Thursday, 7 November 2019

Trustees Week 2019 - 4 Learnings from a Young Trustee

It’s Trustees Week 2019 – a week to celebrate the work the Trustees do for Charities across the world, and to learn from one another, share best practice, and, like all good trustees should, evaluate how we are doing.

My area of ‘expertise’, if I have one, is either cooking the best chilli con carne the world has ever seen (dark chocolate and half a pint of ale is the secret) or young trustees/youth volunteering/young people and governance. In this ‘short’ piece, I hope to talk a bit about lessons I’ve learned, and roadblocks I’ve encountered, and to finally encourage any organisations curious about what a young person as a trustee looks like for their organisation. “But they haven’t had 10 years’ experience of accounting!” I hear risk committees cry faintly. Well, quite.

I joined my first board as trustee of the British Youth Council in 2017, at the time I had just finished University and was determined to make something happen in Cardiff, so I stayed on and looked for work in the Charity sector. I was homeless- sofa surfing & living on friends’ generosity, and spent most of my time applying for jobs and volunteering. Once every few months I’d travel to London or *insert youth hostel here* and learn about how to be a good trustee.

(Plug starts) The board of the British Youth Council is all under 25, we believe in a world where every young person is empowered to create social and political change, and we recently won the Winifred Tumim award for good governance from NCVO. (Plug over)


The first learning
If you want to recruit a young trustee, or indeed any trustee for that matter – pay their expenses. They are giving you their most valuable assets, their time, and their accumulated expertise.
I could not have been a trustee for the British Youth Council if the charity didn’t pay for my train to London, and offer me staff rate for subsistence for the journey. Granted, mine was an extreme case, but I would have had to choose between getting food in for the week or travelling to London for a weekend. Spoiler alert, I would have chosen my groceries, and I like to think the BYC would have missed out on some cracking knowledge and energy.
Through a convoluted journey that I won’t bore you with, I got work in Cardiff, and threw myself into as much youth work as I could find, mainly at strategic level- funding panels and that sort of thing. I am the Communications Lead at Diverse Cymru, and a very proud trustee of Wales Council for Voluntary Action, both homed in Cardiff, both Wales-wide in their vision.
In my current job at Diverse Cymru I receive volunteering leave – 3.5 hours a month, and for the rest of my work I simply use my annual leave to get the most out of the opportunities that have been given to me.


The second learning
If you’re a charity, accept requests for volunteering leave! At the least, allow staff to flex their working hours. (If you’re not a charity, also accept requests for volunteering leave, but I doubt you’re reading this) You will lose an employee for an hour or two a month, and they will go on a free training course in people skills, or in understanding how a charity runs, or how to handle a budget. They will talk to new people, experience new things, and probably be even be a happier employee (as research has almost always said that volunteering makes people happier). Then they will come back to your organisation with those free skills, and benefit the organisation with them.
It always baffles me when organisations that run by the time of volunteers, or by the charitable donations of others, don’t seem willing for employees to pass on that time and expertise.
Something I’ve been bumping my head against for a while now, without much success, is how we as individuals engender real change to the ‘status quo’.

There are many answers I have hit upon.

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing straight white men talk about their answers – and there-in lies part of my answer. This isn’t a male/pale/stale bashing session, but systems set up by a subset of people will generally suit that subset of people.

This is true with law, this is true with politics, and this is true in the charity sector.

I really distinctly have in my mind’s eye a recent excellent youth conference – and two particular microcosms of interest there. It was held at the University of Birmingham, in an opulent building, with opulent high stairs and statues of great people looming over you. An incredibly rich white man stepped up to the beautiful podium, and spoke in his booming voice, about how his generation (I would have put him in his late 40s) were passing on the torch, and making space for new blood, to make decisions and solve the problems of the world.

The female chief executive of the charity that had organised the event then stepped up to the podium, and required a box to stand on to talk and be seen.

The podium was too high.

There was a second microcosm – we were discussing on our tables what it meant to be a leader of the future, for the next five years. The guy at the front talked about teaching people how to be leaders for tomorrow, learning debating skills, learning how to have those conversations in those corridors of power. I have talked about this enough, and kept my mouth shut and scribed for the group, jotting down their amazing ideas.

Something really jarred with me though.

We’re widely considered to be at point of political and social crisis in the UK at the moment. The rest of the world isn’t much better. Multiple countries are paralysed with riots, some rich people are richer than some of the world’s biggest economies, climate change might kill us all in 50 years.

Why on earth are we looking to train young people in how to look and act the same as ‘the man’? The ‘status quo’? The status quo clearly isn’t working right now, for 95% of people in the world.

The third learning
Trustees right now are in a more important place than ever to steer change. It is ever more important for trustees to reflect the people they serve, so they steer change that best works for them.

But trustee boards don’t reflect the people they serve.

(It is a very important footnote here that I am not attacking the individuals who sit on trustee boards of charities. They are giving up their free time, their vast expertise, and working in incredibly tight times to steer organisations that do good for so many of the UK’s most under-privileged people. I am rather revealing the unacceptable statistics that exist alongside that.)

Young trustees make up a 0.5% of all charity trustees, “despite making up 12% of Britain’s population”. (Young Trustees Guide – Developing the next generation of charity leaders. Charities Aid Foundation.)

Put aside that we are largely governed by puffed up public schoolboys, in what other world would we think that is OK to submit our decision-making processes to such a one-sided view? All good leadership manuals tell leaders to surround themselves by people with entirely different lived experience to themselves. All good leadership manuals tell you that diversity of experience leads to better decision-making. (I know this, because I was lucky enough to go on Academi Wales’ Public Life Summer School, and was in the 0.5% of young people there, too)

And this is simply focusing on one of the protected characteristics, ‘age’, and not even getting into race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or religious belief. (Shock horror, there’s a bit of work to be done there too)
I am fed up of being the young person to talk about the young person issue. There are other, better placed, different voices to my own that need far more air time and don’t get it.

It’s nearly as bad as organisations interpreting the Public Sector Equality Duty of talking to ‘a wide range of stakeholders’ as talking to three young people, who they always talk to about these things, presenting them with the finished article, and getting their “yes this looks great” as the bemused 17 year old looks at a 5 year Strategy or at a consultation document and away they go.

A second spoiler alert, that isn’t consultation.

I am tired of trustee boards that don’t represent the people they serve.

Also, don’t give me the “we didn’t want to patronise you by just having one young person here” – a seat at the table is better than sitting outside.

An excellent trustee colleague on the WCVA board with me said something to me that really stuck in my head at a conference earlier this year. She was talking about how the sector needs to work better together, how organisations need to collaborate in times of stretched resource.

And on paper, that sounds like something we can all agree with.

My fourth and final point isn’t quite a learning, but it is a challenge.

To you, if you’re still reading, to your organisation.

Reach out to the excellent organisations who have strong diverse boards. There’s quite a few of them.

Reach out to the excellent organisations who are doing proactive work to strengthen youth on boards, the Blagrave Trust springs to mind immediately.

Reach out to young trustees you know – you’re welcome to message me with any questions, queries or concerns; challenge your preconceptions.

And be prepared to flex.

Don’t put an advert out stating “we welcome applications from young people” and think your work is done. When your young trustee is in place, don’t set up your middle-of-the-day meeting and wonder why they don’t show up. They’ve got work, mate, and they can’t get the time off. After the board meeting, don’t wonder why they didn’t say anything – they didn’t know anyone in the room. Organise drinks or a meal with them, let them meet the other trustees in a less formal environment.

Support them.

-          - They might be awful. That is not an age thing, some trustees just are.
-          - They might learn a lot. That’s fantastic, young people getting passionate about the sector and learning about governance in the sector is a good thing, it makes the sector sustainable.
-          - You might learn a lot. They might change your view. They might bring energy, they might ask to do things differently.

I have finished with this before, but it’s still true, so I’ll finish with it again;
Young people are able if you are willing.

Happy 2019 Trustees Week.

Watch this excellent video from the Blagrave Trust for some thoughts that compliment and challenge.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

6:30AM Circuits - "Efficient to Exemplary"

Before I get all of my pages of thoughts and notes onto (virtual) paper, it's important to note that this isn't a traditional blog, there was too much and information digested for it to be that, and that information was too varied for a blog to make any sense. So read on!
Enjoy my disjointed but connected thoughts from an insane week of learning.


So what was Summer School?

I was very kindly offered a bursary to attend a week away in Lampeter, for the Academi Wales Summer School, a week of learning, socialising, thinking, and challenging the status quo for the public sector, with a vast range of expertise and experience in the student body. At least that's what I took from the week.

I got a lift to Lampeter with someone high up in procurement in the health service, and someone in healthcare in Welsh Government. Any table you sat at could be next to a PhD or a Head of Service. That diversity and depth of experience leant itself to the week - The Great, the Good, and me.

Why Exemplary? Why not Efficient?

“We would rather be wrong than alone” – How often is the information there, the information is freely available, but nothing is done? That is wilful blindness. In overworked people, there can be a ‘make it go away’ approach. People want the alarm to stop, they want the problem to vanish, so they take the easiest approach to bring about that result.

Why am I talking about 'make it go away'? Well one of the problems of austerity has been cost-cutting leading to obedience. Things generally go wrong when people just follow the rules. The moral focus shifts at work, people stop wanting to be a good person, they start wanting to do a good job. These are fundamentally different things.

Efficiency is NOT your friend.
Efficiency means there is no buffer for when things go wrong. When tasks are simple, the process can be simple. The process of checking a bag into the airport is relatively simple, for example. It's done as quick and safely as it can be, there are relatively few checks, it’s a simple activity. But when you board the plane, there are four different engines, all run by different software, and the pilot has visibility over hundreds of pieces of information, of which they may only use a very low number of during any one flight.
Why is that?
Because when things go wrong there, it is crucial for passenger safety to be able to fix it, as quickly as possible, with exactly the right tools. When things go wrong there, there’s big problems.
In complexity, austerity doesn’t help, efficiency doesn’t help.
Public services are barely surviving, they focus on efficiency. What happens when something goes wrong? Something doesn’t work? There’s not been time for asset integrity checks and maintenance? Things go wrong.
(Jargon buster - Asset integrity means maintaining and mending before something breaks. Do you practice asset integrity on yourself? On the people who work with and for you?)
Now it's important to remember here that public services aren't always about being efficient.
Money-centric public services toe a very dangerous line, and that's because public value does not exist in economics. Innovation and value are understood to be external to public administration.
By its very nature, the public sector deals mostly in very complex problems, problems with a simple solution have been monetised, and put into the private sector.
But innovation lies at the heart of good public services. For example, innovation is political, it must be understood and harnessed.
Examine congestion in London - the congestion charge reduced the number of cars on the streets in London by roughly 20,000.
Uber then came to London, and suddenly there were 40,000 more cars on the streets.

In a business, you sense, you seize, and you transform.
Whereas in the public sector you are doing elements of that, but you are sensemaking - understanding the political fit and re-framing value creation, you are building legitimacy - forming alliances, hacking bureaucracy to make it work for you, and delivering - handling dwindling resources, teams, and metrics.

How do we manage? How do we lead? 

Wisdom = Knowledge + Ethics + Action (Rowley 2006)

The recurring themes of ancient and indigenous wisdoms about what made a good leader are:
Contribution to society;
Acting in the common good;
The leader as the teacher;
Reflection - thinking then acting, being context-focussed.

Why the focus on seemingly internal goals? Well "Culture eats strategy for breakfast", you can have the best strategic plan in the world. If the culture isn't right, and if you're not playing your part in setting that culture, you've got no chance. 

The theme of stewardship permeates these goals, remembering the future, and seeing organisations as living organisms. "Holding the space" enables space for things to happen. The theme of the week was largely one of space, allowing sense-making time. The other theme was of a complex, constantly restricting world - which led us onto VUCA:

Volatility – the large scale, fast pace of change is impossible to react to
Uncertainty - not enough or too much learning
Complexity – Interconnections – new problems arise, and how do we solve problems now?
Ambiguity – Mixed meanings, making sense of what we see.

This state of reality for public services means that we can no longer 'predict and control', but we have to 'sense and respond'. Building in the opportunity to fail becomes essential - building in the space to learn from those mistakes equally so. And there doesn't need to be someone to blame!

Picture the scene. 

You arrive at the premiere of a film two hours late, (stick with me here) you run into the romantic comedy you have missed the bulk of, and see the two lead actors sharing a kiss over a bottle of wine, the camera pans out to show the beautiful sunset, the lapping waves. The director is weeping and applauding, the actors are congratulating themselves. 
The kiss means nothing to you, because you've watched none of the story, you don't care about the pay-off. 
Your indifference is picked up on by an actor, who sits you down and talks you through the entire story, from start to finish, because you must care! The story is excellent! How can't you care!

That's what the public sector does with strategic plans. 
We show people our strategic vision, maybe in a grand release, and expect them to be enthused, to buy into the story. When they aren't, we may explain the plan to them, which makes it even worse!

What happens when I'm stressed because things are going wrong?

Stress is a form of energy. “Anxiety is excitement without breath” – Noradrenaline reacts with the CO2 in the brain. We can affect our level of stress by deep breaths, associating the feeling of stress with four deep breaths, in and out. This works by increasing the amount of Noradrenaline in the body.

A female researcher stood in the middle of a rickety bridge hundreds of feet above a churning river in Vancouver and asked young men crossing the bridge to take part in her experiment. She asked them to write a short story in several minutes. She then gave them her contact details as a researcher would. She then carried out the same experiment on stable ground a little further down the river. About 70% more of the stories written on the rickety bridge involved sexual content, and many of the men writing on the rickety bridge contacted her asking for a date. Stress is a lot about how other people will react to you – and stress often has identical emotions to anger, arousal, and excitement, the context is all important – the physical symptoms are the same; dry mouth, fast heartbeat, churning stomach, sweaty hands.
Mentally shifting ‘Stressed’ to ‘Excited’. It has the same physical emotions, and as we see above, thinking differently brings about change.

Why are we overly stressed? Are we setting our goals too high? Or too low?

To the right side of the above optimal zone, the demands you have put on yourself are more than expected, hence the stress. The optimal zone is the goals sweet spot – too easy and too difficult goals defeat us. Successful people set moderate goals for themselves.

The body then releases Dopamine when you tick something off the to-do list. That is why, in a more ambiguous environment, writing ‘done’ lists is crucial – when you are doing those tasks that you are asked to do by others sporadically throughout the day, not tasks you are aware of until you are asked – the ‘done’ list then allows you to get the dopamine release that comes from mentally completing a task, as well as the physical completion of the task. This successful goal setting strategy can be supported by adopting shadow goals – a safe shadow goal is to stay out of the ‘Frazzle’ zone, this kicks in regardless of the main goal, and should involve self-care, having a shower, getting fresh air, eating something healthy, drinking water.

Talent x Effort = Skill.

Skill x Effort = Achievement.

Talking about successful people, you see heroes, you see mental toughness, you see strong characters.
Is this a good trait?
Well it can be.


Mental Toughness


Why don't we talk about the negative aspects of mental toughness? We talk about Tiger Woods as a mentally tough athlete, yet are somehow surprised at the plight of over-toughness.

Tony Blair was supremely confident in 2001, winning a landslide re-election. The hubris of that confidence was shown in the Iraq war and the beginning of the fracturing of trust between the populace and politicians.

After all that, how can I be a good leader? A good manager?

Too often in leadership it is doing stuff, quickly, better, which has resulted in us becoming very good at ‘doing stuff’. Leadership is truly about someone giving you their power to act in exchange for hope. It’s about asking yourself if you have made that person feel stronger and more capable? Not happy. Happiness is temporary, and happiness often doesn’t give the desired outcome. For example, wanting to drive a car. It requires learning how to drive a car. If driving a car makes me happy, but learning to drive a car would not, if I was focussing on happiness as an outcome I would simply not learn to drive the car, so I could never (legally) achieve my goal.

A few basic rules of leadership:
#1 – Know the basics
#2 – Know what you don’t know, but need to have an opinion on.
#3 – Be fluent in finance – understanding budgets, understanding turnover, understanding cash flow – if you aren’t, read “The four cornerstones of value” by Mckinsay. Not as the go to book for finance, but the go to book for understanding how the government views finance.
#4 – People want to work with you. 

Assorted other quotable nuggets which don't fit in the above narrative:
  • "What do we measure? Equally importantly, what don’t we measure? What are the unintended consequences of measuring what we do? For example, in education, it was requested that a certain percentage of A-Cs was obtained in schools. Suddenly teachers were coaching Ds to be Cs, not Bs to As, or the As to better themselves. They were suddenly ignored. The Es were ignored."
  • "With tumultuous world events like black death and small-pox, with increased knowledge, they have been eradicated. Will we see the same with obesity and climate change? Will our knowledge increase and eradicate them? Where is the difference?"
  • "You only make a difference by being different"
  • “Tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way… do not complain about illogical behaviour…”
  • "To make decisions as a group, you have to know each other as people – robust debate doesn’t happen without trust, which is a body contact sport."
  • "Are board papers split between Assurance and Improvement? Are board members prepared to be an awkward squad? Are members prepared to be strategic collaborators? The crucial split between how to stop bad things happening, and how to make good things happen."
  • "If you have to be driven somewhere by someone who is over the alcohol limit, or by someone who has not slept for 24 hours, choose the individual who is over the limit, they will gradually sober up! The response speed and reactions are similar!"
  • "When we check social media on our phones while driving, or talking, (doing another action), the average 42 year old has the mental capacity of an eight year old for other things occurring."
  • "Ask yourself – if I repeat today’s actions 365 times, will I be where I want to be in a year?"
  • "In the 3rd and public sectors, we naturally work toward the betterment of ‘our’ public, the public we know."

Monday, 1 April 2019


For my New Year's Resolution, I solemnly swore to blog more;
To do more; and
to stop titling my blogs with such hyperbolic 17 year old indie crooner song titles.

If you've been paying any attention to my blogging habits IN THE SLIGHTEST you'll know that I have failed spectacularly on the first one, and I can tell you now, breaking news, that I have failed on the second one, and you can read from this very title that I have also failed the third.
"Paralysis", what am I, a shitty Chris Martin wannabe?

My friend asked me, over a big gin on Friday, "Joe, why aren't you blogging any more? I used to enjoy them."

I have been thinking over that all weekend, really.

Why aren't I blogging any more, Joe?

I'll try and explain myself, to myself. Hope that makes sense.

When I was at university, I was in the here and now in a way it's really hard to be with a full-time job. I CARED about this and I CARED about that and I DID stuff and I had a bleeding HEART and that's all good and great and basically what university is for.

All of that really didn't work when I got a full-time job, and took on a second trusteeship, and two more involved volunteering roles, and began a NVQ. I didn't have the energy to CARE about this and CARE about that, and I certainly didn't have the energy to think enough to write about anything.

I hit a bit of a brick wall recently.

Work had another blip of hyper-busyness, Brexit was being particularly messy, there was a lot of personal shit rearing its head, and I just couldn't cope with the anxiety of choosing to do things. I wanted to get into bed and get into the fetal position and stroke my face against something soft for a few hours. I rang my Mum, and said: "MUM I've just been studying Maslow's hierarchy of needs and it isn't being met at any level for me right now, the world is horrible and dark, I just feel like everything everywhere is going wrong and I can't do anything about it".
My poor housemate came home with McDonalds as I agonised about having to cook food, and I nearly kissed him.

I am feeling that so so much, at the moment.
And I think it ties into why I haven't been sharing my blogs with the outside world recently.
My phone and my computer have created a world where I cannot escape from the mess that is everything at the moment. I am in a job and positions where I need to look at Twitter with regularity, I need to be 'on' all day, every day. (I installed Outlook for work emails onto my personal phone recently, I have made the executive decision that that is a terrible idea and I should delete it).
When news media profits on shock, everything in the news is negative. Everything on Twitter is negative.
Social media can be a fucking cesspool, Jesus Christ, it really can be.

I know that I personally need that "I can do something about the world in the job/role/work that I do. I can leave the world in a better position than it was when I joined it."
And I think I haven't blogged much recently because I haven't felt that recently.
I hate Politics! Our current politicians are some of the most incompetent we have ever had!
And for someone who needs the knowledge that there is a difference to be made, that has been really difficult to get my head around.

So what have I done about it?

I have stopped trying to have eureka moments, that was a real eureka moment.

No, I try and tell members of my family that I love them, at least once a week.
I've got into small scale, little 'p' politics.
I've started dancing in my room in the morning, to stupid music (in my headphones, I'm painfully British).
And I am trying to keep off my phone! Away from 'Fear of missing out', away from cesspool trolls on Twitter, away from doom and gloom podcasts.
I have read loads more, as well.
Love me a book in bed.
It's a bit of a journey, really. Understanding that things aren't always OK, and that's OK. Simon Amstell says in the excellent 'Ways to Change the World' podcast with Krishnan Guru-Murthy that he is learning to "Find the joy in sadness." Now that sounds disgustingly religious to me, and that instinctively turned me off to the concept, but at the root of that is a knowledge that it's OK to feel like shit sometimes, and not taking that to mean that the world is caving in, or that it's unsolvable.

And even if the world IS caving in, that there is still good, that there is still promise, there is still hope and people who love and love to love. There are Pringles to eat, and friends to unload on.

The world doesn't need someone to worry about it, some days, and that's OK.