Thursday, July 15, 2021

be kind, above all else in your professional life

As a consultant-type (of sorts), I'm often seen as someone who is clever, knowledgeable, experienced, etc. Most other consultants you see will probably present themselves as being these things as part of assuring you that they're worth your spending your money on them.

But I've often wondered how far these things really matter when businesses, co-ops, charities, social enterprises, universities, government bodies, and others who invite me to work with them, are really wanting and valuing these attributes.

And my wondering about this has, over the years, seen me introduce some unusual practices (such as asking people what they think my superpower is, and not being overt about the various qualifications I've come to hold ), and subsequently also make changes to how I work as a result of what I learn about how I'm seen, and how people value what it is I'm able to do with/for them.

So why am I sharing this with you here? If you're someone who's kindly offered me feedback about my working practices in the past, you'll know this already. If you're someone else, you may be thinking that this may be sound vaguely interesting, but it's all very personal, and are struggling to see the relevance of why I'm reflecting on it so openly?

Well - wonder no more, because I now have an empirical data set (of sorts) to help me validate these ideas!

I recently came across Google's Ngram viewer, which is a nifty little site that allows you to track how frequently any given words have been used across all books published. So I thought I'd pop in a few keywords about how as consultants we think we're supposed to portray ourselves, and a few about how people seem to value the way that I work with them (click on the image to open the original google page and graph):

All those words about how the support consultants and advisers are supposed to 'be' and the attributes they're valued for, all pale against the approach to how we work with you.

Fortunately, kindness is one of the KPIs that I track within my annual impact report (listed as 'grace' and 'pro bono'), along with knowledge; so I know that I'm making sure I try and keep this at the forefront of how I work with people (following the adage that "we manage what we measure").

As consultants or advisers we're often initially commissioned on the basis of expertise or specific skill, but as the Ngram and my experience suggest, those things become far less important in the working relationship that we subsequently form when delivering on the agreed project. 

But I wonder how far others might agree with this?

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

So how do you actually start a social enterprise?

'Social enterprise' is a phrase that seems to be increasingly commonplace, and something that we're all being encouraged to start-up to if we think we have an idea for a new project or a business that might do some good in some way.

There's also a lot of 'stuff' about them out there: mapping by Social Enterprise UK; webinars on how they can best report their impact and how they're changing the world for the better by Social Value UK; offers of funding for how they can support local communities continue to recover from the impact of the pandemic; and such like...

social enterprise start-up course
But I'm often approached by people who want to know the answer to a much more basic question about social enterprises - how do I actually set one up?

Well, the good news if that I've been running seminars, boot camps, and webinars covering this for about the last 20 years, and hopefully will be able to distil them down into a few pithy bullet points in this blog to help you start to chart your adventure into the lands of social enterprise...

1) You'll already have a (social) idea, but is there actually the potential for a trading enterprise in it? 

Have you identified people or organisations who might be willing to pay you money (which is different to offering you philanthropic grants) for what you're going to be doing? 

2) How are you going to raise the money you need to get it started?

It's very rare than a start-up enterprise of any kind will have customers who line up in advance of it officially opening for business, to pay for the services and goods before they've even seen them. So have you thought about not only how you'll raise the cash you need for those early bills, but also where you'd be happy to seek it from?

3) Do you see yourself as a lone hero, or part of a 'Scooby gang'?

Creating any new enterprise is hard work and risky. Social enterprises even more so, because of the additional dimensions they have (balancing social mission with need to generate cash; trying to keep a set of values and ethics central in every decision made; feeling a responsibility to try and save the world...). So do you feel you can take it all on by yourself, or are you looking to recruit others to work with you in developing, leading, and managing it (and how will you ideally structure these relationships between you all)? 

And what measures can you think about putting in place to support yourself (after all, if you're supporting the birth of this exciting new social enterprise, whose looking out for you in return)?

The next steps in starting up a social enterprise flow from these, and may seem far more mundane in comparison, but are true for any enterprise thinking about starting up:

- create some budgets to help you manage costs and make sure you're going to be charging the right prices;

- pick a legal structure that will help you manifest and protect all of the above;

- register the enterprise with HMRC and whichever regulator is responsible for the legal structure you've picked, and open a bank account;

- do some marketing;

- Oh yes: and get out there to tell people you're now 'here' and so some selling!

Once these are in place, then everything else you come across out there about how social enterprises can thrive and prosper should start to make more sense.

But if you'd like to explore these steps in more detail, chat about how to tell if your idea really does have sufficient potential to be a trading enterprise, or would like to know about any other aspect of social enterprises, feel free to get in touch: I'm always happy to have an initial conversation by phone or video without charge or obligation.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

how I managed to gain a doctorate during lockdown

Several years ago, I argued why impressive sounding qualifications can sometimes be a dangerous thing in offering a false sense of security that someone may be more knowledgeable and experienced than they actually are...

And I've always stood by this - including up to the point of actively hiding the 'alphabet soup' of letters that I've someone managed to amass that appear after my full professional name.

But then 2020 happened - and many of us found that we more time on our hands than we had before that needing occupying, and we started to hear in our Facebook feeds and Instagram stories how our friends and colleagues were all learning new languages, starting to paint, and other life enhancing things that made us wonder if we weren't wasting our lives by binge watching Netflix box sets while counting the days until we could next legitimately go to the shops...

I for one, found myself being quite 'active' professionally in various ways (see for some of the 'highlights' of what I got up to during lockdowns). But I also started to wonder if I shouldn't somehow also try and structure these experiences around some form of recognised learning (or at least have something to show for when people ask me in years to come "how did you make the most of the extra time you had during lockdown?", now that we're starting to emerge from it).

Now, I've always known that some of what I do (professionally) gets me noticed in countries outside of England - and I've always been encouraged by that, even if I've never had the aspiration to pack a bag and accept contracts I've been offered on other continents.

And it seems that some of this 'being noticed' has seen a University in America decide that it was about time that some form of academic recognition be bestowed on me - and following a short exchange of emails, I've received an honorary doctorate! (But not of a medical type, and not of the definitive article).

So I'm now technically: Dr h.c. Adrian Ashton of Business Counselling, (CCU/USA)

And this puts me in a bit of a quandary: I've maintained for years that professional qualifications and academic recognitions are not only something that I'm actually not that bothered about, but can also be dangerous things to 'flaunt' - but now I'm in the camp where I've a doctorate.

So what to do? 

Should I completely revisit my whole thinking about having the letters to bookend my name with, or just add this latest addition to the shelf with all the other paperweights and doorstops that I've amassed over the nearly 17 years I've been freelancing to date?

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

death and the entrepreneur

There's a famous adage that goes along the lines of "there are only 2 certainties in life: death and taxes".

And whilst there seems to be a constant flow of articles, conversations, arguments, and such like around tax and business, it seems no-one wants to talk about death and business.

Specifically - what happens to your business when you die.

My reasons for such apparent morbidity in starting to explore this theme are multiple - I was asked to support a Board of Directors work out what to do with the business that they were responsible for after its founder and chief exec unexpectedly passed in their sleep (not that easy when they kept all the passwords and security details for the bank, Companies House, HMRC, etc in their head, and for various reasons it wasn't possible for me to obtain a copy of their death certificate from their grieving spouse...); and I'm also occasionally approached by founders of social enterprises who've recently received terminal diagnoses and are keen to try and ensure that their efforts in this life will have a worthwhile legacy.

And there's a clear business case for trying to get us to talk about death more openly too - research shows that most business continue to struggle for years after their founders death.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to succession - whilst we may be very good at planning for all sorts of risks and contingencies in our enterprises, charities, and others, we rarely (if ever) plan for us not to be a part of it, and think about what sort of future it should (or could) have without us being involved with it.

We seem to have also fetishised entrepreneurs - tech entrepreneurs and hailed and presented as saviours of our economy; health ones will save us from suffering illness of all types; and social ones will fix all the problems in our local communities; with nothing but the magical power of their will and without the need to rely on others to get there. That's a lot of expectation to heap on someone who's just trying to see how far their idea will go... 

As entrepreneurs, we're already more likely to suffer mental ill health (which seems to be repeatedly quietly glossed over); have our relationships with friends and family suffer; and be more likely to be victims of targeted crime.

So if we die unexpectedly, then the venture that we've gambled all of the above on, will likely crumble and be messily wound up. It will leave people upset and angry, and mean that all of the above we suffered was for nothing, as it's likely that there'll be no legacy to what we were trying to build up (because we never thought we could die because we're the ones who are supposed to be saving everything and everyone else).

In those rare instances where entrepreneurs do dally with thoughts about the grim reaper, it's usually a conversation with their accountants who direct them as to the ways in which they can get the most money out of the business they've built to date to enjoy their final months with - or can soften the loss on their immediate family.

It seems to me that as entrepreneurs we don't talk about our own mortality enough in ensuring that the visions which have driven us to risk everything we have to realise them, will have a good chance of continuing to impact the world and change communities for the better, even if we're not around to celebrate that as it happens.

Death is already far too taboo a subject, and as such, creates lots of unnecessary problems for those around us when we leave this life.

So - what's your plan for your enterprise (be it social, charitable, co-operative, private or other) if you were to suddenly not wake up, or receive the news from your Doctor that none of us ever want to hear?

Monday, May 10, 2021

laser discs, pagers, and social accounting

History is littered with examples of technologies and systems that were of higher standards and quality, but which were supplanted by inferior products and offers.

And that's the frame I want you to have in mind in this piece on 'social accounting' - a practice that dates back centuries, and in recent years, has seen substantive growth in interest in it through the adoption of Social Accounting, SROI, and such like which businesses and social enterprises have developed amongst themselves.

In large part, this has been driven by government interest in how public services can provide more 'bang for its buck' - starting in 2001 as a policy aspiration, this led to the introduction of legislation to start to mandate how the delivery of government contracts should now include going 'above and beyond' the core deliverables to generate wider benefits to communities and society at large. 

This drive by government is in turn largely responsible for the emergence of 'TOMs' - a relative newcomer to this arena of reporting social impact and value (it wasn't until 2017 that it's first framework was released). And whilst many who've been working in the impact sector for some time aren't fully convinced by it, it's quickly gaining traction as the de facto/go to model for local authorities and other public sector bodies to design and understand how social value will be being created and should be recorded and evidenced in the services they commission and contract.

And that creates a tension in how our services and activities are designed and managed - should the impacts that they can create be constrained to the narrow focus that TOMs has pre-defined (and in doing so, ignoring the wider value we create through how we work); and also only consider our impact through the lens of what it can be financially valued at? (which may make reporting simpler, but misses the point that some things are valuable but can't be reduced to a £). 

But it's not just TOMs - the housing sector created the 'HACT' framework in 2012 to identify and monetise services relating to where and how we live, and the construction industry is also piloting a new national value standard.

Such developments not only add to the confusion over how we should best approach thinking about, and understanding, the ways that our activities and services create benefit in the wider world and for the people and communities whose lives we touch. This is further complicated in that the resources associated with each of these new standards can make it hard to be able to justify adopting more than one of them.

So it seems we have a choice - do we stick with models of social accounting that many feel are of a higher rigour and relevance, and go the way of the laser discs and pagers; or do we accept that the world is shifting around us in ways we can't control, and pragmatically change our thinking and practices so we remain 'in the game' along with everyone else?

It feels like we're approaching another 'betamax vs vhs' showdown, and maybe this is one time that although we feel we're working to higher standards, we have to accept that to remain able to engage with commissioners, funders, and others, we have to shift how we think about how we report our impact to a 'lower standard', in order that we're not 'left out in the cold'... 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

the impact of a pandemic on the impact we create

Some of you reading this will be aware that for the last 15 years, I've annually published an 'impact report' on my activities as a sole trader/freelancer - and each time I do, I try and pause to reflect here on some aspect of it that's particularly struck me.

Most businesses, charities, and social enterprises who are currently talking about the impact they've created through the pandemic, successive lock-downs, and the disruption to communities and people's lives over the last year, seem to be largely focussing on what they've done over this last year. Which is fine and proper, but it doesn't help us fully understand the wider, longer-term impacts of the pandemic on how we try and achieve our respective missions - only what our immediate responses to it have been.

But I've been using a consistent framework and measures in how I monitor, report, and reflect on, my impact for over a decade. That means that this year's impact report has allowed me to better explore just how far the disruption to how we work, think, and feel, has truly had on my practices - and as such, I'm better able to consider what changes I might need to introduce as we emerge into our brave new vaccinated world (and which I can politely pass on).

Spoiler alert: it seems the pandemic has had little (or as expected) effect on the metrics I use to capture the impacts I create across different themes.

But what I do find of particular note is:

tax paid: it's been already shown by others that in being self-employed, I already pay proportionately more tax on my income than my counterparts both on payrolls, and those taking their earnings as company Directors. But this year, the amount of tax I've paid has significantly increased - and tracking this back into the data shows that it's because I was fortunate to be eligible for some of the government's coronavirus business support schemes: but that support I received to help me sustain my business (and family) was always going to be subject to being taxed - so although it may have initially seemed I could have breathed a sign of relief when HMRC said I was eligible to apply for SEISS, I always knew that there'd be at least one painful sting in the tail associated with it...

grace: in my last impact report, I'd started to capture and monetise my 'grace': the amount of lost earnings I'd suffered due to people either forgetting that we had arranged to speak/meet, or cancelling training sessions with only a days' notice (with no recourse for me to claim any late cancellation fee). Perhaps the most distressing part of this year's impact report is not that this figure hasn't changed, it's that if anything, its actually increased. Which means that the respect we're showing each other in making sure we turn up (or phone in/log on) when we've agreed to, or at the very least, sending apologies in good time if we know we can't, is on the wane...

But there's lots of other things in this years report. It now runs to 11 pages, with 12 indicators, 3 charts, 3 tables, and a slew of summary case studies and testimonials - in the first year I created it, covering the year 2006-7, it only had 3 numbers and was a footnote in my corporate CV!

And you can view it in all it's glorious technicolour and images, here.

Therefore, please do take a look through it - I'd be keen to hear what strikes you about it as being of particular interest in help me better understand it myself, and to therefore continue to create as much positive impact as I can into the future.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

is it any wonder we're all so confused about tax?

Happy 6th April - the first day of the new (tax) year in the UK.

I agree - it's a bonkers system we have that means for the 5 million+ of us who are self-employed or doing personal tax returns, we can't divide up our income and receipts neatly according to the annual cycle of one calendar year ending on Dec 31st, and the next year starting on Jan 1st - or even according to the quarterly cycle of 3 months used by HMRC for VAT returns.

It's bonkers-ness is also compounded by limited companies being able to (re)align their accounting periods to line up with the calendar year, but not us as freelancers and sole traders.

There's a good comprehensive story telling of why the 6th April is the date that the government has decreed should be the start of the year for tax purposes over on the Tax Advisory Partnership's website 

(TL:DR and spoiler alert: it's to do with Britain wanting to have it's own calendar system that was at odds with the one that the rest of the world had adopted, and the Treasury wanting to max out on what it could demand from us as hard working people).

But then add in a few extra oddities about the tax system here in the UK. For example:

- VAT can be charged at 3 different amounts (and it being added to the price we pay depends on who we are, what we're using it for, and other factors)

- National Insurance contributions are deducted from our earnings at 4 different levels (depending on who employs us, and how)

Further, for organisations, add into this things like business rates on commercial premises which are managed by local authorities (so what you pay in one neighbourhood may be markedly different to what you pay in an adjoining town for the same space).

And if you drive a car, then you're paying taxes on:

- the purchase cost of the car,

- annual car tax,

- tax on the fuel you use to travel around in it;

- tax on any repairs or parts you buy for it,

- tax on the insurance you have for it.

Is it any wonder that (1) most people are confused about tax and the tax that they owe; and (2) that most people therefore try and avoid paying tax in light of our paying so much of it everywhere all the time (with little apparent benefit to us or the wider community)?