Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blue and Blue Sky

Sometimes you have days in which meeting after meeting helps you put your own life and future in bettter perspective. I am thinking about my future a lot at the moment. Maybe it is because I turn 40 in precisely two months. Or perhaps it is because I sense that my own needs and skills will, at some point in between the near and middle-future, require a new chapter.

The day started with a one-off, free coaching session with a wonderful man called Stephen Crookbain who works in the world of executive search. He helped me realize, definitively, that I don’t, under any circumstances, want to take a `big job’ as CEO or MD of a large social sector organisation.

This is the first time I have written this down publicly because, till now, there was a `never say never’ thing in my mind. But there isn’t any more and I feel better already. Sure, my only channel to plenty of money has probably closed but it feels a relief to say `No, that isn’t my journey’.

Then I went to the Commons to meet Nick Hurd, the Shadow Charities Minister. Nick is a likeable man with a good mind and is sincere, I believe, in his vision for the sector as a vibrant, independent sector which enjoys a more trusting, less bureaucratic relationship with the state. “What do you think of our Green Paper?” was his question.

My answer was that I liked its overall message and that it was refreshingly candid and accurate in its understanding of the challenges. Where I felt it could be clearer was on the question of how the sector can, on the one hand deliver more of what is currently delivered (often badly) by the state while remaining independent from it, its roots firmly in civil society. I sense it will take something more than trust and partnership to cover the transfer of resources that such a move would imply.

The realities of power would, I think, make it very difficult, for a new government to invest into the sector without clear `contractual’ relationships, in which the outcomes are not defined disporoportinatley by the budget-holder.

We talked about how Speaking Up has developed and he was interested to hear about the contrast between the ways different types of funder operate, from Impetus Trust on one side – where the agreement was one sheet of A4 – to certain Government funders who ask for copies of my diary and emails (I wonder if they actually ring the people I meet to ask what we discussed, what I was wearing etc).

The afternoon brought me to Mick May, founder of Blue Sky. There is only one qualification to work for Blue Sky. That you have a criminal record. Mick excepted. He is an ex-banker who did nothing naughty (according to himself) and got out years ago before his soul was corroded into nothing. He spent a year out of work and eventually got a job with Groundwork. This morphed, after a time, into Blue Sky which started in West London and is now branching out in Manchester.

Mick is one of those magnetic story-telling entrepreneurs in whose presence it is easy to fall under a spell. `So what's the truth of it all?' I ask, in response to my own reaction. Well, not everyone gets jobs and yes its very bloody hard all the time. And the secrets to its success? Having ex-cons as operations managers is a big factor, he tells me. Because the men respect them. The one non-con (and ex-copper)didn't last five minutes.

The Blue Sky story is one worth hearing and I hope Mick gets to tell it to more people as Blue Sky grows. He pops us in Nick Hurd's speeches all the time, being just on the London MPs doorstep. They are both former bankers, he says, with a smile. Mick himself comes across as a man re-born. He says he had to wait till 45 till he did what he wanted in life. He says that I (at a mere 40) have done it all so young'. And it did feel like a weird inversion, me the grizzled pro wondering about life as a retired social entrepreneur, Mick a decade older, totally mad for it.

He emailed me afterwards thanking me for a great meeting. It felt like it should have been me delivering the thanks.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Art of Communication

You may have heard recently that Spandau Ballet are reforming and going on tour. One of their many hits (they were one of my `guilty pleasure’ bands as a teenager, alongside my more public following of the Smiths etc) was a song called `Communication (let me down)’,

I’ve been thinking about communication quite a lot recently both in my professional and personal life. At work, we have been introducing some changes, part as an immediate response to recession, part to make sure the organisation is fit for purpose and prepared for whatever is ahead of us long-term. Thankfully, there are no redundancies and, when compared to what is going on even in other charities (cuts in budgets, major job losses, aggressive restructuring), our is low-richter-scale change.

However, I have been surprised at the level of response to these modest proposals. Which is not so much about the content of the change (people, by and large are OK with it, with notable exceptions) but the way it feels `done unto' to some people. Quite a few people have felt communication to be poor. This is despite quite a lot of time and effort from some very able people going into the very question of how we communicate the change. So a condundrum. Despite heaps of effort, not all of our communication hits the mark.

This leads to an obvious question: what indeed does good communication actually looks like in organisations? Although clearly not an expert, I have three hunches. The first is timing. People seem to respond better if the timing is right. Trouble is, of course, organisations cannot privilege some over others in terms of releasing vital information. Meaning one person’s good time may be another’s terrible time. Rules and regs mean we can't have `quiet chats',or discreet, off-the-record `heads-up' to particular key people etc, even when these are what both the person and the organisation probably would benefit most from.

The second is about medium. Being taken through plans in person is always better than by letter or email. Because it all has to be simulatanous - or worse, in some bizzare rote-order dictated by employment law, communication tends often to be electronic. This is inherently cold, even if you warm the language up a bit.

The third is about just this: tone and `humanity’. Often communication about change in organisations defaults into structural, metallic sounding language, which makes people feel immediately on guard. Again, this is partly what the rules of employment laws demand we do, but it seems to really grate with people and put them on an immediate defensive and break long-held `psychological contracts' that people feel they have with the organisation.

The really challenging thing for me as CEO of an organisation which is genuinely caring for its people is how even we, tend to struggle at important time with communication.

It can, at times, feel almost inevitable to do it a particular way, without either breaching legal processes or principles of fairness around access to information. Yet, at the same time, the standard organizational communication template, to which most organisations adhere, seems to cause real problems in terms of how people feel who are on the receiving end.

It is an interesting conundrum and not one unique to my organisation, which is why I feel I can talk about it openly. And it begs the bigger question of how we do communicate really well in organisations that contain many people.

Unfortunately neither Tony Hadley or Steven Morrissey have answers to either.

Friday, April 24, 2009


We are having some fine morning and evenings this April. Here in Nowton, the seasons are inescapable and we’re currently seeing an eruption of green as the park takes it summer colours.

My first sight on waking each day are the ancient trees behind our house,one of which is, sadly, dying. They are beautiful in the morning sunlight and soften the senses before the days occupations arrive.

That sight is followed, almost immediately, by that of my boy whose cries have roused me from sleep. He is regular, is Wilf. Six thirty on the dot most days. Earlier if he’s ill.

Wilf is my second child. He was just born nineteen months after his sister, Ruby. He was a December baby and arrived just as the holidays began. However, unlike with Ruby, whose arrival I greeted with immediate floods of love and tears, I felt oddly detached about Wilf. And this continued for quite some time, several months in fact.

I actually got a bit worried, so different was the feeling. I knew I loved him - but in a kind of abstract, distant way. I did all the same things but it felt an echo of how it had the first time. Of course I felt guilty, a bit, but more perplexed than anything, if I am honest.

Then, suddenly, several months down the line, out of nowhere, I fell for him. Almost to the other extreme where he is now in the front of my mind more than I sometimes think he should be. I now love him utterly and totally and looking at him melts my heart.

It might be that, finally, we connected. As a newborn he was often ill and cried constantly. Plus he cleaved to Katy and seemed to be be very much what Louden Wainright III described in his song about his young son, `Rufus is a Tit-Man'.

However this did change once I could do more for him. I realised too that he is probably going to be more like me than my daughter. Wilf is clearly quite a delicate chap, unlike his gregarious, happy-go-lucky sister. He is a smallish baby and I will be surprised if he grows any taller than five six or seven. He has also taken longer or burble than his sister. I suspect he'll be a late-developer, like his dad.

I love Wilf in a very different way to the way I love my daughter. Just as passionately but definitely differently. More protectively perhaps. I sense that many people love their children in different ways - and sometimes less than their other kids, truth be told.

Yet this remains fairly taboo, despite many people reporting it in their own lives as children. Which is unfortunate, as I am sure I am not the only parent in the world who hasn't been sure whether they would ever love their child as much as they really should.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Laughter and Life

Sleep deprivation teaches you lots of things. It gives you a sense of what it must like being old, really old.

Today, following a night up with Ruby, who has chicken-pox, my mind is full of headachey fog. I keep dropping things. It takes me ages to get anything done. Thinking is hard. Every movement feels like an effort and all I want to do is just...sit down.

The best book I have ever read about ageing is by Diane Athill who last year wrote `Somewhere Towards the End' at the age of 91. While old people formed an important part of my life until quite recently, I never quite grasped what it was like to be encased in an old body until I read her book.

A successful old age, it transpires is about being able to successfully manage ones decline and to take delight in the small things. After a while, the absence of ailment feels, in itself, a blessing. The touch of air on skin. A child's smile. A tasty tomato. All of these become bigger pleasures as death nears - if you're someone whose pot is half-full.

As someone in `the prime of life' who is also often anxious and disconsolate, despite all the good things I have going for me, I fair-dread the onset of old age. I struggle, at times, to take pleasure in the big things, never mind the small ones.

And I worry too much. Far too much. I zap one worry only for another to come along, like an unending game of Pac Man. In fact, I think I probably need to be hypnotized or something. There's a Paul McKenna book in there somewhere... `I Can Make You Chill'.

I am not alone though. This inability to really enjoy the good things in life seems
to intensify in middle-age. I was reading today that Richard Curtis, that scion of comedy, said that he hasn't laughed, really laughed, since about 1982.

Although I laugh a lot (not least at my daughter's night-time interpretation of her angrychicken-pox as `A MOUSE IN MY BED DADDY!!!') something registered here. Even when I was a teenager, and, believe me, I was your typical depressive Smith-fan teen (what would be today termed an `EMO'), I recall collapsing in uncontollable laughter at something or other on a near-daily basis.

I don't remember when I last did that and indeed wonder if I will ever again. In fact, the nearest I came to this was last year when my terrier-dog ran up and nipped the arse of a particular reviled neighbour when she was putting out her bin.

What that says about me I would prefer not explore.

Anyway, the sun is out and I am about to go out to see if anyone will vote for me in June. Happy days!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Holidays

Holidays are good. Not only do they refresh the body but a new place, a new routine also shuffle the synapses. We were in the South Downs, by the sea. I did a few long, hard eight-mile runs on the compacted sand of Bracklesham Bay. I did 24/7 parenthood. And, as always, I was glad to get back to home turf.

Although I've got better in recent years, holidays have been a challenge for most of my living memory. As a kid, I seldom enjoyed the forced proximity of all four of us in some caravan or guest house. As an adult, I either can't fully switch off or feel a bit more anxious than usual, free from the usual preoccupations.

Yes, holidays remind me of how, at the end of the day, I am a bit of a worrier for whom work is a kind of balm. A place where I can make lists and ticks them off. Where I can be in control. Where I am on top of things and myself. Take me out of this and I feel a less solid proposition altogether.

We liked the South Coast. It was warm and gentle. Palm trees fringed the garden. The people were less impressive. There is a self-satisfied air to many of them. This is the place where the wealthy retire. For this reason, I am not sure I would go back. But we enjoyed it overall.

I got to read. Jonathan Littell is a US writer, raised in France. Two years ago he published `The Kindly Ones' in French. 5000 copies were printed. He has now sold a million and has just come out in English. Its a fictional first hand account of Max Aue, an SS Intelligence officer. Aue is a bureaucrat who doesn't know how to fire a gun properly. His job is to help the SS to organise its grisly work. The central thesis of the book is that the Holocaust wasn't the work of `monsters' or sadists but ordinary men. People like Max Aue. Intellectual. Aesthete. Killer.

Littell's intention is to make you ask yourself if you would have stepped back from following orders to kill defenseless people, as troops could do, if they chose, without fear of punishment. In reality few did. They just got used to it, saw it as work. Unpleasant work, but for the greater good. Sure, there were both sadists and people who cracked up with guilt but, on the whole, you just got on with it.

I would advise anybody to read this book. While very upsetting and graphic at times, it is also provides a fresh voice in this much written about area. The voice of the SS officer. Not an `ordinary' man but not necessarily someone who would normally kill or oversee killing. At 900 pages it is rather vast but you will not be disappointed.

Friday, April 3, 2009


My last day before heading off the south coast to spend Easter getting to know Katy and the kids again after a few weeks of frenetic activity. First week off since Christmas and, I sense, just in time. We are house-swopping for the first time. The website is full of nice houses owned by people who don't have loads of spare cash for proper holidays. I feel both excited, and slightly nervous!

Had a good run-in this week: Rattled off my Guardian and Third Sector pieces without too much pain, had excellent meetings with Jonathan Lewis, CEO of Futurebuilders and Peter Holbrook of Sunlight, which is probably my favourite social business of all time. Another keynote yesterday, this time at the Big Lottery Fund. Essentially about what to do now that Lottery money isn't really there any more. Didn't dare charge for that one, given how much we've had off the Lottery down the years

And between times lots of lovely work work inside Speaking Up. I don't talk about that stuff much here, but I have to say, we have such good people in our organisation. The people really make the place what it is. And I can't praise my senior team enough. They really are what every CEO dreams about. How else do you think I manage to spend so much time doing what I think a CEO should do: build profile, plan for the future, make the right connections.

Something has bothered me a lot recently though. Not to with us but to do with one of our major contracts with a state organisation which shall remain unnamed here. Working with most of our government partners, whether local or national, is, most of the time, fine. The monitoring can be onerous at times, but seldom excessive.

Last week, however, I learned that a body paid by the state wanted to know not only who I had met in recent times but also wanted copies of my calendar and email correspondence to prove that I was not making things up. This was part of an audit which, bizarrely, has now to be audited by somebody else, not from the monitoring body, to check their audit wasn't phoney.

Civil liberties issues aside, this captures perfectly where I think things have gone a bit wrong in government this last few years. People are being paid to watch the people who are watching us watch ourselves. It does not indicate trust. It sends a very bad message. It doesn't help anyone, least of all the people we are all seeking to serve. Yes it is public money. And that's exactly my point. If the public actually knew about this waste - which of course they never will, it is never actually calculated - they would be scandalised.

As you will know now, I am not a Tory but Cameron stuck a very strong note with me recently when he said (I think at Voice 09) that the relationship between the state and its people (including the third sector) needs to start from a position of trust. I don't feel particularly trusted right now, knowing someone somewhere is poring over my diary, possibly ringing people to check we met, what we talked about etc.

Time for a new approach. Time a holdiday. Back online 14th April.