6 different perspectives on leadership

4 Nov

It’s been a couple of months since I last updated this blog, and that’s partly because this is always the busiest quarter of the year in the social sector, or at least at Social Enterprise UK. Added to this normal season of awards, events, tender deadlines, research reports and more has been added the fact that I’m changing jobs – in January I start at Social Investment Business, leaving SEUK after 6 years.

When I have a bit of time for thinking and reading, I have somewhat inevitably, therefore, been turning towards articles about leadership. So I thought I’d share six that I’ve found useful, challenging or enlightening in recent weeks.

1) 12 Lessons (Un)Learned from a year of philanthropy. The McConnell Foundation in Canada have long been one of the leaders in their field, and this is an interesting and insightful reminder of humility, being on-hand, thinking as a network and more.

2) 5 things digital leaders do differently – a nice, succinct post from Zoe Amar which, although something of a marketing piece for her (highly regarded) programme with the SSE, has some good content. Some of the points apply regardless of the word ‘digital’ in front of them (“Digital leaders embrace risk”; “Digital leaders have insatiable curiosity”) and there is some interesting stuff on how digital can aid customer relationships, business development and transparency.

3) Leadership in public service is too punitive and too unforgiving – this is an interesting response from a headteacher to Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference. A reminder about the importance of empathy and not pretending that leadership is heroism.

4) 4 steps to driving social change through people – while I’m not wild about the title (the article is very much about achieving things with people!), this is a candid and insightful piece from Mark Norbury at UnLtd. I think the part about a constant, continuing clarification of what not to do (or a framework for making those decisions) resonated most with me.

5) How can we build on clicktivism to harness diversity – this piece by Becca Bunce details how she became an ‘accidental’ leader and campaigner (on the Istanbul Convention combating violence against women), and is part of ACEVO’s ‘30’ series to celebrate 30 years of existence. It’s excellent and challenges the lazy thinking of people (like me) who dismiss online campaigning as ‘slacktivism’. It’s also excellent on the ability of online tools to expand diversity but also to restrict it.

6) Good Leaders are Good Learners – HBR articles have a tendency to disappear up their own fundament, but there is some useful stuff here about being in learning mode and supporting the development of that mindset in others.

Enjoy!

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In search of competence…as a business strategy

27 Aug

I jokingly said during the general election earlier this year that I wasn’t so much in search of excellence (a la Tom Peters) from the parties but in search of competence. An old joke that I stole from a voluntary sector leader giving a speech: but like all the best jokes, it has a big grain of truth in it. I was reminded of this, listening to the HBR podcast the other day. The HBR podcast is a mixed bag: quite often it features management consultants who have invented some new thing about big companies in order to sell themselves to the same big companies, who largely trundle on as they did before (recent examples of this genre include “how to survive being labelled a star” (we’ve all been there) and “reduce organisational drag”, both of which are consistently moments away from disappearing up their own fundament). The title of the last episode caught my eye though: “Basic Competence Can Be A Strategy” (link is to the transcript of the podcast). 

It’s an interesting listen/read – largely about management, and how people think they are all above-average, and how many are simply missing the fundamentals. Setting an agenda for meetings, taking actions and following up on them, washing your hands before surgery, taking the time to ensure people understand or know what the plan is…and so on. It reminded me of another book on a similar topic, the Checklist Manifesto (by the wonderful American healthcare writer Atul Gawande) which, as the name would suggest, largely promotes the checklist as a way to ensure things get done: in the right order, and that nothing gets missed. This can apply everywhere – when people call Social Enterprise UK, a list can ensure we don’t miss anything key (do you want to join? Do you want to be signed up to the newsletter? Here are the organisations that can help with x and so forth).

I was also reminded of it by the nonsense that is the NFL GamePass in Europe right now. For the uninitiated, NFL is the organisation that runs American Football in the US; I’m a fan, so I enjoy watching the games. You can do this illegally via streaming, but I have paid for the GamePass app which is  (or has been) a great way of watching and moving between games every Sunday. It’s not a cheap product, but it works really well, and so I’ve been happy to pay for it. I’m also such a fan that, along with some other social enterprise types, I’ve been going to the American Football games in London for about a decade.

In their wisdom, ahead of this season, the powers that be at NFL / NFL UK have decided to licence GamePass to a new European developer / promoter (a new joint venture created by Bruin Sports Capital and WPP). Unfortunately, in their wish to, I assume, squeeze more dollars out of the game, they have managed to create a product that a) has fewer features // b) costs the same // c) doesn’t work for many on the platforms they previously used // d) can’t be paid for in instalments. Additionally, just for fun, they’ve thrown in some major errors on payments (some people want to pay and can’t; some have been charged and aren’t being refunded). And for the cherry on top, there has been no communication from the people who made the decisions.

Setting aside personal irritation, (I’m waiting to see if they can sort it out before putting down any £), this is a great example of how basic competence is key to business. None of this is complicated: if you are changing something that works, give yourself enough time to make sure the replacement works; don’t remove payment options (that actually lose you customers); don’t change key useability of things without letting customers know in advance; and don’t be silent in the face of a barrage of emails, social media and fan forum criticism. And yet, it can be missed in the search for the next big thing, or on what other stakeholders (Investors? New business partners?) think is important. We all have our own equivalents of the new app, or the change to existing systems; & our own examples of taking the eye of the ball of the basics.

The lesson isn’t ‘don’t ever change’, obviously – small improvements and big leaps of new strategy are crucial at different times to businesses growing and staying relevant. But changes bring risks: and where they affect your main customers, they are critical. The lesson for all businesses is to plan well, do the basics, tick the things of the list, and constantly communicate with your customers. They are the heart of your business, and neglecting them is, well, incompetent. 

[image by the wonderful thisisindexed.com ]

11 essential social enterprise & entrepreneurship reads

30 Apr

I was happily scanning Twitter the other evening and came across a tweet from charity luminary Martin Brookes who asked “Charity types – can you recommend good articles, books or thinkers on what modern/21st century charities should look like, please? Thanks.” It’s worth checking out the answers from people more plugged into current charity thinking in response to the tweet. A couple of links that I’ll be following up on include articles on digital futures and ethics particularly.

I threw in a few suggestions, more from the social enterprise perspective, and it got me thinking about what would be the books that I would recommend to someone trying to get good insight and practical thinking for their social enterprise, responsible business, enterprising charity or new ethical start-up. So here are the ones that I rate, use and draw on myself.

1) Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits
Written by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod, this follows the Good to Great template of Jim Collins and tries to establish the key factors that make a successful charity or social enterprise. It’s obviously US-centric, but there’s plenty of interest here that still stands up a full decade after the first edition (it was updated in 2012): on leadership, on how to inspire advocates, on earning income (in pursuit of mission) and on combining service with advocacy.

2) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Tim Harford is best known for his Undercover Economist colum in the Financial Times, and for being at the helm of the excellent More Or Less statistics podcast. This book is well worth a read, too, though – because at a time when social sector organisations need to a) test out new approaches b) have constrained resources and c) have no idea what is round the corner, being able to adapt is critical. There are important lessons here on how to ‘bet small’ with new ideas, on how to be resilient, and how to respond to changing conditions.

3) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
This book by Susan Cain has had me thinking more deeply about the ‘workplace’ and ‘team’ than probably any other in recent years. Social enterprise is about inclusion and accessibility, and we rightly focus on the track record of better representation of women, those with disabilities and those from different ethnic backgrounds. But this book too, at its heart, is about inclusion – of those who learn, work, communicate and contribute differently. As someone who chairs networks, convenes groups, facilitates workshops and tries to build a team and foster a culture, it’s a hugely relevant and important read. Unless you’re not interested in how you get the best out of everyone in your organisation…

4) Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck
I read this a long time ago, but still go back to its core essentials. The Heath brothers have written a couple of books since (about making decisions and about making a big change) but I think both pale compared to this, their first, which focuses on how to get messages across. For many in the social and ethical business space, this is a key area – we still underinvest in marketing, we still struggle to refine and articulate a core message (either for individual enterprises or as a movement) and yet we have the best stories: of transformation, of change, of the future. There’s some good practical advice in the Heaths’ SUCCESS formula that’s worth taking note of.

5) The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout
Beth Kanter is one of the most engaging and informative writers on all things social sector (aka non-profit) in the US. For many years, she was my go-to read on social media meets social sector, and this more recent book focuses on self-care – of individuals and organisations. As the oft-repeated saying goes, survival rate is meant to refer to the enterprise not the founding entrepreneur – and the swiftest route to not creating impact is to burn yourself and your team out. Thinking about that from the start – and what a similar approach might mean for your organisation – make this a good, healthy read.

6) The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z
Whichever way you look at the data, there is a growing number of social and ethical start-ups being established by a whole range of people. And an almost equivalent number of intermediaries giving support, advice, business plan frameworks, funding, investment and legal structures advice. At Social Enterprise UK, we also have a rewritten and re-designed start-up guide coming soon, to respond to the level of demands and enquiries we get. For a more personal perspective and one that I think rings true from what I’ve seen in our world, I recommend Liam’s book – it’s real and honest about the anxiety, about the money, about the basics and about much more besides for budding (and current) social entrepreneurs.

7) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
Underlying the growth of social enterprise and hybrid business models is an increasing understanding and acceptance that the way that capitalism and business is run currently is simply not working. I wrote about some of the aspects of this in my recent post on an inclusive industrial strategy (value, productivity, growth, resources), but there are people who’ve been giving substantive thought to this for years. Kate Raworth is one of those – someone proposing what economics and economic thinking should look like in the future. If you want some intellectual heft and academic clout to back up your arguments, start here.

8) Estates: An Intimate History
Social mobility, creating opportunity and the myth of meritocracy seem to me like some of the central challenges and problems we face. This book by Lynsey Hanley is a memoir but one with universal learning and appeal, particularly on how the physical walls and barriers are matched by psychological ones. A must-read for anyone wanting to get a personal insight into housing, employment and opportunity in modern Britain.

9) Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business
One of the central premises of social enterprise and, even more so, co-operatives and mutuals is that it puts employees, the community, and beneficiaries (or service users or whatever other synonym you want to use) at the heart of the business in a different way: in the governance, in decision-making, in the design of programmes and so on. But this premise isn’t always carried through, and I think there are still lessons to learn from other sectors. This book shares learning from some businesses big and small, and from years of customer service and satisfaction research: good insights aplenty.

10) What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
In this space where charity meets business, where money meets mission, the trade-offs between the commercial and the social are always at the forefront; indeed, they are at the centre of many of the main debates and areas of contention in social enterprise. This book by Michael Sandel is a brilliant exploration of how far the commercialisation and marketisation of our society can and should go – and what those limits mean for the world we want to live in and want to build. Thinking to inform your day-to-day.

11) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
A final dose of reality. It’s long been my view that much of success in social enterprise (indeed, in most things) is down to passion and perseverance. The imported myths of Silicon Valley incubation and super-speed scaling apply to only a small sub-set of (mostly tech-based) social businesses, and most of the other successes have passion, perseverance and commitment in common. Combined with luck, timing, and a great team, perseverance is as critical a thing to have in your locker as anything. And now there is research to back up this view – which provides the solid underpinnings to this book, which should give hope and succour to every entrepreneur who is battling to not only stay afloat but do more and do better.

Happy reading!

An inclusive industrial strategy….

26 Apr

I’ve written a blog over at Social Enterprise UK towers which might be of interest, all about what an industrial strategy for an inclusive economy might look like. Which mostly talks about:

– being growth agnostic

– changing how we think about productivity…and value

– creating opportunities and being unafraid of ownership

– using procurement for policy ends

Click here to read the whole piece….

Back to busyness: 9 interesting reads on innovation, Brexit and social enterprise

12 Feb

2c5888300bc91e05b7053ce1d8bc53adIt’s been an extremely busy start to the year. I know that saying “I’m busy” is often code for saying “I’m important” but I’m using it in the literal rather than the self-puffery sense. We just had one of our flagship events, the Social Value Summit, with 340 people from across sectors, and have our health conference coming up in early March. Both gone/going well, but logistically stretching. Along with some interesting work with members like HCT and SASC and with councils like Staffordshire and Cheshire & Warrington, a new chair, business planning, Buy Social training with companies, the next State of Social Enterprise (& international versions), advocacy with a (new-ish) government, and the core work of membership recruitment and retention. It definitely feels like we are doing more for less (or more with less people, certainly – I’m thinking of including ‘how many people do you think work at Social Enterprise UK?‘ in our membership survey as a proxy indicator for ‘punching above our weight’). And it’s enjoyable as well as hard work.

It’s also been a very non-London January and February, which is great. So far this year, I’ve been to Birmingham (x2), Bolton, Leatherhead, Liverpool (x2), Oxford, Stafford, and Wolverhampton. Cardiff, Leeds, Middlewich, Plymouth and Totnes all follow before the end of the month. As ever, the benefit of racking up the rail miles is a chance to listen and read interesting material, as well as try and catch up on the emails. So here’s a few things I’ve read recently that I found interesting – well worth making time / train trips for.

  1. Dominic Cummings: How the Brexit referendum was won – Amongst the infuriation you may feel if you voted Remain, there is much of interest in this (long) article from one of the architects of the successful Vote Leave campaign – on the use of digital, on the bubble of Westminster / media, and much more besides
  2. A new paradigm – towards a user-centred social sector – interesting provocation from Tris Lumley at NPC on increasing ownership, engagement and accountability with those normally called ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘service users’ in the social sector. I think it goes a bit far towards the end on the potential of investment to scale specific solutions (language we have heard for years without any evidence any of the approaches has worked), but the point about the disruptive nature and potential of tech is well-made and important.
  3. The Year In Social Enterprise – a 2016 Legislative Review – just as scanning the recruitment pages is often the best way to find out what an organisation is doing / planning, so looking at the realities of what is being brought in in different countries can help document progress of social enterprise. For example, ‘renewed interest in L3C’ isn’t something you hear over here from the US. Likewise, a look at the European Social Enterprise Law Association‘s updates reveals new legislation in Greece, with Bulgaria, Slovakia, Malta, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Estonia also in the process of enacting laws to support social enterprise.
  4. Making Technology Work for the Most Vulnerable – the headline says it all really, and although the article outlines the beginning of thinking rather than any concrete conclusions, this will be one of the key debates of our time. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we define productivity particularly ‘labour productivity’ – it strikes me that we need to invert our thinking on this in the same way that Greyston Bakery does in its famous social enterprise strapline: We don’t hire people to bake cookies; we bake cookies to hire people. Might outputs:outcomes be a more sensible way forward, rather than inputs:outputs?
  5. Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation – a nice piece from Paul Taylor who works at Bromford, a Midlands-based housing association. Although the headline should probably be ‘why short-term collaboration does not equal innovation’ as that is the primary thrust of what he’s saying here. I agree with everything else here. [On which note, you could check out the 2012 SSIR article on how Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail in the social sector]
  6. Why Being Results-Oriented is Actually Bad – I’m not sure about using poker as a benchmark for business, but I like the contrarian view here, and the focus on making good decisions and trusting the process.
  7. Faulty by Design – the state of public sector commissioning (pdf) – not cheery reading, but some good detailed analysis of the fragmentation and barriers to getting more from public services. Unfortunately, it is just an analysis of everything that’s wrong….presumably a follow-up with some solutions is coming!
  8. Reflecting on Millions Learning: Lessons from Teach First’s scaling story – Teach First isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I have some doubts about the transfer of the model to social work and policing. But there’s no doubting the scale of its achievement – to become one of the largest graduate recruiters in the UK in 15 years and support over 1 million people. There’s some interesting lessons here from their outgoing CEO Brett Wigdortz on scale: timing, luck, being ready, thinking system-wide, have the right mindset and more.
  9. Industrial strategy and the challenge of inclusive growth – two phrases bandied around a hell of a lot at the moment (in policy wonky, political and media circles): industrial strategy and inclusive growth. For me, this starts to tentatively put some ideas forward on how the two can be sensibly linked, but it’s very tentative and framed within current confines of thinking. There is a lot of think-tank action on these topics, and a lot of analysis – but few looking at those organisations (including social enterprises) which have developed inclusive, growing business models. I find that odd – work to do.

Happy reading.

 

 

5 New Year books to get you thinking differently

15 Jan

brains-on-fireLast January (2016), I resolved to read a book a week, which I just about managed to stick to (see my other blog, Dog Eared Man, for 52 weeks of reviews), and I’m trying to carry on this year as well. If you like a diet of police procedurals, business books, Kindle Daily Deals and Scandinavian crime, I’m your man. Recommendations welcome – I’m going through the New Yorker’s Books We Loved in 2016
at the moment.

I noticed that Amazon, in its wisdom, had a ‘New Year, New You’ sale which has actually got some good stuff to get you thinking differently. So I thought I’d draw up a little list of 5 books from last year that got me thinking differently, some of which are in the sale.

  1. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – just a brilliant book by a brilliant man on a hugely important subject: death and how we die. But it goes much further than that, with the central question really being about what makes us happy, and what is progress. Essential reading (and find his Reith lectures online too).
  2. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson – Ronson is another author you can’t really go wrong with, but I think this is one of his strongest. It’s all about social media and the ramifications of the ‘mob’ mentality and the ‘transparency’ that comes with Twitter and Facebook and all that that involves. It’s a fascinating look at an incredibly fast-changing part of modern life; and it is by turns funny and deeply sad as well.
  3. Quiet by Susan Cain – all about introversion and the (unrealised) power of introverts. There’s much here to challenge some long-held beliefs, and things that challenge (people like me) who tend to be comfortable speaking, ‘holding court’ and in outward communication. Great ideas here on recruitment, workspaces, meetings and more. If you’re ‘Loud’, it’s just as important you read it.
  4. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall – the subtitle of this book says it all (10 Maps that Tell you Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics) and it’s the book that made me feel most ignorant reading it and that also had the most ‘blimey, I had never thought of that’ moments. The combination of historical perspective and geographical foundations makes for a read that usefully took me out of the spiralling 24-hour news here & now.
  5. On the Move by Oliver Sacks – Sacks is, of course, best known for his books about the patients he worked with (AwakeningsThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat etc), but this is his biography, and it’s hugely entertaining. What struck me reading this is the sheer energy and adventure with which he approaches life and a reminder to never assume you know a whole person. Sacks is full of surprises, contradictions, and unexpected views – and is all the richer for it.

Others in the sale worth a look – The Examined Life, The Lean Start-up, Decisive.

Happy reading and Happy New Year.

10 things to read ahead of 2017

23 Dec

stay-curiousIt’s that time of year when I finally get somewhere near the end of the inbox and to-do list, and catch up on the hundreds of things I’ve bookmarked and haven’t read.

So here’s some I have managed to read and that I recommend:

1) Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives – I’m an enormous fan of Oliver Burkeman, and highly recommend his books which are an antidote to all the nonsensical self-help books out there. This is equally sensible in relation to email and time management (and the myths associated with it). Obviously ironic to start with this one given my comment about inbox / to-do list.

2) Disagree with the result but you can learn from Trump and Brexit campaigns – The page headline rather says it all, but there’s much good sense here for all of us in the social sector and in the policy space. Includes a great quote from Craig Oliver in number 10 that I’m tempted to pin up in our office…

3) The Gig Economy…and making it work? – I am no fan of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ and am glad that it’s started to be called the ‘gig’ economy. This post focuses on the reality of the ‘jobs’ that are being created, and starts to explore what can be done about it.

4) Tech and the Low Wage Workforce – friend or foe? – follows on from number 3 with a really fascinating look at how tech could be used to *help* the low wage workforce, rather than find ever more creative ways to exploit them. Genuine ‘tech for good’ initiative, in the face of a lot of app-lite bollocks.

5) Why there will never be an Uber for Healthcare – this is a good rejoinder for anyone who lapses into ‘what we need is an uber for [insert sector / industry]’. No we don’t.

6) Across the Returns Continuum – not a title to set the pulse racing, and it’s a long read; but it’s an interesting one with much to ponder on social impact and financial return, how they can be achieved, how they should be thought about, and how best to operate across the continuum.

7) Why For-Profit Education Fails – US context, of course, but interesting and relevant to not only our approaches to education here, but our approaches to public services more broadly. NB – isn’t an anti-privatisation piece.

8) Ten Steps to Sustainable Innovation – Mike Barry heads up Plan A at Marks & Spencer and is a leading thinker on this stuff; I found this a useful and practical piece of writing. Ten steps to follow. [gratuitous promo – Mike B will be speaking at the Social Value Summit in February]

9) An Entrepreneurial Society Needs an Entrepreneurial State – Mariana Mazzucato’s profile continues to rise, and she continues to puncture the nonsensical binary private vs public sector narratives we hear so often.

10) We need incremental improvements, not grand projects – I am, by nature, an incrementalist, so this appealed a lot. John Kay is talking about infrastructure here, but you could apply the same logic to many other areas. Strapline for 2017? “A multiplicity of incremental projects”. Catchy.

Have a great Xmas & 2017 all.