Saturday, July 25, 2009

No Dumb Blond

At an evening bash I went to the other week, the after-dinner speaker was Philip Blond of the think-tank Demos. He was so good that I waved away the banofee pie. Superstardom surely awaits.

So what’s Philip Blond all about? Well, he is the catchingly titled 'Red Tory'. With compelling confidence, Blond lambasts not only Brownite statism (which we all expected) but also rampant individualism, materialism and monopoly capitalism (which, frankly, we didn’t). Both left and right get it in the neck.

As a third-sector person, a lot of what Blond said resonated. He argued that the `vertical lines’ between citizen and state have, over time, rubbed out the `horizontal’ ones which bind us together as a society. Where once we looked to each other, we now look to the state.

Or, alternatively, we seek personal liberation in possessions, easy sex or a kind detached `self-realisation’.

To support his case, Blond cited studies showing that the least cohesive communities of 35 years ago were more cohesive than the strongest ones of today. Think about that.

As he was speaking I thought about the pre-1945 world of mill-town Lancashire that my grandparents used to tell me about. The Co-op. The club. The penny insurance for the doctor. The immense pride in self-reliance.

My grandparents contrasted this lost world to the isolation, fear and humiliation they felt in old age.

I found myself attracted to a lot of what Blond had to say. We do need to regenerate the kind of social capital and community cohesion which many of us so crave. On which the health of society and our organizational missions depend.

And the public sector has, I agree, diminished our society rather than formed its highest expression, particularly in the last 12 years. It now feels less about public service than public servants.

Does this make me a Red Tory too? Probably not. I wasn’t entirely sure that Red Toryism is actually, when you strip it down, actually much more than Wet Toryism. There was one other big question. Can we, in 2009, push the toothpaste back in the tube and return to the more mutual world of my grandparents?

I say not. The atomization of society today is a product of a host of unstoppable technological and social economic factors – not all of them bad. Give me my life over that of my grandparents, any day.

Finally I am not sure I buy Blond's theory that our society is actually broken, though I see his point. Few places in the world, outside the UK, have struck such a sensible balance between individual self-determination and powerful bonds of care and obligation between its citizens. Bonds expressed most powerfully indeed in our own third sector.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Signing Off

This will be the last blog for two weeks as I explore the delights of Denmark - and maybe even Sweden if we are feeling adventurous.

But, house-burglars of the world, don't come to Rose Cottage unless you want to find the Matzen family between you and my laptop, Paul Smith suit and Smiths 12 inches.

Because we are house-sharing again. Yes, its the modern, cheap and far more interesting way to holiday than three grand on a condo in Florida/Crete/Algarve etc.

Our destination is Soro, one of the oldest towns in Denmark. The Matzen family have an amazing wooden house which is massive and beautiful. Trains to Copenhagen take an hour and our friends Elise and Tomas are an hour the other direction at Odense.

This holiday feels just in time. I am ACHING for a break. This last few months have been really full. The last week has seen a drastic improvement in my health and state-of-mind but it has been real fast, seat of pants stuff.

The usual mix of fun, teamwork, elation and disappointment at work. These days I am better at sitting back and remembering that the earth will still be turning, whatever happens at Speaking Up. Staying calm is, I am learning, a first-order virtue in a CEO role.

I am leaving my team in charge for a couple of week. This is of course no problem for me but they are stretched and I do worry about overload if anythign major happens when I am gone. As I have said on this blog before, I have one of the best senior groups a CEO could hope for. Hard-working, supportive and talented. One or two of them are much better all-rounders than me and will, I am convinced, go on to much bigger things than I am ever likely to do.

I learned early on not to be scared of talent, of having bright people around me. Such people make you as a CEO look good, even if it is clear how much brighter they are in many respects. For it is you that bring them in.

Only an idiot appoints people less talented than themselves. Better, in some areas of organisational life, to be one of the Weakest Links than a Giant Among Pygmies!

My council life this week has been a succession of calls to mainly older residents about the things that make their lives a bit miserable such as clanking drains, overhanging trees, dodgy pavements etc.

Not always things I can fix but I do find this work - the listening and the solving of life's little problems, oddly enjoyable. It is a bit like being Mr Benn, the TV cartoon, going into the wardrobe and coming out someone else - a COUNCILLOR.

I think I find this work a refreshing change. Plus I rather enjoy workign with the older generation, always have, probably because of my superb and sadly deceased grandparents: Jack and Jenny, Alec and Hilda. All long gone and affectionately rememembered.

Time to go. A bientot!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Telling It How It Is

I shared a platform last week with the famously mouthy civil servant Louise Casey. You may remember her for ASBOs and her desire to convicts wearing bright jackets on community serice.

And no she hasn't changed. Go hear her if you get the chance. Not only because she has enormously interesting things to say - but also because of how she will make you feel.

Casey is unusual not for her views (she sounds like a lot of the people I meet on the doorstep) but for the fact that she is willing to state them within the elite policy community in which she operates. Views which many of us express and share privately - but wouldn't share in public for fear of looking `bad' or out of step with the prevailing elite-view.

And it is this disjunction between the elite-set terms of public debate and what most people feel that concerns Casey the most. As public servants (in the broadest sense) we often do not, she says, comfortably reflect or express the public's views or concerns in what we do.

This has taken us to a point where many of the public feel that things such as the Human Right Act are there to protect other people, that the only way to lose a job these days is to say something deemed `racist' and that public bodies care about arcane, politically correct agendas- equality,rights and `elf and safety' more than actually helping them.

Watching someone like Louise Casey speak made me realise, thunderbolt-style, just how contricted much of our public discoure actually is. How unfree and self-censoring we actually are. And I decided there and than to follow her lead and take even more risks when on a platform - even if this means fewer invitations to speak or write.

Monday, July 13, 2009


As my life has gotten more hectic since my election, my mind fuller, by body tireder, my sleep shorter and my General Well-Being (to borrow the Cameroon expression) scoring, at best, seven out of ten, I am coming to a rather awkward realiation that I may have taken too much on.

I say may. It could be that things will settle down and equilibrium will magically reninstate itself. Perhaps. Or maybe not. Two things brought me to rude awakening. One was catching something. I don't know what - Swine Flu. Ordinary flu. Or just a Bad Cold. Either way, I was just bajaxxed by it. Complely knocked-over. I went to work of course and carried on but against all my inclination which was to sleep.

The other was my children. They are a barometer of how connected I feel to other people. When feeling is subdued in me, as it gets at times, it is only with them - the two beings in the world about whom I care most - that I notice. I go through the motions ok and I'm not sure they notice but I do. An absence. A gap once filled with joy. A lack of energy in my heart. A dryness of mind.

What do I do? Well, its really, for now, about soldiering on. Getting shut of my cold. Sleeping properly. Getting through things. Then looking at what might go if this doesn't work. Not the Council, nor my job but possibly other things. Let's just see.

The challenge for all of us is to reach that sweet spot between being fully alive and engaged - and probably fully loaded - then avoid tipping into the fog beyond.
I tilt between the two. In love with life and Fogbound.

Where you are?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Small Victories

Yesterday I scored my first `six' as a Councillor when I secured a dropped kerb and some pavement repairs for a disabled 85 year old resident, Mrs Roberts.

She had me round the other week and, after a tour of the problem (her new scooter couldn't mount the Eiger-like kerb near her house) she recounted stories great Lib Dem councillors of yore, which proved an very well judged strategy to spur me into action. I turned down the cup of tea and told her I would do my very best and come back in a week.

So I took photos on my Council Blackberry and emailed them in, half expecting a `Computer Says No' type response and rehearsed my indignant response as I pressed Send.

However, I was in for a nice surprise. A couple of days later I got a call. For the first time since election I felt the tingle of power as a nasally chap from the highways department described, in loving detail, the action to be taken following my representations. They would add, they said, a jet-wash of the scummed-up pavements near Mrs Roberts' house as an extra!

That this result felt incredibly satisfying I cannot deny. Being a third sector CEO is like pushing water uphill and herding cats, all at the same time. It is hard most of the time to feel like you're making any difference at all. The results are so far down the line.

Today, though, I felt like the man from Delmonte about to drop in to and say yes. A sweet feeling. And I might take that offer of a cuppa this time!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Red Light Flashing

As I have said before, this job takes me into some interesting places. Yesterday it was into the home of Lilly, a lady in her 80s who is using a personal budget (PB). Historically, Lilly just got services sent into her home. Now she has to manage the money and can, in theory at least, decide who and how that service is delivered.

Which is where we come in. Carolann, our Support-Planner, to be specific. Carolann is working with Lilly to help her to identify and plan for what she wants. This means working as a mixture of advocate (ensuring her voice is heard) and broker (helping her think through how she might use any remaining cash to make her life better).

I believe this type of service is the future of Speaking Up and (if we merge) Advocacy Partners. Not today or tomorrow but in perhaps five to ten years time. For this is way the world is going. People like Lilly don’t just need advocacy but a mixture of support, preferably all from the same trusted person. The old boundaries are coming under increasing pressure as the potential of new hybrid services is realized.

This is new ground. Space we need to be in as the next decade unfurls. It is, I guarantee, going to be a very hard few years for public services and charities delivering public sector contracts. Public spending through local councils and PCTs has gone up 50% in real terms in the last seven years. And it is now expected to drop quite significantly year on year. Not back to 2002 levels but quite a way. Every single seminar or presentation I attend as CEO is saying the same thing: Red Light Flashing.

The challenge for us at Speaking Up is immense. No less than to re-invent what we do and how we do it. If we fail to do this I believe that we will, very quickly, be overtaken by newer, cheaper operators. To avoid this we have to accept that we need to start working differently very quickly. Reshaping our processes in advocacy and Active Voices so that we can boost outcomes without spending any more. And make a shrinking budget deliver the same good.

How do we do this? Well, that is what I am hoping our staff and users can tell me. Getting more from less is never easy. It involves difficult choices, new ways of working and, yes, being more decisive about who needs our service the most.

These are never easy calls to make. But if our mission is to make it to the 2020s, we must not shy from this

Friday, July 3, 2009

How it Was For Me

I have been a CEO in the not-for-profit sector for about 15 years.

It all started when I worked in social care for disabled people. I noticed how poor the outcomes were when set against the colossal sums spent on people’s care and support. What I also noticed was how much better the outcomes were for disabled people who had the ability to represent themselves effectively. Have a voice. Speak up. So one day I made a decision to start a new organisation dedicated to just this. Speaking Up.

My journey began as a start-up with me as the only employee. Unpaid of course - I was 25 so money didn’t matter. It is a great time of life to take risks. I got the start-up funding after a year, and my second employee was a disabled man. Today I lead 150 people up and down the UK, a mix of disabled and non-disabled people.

In 2009 the mission stays the same: we still exist to support people with disabilities or mental health problems (and, occasionally, both) to control their own lives. We do this through mentoring, advocacy and self-help activities. Our strapline is Voice, Action, Change. One leading to the next. We work with 4000 people a year and are becoming a well-know charity and social business.

What has been distinctive about my journey is that I have been a CEO through every stage of organisational development. From seedling to sapling. From sapling to mighty oak. Each has made different demands, required a different ‘me’. Early stage leadership is all about passion, energy and workrate. It also involves being a polymath-operator, moving from selling to delivering then onto finance and governance all over the course of a single morning!

As we moved from ’seedling’ to ’sapling’ the demands changed. The passion that got me going up until now had to give way to a more considered approach. I had to step back and audit the skills I needed to deliver my mission through others. At this stage, the selection of key `cornerstone’ individuals becomes the major hurdle for a CEO to overcome.

This done, we grew into a mature ‘tree’ of an organisation, and the demands change again. Our organisation has evolved from being a unitary thing – myself and the people immediately around me – to a hydra-like being, with lots of different functions and, in our case, geographies.

As CEO, my task was then is to create a shared sense of purpose, co-operation and common values which, in turn, allowed a strategy to emerge. The management aspect of leadership becomes exclusively about creating a brilliant senior team around you and nurturing them. Not simply leading from the front like a First World War Colonel leaping over the trench. Imploring others to come with me!

Finding those people, trusting them to deliver and keeping them individually and collectively focused is now my main role as CEO. Developing the organisation, overseeing the development of strategy and providing clear leadership are now the chief skills. Very different from the early ’social entrepreneur’ days – which is why so many entrepreneurs leave early on and professional management comes in.

So why did I stay? Well, I knew I had to evolve with my organisation or leave – and I felt I could adapt to its needs. The journey was not without bumps and my skills have always lagged behind the demands of the job. But I worked hard to develop myself – getting an MBA on the way – and, eventually, turned myself into a proper CEO.

How different is it in the third sector from the private? In some ways, I suspect it isn’t that different at all as a CEO anywhere. The stuff I have written just now is probably true of any growing organisation, whether it exists to make money or not.

The difference perhaps comes in the nature of third sector organisations which are less deferential and hierarchical, and the role of Trustees that hold CEOs accountable and, in theory at least, set strategy. Things are slower, on the whole, and generally speaking organisations develop at a less frantic pace and take fewer risks. Procedure also plays a bigger role, making some third sector organisations feel more like the public than the private sector.

Overall though, I believe that most high quality third sector CEOs would do well in the private sector if they chose to go there. For most of them though, the third sector is where they remain. Either because their values have taken them there. Or, like me, they get hooked early on and stay addicted to its challenges.

If you’re thinking of a career in the third sector my best advice is to show some interest first and volunteer either as a trustee or front-line volunteer. This will help you understand the sector’s values and mark you out from the thousands who profess to want to come into the sector but show no evidence of previous interest.

If you are considering social entrepreneurship, go for it. But think carefully about whether you can cope with the work-rate, lack of structure and wide skill-set it demands. Many start, few succeed. From there, if you do succeed, always be aware that the skills that got you going to begin with won’t be the same skills to lead a larger going concern.

Overall though, don’t be deterred. The sector has a skills shortage and people with fantastic training are thin on the ground. Don’t be put off by lack of experience. Just be prepared to be challenged. It certainly won’t be what you are used to!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Twitter Correction

My new Twitter site (I lost the login details of an earlier, aborted attempt to get onto Twitter) is

My username is also `deardenphillips'

Sorry for confusion

Am tweeting daily so please become my followers!


`Building Britain's Future' - Why this is bad for social enterprise

How should social entrepreneurs respond to Building Britain's Future, Gordon Brown's recently announced plans for the next Parliament?

Well, if I were you, I would be pretty skeptical. If you run a social enterprise that delivers public sector contracts, Building Britain's Future will not change the fact that your business is likely to come under seismic pressure from the most dramatic cuts in public spending since the late 1970s. Public spending is the last great bubble to burst.

So let's get real here. You know it. I know it. Most of the Cabinet knows it! Britain has run out of money for new public spending commitments, especially un-costed ones like in Building Britain's Future, which promises enforceable rights to public services far into the future. These ‘entitlements', according to the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, were unsustainable even before the recession came along. Now they are just fantasy. Brown's promises therefore are not worth the fag packet they were written on. And to even imply that the public spending jamboree is going to continue is, for me, bordering on irresponsible.

Which is why Building Britain's Future was, for me as CEO of a public sector oriented social business, such a big ‘miss'. What could have turned it into a ‘hit'? Number one for me was a convincing story about how Labour in power would use the opportunity afforded by recession to bring in game-changing reforms in the way public services are provided. Breath-taking, audacious reform which would see the social business sector play a decisive role in both shaping and delivering new style public services for the 21st century. Services that not only delivered more, cheaper and better, but delivered in ways which put individuals and communities centre stage, like the stuff you see in places like Sunlight, led by the inspirational Peter Holbrook - things the state could never and will never do. This is the real opportunity agenda for social enterprises working with the public sector. And, at the moment, it is going begging.

What about business-to-business or consumer-facing social businesses? I think you should be equally wary. You will already have been deep in recession for at least a year and are probably yelping with pain. Unfortunately for you, Brown's measures at £5bn (little of it new) don't make a tiny bit of difference to when or how quickly recovery begins. Britain is a £1.1tn economy of which the government spends about £650bn. In terms of recession-impact Building Britain's Future is a flea-bite on an elephant. It won't help you one bit.

What Building Britain's Future will do, however, is cement the perception internationally that Brown isn't willing to acknowledge the need to control our debt. This will do social businesses like yours no good at all. It adds to the risk in 2010 or 2011 of quickly rising interest rates, tax increases and the vapourisation of consumer confidence…again. This is the real nightmare we must avoid at all costs. If this happens - and it will if whoever in government doesn't get a grip on public debt - we will sink into a second ‘dip', which will signal game over for many social businesses that, from what I hear anecdotally, are already on the edge of survival.

Yes, Building Britain's Future is, from a social enterprise perspective, more of a hazard than an opportunity. It is pure politics, designed to shore up Labour's core vote. Nothing more, nothing less. It isn't serious policy. There is nothing in it for our sector. If it was there would be a price tag and some specifics about the role social entrepreneurs will play. Hell, even Barack Obama name-checks us these days! No, sorry, Building Britain's Future takes us further away from a critical breakthrough than ever.