Friday, February 12, 2010

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

Last night was my final Annual General Meeting as CEO of Speaking Up. I am going on April 6th. But not off into the horizon. Into the Chair.

AGMs are normally stolid affairs. Rows of mostly empty plastic seats in a dusty community centre. A drone through an arcane agenda followed by cheap coffee, a digestive and let's get the hell out of here.

Not ours. The Speaking Up AGM is a proper AGM - don't get me wrong - accounts, constitutions, elections and all that. We just make it fun and celebratory. The rule of thumb is that the more boring the subject matter the more fun we try to make it. So the finance report told people how many more Mars Bars our reserves this year boughtthan last's year figure. You get the idea.

We also acknowledge achievement. Our users present the best of the work we have done alongside them. Last night, our `Promote the Vote' team told the story of how they helped hundreds of people with learning difficulties to get registered for the 2010 General Election.

My goodbye speech, as usual, didn't follow the plan I had made earlier. Following a valedictory round of applause from the audience instigated by Fred Heddell, my mischievous Chair (who knows I don't like a big fuss), I made three points.

First that I wasn't the right guy to lead anymore, that Jonathan (Senker, CEO of Advocacy Partners) was and that they should support him as much as they had supported me.

Second that we are already feeling the pain of the public sector recession and that it will get worse before it gets better.

And finally, to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, that failure, on any level, is not about being knocked down - its about not getting up. That resilience will see us through. That being on the leading edge of social change isn't an easy meal-ticket - and that we need to dig deeper than ever into our creativity to take forward our mission.

Patrick Butler, Head of Education, Health and Society at the Guardian, who was our special guest, told us the story of Kodak, who used to make the film that went in cameras. For a while they thought digital cameras were a fad. They carried on thinking this until it was nearly too late.

Then, finally, they reinvented themselves as a digital company, building on their trusted Kodak brand. But not before losing tens of thousands of jobs and almost going under.

The lesson is that it is important to change ahead of the curve if you can. Patrick's view, and I think I agree, is that the public sector, indeed all of the social sector, is about to have its Kodak moment.

Those best placed to survive, he predicts, will be the innovative, the passionate, the connected and the forward-thinking. Generously, he included Advocacy Partners Speaking Up in that category.

I hope he is right. For we face some big challenges. We are in a sector - advocacy services - which is maturing. The big growth has gone. We are seeing the commodification of the sector as a uniform product that is seen by customers as the same whoever sells it - like oil or potatoes. There is evidence of a race to the bottom now in price in which new players, unencumbered by any historic pattern of delivery, are coming along with models of delivery which, while probably not better ,are certainly a lot cheaper.

Do we join this race with all the risks that involves? Or do take another kind of risk - and move away from this business over time, leaving them to it, and develop our mission into new as yet unexploited space, so that our organisation looks very different to what it does now in five years time?

All these are the big strategic challenges that I, as Chairman of Trustees, will be asking our CEO to work through with all of our people with over the coming months following merger.

While we don't have to make a one-off decision to jump one way or another, we have to decide, within a year at the most, what the most effective way to realise our mission actually is in the 2010s. An exciting task - but a daunting one. Because the risks, either way, are high and unknown.

Afterwards, one of our business supporters said, `This is your 2007 - see it like that and you'll find it a lot easier'. Time to both dig in and imagine our way out.


Rob Fountain said...

Wow... what a big moment. Big for SU, big for Advocacy Partners, big for you.

The merger is yet another Madonna like re-invention for the organisation you've driven forward at often frightening pace.

The real 'big' though is you steering SU to this point and then moving on. Stepping back now (albeit only into the semi-shade of the board) reflects your character and what you have achieved.

It's a bold move, but is only possible because of the progress you've made through being courageous.

It's a brave move, but then you never sat still for a long in the the seeming security you achieved by laying such firm foundations for SU.

It's an evolution for you and I guess that just proves that you practice what you preach.

There - enough smoke up your ass?? Enjoy what's next (and if nothing else - buy the Yeah Yeah Yeahs album - it's ace!)

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Thanks Rob Fountain for that. Not sure I have left at a time of enormous security (two years ago perhaps, not now) but yes there are foundations and a platform. Big question for us now is what we focus on MOST. Hope all is well with you, the job and the family. Will check out the Yeh Yeh Yehs too. Love, C