Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Leadership and Negotiation

Every once in a while you learn something now. A penny drops. Having spent most of the last week or so among people leading out social enterprise spin-outs from the public sector I realised two things.

Firstly, that being a leader means you have be strong as a bull. This inspires people to come with you, scares the shit out of people who oppose you and wears down those that would throw marbles in your path.

Secondly that when it comes to negotiation, it isn't all about win-win. It's actually often a zero-sum game. A lot of these guys are cutting good deals from the public sector because they are intransigent buggers who just won't budge beyond a particular line. It works. Think abou the Chinese, elderly carers, Bob Crowe. After a while, these people set the parameters in the form they want them. So much for meeting half way.

Is all this new to me? Of course, not entirely. But it somehow escaped me that to be a good leader, it isn't enough just to be inspriational, well intended or courageous. You've also got to be as tough as old boots. Further to this, you've got to unreasonable when necessary and, yes, intransigent in pursuit of what you want in negotation and we willing to say 'Fuck the other side!'.

As a leader I was never that good at either of these. While I had stamina I tended to be a pushover and in negotiation my own desperation for progress and consensus would overwhelm a focus on result. Seeing some of these guys in action reminded me of where I struggled as a leader myself.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Views from the Bridge of the Big Society

I have deliberatley crafted my life so that I have a line-of-sight on how things are playing out. So what am I seeing, in January 2011?

THE COMMUNITY? At the ultra-local level, during three evenings spent in residents' kitchens and peeling community-centres, the cuts are beginning to be noticed. Councils are proving a bit Neanderthal, as everyone expected. So rather than cut a few posts that nobody will notice, they pull their funding for lollipop men and ladies. These people work for about a fiver an hour and are, literally, highly visible. One major accident and there will be clamour to get them back. Let's hope it doesn't happen!

LOCAL GOVERNMENT? One level up, in the Council, they are scratching their heads about how to approach the cuts intelligently. Although in opposition in Suffolk, I have decided, where politically possible, to help where I can. Few Councillors or senior officers know anything about social enterprise or charity sectors. So I try, where I can, to help them think through how to engage in a way that enables SE and charities as alternative providers - rather than eviscerating them as has happened in many parts of the UK (e.g. Nottingham City Council wiping half of its homelessness budget in one go - clever).

IN THE SE AND THIRD SECTOR? Among the third sector and social enterprise sector, blood-pressure is running high. Many organisations are realising, fairly late in the day, that they are out of road and urgently looking for a way out. Few people I know are not in some kind of merger or deep-partnership conversation. All talk of 'independence', seemingly forgotten as CEOs and their Boards face the Void.

THE WIDER PUBLIC SECTOR? As PCTs begin their death-throes, before our eyes, they are, like any endangered being, going through the stages of grief. Disbelief has been replaced by anger and, in some cases, some fairly shitty behaviour. Particularly towards some of the new Right to Requests, which, unlike them, will escape the grave. While I think Lansley is daft to do away with them in one go, I can see why he thinks they are a waste of space. Not a lot I have seen leads me to believe they are adding much value.

THE COMMENTARIAT? The wider commentariat and policy community - of which I am a sort of partcipant-onlooker - is either obsessed with the cuts and what this all means - or working out how we turn the language of new approaches into a tangible approaches. The problem is that many of the best solutions - like the stuff being pioneered by social enterprises and charities - are SO radical (e.g. Partciple's stuff ) that you can't just jump to them immediately. You need bridges over the ravine, not just beautiful stuff growing on the other side). Politicians are left trying - and often failing - to think about how to transition in a managable way.

MY VIEW? Indeed it were possible to bridge from Public Services Mark I to Mark II in a straightforward way, replacing one set of ideas, people and systems with another, we'd all be in clover. In truth, we're looking at replacing a Machine with a new Eco-System, some of which is beyond the control of anybody. The future quality of life will, in reality, be very tricky to create, even with their fulsome participation. If the Big Society is right in one regard, it's that change won't happen in the way it always has in the past.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Are you a Social Enterprise Yourself, Then??

'So is Stepping Out a social business'? I get asked this quite a lot, occasionally by potential customers. It's a fair question. The simple and honest answer is 'No, it ain't'. The profits, or rather those that it makes, go to me, the sole owner.

How do I defend this, when I'm going around preaching the virtues of social enterprise? Well, firstly, as you know, I feel that social social enterprises are defined too narrowly - namely by how you use profit and how much of your business you own. Let's focus on this for a second. How many businesses do you know that operate in the social space that are particularly profitable? The whole discussion about 'reinvesting profit' is normally pretty academic for most of these businesses. Truth is, there ain't much profit to begin with.

So then we're discussing ownership. Ownership is a literal, legal thing. You own something when it has value. This can be either monetary value or the other things ownership brings - like control. Owning something normally involves one or the other of these benefits. For me, it is mostly the latter. Ownership of Stepping Out brings me control over it. When I need other people's help with this business in terms of finance or especial commitment, I will share ownership. At some point, I may even share this with employees. But when it is appropriate, fair and just to do so, not when the CIC regulator or trademark says I do.

By fixing on profit and ownership, the social enterprise mindset overlooks the crucial question of how social entrepreneurs tend to use time. We do not tend to have built up capital so time is still our principal resource. I give away about a quarter of my own time each month. I see it as my contribution. I don't want any praise for this, but it's my decision. It is, however, time which isn't going on building the profitability of my business. It is time taken from the normal business of business to do my tiny bit.

Extending the tent to the many people who use their time and resources for social purposes - people who use time as well as money in an entrepreneurial way would be, for me, welcome. Because the brutal truth would be that if I registered Stepping Out as a CIC, I would need to give up virtually all of the things I am doing outside of work in order to get my 50% of profit required to eke out my life. Yes, there'd be profit to give away - but next to the benefits of my donated time I am unconvinced it would be a better way forward.

Overall, there is more to being a social entrepreneur and enterprise than being owned by other people and giving half of your profit away. It's about how you use your time too. This is the one resource you have to enrich either yourself or others. How you use it is one of life's biggest decisions. It should therefore be part of the modern account of how we describe the social entrepreneur.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Losing My Religion? The Theology of Social Enterprise

Debate about the essential nature of social enterprise, like that of the existence of God, will, I think never end. The theology of social enterprise, like the God-debate seems to hinge on the question of whether or not it is 'real' - as in distinguishable from other things which already have well-established names such as 'charity' or 'business'. Attempts to nail the issue include the Social Enterprise Mark and SE even now has its own legal form - the CIC - though note that a SE can also take other forms - a bit like the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Like a lot of people I find this debate pretty deathly. If I hear two people talking about it, I steer clear. It's a debate that will always be with us, I fear. Essentially, like religion, social enterprise comes down to whether you believe in it or not. It's about faith as much as reason, passion as much as logic. Like a religion it is full of contradictions and oddities. Even its believers do not agree on everything. Our Catholics prefer a strict interpretation of the scripture which tells us that only firms that are not in private ownership count among the Faithful. Our Protestants seek to open the door to everyone who believes in the idea of business run for multiple goals and that your state of mind matters more than what some old priests tell you.

Of course we all live in a real world, a world that, by its nature, craves definition and clarity. We have responded by making social enterprise something that the public can see, touch and feel. However in doing so, we have, possibly, robbed it of some of its subtlety and grace. We have closed its walls to the many who feel like social entrepreneurs but who, now, can't be - because they own their businesses or only give some of their money away, not the lion's share.

For me, a Social Enterprise Protestant, this is sad. People who seek to create social good through their own businesses deserve a place in our church. I would even welcome people who simply do their business in an ethical fashion rather than one which puts profit ahead of all other things. Welcome, then Johnson and Johnson, Richer Sounds.

I already hear the high-priests in my ears making the very good point that such a wide net devalues the religion altogether. By admitting everyone, we reduce what we're about to nothing very much. I can't really argue with that from a day-to-day point of view. To create a backable brand we probably do have to draw the line tighter than feels comfortable.

But, taking another lesson from great religions, I think it makes better longer term sense to think of SE a bit like a very big religion - like Christianity - which has lots of sects and believers - many of whom have very different ways of going about things. The underpinning beliefs, yes, are common, but that's what they are - beliefs. In our case, the underlying belief is that business for and with a social purpose. We all go at it in different ways - but the core of SE, like the Christian core, is based on, yes, a state of mind, an outlook (business for social purpose) and some basic beliefs, not a single core form. But they all live under the same 'Christian' label - and are much stronger for it. Why can't we be a similarly broad church?

Our challenge, long-term, I think, is to be less Catholic about SE, to have our own 'Reformation' and, ultimately, create the biggest business sector in the world. Diverse and plural - but progressive and dominant. It means going beyond today's pressure to be distinctive - but it may well be better long-term.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Productive are You?

While there's a massive literature on time-management and how to be more effective at work, I am often struck by how little discussion there is of this among third sector and SE professionals. We see at as something possibly to teach our staff and we laugh at the public sector but we tend, in an unspoken way, to assume that we are optimally productive.

But are we? I'm certainly not. Well, not all of the time. I spend a lot of time on low-priority stuff. I waste time on stuff I enjoy rather than needs doing (like this). I procrastinate for England. I often fail to prioritise for weeks on end.

Yet I do also get it dead-right sometimes. These are the times I make a monthly list of priorities, decide what has to be done, and plough through it all. This rids me of distraction and gives me energy. I find a kind-of sweet-spot of focus, energy and momentum.

My biggest inspiration was years ago reading Stephen Covey's book 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'. Despite the god-awful title, this is one hell of a book for someone trying to raise their game. I read it on a beach in Goa ten years ago where I had gone after one of my many burnouts while developing the early Speaking Up.

It grabbed me for three reasons. First, it told me what I needed to do: choose a small number of high-impact priorities, write them down and pursue them exclusively. Second, it taught me that I needed to work consciously on improving my character. Being not just myself, but my best self. Thirdly, I got from that book a clear sense that it was down to me what I made of my life - it was about choice not predestination or script.

One of the biggest take-aways from that holiday was my annual, monthly and weekly list of must-do's. I used this until relatively recently. I like to think that I internalised the habit but the truth is I may have gotten a bit too pleased with myself and put this trusted tool aside too early. My productivity is certainly no longer what it was.

Kids and age have a bit to do with this. But there is no real substitute for knowing, every day, what you are going to achieve, writing it down and committing to it. All a bit American for some people I know but I bet it would add 15% to most people.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Black Dogs and Social Entrepreneurs

I am one Follower short of 40. Come on, someone, please make me happy! I have been blogging for a couple of years now and it does build up very slowly. But I get enough people saying they like stuff to keep me motivated. And, yes, I enjoy it. Its the nearest thing I do these days to therapy.

I am going through one of my lulls at the moment. I'm not in a bad way, particularly, but a bit out of sorts, not quite my normal self. If I was being dramatic, I'd call it mildly depressed, but I am not so I won't. I've talked about mental health on here from time to time, mainly to say that I consider myself someone with relatively fragile mental health. I have limits around stress than I have to keep within. Anxiety is never that far away and its cousin, depression, have popped up in my life at regular intervals.

Thankfully, both of these have eased over time. I spent much of my young life feeling properly depressed. I even called it that then. But this was the 80s and kids didn't get 'depressed'. But I know I was, and it was more than just too much Morrissey. This was the real deal and really I should have got myself some pills or something.

As it was, I didn't and my teens turned into my 20s then BANG the real fun started and, at 21, it all turned into a horrible mess and I got really, quite seriously ill. To people around me it wasn't terribly obvious. However, I knew it needed sorting if my life was going to be worth living. Thanks to some very good pills and probably the best therapist in Northern England, I got together enough to build from there. The rest of my life, despite some fairly unpleasant hiccups has been a story of gradual improvement, including very long periods of feeling utterly well and, yes, happy. But the Black Dog doth return, or in a smaller, Terrier-like form, from time to time.

Why return to this? Well, I guess I use this space, partly as indulgence. To say it how it is. To show who I really am, behind the stuff I am known for. And, perhaps least significantly, to emphasise that having a shitty episode or three in your life doesn't mean you can't go and do stuff that others say is pretty good. Indeed, it can be spur, even if not always for the right reasons (recognition, compensatory self-worth etc).

Indeed, I'll never forget a conversation I had with a guy who worked closely with loads of social entrepreneurs who said that he found, time and again, that many of them had been through mental pain, and, in many cases had been abused. Their reaction to this - the re-directed anger, the guilt-made-good - was often, he observed expressed through social entrpreneurialism. Was he right? I don't know, but I will never forget that comment.

He was right about me, that's for sure.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Going with the Flow

Another Year. I am 42 this year. It's the first year I have actually felt 'Not-OK' about saying my age. For a long time I have been a Young This or Upcoming 30 something That. Now I would only just count as a young football manager or maybe Prime Minister. The number of things to be Young-At seem to diminish by the year. I feel accepting of this, but a little depressed.

So what of ambition? Writing in the Observer on Sunday, Tim Lott speaks of middle-age as liberation from needing to show that you are 'it'. He feels pleasantly free of the need to prove himself. Which is fine, actually, very nice - in a sense. But what if that turns you into a bit of an idle knob-end? Someone who used to do lots of good stuff and now, frankly, can't be arsed because he doesn't need the approval any more?

You do notice it though, this loss of drive for uber-attainment. You kind of realise that achievement, a bit like money, gets you high for a bit - then leaves you feeling just like your old self again. Recognition used to be a big one for me. It got me proper-motivated, willing to walk through fire. Now I've had a little fix of it, I'm not particularly bothered any more. It's done my confidence the world of good. Which, given my formerly super-size inferiority complex (now about average), was probably for the best.

Is 'can't be arsed' liberating though? I am not so sure. One's neediness, I find, simply displaces itself. You get money, it goes to making a difference. You make a difference it goes to recognition. You get recognition it goes to..something else. How many middle-aged blokes do you see in the quiet desperation of the the car showroom or the ill-judged shag? In my case, the same old stuff needy stuff whirrs round, begging for the busyness of life to drown out the noise.

When do you feel happiest? In my case it's when I am throroughly absorbed in doing something. Work is often that something but writing does the same job, as does running and reading. The social scientist Czensenzilaghi wrote about 'flow'- that state of being where we are in the 'zone' and we lose self-awareness. That's, for me, the place to be. I love it, I feel most alive there, even, far more so than when I am trying to enjoy myself. Which seems like a paradox, somehow. Out of ourselves, we are our best selves. It's true enough, though.