heads Up' which I use to flag up where I see things, a sort of CEO blog, but not one that has been put through the internal PR mincer. Just a fairly straight-up account of the issues. Unsurprisingly to me, I know people read it and, to a point, appreciate its tone and content.

My final stop in London is at a well-known social investment company which I love very much (and its not that one) which was doing some market-research on its own positioning in the sector. One of the exercises was when the names of all the agences were thrown on the table on cards and we were asked to group them. There were commercial banks, `charity banks, social lenders, equity-investors grant-givers. Interestingly this organisation did bits of all, with the possible exception of grant-giving. Their positioning was as a boutique social finance agnency which, if they didn't do it, could find you a man or woman that could.

A necessary force, I thought. But what is still missing from this market in my view is a social investment agency that goes much further down the risk pathway than loans, or performance-dependent returnable grants (or quasi-equity). Its the Angel investor market. Those people, like David Gold of Glimmer (he's the only one and he's very small) who say, `I like this idea, this person, this acorn, and I'm going to take a flyer on it'. Very few people do that. The organisations getting social investment tend to be those that have three or more years track-record. This is a blockage on social innovation, one which a Social Investment Bank would not, I believe solve, due to the degree of risk. One in ten successes, while the norm in venture capital, would not, I suspect, impress the Treasury.

The week ends as the week began, in the bedroom upstairs, trying, against tiredness to negotiate clothing on and off the body of my lovely one year old son, Wilf. He's laughing tonight, particularly when I make parping noises on his belly. He loves play, the rougher the better. This boy goes to sleep the second you lay him down and shut the door. I then go read to Ruby, two stories (she always insists on two). Fortunately, tonight's are mercifully short and she's practically asleep by the end. As always, I rub her back, and we run through all the people who love her, something he joins in after a while. She is an adorable child. I think, briefly of David Cameron who lost a child this week. I struggled to contain myself when I heard that news, as I think a lot of people did who have children. You know what it means for the rest of your life, the sense of loss that never goes, that shadow on your heart. I feel a huge sense of sorrow for Cameron and his wife. And, then, predictably perhaps, relief that it was not my child that died on Wednesday morning.

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