Tag Archives: Trust

The price of leadership: sharing a couch with Robert de Niro

Getting comfy in Noah's Ark

Getting comfy in Noah’s Ark

The other morning, I watched The Record , a programme on BBC Parliament which gives a daily run-through of key events in Westminster.  Obviously, the interview with Bob Diamond by the Treasury Select Committee featured, and if we were to tag the keywords, leadership was certainly the big hitter.

Questioner after questioner asked Mr Diamond about how he viewed his responsibility for running a company that had behaved so dishonestly.  He was asked if he was complicit or incompetent when he said he knew nothing about such mendacious practice. He was challenged about how bad it had to get before it floated to the top of his inbox and he saw the incriminating emails.  ‘Did your staff not feel able to tell you about this?’ was the question from one incredulous MP.

He argued that once he knew of the mal-practice he dealt swiftly, i.e. he sacked the traders. He was asked what he could do now to reassure the public about the value of the Barclays brand.  He was challenged quite a lot about his stand on culture and how he had not spotted that his culture was going bad. His rebuttals about it only being a small amount of staff etc. were rebuffed and so the questions went on for three hours.

He might have garnered some sympathy had he not continued to refer to the MPs by their first names. In a formal situation, with them calling him Mr Diamond, his persistent use of John, George, Andrea rankled and did him no favours. It certainly didn’t help his apparent credibility. Did he learn nothing from the Fred the Shred debacle?  Leaders must be credible. Weasel words and beating of breasts will not cut the mustard. Mr Diamond failed to acknowledge his duty;  a favourite word of mine and one that needs to come back into fashion.  Indeed, I was so pleased to hear it used on the Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze that I stopped ironing and sent a tweet. (What a choice, ironing or tweeting!)

Personally, I am very proud to be leading a growing organisation, albeit the size of a pin head compared to Barclays. I worry a lot about checks and balances, and how you know that what you say on the tin is still happening when you get further away from the front line.  It must be much harder for a larger company, and I often wonder how places like Sainsbury’s manage. On paper, it’s about things such as leadership, systems, operating manuals, key people practices (hiring, induction, performance management and training), communication and engagement with all customers and staff. In reality, it’s about all of that – but mostly it’s about trust and culture. On that matter Mr Diamond is right.

So, what to do?? Give up and run for the hills?  Mr Diamond can do this with the £95m he has paid himself, but it’s not such an option for the rest of us mortals. You could question and worry to such a degree that you might end up on the psychiatrist’s couch. It might be worth it, if only to join the Billy Crystal school of analysis and end up sharing the couch with Robert de Niro.

Leadership elections or popularity contest, you decide.

On Friday, I was delighted to be able to give the keynote speech to the staff of Rainbow Trust, a children’s charity led by their energetic and committed CEO Heather Wood, and one that provides emotional and practical support to families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness.

I am always energised by a good audience and they were great fun, so all in all it was a win-win situation, as I expounded on how good leadership is key if you want to make a difference. It’s a subject I also presented the following day at the Manchester TES Resources conference, and once again it was interesting to get feedback from so many truly committed people, desperate for tips on how to remain good at leading, and at the same time alive and alert to new ways of doing it. I started by suggesting they deserved a star for giving up the only dry Saturday we’ve had of late, or in fact are likely to have in the near future!

On the train back I mused on the more pressing leadership contest in London; yep, the Mayoral and London Assembly elections. Thursday, 3 May gets us a new Mayor (or at least a recycled one), along with 25 London Assembly members. Up to now, I have hardly noticed there even was an election campaign, that was until we had a visit from Harriet Harman and a gaggle of London Assembly candidates to one of our nurseries last week. Clearly some of them need to learn from her polished and experienced performance, and at least try to seem interested. The visit was to raise the importance of childcare to the economy; a subject we have heard very little of so far. Naturally, I have written to both candidates and asked for the re-introduction of the CAP, which Ken introduced during his time in office. Although cumbersome and bureaucratic, it helped women into work by supporting childcare costs, and also offered childcare support to parents whose children are disabled.

So far, what we have seen of this campaign is a few adolescent spats between Boris and Ken, Brian playing the good policeman and Jenny Jones trying to get a voice by being green, not forgetting a few independents – most notably Siobhan Benita, hoping to be elected because she is independent and so above party politics. If only that were enough! She clearly needs to watch more of The Thick of It.

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

Peter Drucker

Either way, you just have to read their blurb; all grand statements about the usual (transport, fares, housing and crime). And of course, everyone loves an apprentice. To give him his dues, the only one who even mentions childcare is Ken. He suggests grants and interest free loans as well as a campaign against government cuts to child tax credits. But will that be enough to get him our vote, or will Boris’ charm win out once again? Either way it feels like a two horse race. Wrong says my son, apparently Lawrence Webb from UKIP is the bookies favourite! …Lawrence Who??

Life can be perfect, so raise a glass of Bollinger to a world of Social Enterprises.

It wasn’t Big Society or social value that got Mr. Cameron out of Downing St to celebrate social businesses, it was money; or at least the draw of it. Big Society Capital, long planned and much mooted by Mr Hurd MP, finally launched; but had it not been for the Prime Minister helping out on the PR front, it’s unlikely many social enterprises would have even noticed.

Of course, there is no doubt we need risk and working capital in the same way that any business does. But how will this shiny new opportunity work? Essentially, Big Society Capital (BSC) is a wholesaler which will lend to social investment finance intermediaries (SIFIs), who will in turn lend to social businesses at a slightly lower interest rate than your average High St Bank. I can only hope that spending on both BSC and all the SIFIs will be kept to a minimum, or the £600m available will soon be frittered away; I also hope that the lending process will be attractive and accessible, and sensibly match the interests of socially motivated investors with the need for capital in the social sector.

At LEYF we have been investigating how to get investment to repeat our model across London for some time now.  We certainly found a lot of rhetoric that did not translate into any meaningful investment; partly because many investors just don’t get social value as a part of an investment return, else the offer to businesses was considered so risk averse that it simply was not viable.  Our real breakthrough was winning a contract to work with the Social Business Trust (SBT) which has brought together six large businesses which cover all elements of investment, finance, business management, communication and compliance.  For us, this has led to us being treated like a proper client, and with the offer of serious money to inject into a thoroughly considered and fully costed growth strategy.  As the team making it happen, SBT get the three elements right: social, business and trust.  This last element, trust, being the actual glue that enables us to form the kind of relationship that will allow real growth, expansion and business sustainability.

I hope the launch of BSC will allow for more SBTs, and the more we use this means of investing for growth, the more confident we will become in the market place. There is of course a risk that smaller and lower economic value businesses will not attract funds through BSC. Nonetheless, it still represents a genuine opportunity for some larger mainstream public sector services to enter the market. The key fact to remember here is that social businesses are set up to respond to a market need, but in a way that adds explicit social value. And if we want to increase this value, we have to saturate the market with social enterprises; and investment can help with this. As Bollinger, sponsors of tomorrow’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race,  proudly declare “Life can be perfect”; and so it can, as long as we have the chance to raise more glasses and celebrate a social enterprise takeover in today’s capitalist society.

Musing over a cocktail in the city

I have just come back from presenting to the judges of the National Business Awards on the 27th floor of the Gherkin.  It was quite daunting, so afterwards I indulged in two happy hour cocktails with our Head of Finance, Neil Fenton; and calming our nerves among the bankers of the city of London, we mused on the concept of the social enterprise business model.

Presenting to skilled, experienced business people and investors means taking a long hard look at the model.  In our case, the LEYF model combines childcare, training, apprenticeships and community engagement in a way that allows as many parents as possible from all backgrounds to access our nurseries. Profits are pursued, but directly built into improving the impact and sustainability of the business, so innovating to create more and better ways to do what we do.  The judges for the National Business Awards asked us a lot about this and we explained about the importance of social capital, justice and trust.

We were particularly pleased to be finalists in the ‘Transformational Change’ category; and even though we may not win, we certainly gave it our best shot.  Describing our performance as lively and one which kept them engaged, Neil and I were referred to as ‘rigour and imagination’ (maybe more Dangermouse and Penfold). I suspect they were surprised to discover social enterprises were so business focused and interested in making a profit. In any case, we will discover if we are to emerge triumphant at a fancy dinner on November 8th. I am not sure I will need to prepare a Kate Winslet speech (perhaps better adopt the Gwyneth Paltrow model). In the meantime, we continue to seek the investment funds needed to scale up the business in our move towards 40 nurseries.  With more than 4 in 10 children still living in poverty across the capital, the kind of service we provide is needed now more than ever.

Afterwards, while sipping a Mai Tai (nicely fruity), I pondered on a remark in yesterday’s Evening Standard (September 19).  Sam Leith was commenting on gesture politics and referred to Will Hutton’s recent book Them and Us which…

…argues persuasively, fairness –  and, crucially, the perception of fairness – makes the weather in a society. Capital is important, but what theorists call “social capital” – the glue that binds us – matters too.”

He is right: social capital does matter; especially unfairness such as London boroughs being able to wipe off debts of up to £135 million pounds from dodged council bills, overpaid benefits and unpaid parking fines. Westminster City Council lost £19million from unpaid parking fees and other traffic violations from foreign cars with diplomatic plates. Would your average Joe Bloggs get away with this? I don’t think so! What about our peers of the realm such as Lord Taylor and Lord Hanningfield – convicted of large scale frauds and fiddling expenses, but still able to retain their peerages on the grounds that life peerages are not technically an ‘honour under the Crown’, and therefore cannot be withdrawn once granted. As Eleanor Roosevelt says:

Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.”

So, while I am not suggesting that social enterprises can alone solve levels of injustice and re-establish trust, I feel that we should at least try and show that enterprise, ethics and an expectation of fairness is possible; and some business models build these into their very fabric. All the more important then that we feature in the National Business Awards and other major business events. We need to be centre stage, and able to explain how and why we add value and contribute to social capital.

Incidentally, if anyone needs a CEO and Head of Finance to deliver ‘Rigour and Imagination’ at a conference, our rates are very reasonable.

PS if the above were not exciting enough, it was also announced earlier today that we are one of  only 25 Award Winners in the Big Venture Challenge, which is great news!  Read more about our pitch and watch this space for how we plan to use the initial £25K investment and other non-financial support.

Science, culture and the great outdoors: the rights of every child

We have it in our power to build the world anew.”

Thomas Paine 1737 -1809

To celebrate 25 years of wedded bliss (well, most of the time), my husband and I headed off on a week of cultural events, stopping in the little town of Lewes.  I was surprised to discover that Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791), had lived here from 1768 to 1774, before heading to America – where he not only changed their constitution but was also central to naming it the United States of America.

For those of you less familiar, The Rights of Man posited that people have natural rights along with responsibilities, but can revolt if the government is failing to safeguard those natural rights and interests. Paine also argued for the ‘Rights of Infants’ to be free from abuse and poverty.  It’s  a modern message and probably worth a re-read, especially for those of us advocating on behalf of children.

I was equally reminded by my long-wedded husband that Thomas Paine also featured in one of his favourite Bob Dylan songs, As I went out one morningThat set the tone of the CDs for the rest of the journey; Mozart to Bob Dylan, both of whom would feature in my Desert Island Discs (having already submitted my collection to the reader’s choice, with a million to one chance they will be played on June 11th). Now, Desert Island Discs being one of my favourite programmes on Radio 4, I have on occasion written to its guests as a direct response to hearing their world view on air; one in particular being Professor David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  I asked his opinion about how we ensure science remains a crucial focus of the Early Years curriculum, as the basis for inspiring interest and excitement in the subject by our youngest children.

At LEYF, we recently conducted a piece of action research in this very area, led in the main by two exemplary practitioners, Maria Anemouri from Eastbury Children’s Centre Nursery and Michelle Samuels from Marsham Street Community Nursery. We asked the question: was science too focused on biology? Upon investigation, we found that it was, and so began a journey which included sending both Maria and Michelle to the Children Scientist Exhibition in Edinburgh. They came back bursting with ideas – along with a great story about staying in a guest house straight out of Fawlty Towers. The simple outcome was a whole set of learning activities they have since developed – from making toothpaste to every kind of volcano – thereby extending the interest of children, parents and staff in more chemical and physics based approaches. It was written up as an article, Putting the Sparkle Back into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, for EYE magazine (vol 12, 8th December 2010), and is now set to form a central plank in the LEYF curriculum.

On a final note this week, I was delighted to hear from Julie Weiss, manager of our Luton Street Community Nursery and a great community organiser herself, how she had arrived safely at Paddington Farm in Glastonbury for a long weekend with seven children, two staff and one apprentice. In this world of risk aversion, health and safety mania and litigious attitudes, I am so proud that LEYF staff are still willing to go beyond their core duties to build in the extra cultural capital which makes such a difference to so many of our children; and equally proud that parents allow their children to go. The farm itself, of which I am proud to be chair, has been reconfigured into a social enterprise (surprise , surprise) and offers a lovely country retreat – with among other delights a willow play area, clay pizza oven, forest school and animals set in a beautiful 43 acre organic farm. It’s a beautiful experience for so many children who rarely get beyond the Edgware Road. I really do think quality indicators for nurseries need to recognise outings, trips and holidays for children, as sadly many hardly venture beyond the nursery door.

It made me wonder what Margaret McMillan (1860 – 1931) might have thought of this attitude – with her movement for outside nurseries and fresh air – or Octavia Hill (1838 – 1912), who set up housing with built in open spaces for children to play as well as organising  holidays and countryside experiences for the children of Marylebone…

Thomas Paine complained in the 18th century ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’; it’s a sentiment I certainly share.

Down on the farm, cultivating an organic approach to Big Society

Alongside the delight of being Chief Executive of LEYF, I am also chair of Paddington Farm Trust.  Established as a charity 20 years ago and now operating as a social enterprise, the Trust provides farm holidays and educational activities for people living in poor urban areas (people more typically disadvantaged by poor physical health, mental illness, economic pressures or simply life circumstances).  The farm itself is based in Somerset and was donated to a group of far-seeing community activists from Paddington at the end of the reign of the GLC; Big Society already successfully at work back in the 1980s.

So this weekend, my fellow trustees and I worked on the annual strategy; and most importantly focused on how we can make up the shortfall from losing our grant which previously made up 12% of our income.  On top of that, we are equally unsure how many of our regular visiting groups (themselves supported by their local authorities) will cease to visit.

Whilst a holiday may well be seen as a luxury in these austere times, supporting the fragile wellbeing of lonely, elderly poor people, those coping with mental or ill health and those recovering from drug and alcohol dependency (not to mention children of all ages from ugly concrete inner city estate) is critical.  Many of these people are already suffering the consequences of a lack of early intervention and have seen their lives unravel by circumstances out of their control.  Few of us are ever more than a few small steps away from disaster; we all try to organise our lives to avoid it, but some have no margin in the face of such overwhelming obstacles.  Last year’s Marmot Report confirmed the five key indicators which could help predict future health: life expectancy, disability-free life expectancy, child development at five, young people out of work and households on means-tested benefits. The report examined local authority data and found inequalities in all areas, leading the government to announce a desire to improve the health of the vulnerable. Quite right; so don’t limit their chance of having a holiday with such huge benefits, from better health to learning new skills.

Back at LEYF, we have always taken a group of up to twelve children to the farm for five days without their parents. The holidays have been universally successful, and the benefits to children and their parent(s) huge. We have never had to come back early and the trust between parents, children and staff has been wonderful; a very clear example of Big Society in action.  Recently, however, we have found it harder to get parents to agree to the ‘risk’ of allowing their children to go on such a break.  Caught between guilt and anxiety, they have reluctantly rejected the offer – not least worried they will be seen as bad parents if anything goes wrong.  Is it any wonder?  Today’s parents are constantly scrutinised by the press, the government and statutory agencies – and so many have lost their self-confidence to do what feels right for them and their children.  In addition, they are operating within an invidious horribleness (again perpetrated by mainstream media), that adults who work with children are closet paedophiles who, given half the chance, would harm their sons or daughters. The shocking truth is that actually children are at much greater risk of harm from within their own family.  What we really need is to put more faith in the fortitude of warm, trusting individual relationships as the basis for more positive human relationships in general.

I left the farm more determined than ever.  And then listening to Radio 4 on my way back, an interview with Francis Maude MP challenged him with the findings of a survey in the Independent on Sunday, proclaiming that while 67% of people had heard of the Big Society, 41% thought it was a cover up for cuts to public sector services.  Is this right?

I had just been on the farm with a bunch of volunteers like Steve, who is designing and building an outdoor classroom from trees in our coppice, which in turn were planted by volunteers from BTCV.  None of them needed encouragement to give their time so generously; they already wanted to give something back to society.

Despite its social enterprise business model, the farm is under pressure because we simply don’t know if we can rely on some of our regular customer groups. LEYF is also facing cuts in contracts for children in need, leaving us nearly one million pounds short this year. But will these cuts affect our attitude to Big Society – or will it simply make us more enterprising and determined; angry and more relentless in our fight for what we believe to be human rights?  It’s hard to say right now, but while I am surrounded by people who are altruistic and unselfish, my spirit remains uplifted and I will continue to find ways to overcome the inhibiting attitudes and self-fulfilling prophecies of the doom and gloom brigade.

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Trust and leadership

It’s a shocking thing to discover that a woman once trusted as a reliable and caring nursery officer could be so influenced by her Svengali-like boyfriend, that she would exploit the trust placed in her by parents and abuse their children. If nothing else, the report from Little Ted’s published yesterday reminds us of the absolutely critical nature of strong leadership, solid management systems and a positive culture – where staff feel able to discuss concerns about colleagues in a way that will be taken seriously.

It also begs the question about whether Ofsted is doing its job. At LEYF, we have had over 50 Ofsted inspections in their various forms. At best these provide little more than a snapshot of any situation, and like most things will depend on the calibre of the inspector. In my book, a good inspection is determined by a number of factors; it should be unplanned, place a heavy emphasis on what is happening during the day, involve lots of observation and engagement with all staff and children, and be led by at least two inspectors who know what they are doing and are then able and willing to engage and discuss all the issues in a shared and intelligent way. There was a time when we had to write an action plan following an inspection, and I think we need to do that again, sending a copy to the local authority so they are also informed.  However, it is also worth noting that inspections from local authority advisory teams, whilst not wielding quite the same power as Ofsted, are equally dependent on the calibre and intelligence of the advisory staff.

Either way this is no time for a game of tit for tat; no-one anticipated the situation in Portsmouth.  But since it was allowed to happen, we really must think and act wisely now if we are to have any chance of being ready to head off the next unknown.