Tuesday, August 4, 2020

introducing... a pole dancing lion tamer!

As always, it was supposed to be straightforward.
But, as always, it's turned out to be by turns shocking, touching, encouraging, worrying, and more...

And no, it's nothing to do with Covid-19, but my biennial 360 degree feedback, that I introduced 7 years ago as part of the CPD* framework I've created for myself.

Every 2 years (or so) I invite a selection of collaborators, clients, contacts, and other non-carefully selected characters to tell me what they really think about me. 
But rather than open the flood gates to emails and messages that will leave me in need of therapy and extended counselling (as often seems to be the case in 360 degree appraisal processes), I only ask 1 question.

This single question approach has always seemed to go down well with people in the past - asking what my 'super power', and 'niche' is; what picture comes to mind when people think of me; and this time: how would people introduce me?

There's always a reason behind my choice of questions, and this one about introductions is based on a university enterprise start-up session I ran a little while back. 
In the run up to the starting time, the course leader asked me how I'd liked to be introduced? To which I glibly replied - well, they don't know anything about me, so you can say whatever you'd like. Which they took as a challenge, and promptly cued me in as a 'pole dancing lion tamer'. (I don't know what it says about either their students, or what type of other speakers they usually get in, but no-one batted an eyelid or looked surprised at this).
As an immediate learning point, I then started to use this approach at meetings I'm invited to - at the start when everyone goes around the table to say who they are (which is usually understood by at least 1 person as a demand for them to recount their life story and impress everyone with all the great responsibilities they now have in their role), when it comes to me, I ask someone who's there who knows me (in some capacity) to cue me in. And it's not for laziness, but actually an easy way to test my branding and understand how I'm being perceived and understood by different people in different places.

So this time, the survey question to people was "how would you introduce me? (at either a networking event, parliamentary reception, cocktail party, or bail hearing...)"

And as in previous cycles, some people re-interpreted the question (which I'd always encourage), to include new hashtags about me (which now brings the total number of tags other people have created to describe on social media to 4!); stylistic delivery of how they'd deliver the introduction; and a range of short and sweet (9 words) to rousing speeches (142 words).


In trying to make sense of what messages seemed to come out of this about m
e, I tried a word cloud approach. 
Interestingly this showed not only the sorts of things I do that people like to talk about:

- business
- advice
- charity
- enterprise
- knowledge
- strategy


but also the way in which I act and conduct myself when I'm working with people:

- values
- can
- will
- always
- expect
- help
- social
- talk
- underpinned

But a word cloud doesn't do well at pulling out the recurring sentiments that people are sharing.

All of the responses are recreated in full are below (and just as in previous cycles, anonymised to protect people's embarrassment). And I think that reading through them, the messages that come about about my 'brand' and why people like working with me are:

1) I'm not 'traditional' - people like my being unconventional, and bringing new approaches and ideas. Not all of which may always be comfortable, but they will mean there's a better result at the end of the work.

2) I make things easier for people: be it understanding what might seem an overwhelmingly complex issue, or helping them see there's a different (easier) way of coming at it.

But so what? Well, this all helps reassure me that how I'm putting myself out there to do what I do is still largely working (in that people enjoy it and want to talk about it - either that, or they think people should be warned about me...?). And it also cements something that came out of a similar '1 question' in a previous cycle of this, which is that people find I can help them simplify things to a point where they're comfortable to take it on.




*CPD: not what you think it means... see https://twitter.com/AdrianAshton2/status/689882882928680960


All responses received in full:

"When I was founding XXXXX, 23 years ago, a Chief Executive #Founder of another social enterprise said to me "Forget about mission, objectives and plan - what are the values of this new organisation - they'll last longer" They lasted quite a while. Today, I'd like to introduce you to someone who is not only a multi-award-winning business adviser and facilitator but someone who measures his impact daily against his values. Adrian's values will last forever. He can be zany, funny, creative and always deeply thoughtful but you'll buy his services, particularly as a social enterprise or charity, for his total professionalism underpinned by these values. It makes the buying decision easy, what you see is what you get and that is why Adrian is always in demand - top advice, training and facilitation underpinned by values you can see and touch.

"Here's a guy you can go to for looking at problems or issues from a perspective you may not have thought of or from" #AlternativeAdrian

“A gifted genius who turns complexity into simplicity. “

"This is Adrian. He will ask you awkward yet very useful questions".

“This is Adrian, he is our mentor and a great source of knowledge. He is helping us on a wide range of business strategy and governance support as we transition from a community group into a charity and alter our focus. He can be a little bit ‘out there’ at times but because he really listens and considers his advice before imparting his wisdom to you – you feel re-assured and that he is trustworthy. I’m really enjoying working with him and feel like he is a member of our team. He is incredibly patient and tries to make work more fun. I think you’ll like him.”

“This is Adrian Ashton, you have come here today to hear a talk which will help you with your business. Be prepared! It is not what you expect, or the way you expect this sort of a talk. But I am sure that it will help you!!”  

“Entertaining and charismatic fountain of knowledge, about organisational structure and strategy. Mainly academic, public bodies and not for profit.”

 



Thursday, July 23, 2020

why do we theorise in isolation from each other?

Over the last few years, there's been growing encouragement for the charity and social enterprise world to uptake the 'theory of change' approach more.

For many who approach this model of thinking and presenting how you work for the first time, it appears daunting with a lot of jargon, technical diagrammes, and an apparent infinite number of ways to 'do it'...

But ultimately, it boils down to what (finally) got me through my maths exam - showing your workings out: laying out in a (hopefully simple and logical manner) why you're doing what you're doing so that anyone can understand it, and (hopefully) get behind it (and you) more.

As I've alluded to above, there are lots of examples and models out there - but as sometime who delivers training and learning around this, as starting points I usually recommend 2 templates to start:

1) The 'DIY' toolkit approach, developed by NESTA, and profiled by Innovation for Change:


 2) and this framework developed and agreed with The Treasury and DCLG as part of a national programme:



And the reason I suggest using these, rather than come up with something from scratch, is:
(a) it's easier to get started by using an existing template, and 
(b) the provenance of these frameworks is pretty 'sound', and as such, it means that whomever you share your Theory with subsequently will find it easier to take it more seriously.


But it strikes me that there's a huge problem with all of the guidance, training, consultancy, and such like, that all of the websites, sector bodies, and expert consultancies seem to have missed - and in doing so, means that the Theories created will always be stunted and never really have the transformative impact they're seeking to realise.

And the thing that seems to be missing is recognising that whichever charity, social enterprise, or other creating their Theory, isn't operating or exists in a bubble - they're co-located, work closely with other groups and services, and the people they support will be being impacted and engaged with by other organisations in parallel to themselves... and this is also something which the principles of reporting social impact and value already recognise: do not over claim - the people we support will also be being supported by other services, groups, and activities.

So if recognising that our creation of impact and benefit to people in need is co- and inter- dependant upon others, why aren't we encouraged to develop our Theories with them (or at the very least, do a 'sanity check' of them, by sharing them with our key audiences and partners)..?

Monday, July 6, 2020

in search of an opening 'cue'...


As you may know, I have an usual approach to my CPD, part of which is an adapted 360 degree feedback that I try and do every couple of years - and this is the year that it's due to run again.

But don't worry, dear reader! I'm not asking you to fill out a long survey, or agree with statements on a web-page - instead, as with previous times I've done this, I'm only interested in your answer to 1 single question.

And it's this: "how would you introduce me?".
(This can be in any context - at a networking event, as a speaker, at a parliamentary reception, whatever takes your fancy.)


I appreciate this may seem a little usual of an ask, so won't be upset if you feel you can't offer anything in return to help me with this exercise. However, as someone who's aware of me and what I do (if only by virtue of occasionally seeing what I'm blogging about next), I'd be grateful for a few moments of your time of you can help me out with this.


And as always, if there's anything going on in your world that you think a chat might help you better reflect on, or benefit from having a rummage in my head around, all you have to do is ask.

I'll be reflecting on what comes back over the coming few weeks, so watch out for another post with the results of how I'm introduced to unsuspecting audiences...

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

the Hobo consultant

After 15 years of doing what I do as a sole trader, part of which has included offering mentoring, advice, and coaching to a variety of people in a multitude of roles across different sectors, marketplaces, and types of organisations, I've finally taken the plunge... and got myself a business coach!

As a trained and qualified business coach myself, engaging with one feels a bit like a bus-man's holiday, but I've always maintained that part of my having kept my enterprise going this long (and through the various challenges the universe has thrown at me/it during that time), has been my interest and commitment to always seeking to try new things in how I work.

The reason for doing so now has been catalysed by the current pandemic, and it's forced/enabled me to (finally) actually start to think properly about a few ideas I've been having about my practice, but somehow never gotten around to properly working through and trialling. 
Principle of which is how I best present myself and what I do to the world - some readers will know that I seem to be something of an 'A-team': able to turn my hand to nearly any scenario or client need, and work comfortably with heads of government departments in the Cabinet Office, through to people who want to work out if their 'half an idea' is any good over a pint in the pub...
As such, depending on who you ask about me, you'll hear a different story (hopefully equally intriguing and adventurous) - but writing this through makes me realise that I've become a hobo: always drifting through adventures with no apparent core target destination nor intention to become 'professional' by other people's standards.

Having a business Coach is giving me a more robust structure and accountability to start to work through if that's OK for me to carry on as such, or if I should try and aim for specific train carriages if I'm able, rather than simply knock on each door that I come across...


(and as a heads-up - part of this process also weaves into my ongoing CPD, and specifically the 360 degree question I ask of a sample of clients, collaborators, and other types of people who know me in different ways - so watch your inboxes over the coming weeks for what I'll ask this time; in the past it's been about super-powers, and pictures, so expect something equally non-traditional when people ask you for professional feedback!)

Monday, June 1, 2020

to everyone who forgot to turn up to their meetings with me last year - can I have my £4,500 back, please?

We all know the feeling of frustration of having arranged to meet with someone, only for them to not turn up when agreed; and after waiting the polite 5-10 minutes before calling them, only learn that they'd forgotten.

At the best of times, this can make us feel like they don't think we have any importance or value (or else they'd have remembered we were in their diary), but as a sole trader, it also represents a painful loss of cash as well - because I'm not salaried.

Unlike others in paid employment, who have a guaranteed income each month - against which they decide how to best allocate their time to justify receiving it; I have a fixed amount of time each month - against which I have to maximise my opportunities to generate an income. 
So if you're not a client of mine and I offer to share some of my time with you, then that's me saying that I think who you are and what you're trying to achieve is more important than my earning cash to help pay the rent, or keep the fridge stocked up.
But it goes beyond that - because it's not just the need to generate an income that's the sole determinate of how I use my time, but the importance of being with my girlfriend, and kids. And beyond that, having opportunity to hang out with parents, siblings, friends - and indulge in personal interests (reading, whiskey, walking, classic movies, galleries and museums, gardening,...).

So when you say 'sorry, I forgot' - that's akin to your saying to me "You've chosen to sacrifice a lot to spend this time with me, but I don't think your ability to retain a home, spend time with family, or any of the other things that enrich our lives, are worth bothering to even recognise."
But I'll never say that to you. 

I'll never say it because I try and live by a set of values that inform who I am, how I think about things, how I approach my work, and how I try and build relationships with different groups of people.
So instead, because of the value of 'grace', I'll politely and demurely brush it off and offer to reschedule with you.

These values are something that I've always tried to keep front and centre in my day to day life, and part of the way I do this is through my annual impact report, the measures in which reflect these values.
And over the last year, I've been thinking about how to capture this value of 'grace'... It seems that the easiest way might be to measure the number of times the above scenario has played out over the year.
And to subsequently help me understand the true extent of what this value of 'grace' costs me (and how it can be recognised by other people), I've monetised it in the same way I have my pro bono activity.

The first reading on this new indicator is a bit of a shock: £4,560.

The financial value of the time I've lost because people acted in a way that suggested: "You've chosen to sacrifice a lot to spend this time with me, but I don't think your ability to retain a home, spend time with family, or any of the other things that enrich our lives, are worth bothering to even recognise.", is in excess of £4,000.

Averaged out over the year, that's getting on for £100 a week - for comparison, that's akin to the cost of taking my family out for a meal together; the cost of renewing one of my professional memberships; or the cost of a basic portable hearing loop (for when I'm working with people who experience deafness).

And it's more than half of what I gave in pro bono support over the same period.


So the next time you ask or agree to meet with me, or someone else who's not salaried, please try and make the effort to check your diary or let us know if you know you're going to be running late...

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

how the law is perversely stopping charities and social enterprises from being able to 'trade they way out' of the crisis (unlike private businesses...)

I blogged recently about why we need to stop using the word 'pivot' - but we should keep encouraging everyone to think about how they might make changes to what they do and how they do it (one thing most people seem to agree on is that whatever world we emerge into from this pandemic, it won't be the one we were in when it started...).

And for private businesses, this is fine - they're designed to be orientated to changing marketplaces, and their legal forms mean that they can diversify (relatively) easily.
But this isn't necessarily the case for charities, and social and community enterprises - many of whom are on the 'second line' behind the NHS in supporting communities and people in need.

Now, just as there have been lobbies on government to widen the eligibility of business support schemes that have been introduced, and to introduce new ones, so there have been attempts to get the State to also develop support packages for social and community businesses to help them get through these crisis months.

But there's something else that this all brings up that no-one seems to be talking about (or maybe doesn't want to, because it's too uncomfortable?) - MANY CHARITIES AND SOCIAL ENTERPRISES ARE NOT ALLOWED BY LAW TO CHANGE HOW THEY TRADE. 

Let me explain: 
- private businesses are usually incorporated with governing documents that say they can trade however they want (as long as it's legal).
- charities have to prove to the Charity Commission when they form, that what they are being set up to do (and how they will achieve this) is in keeping with charity law. And there are clear and strict rules about how they can approach undertaking or developing trading activities within these. Even if they think they will be able to make a change within these, then they need to get the agreement of the Charity Commission first. If they fail on either of these points, then what they're doing will be technically illegal - I don't know of any grant making bodies who would be happy to fund a charity that was doing something illegal. The same also goes for insurance policies: if you needed to make a claim and its discovered that you weren't supposed to be doing that activity because of charity law, then the policy becomes void and the charity is left exposed to its Trustees carrying unlimited personal liability...
- But this doesn't just apply to charities - Community Interest Companies (CICs: the much hyped and promoted legal form for social enterprises) has similar restraints as set out and enforced by the CIC Regulator (albeit with much less clear guidance).

* The Charity Commission shows that there are over 150,000 charities in the UK
* Social Enterprise UK says that of the nearly half a million social enterprises in the UK, nearly 1 in 4 are CICs (so roughly another 170,000)

That means that of the organisations who are stepping up the most in this global emergency to support local communities, roughly 320,000 of them are constrained by law from being able to easily adapt to introduce new trading services or to best respond to meeting the changing needs of people.

And that's why there needs to be more explicit and dedicated support to the sector from the State.