Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beecroft was Right

I say this both as an entrepreneur and a Liberal Democrat.  Vince Cable has been right about many things, not least Murdoch and the banks.  But on Beecroft he is wrong.  

To recap, Beecroft wanted to make it easier to release people who aren't working out as good employees. At the moment, it very hard for businesses to move people on who aren't quite up the job.  The law is OK - just - for moving on people who are absolutely terrible, but it isn't a lot of good in situations where things just aren't going as well as they need to - for example, where people are just about getting by - but things are not working out as you hoped.  

Tough on you, I hear some readers say. How about helping that person reach the mark?  Training?  Patience etc?  Believe me, most people in business will do all of the above before taking away someone's livelihood.  Particularly in small business where everything is face-to-face.    

What we need - which we don't have now is the right to make a unilateral decision - without fear of legal challenge - that this person isn't delivering value to our business and they need to go.  With requisite compensation, of course.   What happens instead is that you can say you're not happy but, in order to avoid a legal challenge, you have to give people all sorts of targets and supports to hit those, even when you're sure, in your heart, this isn't going to work out.    

I have been here lots of times in my previous role in a larger organisation.  With 250 employees, about ten percent are normally underpeforming.  To have that many people in 'special measures' is expensive and takes up all of managers' and HR departments' time.   It would be far better, with nearly all those people, to be able to have a grown up conversation that enables a quick, mutually dignified departure.

Will this, as Cable fears, create mass insecurity in an already anxious workforce?  I am sure that 90% of people realise that they have nothing to fear from such changes in rules.  Those that will be most scared will be the 10% who need to be.  Indeed it may, in some cases, be the prompt they need to address some of their issue.  

I realise this a very different view to that of most people who don't see themselves as on the Tory Right.  But talk to anyone who manages people or runs an organisation and you'll hear a lot of agreement.   

One's own view comes down in part to whether you believe that people in the UK, and Europe more widely, are over-protected and insufficiently flexible at work than they need to be in the current world economic situation.   

Personally, when I look at how people and companies in other continents work, I see us as asleep at the wheel, living on borrowed time before we get 'found out' and thrown in far greater hardship than we would if acted now and took the wise advise of Adrian Beecroft onto the statute book.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Blog from Rob Fountain - 'My Dad is Worried About Me...."

My dad is worried about me. 

He’s a pro-State socialist.  A labour man; ex-trade union rep and proud believer in welfare, in the responsibility of government to provide a safety net – to look after the many, not the few.
He’s listened to me talk about Stepping Out, about what we’re trying to support in terms of a shift in public service delivery and he’s worried.  Worried that I’ve been turned, that I’m in league with those looking to commercialise social and health services, that I’m helping to dismantle the welfare state.
I hear – and feel – similar suspicions when I’ve spoken with union representatives in areas exploring the options of social enterprise spin-outs for health or social care services. 

The anxiety is understandable.  I had it too when I first heard about the spin out agenda.  The vocabulary of externalisation, business plans, company structures and financial modelling… it felt a long way from a commitment to core values, care free at the point of use, empowerment.
The unions lose my sympathy, however, when they make comments such as ‘I don’t really understand this social enterprise thing, but I can tell you we are opposed to it’ or ‘I’d rather people were made redundant from the Council and get a good payout, than have their jobs transfer into this social enterprise’. 

Conviction is one thing; I more naturally lean towards a belief that the State should be responsible for meeting the needs of those in our society who are vulnerable or in crisis.  I also think there are decisions emanating from the current government that should be resisted.

However, stubbornly sticking to a mindset despite the evidence that the world is shifting on quicksand is pointless.  The financial pressures on local authorities are mind-boggling and will not be resisted by a 
defiant, arms-crossed ‘I’m protecting public sector jobs and services’ stance. 

If local authorities don’t deliver services directly – and that is becoming impossible on the budgets available - the immediate alternative is tendering services out to the private sector.   A sector queuing up to deliver services and to cream 10, 20% off the budget for investors.  This isn’t the future, this is now.  The market already exists in health and social care. 

By looking at the options for social enterprise to come forward as a route to deliver public services, I’m not giving in – I’m looking for a (forgive me) third way. 

What Stepping Out is trying to support is an alternative to outsourcing, an option that removes the profit motive and gives more power to frontline staff and service users. 

My dad at least has the wisdom to listen to what spinning out is about before he disowns me. 
And I think he hears me.  He hears me when I say that we’re trying to help some extraordinary public servants who when faced with blood-curdling cuts are prepared to take a personal risk in pursuit of a better future for their services. 

He is reassured when I explain that the potential winners when this comes off are not shareholders, but frontline staff, service users & patients, the Councils and Trusts who get to deliver savings and commission quality services. 

And he remembers how when he was a foster carer the system around the children was bureaucratic and broken; how when I was a local authority social worker he worried about the impact of the demoralising culture – he remembers ultimately that no-one who has seen inside public sector delivery is able to claim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

So, don’t worry dad.  We’re not trying to auction public services to private providers or dismantle the welfare state.  We’re just trying to reposition it for the current challenges and trying in particular to re-arm motivated public servants so they can flourish in the battles ahead.   

Spinning out is a pro-public service model, it’s about supporting public sector workers – giving them control of their futures, not voluntary redundancy – and striving for quality and innovation in the face of reduced central government funding. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Why do so few social enterprises hit the commercial big time?

A year and a half into Stepping Out I now feel able to compare this with running a large charity.    One of the interesting things is that it is, on many levels, very similar to the early days in the charity.  It is about passion, finding clients, building a brand, delivering really great stuff.    There's really not that much different on one level.  Value is value, whether it's in the life of a disabled person or a council team seeking to spin out.

Psychologically, though I have had to go through a shift, one that has actually made me think quite a lot about the idea of social enterprise.   When with a pure for-good organisation, everything went through the prism of mission.  In short, we sometimes did things because they were right, regardless of whether they were good for the business.

These days, I can't function like this.   While social value - and the well-being of clients - is never far from the front of my mind I have to always always be doing the math.  Riding two horses is never easy,  I find. In a straight choice, I still tend to help, even if it doesn't make long-term business sense, but I know, that in doing so, there is a commercial cost.   

Of course, I know that the magic of social business is about precisely this - balancing commercial and social considerations in a new way.   I think what I am saying is that it is far more natural for most people to operate in one mode or the other.   Instead of holding the two in balance, I tend to oscillate between the two considerations.  On my 'social' days I have to constantly check myself for not watching the bottom line enough.  On my 'commercial' days, I ask myself if I am giving enough to warrant our claim to be a socially-oriented business.

Which brings me to my point here: social business, while appealing to our natural desire to be both commercial and social doesn't always go with the grain of how we operate day to day.   Most of us are essentially commercial or social in our approach.   Or, at best, we mould ourselves into one or the other type and operate consistently in that way.   Holding both in mind requires a kind of double-think (holding two simultaneous beliefs 'I am social' & 'I am commercial') which doesn't always come easy.   

Of course, this isn't always a zero-sum game.  You can use a commercial logic to build fanastic social outcomes.   And this is perhaps the larger point here.  I am perhaps coming from it from the position of a convert from the charity world.  But I think I might be onto one of the reasons why so few social enterprises really hit the big time commercially.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Consulting isn't for Faint-Hearts

Last year about 70,000 people in the third sector lost their jobs – pushing on enough to fill Wembley Stadium.  While some are happily now in new jobs, many will be making a go of it as independent consultants.   Some of these folks will, no doubt, be loving it – and telling anyone who will listen that losing their job was the best thing that ever happened to them.   Other newly self-employed, however,  will be sat, quietly desperate, in the spare bedroom opening another pack of Custard Creams  and waiting in vain for the phone to ring.

So how do you make that transition to running a successful independent consultancy? Having attempted the journey myself, I would offer three main pointers.   The first is to understand that as an independent you will need to specialize.  Whether you realise it or not, there will be something -  a single stand-out skill or attribute – for which you're best known.  It's this ‘something’ we need to understand - because this is the one thing that people will pick up the phone specifically to ask us to do.   Our specialism is the essence of our usefulness to others.  Therefore it’s vital we figure out quickly what that is.

The second is to realise that in consultancy everything matters. To win work from clients,  it is not just your encylopaedic knowledge or contacts that will bring in the business.  You need to look and sound the part.  Your website should be fresh-looking.   Your answer-phone needs to sound like you are pleased to hear from people.  Hair, teeth and clothes all matter too.  Nobody hires a consultant who looks like s--t.   If you're a voluntary sector scarecrow, get down the hairdresser before you step out into the real world.  While you’re out, buy some good shoes.

Thirdly, and perhaps, more importantly, you need to deliver. This sounds rather obvious, but it's the main fear in the mind of every client - 'What if this hired-gun lets me down?'    You deliver by listening very carefully to what the client needs.  You deliver by carefully agreeing the scope of the project,  charging a fair price and only taking on work you can deliver to a truly exceptional standard. 

Note my use of the word ‘exceptional’.  As a consultant, it's rarely enough just to put in a ‘decent’ performance, like you might do week-in-week out at work.  This seldom leads to a long relationship with a client.    While you'll always get paid for a decent job, the client will move on if you don’t totally wow them.   Should you manage to do this, however, your client will get you back time and again.   The best business is repeat-business.  Remember - consultancy is, above all else, a relationships business.   Love your clients.  

Of course, your decision to step into the world of consulting depends, in large part, on whether you’re personally suited to do it.  I'm not just talking about how clever or knowledgeable you are here, but also your character.   Resilience is key -  particularly in year one when you're still finding your feet.  You can feel very unloved on a bleak Tuesday afternoon when even the dog declines a walk with you.   Self-doubt, if it lives within your heart, will tap you on the shoulder and suggest you apply for that supervisor job you’ve seen down at Tesco (regular hours, paid holidays, people to talk to).

So should you be one of this year’s Wembley-sized crowd of third-sector leavers this year, think carefully before you make your move into consulting.   It’s not for faint-hearts.