The ‘born ready’ series: authenticity

I was full of energy; I was careless; content; excited, and enthusiastic, and then I was born. From this moment I began to be shaped and moulded in to what other people wanted me to be.

This might sound dramatic, but take a minute to think about it. As a child, were you ever so angry or upset that all you wanted to do was scream and shout? Did you then learn that this it wasn’t appropriate? Were you made to sit still in restaurants when every atom of your being wanted to run around and play? As we grow older, we start to behave as other people want us to, we listen more to the messages coming from the outside than we do to what our bodies are telling us on the inside.

When I first entered the workplace, little had changed in this regard. I was still listening to what the outside world was expecting of me. I put on the suit and tie, wore smart shoes, gradually (though unintentionally) diluted my regional accent, and generally behaved as I thought an office-based 9-5 working man should behave. It didn’t matter that the shoes were uncomfortable and that I couldn’t afford the suits on a junior officer’s wage, I did what I thought the outside world was telling me to do and it paid off. I was rewarded for my efforts, and before I knew it I had landed a management role and now the outside world had something different to say. “You’re a manager now; time for a nicer suit, maybe don’t go to the pub for Friday drinks – none of the other managers do etc. I continued listening to this voice and behaving in ways that I felt I was expected to. I wasn’t curious as to why I needed a different suit or why I needed a team to be in the office and at their desks, and I didn’t have the courage to challenge the norm.

I wasn’t ready to share my tales of podium dancing at the ‘Le Grand Fromage’

I began to feel like Clark Kent, at work I donned the suit and played the role of friendly and productive colleague, but I had a secret. Outside of work I laughed and I played. O.K. I didn’t wear a cape and fight the forces of evil, but I was definitely somebody different to the person I was in the office. In my early career the effects of this were magnified as I was hiding my identity as a gay man from my colleagues. On a Monday morning when colleagues were discussing their weekend I’d carefully refer to my ‘partner’ and make a point of knowing the ‘straight bars’ and clubs that I might have frequented. I wasn’t ready to share my tales of podium dancing at the ‘Le Grand Fromage’ night in the local gay club. But should I have? I’m not suggesting for a moment that people who identify as LGBTQ+ should come out at work if they’re not ready to. What I am suggesting is that we’d all benefit, as would our organisations if we brought even a bit more of our true selves in to our places of work. In my experience it’s tiring hiding. Hiding wastes energy that could be far better spent advancing our cause, and it impacts on our relationships with colleagues. Trust is instinctual, not hierarchical, and people have a sense if we’re holding something back. If people are unable to trust us, then how can they to trust us to lead them? When you head in to the office tomorrow, try taking a little bit of yourself in with you – the same you that enjoys life outside of work, and notice if your day is any different.

‘Born ready?’: courage

In the last ‘Born Ready’ blog, I explored the quality of curiosity and how we could benefit from learning to value this quality as we face increased leadership challenges in our sector. This week I’d like to think about another child-like quality; courage.

When I was nine years old, my brother and I had been to the tip and salvaged four large pram wheels. I was so excited! After what felt like months of searching we had finally found the only missing elements to our home-made Go Kart. We fixed the axles to the old wooden door, secured an old blue rope/steering device to the front axle and headed for ‘The Hill’. The Hill was notorious, it’s where anybody who was anybody went when it snowed. They took on The Hill with bin lids, dinner trays, rubber rings, and the occasional sledge. But this was the height of the summer holidays, we were going to set a new standard of bravery tackling The Hill on a homemade Go Kart! I couldn’t wait until we were back at school – we would be heroes! I sat at the top of the hill, gripping the steering rope so tight it was sore. Wearing nothing more than my shell suit to protect me, I gave the nod to my brother to push me over the precipice. My heart was racing so fast, like it knew something that I didn’t…

I’m told that I made it to the bottom. I don’t remember it as well my brother. Last I recall he was shouting at me to use the soles of my plimsolls as brakes. Ah yes, brakes! Perhaps the pram wheels weren’t the only thing missing…

I have learned to be cautious, to assess risk and make informed decisions based on the information that’s available to me. But have I become too cautious?

This might not be the most inspiring story to demonstrate my point, but my point remains. All of these years later I wouldn’t dream of returning to The Hill with a homemade Go Kart. I have learned to be cautious, to assess risk and make informed decisions based on the information that’s available to me. But have I become too cautious? Does this same risk assessment prevent me from being brave, from speaking my truth in situations where I may be a lone voice, and from making unpopular decisions even though I know with confidence that they’re the right decision for the organisation?

In trying to find an example of where I have demonstrated courage recently, I asked some of my colleagues for examples of where I have led with courage. This feedback revealed the big differences that I have effected as a result of being willing to take appropriate risks, to challenge the status quo, and to make ‘tough decisions’. The feedback also revealed that courage manifests in small moments, like in being more open and vulnerable with my colleagues.

As our sector faces increasing challenges, both in number and complexity, it’s vital that we lead with the courage of our childhood, and true to our authentic selves. In the next blog I’ll explore the quality of ‘authenticity’ and how being true to our real self can enable us to be more courageous.

The ‘born ready?’ series: curiosity

Originally published by Third Force News on 20 March 2017

The leadership industry offers numerous theoretical frameworks and models, ranging from the instructional to the inspirational. The majority of these models are focused on the exogenous – the external factors – and offer up-skilling and progression as a solution to overcoming leadership challenges. But is this enough?

After spending 2016 as a Clore Social Leadership Fellow, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but with the knowledge that I have gained from that intense fellowship year and reflecting on my 15 years of working towards social justice I offer this: Leadership should be more about regression than progression. That is to say, chances are we probably once had many of the qualities that would make us a strong leader, but we have lost or forgotten them. Perhaps more concerning, we might have learned not to value them as we should. We need to tap into our inner-child and re-learn the qualities that childhood gifted us, and value them as leadership traits.

In the first of this series of blogs, I explore the child-like quality of ‘curiosity’.

I’m sure none of our parents expected to give birth to pint-sized Paxman’s but this is what many of them got. “Do the trees make the wind?”, “Do they close the roads to switch on all the Cats Eyes?”, “Where is my soul?”, and of course, “Where do babies come from?”. As children we’re naturally curious about the world around us, and less willing to accept things at face value. The circle of why is a phenomenon that delights curious young minds and frustrates parents in equal measure. Yet at some point we learned to be less curious; “Why?” became annoying and stopped eliciting the responses that we liked.

If we’re to lead the change that we seek, then it’s critical that we think differently, and maintain a curious approach to everything we do, and everyone we do it with.

Research shows that our questioning drops off dramatically after the age of five, suggesting that schools have a role to play here too. I remember from my own experience that school rewarded the children who knew the answer, not asked the best questions, and this pattern of rewarding answers over questions continues into our professional life.But without leaders asking Why? What If? and How?, we stifle our creativity. At best we are doomed to tweak existing behaviours, programmes and ideas. At worst we are set to repeat the mistakes of the past. If we’re to lead the change that we seek, then it’s critical that we think differently, and maintain a curious approach to everything we do, and everyone we do it with.

I started doing this a few years ago, particularly in relation to who I work with. It’s now habitual for me to be more curious soon after appointment to get to know my new colleagues more closely. I start with two questions. First I ask “what matters to you?”. Beyond an interview environment and trying to impress the new boss, I aim to get to know my new colleagues more personally. I talk about what matters to me, and give the example of walking my dogs at lunch times, hoping to give them permission to share what matters to them and how we can fit work in to their life. I also ask them to tell me about their favourite line-manager (or sometimes their least favourite – depending how mischievous I’m feeling). This gives me an idea of how they do/don’t like to be managed and supported. This curiosity is simple, but it has had a big impact on my relationships with colleagues and helps me to create an environment in which we can all thrive.

I’m also more curious in circumstances and conversations where I disagree. In the spirit of curiosity, I have become better at listening to understand, rather than listening ready to challenge with my view.

So, what’s stopping us being more curious? Potentially lot’s of things! Have you ever heard it quipped that there’s “no such thing as stupid questions, just stupid people?. Asking questions can cause us to be perceived as naive or ill-informed. Asking a question might feed our imposter syndrome, or we could risk letting our demigod masks slip in front of those who we prefer to think of us as strong, and all knowing- such that they can trust us to lead them. Perhaps then, there was something else within us as children that we’ve unlearned…

Paddles and Privilege

I’m delighted to confirm that I’ll be joining Glasgow Watersports as Chair of the Board. This opportunity represents an interaction between two of my interests: outdoor pursuits, and health inequality.

Growing up, I was never really a ‘sporty’ child. Whilst my twin brother excelled at football, I struggled from sport-to-sport trying to find my game. I remember one awful Sunday morning as I cheered my brother on from the sideline, an injury occurred and I was called on as a sub – I could have died. After less than two minutes I was being stretchered off with a pulled calf muscle. I think the only person there more embarrassed than me was the manager whose bright idea it was – despite my protest. “You’re a Charlton, of course you can play football…”. Well, I showed him…

Football, basketball, hockey, and rugby, I tried them all but none of them worked for me. (It’s a shame that I grew-up pre-Quidditch, as I think that was probably my calling…). All of the sports that I tried were too rigid, too organised. I liked being free, going where I wanted, when I wanted. I was fortunate to grow up next to a park with a spinny – a group of trees that was as close to a woods as I was going to get. It was in the spinny where I ran, walked, explored, sat, and escaped. I wasn’t really doing anything in particular as such, just exploring the woods, collecting leaves, sticks etc. Looking back, I guess you could call it exercise and mindfulness, but it was effortless. I knew then that I enjoyed being amongst nature, and that being in nature was as good for my mind as it was for my body. I didn’t give it that much thought, I think because nobody else did. There were no medals or award ceremonies for finding the stick most like a gun, or best adventure in the woods, and the concept of ‘mindfulness’ hadn’t reached me yet.

My experience of open space providing happiness is supported by a King’s Fund report. The report highlights that the proportion of open spaces is linked to self-reported levels of health, including mental health, and that this is true for all ages and socio-economic groups.

A few years later, there was an opportunity to join a school trip for a skiing break in France. My heart lept at the thought of experiencing nature at this extreme. But it was a short leap, more of a hop, at the end of the announcement came the price of the trip. With Mum working three jobs and with me as one of five children, there was no way that we could afford for me to try skiing. Mum was great, and instead we took a trip to a dry-ski slope (imagine a 45 degree slope clad in astro-turf), but it wasn’t the same. In the end, the proposed ski trip at my school had to be cancelled. Not enough parents or careers could afford the cost. This was the first time that I experienced the inequality of ‘elite sport’.

A recent BBC Scotland Investigates programme, The Medal Myth highlighted that little has changed since my experience. I was shocked to discover that approximately £350 million of public money has been spent on Olympic Sport in the last four years, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that 90% of performance athletes had attended a fee paying school, or a state school that served an affluent population. This is a massive financial investment where there is already a degree of wealth. What about the me’s of today? How can we make these ‘elite sports’ more accessible to the majority of citizens?

Glasgow Watersports primarily operates as Pinkston Watersports, a community paddlesports centre and Scotland’s only artificial whitewater course. Pinkston is situated in North Glasgow and is part of the communities of Sighthill and Possilpark. According to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, these neighbourhoods are ‘deprived’, though like many other communities that share this label, and like the community in which I grew up, they host a wealth of assets. Despite generations of structural and systemic challenges, Possilpark and Sighthill are thriving communities that are home to numerous peer groups and volunteer-led activities and services. They also benefit from close proximity to a number of green and open spaces, including the Forth and Clyde Canal, yet these communities have some of the poorest health outcomes in Scotland.

It’s important to recognise that having access to green and open spaces doesn’t necessarily mean that people will use them. Through my work with the National Links Worker Programme, I hear lots of reasons why people can’t or don’t access some of the resources available to them. Some of these reasons are structural or systemic, and require statutory intervention to be addressed, whilst some are personal and might be overcome with some encouragement, enablement, and support.

Like my spinny, the Forth and Clyde canal and other open spaces in North Glasgow offer citizens the opportunity to try a new activity and can help them to discover an unknown potential, and Pinkston can meet the needs of those feeling more adventurous. In adulthood,  I’ve been fortunate to advance my early experiences with nature, and now enjoy holidays where I hill walk and kayak. In fact, my positive associations with nature are so strong that I originally planned to propose to my (now) husband on a kayak – a bit of  risk assessing saw the ring at the bottom of a Norwegian fjord and so that plan was re-thought. If I hadn’t had access to that spinny, and enjoyed the first-hand benefits of spending time there, perhaps I wouldn’t pursue and protect nature so much in adulthood.

The confidence that comes from trying kayaking in still waters for the first time can quickly lead to the confidence to try whitewater rafting, or other new activities. Participation in any type of activity can unlock a previously undiscovered self-belief.

Through working with the team at Pinkston, I’m excited to engage with our neighbours in Sighthill and Possilpark and to hear what they would like from the unique facility in their community. Who knows, maybe a local resident will discover that one of the many watersports on offer is their game…

The elephant in the room

Today is World Elephant Day, so I’m taking the opportunity to talk about the elephant in the room – racism and lack of diversity in our sector.

It’s almost two years since an analysis of the top 50 fundraising charities revealed that 88% of Chief Executives were white, and 70% male. In senior management roles 94% were white, and 56% male. This is a sharp contrast to the society that we all live in and yet not much seems to have changed. So, why all the white guys?

As part of my Clore Social Leadership journey, I am currently working with Defenders of Wildlife in Washington D.C. I’ll be here for six weeks and as I’m learning so much here, I explored with the organisation what I might feasibly do for them in such a short time. What are their priorities? I was delighted to hear the response of “We’d like to be an even more welcoming and inclusive organisation”. Given my passion for leaders making decisions with, and not for the communities that we serve, I’m excited to see what I can do.

In exploring this important issue, I can’t ignore a social and political context to discussing diversity in our world today. Racial tensions in the U.S. are high as a result of disproportionate shootings of African American men killed by the police. Recent shootings of police officers have been called ‘revenge attacks’, and organisations such as Black Lives Matter are accused of race-baiting. Worldwide, we are hearing increased political rhetoric that risks inciting or spreading fear and can contribute to a feeling of different=DANGEROUS. I’m fortunate in Defender’s that the organization understands the power of diversity, and have identified increasing diversity as a priority, so I don’t need to have the conversation here. But we absolutely need to be having the conversation in our sector.

In this context I ask myself, how do we have a conversation about diversity and inclusion that can create the change without making the white, middle-class, heterosexual men feel excluded, or even threatened? (Then there’s a whole internal dialogue that argues “who cares if they’re threatened, they need to get over it, but I’m not sure if that will affect the change we need).

Maybe we could start by making ‘diversity’ more inclusive?

Often our sector can see diversity as an HR issue, or we create tick-boxes to monitor how we’re doing. More progressive thinking recognises that diversity goes beyond race, gender, religion, age etc. It recongnises that I’m diverse in the speed in which I learn, as well my sexual identity. Diversity goes beyond the visible. As a sector, we should lead the way in celebrating all diversity. As a priority this must include recognising individual differences that cause disadvantage, such as the people’s race or religion, and making real and determined efforts to mitigate the impact of those differences in our employment practices.

I know that we need the best minds to solve the big challenges that face our sector today, and the more diverse those minds the better. I know that a diverse workforce can help to redress our unconscious bias, and give us the best chance to connect with and understand the communities that we serve. I strive to create an inclusive environment but I look at the teams that I’ve been responsible for recruiting and I know that we don’t represent Scotland’s vibrancy, and diversity. The question I really need to be asking myself is ‘Why?’, and I invite you to do the same.

Q. or A? – Reflections on the Q Initiative

In May 2015 I was invited to apply to be part of the founding cohort of the Q Initiative. Described as an initiative to ‘connect people skilled in health care quality improvement across the UK’, I was intrigued to learn more.

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve worked in the field of public health long enough to see apparent ‘new’ initiatives repackaged, rebranded and pitched as another example of innovation. Imagine the new must-have toys at Christmas. The once new and exciting Tamagotchi became slightly more sophisticated and later evolved in to a Furby – arguably pretty much the same idea as a Tamagotchi but with a new fluffy outer-layer. Other must-haves then filled the gap for a while (Tracey Island (again!), Bratz Dolls (Barbie with pals), pretty much anything from the latest Disney animation,  before low and behold, the Furby was back – and this time it wasn’t even repackaged or rebranded- it was the same old Furby, only aimed at a new and previously unaware audience.

Clothing, music, toys – you name it and chances are that there’s very few examples of purely original thought in the market place. So it was with a slight caution that I applied to be considered as part of the founding cohort of the Q Initiative.

One of the features of the founding cohort of the Q Initiative that attracted me to apply was the opportunity to shape the future of Q. That candidates would have the opportunity to shape and influence an initiative that has the potential to transform improvement within the NHS. As Professor Don Berwick states;

“If this succeeds, the NHS in the UK will be leading the world in creating, at national scale, system-wide capacities for improvement. This is an appropriate, indeed thrilling, next step for an NHS that already has a heritage of sound investments and a proven track record in quality improvement”.

I completed my application honestly, communicating my anxiety and expressing my hopes and how I felt my experiences in learning and development could contribute to this unique opportunity. I sent it off and waited. In June I received an email confirming my place as a participant in the founding cohort. I braced myself to be inundated with reflective exercises, pre-course reading and plans for the first residential course. I waited. Nothing. I scanned the list of fellow participants: mostly clinical, mostly based in England, mostly statutory, mostly acute, mostly senior management. Uh-oh, the fear started to creep in. Might this be just another well-intentioned, well-resourced talking shop at an enormous cost to the tax-payer? After all, if we’re aiming to connect people skilled in health care quality improvement across the UK, surely one of the first places we should look is to the third sector? And surely, if we’re building a learning community shouldn’t we be reflecting  this from day dot, and adopting a blended learning approach? The course hadn’t even started and already I had donned my ‘black hat’. De Bono proposes that there are six ways of thinking, and those who wear the black hat tend to be critical and focus on the risks. I must admit, black suits me and I find the black hat very comfortable. I’m conscious not to wear it too often though, and took some time to reflect on this initial reaction.

This reflection led me to revalidate my concerns. Often the third sector is indeed third (and last) to be considered: health first, social care second, and us third. That’s one of the reasons that I prefer to talk about the social, or civic sector – but that’s another blog in itself. Some people see the third-sector as a group of people trying their best, but not quite as good as the statutory services. They fail to recognise us as the £4.63 billion industry (in Scotland) that provides over a third of social care services and 5% of Scotland’s workforce. If we don’t look to the third sector though, then we risk not seeing brilliant examples of innovation that are not only delivering care in a person-centred and co-produced way, but can also improve clinical outcomes as a result. Specialist nurses such as MS nurses and Macmillan nurses, links workers, Diabetes UK’s Advocacy service, dementia-friendly cafés, Men’s Sheds,, and countless condition-specific advice lines are just a few examples.

With these concerns live in my mind, and being mindful to pack more than just my black hat, I head south to Birmingham for the first deign event.

Even when queuing for the registration desk there was a buzz of excitement and energy. The welcome pack included a learning journal (woohoo, this might actually be different!) a Twitter hashtag had been provided, (see this Storify for an overview of the Twitter chat during the event), and there was some very intriguing props and visuals around the venue that left me with a mixture of emotions ranging from excitement that this really could be different, to dread – they’re not going to make us role play are they?!

The day started with an overview of the theory of Q and an exploration of what success might look like. The first audience poll (check out indicated that the vast majority of participants felt excited and I counted myself amongst them. After lunch the participants were introduced to the design process and were then invited to participate in a number of activities that explored three main themes: Understanding us and our world, Exploring how we will work together to design Q, and Exploring our hopes, aspirations and fears for Q. Almost 30 activities using various creative methods to explore these themes had been set up at stations throughout the venue and I started to feel the black hat creeping back on to my head. Given that we had been tasked with exploring fears for Q and wanting to remain open-minded, I comforted myself that perhaps a wee black fascinator could be appropriate millinery for the afternoon…

The venue became reminiscent of the Next Boxing Day sale, such hustle and bustle and a mixture of anxiety and excitement in the air. The passionate participants were eager to pin their speech bubbles on to the cardboard man, pin their knickers to the washing line, or scribble on the graffiti wall… I considered if this could be considered ‘accelerated learning’ but with a scheduled 17:30 finish and the evening drinks reception began at 19:00 I was concerned that I wouldn’t have time to reflect on and digest day one before the start of day two.

The plenary session identified day one as an ‘information dump’ and a second poll indicated that again I was not alone. The majority of participants identified as feeling overwhelmed or tired. I chose to trust the course leaders, embrace the unknown and hoped that day two would bring more focus and maybe even some outputs.

Day two came and despite the 15:30 finish, I was even more exhausted and overwhelmed than day one. The day consisted mainly of break-out sessions that explored different topics e.g. “What do you hate about networking (THIS!)”, and “What are the barriers to Q? Choose 12 barriers and explore how to overcome them in eight minutes”. NO! ENOUGH! Eight minutes to address 12 barriers to Q?! NOPE! Surely by participating in this activity we would be colluding with the idea that we (the health and social care workforce) can achieve what needs to be done in the limited time available to us if we just work harder. Our table agreed to choose one challenge and explore ways to overcome it properly. We did and we came up with some great innovative ideas in the limited time allowed. It was at this point that I began to question the role of anarchy in Q. I went to the graffiti board and drew on the Q logo overlaid with the Anarchy A as this was my over-riding thought for the two-days.

We could (and probably will) develop the best learning network and improvement materials for the workforce, but what is our role as Q fellows in challenging the increasing pressures that we face as a workforce to enable this network and tools to be effective?

Let’s go back to the Tamagotchi and Furby. Should we tweak the system and facilitate its evolution, or should we use the shared voice of 5000 Q fellows to radically change the way in which services are delivered?

I look to the private sector for inspiration.

The private sector is filled with innovation, and latterly innovation only made possible by technological advances. Skyscanner is a leading global travel search site and yet it does not own any travel agents or airlines. Air BnB does not own any B&Bs and Uber does not own any taxis or employ any drivers yet all are leaders in their field. What these companies did was think differently, they looked to transform and not to tweak, and they transformed with the experience of the end user in mind.

Improvement science is great for helping the Tamagotchi to evolve in to a Furby, but I question whether these incremental gains will be enough. What good is an established learning network and brilliant learning tools if the workforce doesn’t have time to use them? “Revalidation will sort that” answered a fellow participant. Will it? As a manager looking to release staff from the ward, what do I need to know about Q to support this decision – how will becoming a Q fellow be worth time away from the ward when you could also meet revalidation requirements with an online learning module? How much resource should we spend developing the network and how much in challenging the system? What existing infrastructures can facilitate this conversation to continue and what will the workforce require in order to utilise these?

It was these questions and others that kept me busy in my journey back to Glasgow and for the following days. The Q conversation continued amongst dwindling numbers of travellers as we shared our journey home. Some participants shared my concerns and others shared my enthusiasm. Whatever feelings we left Birmingham with, whatever opinions and judgements we shared, one fact remains. It is with us, the founding cohort of the Q initiative, that the power lies to make sure that this is not ‘just another improvement initiative’, that the Q initiative achieves its full potential. I draw parallels to the Links Worker Programme, The ALLIANCE’s Randomised Control study that seeks to transform Primary Care, and not just to tweak it.

The Q Initiative is not a ‘programme’, it’s a community. Like all communities it consists of a complex matrix of relationships and will face many challenges, but we will face them together. Successful communities thrive when they have a shared sense of purpose, a culture of sharing, a mixture of skills, commitment, and communication. I witnessed all of these in the first design event and it’s with a renewed energy that I don my black hat, and look forward to continuing the conversation…