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Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Merry Month of May

I love May, most of us do. This year we have had to be patient waiting for the blossom and the fresh green of spring, but it is here today (although of course, as we have come to expect it may rain tomorrow).

This May I seem to have been busier than usual, so the poor weather has not distressed me so much, as I would have had little time to enjoy a glorious spring. We did enjoy quite good weather for the early May bank holiday, and spent a few days at Arnside birdwatching around beautiful Morecambe Bay. But that all seems so far away now...

I have been in London a lot this month with all my Boards meeting and all Metropolitan subsidiary and Committee Meetings falling in the same month as the Board. I've done five days and four overnights in London in the last three weeks, and almost felt like an interim again. My hectic schedule has included Sheffield Hallam and Compass Boards as well as all the Metropolitan meetings, being interviewed for a contract, interviewing candidates for Director roles,  being a participant in a workshop on different approaches to management, joining in a presentation on equalities and fairness, giving a presentation about housing for older people and people with dementia, helping to facilitate an intergenerational action learning set, visiting a drug and alcohol service, as well as catching up with colleagues to support them through change and share ideas for the future, and with friends for food, wine and laughter. I also spent some time in beautiful Rosedale researching my family history, and a wonderful day in Mortlake writing poems with people I had never met before, but hope to see again. And if I didn't see my family every day, I certainly spoke to them.

I have been tired and footsore this month, probably not very profitable, but I  have been fulfilled, stimulated and very very blessed. As I sit down to write this week, of all of the many things that have happened this month, what is likely to stay with me, what have I reflected on most, what have I learned and what would be good to share? I've chosen just two quite contrasting things, one philosophical, one more political which reflect the breadth of my work and the  issues that interest us at The Open Channel


Get out of your comfort zone occasionally, but ask yourself what is it that makes you most comfortable - when are you truly yourself?

Stretching  and extending yourself is a way to grow and develop your skills. Some of the things I do are well within my comfort zone, many are a stretch, although an easy enough stretch, some are a harder stretch, and occasionally some are downright scary. Interviews for jobs or contracts are always scary, not just because you might make a fool of yourself on the day, but because the fear of rejection is inherent within them. This month I have been on both sides of the recruitment table, and tried in both cases to make the experience as pleasant and constructive as possible. Whatever the outcome, there is scope for learning - about how you might do better next time, of course, but also for reflecting on the skills you have displayed, where you were best able to express yourself, which parts of your background and experience made you feel most confident, and how this recollection can help you to target what you go for next time, or how you demonstrate your strengths. 

In our intergenerational Action Learning Set this month, a graduate trainee and a recent graduate talked about their career aspirations. They were able to identify already the types of work and sectors which interested and attracted them and where they felt motivated, but there was sometimes a gap between what they wanted to do and what they felt was expected of them, or where they had found themselves. Being true to yourself, having the confidence and courage to pursue your dreams is hard in early career, but also in later stages when the need to generate an income that others might depend on is pressing. What seems important is to find your own balance - you may be prepared to forgo a dream for a while or even permanently if the consequences of pursuing it are too hard to bear (having no money, being away from family for instance), but if you find that you have worked for a time and been unfulfilled, ask yourself how long you could tolerate this, and why you would want to. Enjoying your work, being fortunate enough to express yourself through it and be yourself is a great privilege - make it one of your goals.



The North South divide is important, but inequality exists in the North and South, and is stark in London.

As a Northerner living in the North, I am passionate about the need to rebalance the economy and find ways of redistributing some of the wealth in London and the South East. I am not convinced that HS2 is the answer (for which I may be heavily rebuked by some colleagues) - it is too far away in timescale, just as likely to benefit the South as the Midlands/North, not as important as investment in technology, and I think it would do more good to find a way to make train travel more consistently cheap now than faster in the future. Anyway, back off my hobby horse, my interest is in understanding how the economy of the North can prosper and bring benefits to local people, but also how we can balance the national economy for the benefit of all.

The overheated economy in the South isn't a brilliant thing for everybody - in fact, the poor in London and the South East are in a worse position than the poor in the North, as prices of everything but most critically housing are much higher and have a disproportionate effect on incomes which are not relatively higher in London and the South. How people in London manage to pay for housing is a great concern - this week Shelter published a map showing how far some London Boroughs are placing homeless people in bed and breakfast with expensive Boroughs using places in cheaper Boroughs who in turn are having to send people as far as Birmingham or even Devon to find cheaper accommodation. And you don't have to be poor by any definition to find it a struggle to buy - in fact the threshold for eligibility for Shared Ownership is an income of £60,000. In the North, somebody earning that sort of salary could buy a house without difficulty, but the majority of people in the North don't earn that sort of money - and neither do the majority of people in London. Last year's ONS Earnings Survey reported here by the Guardian shows the median earnings in outer London were £31500.

My visits to London this month revealed the stark inequalities between rich and poor, not only in terms of income wealth, but also in term so environmental quality. At Clapham Park, Metropolitan is transforming the environment of this large Lambeth estate through a programme of refurbishment and new build development. The investment in people's homes represents an investment in their lives and it is important to co-ordinate the physical regeneration with access to training and jobs for local people.

It may have been because I had spent some time in the affluent environs of Kensington High Street that I was distressed to see the impoverishment of Harrow an outer London Borough where I lived in 1977. At that time, I would say that Harrow, whilst not South Kensington, was certainly a desirable place to live. I lived in a flat converted from a beautiful Edwardian terraced house - unfortunately my road is now a dual carriageway and the centre of Harrow is  dominated by mixed (some quite poor) quality development and people-disatrous road layouts and underpasses. This looked to me like poor planning and absent political stewardship - investing poorly in places lets people down.

I admit to some degree of sentimentality here, but actually I am sure that what I saw was not what Harrow or anywhere else deserved. Many of our town centres - not only in the North - are in crisis, not just because of the challenge of online shopping or the proliferation of bars and betting shops - but because of the incoherent nature of development, the unthinking destruction of good quality historic buildings and the faddy and undistinctive investment in jazzy cladded blocks by people who take their profit and run. Local councils are critical in this process and communities need to be empowered and encouraged to use Neighbourhood Planning to get the best for their places.

It was raining when I went to Harrow - perhaps if the sun had shone, lighting up the spring blossom, I may have felt less discouraged, but the way the cars whizzed off the roundabout to park under a Morrisons with no access to the shop from street level was evidence enough that people were way down the list in somebody's mind when this development was planned.

Rant over - feedback welcome

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Sunday, 12 May 2013

How do Trustees and NEDs balance duty and passion?

Many thanks to my colleague at The Open Channel Christina Heaton for inspiring this blog. As a Probation Trust Board member she has had a challenging week, with Chris Graylings announcement about the future shape of Probation Services.

It is so important for our society and for themselves that offenders have the opportunity and are appropriately challenged to take a different path and choose not to reoffend. Good Probation Services are the key to that, so there is a lot at stake in the Government's experiments with different providers and the fragmentation of the service.

The issue I want to address in this blog, though, isn't particular to Probation Services, it's a wider issue for Trustees and Non-Executive Directors. What is the responsibility and focus of Trustees and NEDs when policy changes affect their organisation? How do they balance a duty to steer change, with their passion for the service for which they are accountable?

Change from within, owned and understood, is often preferable to facilitate a smooth ride and sustainable difference. Change from the top can be ideological, but impractical, visionary but unrealistic. Being in charge of delivering change works best, doing it to yourself on behalf of somebody else can be very hard. Even if you believe it, you haven't conceived it, you may not understand it fully, it's being thrust upon you, it's hard.

For Chief Executives and their teams, their role in organisational change is clear, no matter whether they are driving it from within, or it is being driven by elected members, politicians or legislation - they have to get on and make it happen. They must articulate the need for change, celebrate the best of what has been, and create the future in open collaboration with their colleagues across the organisation.

How is the role of Trustees and NEDs different? Well, non-execs are of but not in the organisation, their role is not to do, but to be assured that the right things have been done. They also have a corporate responsibility to lead, to set a strategic course, to monitor performance and to support and promote the organisation to the outside world. Critically though, they are the champions, not just of the organisation itself, but of what it does - their role is to see that the purposes of the organisation are fulfilled by delivering the benefits to customers, service users or patients which are promised.

If non-execs are unconvinced about the need for change, or the prescription for change, what should they do? If individuals feel a genuine conflict in their position, they can and do resign in these circumstances, but it is not practical for all non-execs to stand down every time a shareholder or funder or political master wants to change course.

Big changes can often leave non-execs feeling unconvinced and uncomfortable though. Many non-execs, including me, were put into the position of overseeing their own demise as a result of NHS reform. Most of us knew our duty - even if we were not convinced of the need or design for change - to oversee a safe transition to the new commissioning structures. It is hard to be passionate about a future which is not yours, but you can be professional, thorough, supportive and encouraging to staff caught up in the maelstrom of change and to the new leadership.

With the benefit of an arms length perspective, it can be possible for non-execs to take a cool-headed view of change, which can be helpful, but might also contain some risks. Non-execs can sometimes fail to understand the scale and depth of disruption that  change can create, and to underestimate the effect on staff and service users. On the other hand, non-execs can over do it, to want to help and get too involved in trying to manage the process of change, feeling that they can see the solutions and are able to fix things quickly.

At times of  change and disruption, it is important for non-execs to be at their best, balancing their duty and passion in equal measure. They need to remain clear about maintaining their focus on their primary purpose for as long as required, to be clear and efficient about implementing change, to let go when the change comes, and to embrace the new in its place, creating optimism and confidnece in the future.

At The Open Channel our personal and professional experienc as non-execs mean that we understand deeply the challenges that Trustees and NEDs face, and can help colleagues develop their own ideas about how to deal with them.