Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bah Humbug - why I won’t be celebrating Christmas…(as much as my employed counterparts)

Its that most magical time of the year again when everyone who’s fortunate enough to be in employment gets invited to ‘the works do’ - a chance to relax with colleagues and friends, reflect on the highs and lows of the year just passed, and generally make merry. A time to be encouraged and re-invigorated.

But not for me. Not because I’ve not been invited to others’ works do’s (‘cos I have, but have had to turn them all down owing to other clients needing me to support them fix problems when those parties are taking place - I’m afraid that for the time of life at the moment, the choice of earning money to pay bills always has to come first), but because as a sole trader, the tax office discriminates against me being able to have my own celebrations in the way that my employed counterparts can:

You see, the tax office allows for a spend of up to £150 per employee in respect of Christmas parties (so if your boss is saying they can’t afford anything more than limp sandwiches and  1 bottle of cheap plonk between 15 people, you can set them straight!). But this only applies to people who are in the employ of others - not those who are self-employed. Any celebratory costs I incur on behalf of myself and others I‘m fortunate enough to work with and might choose to partake of a mice pie and sherry with, I have to bear the full costs of at my personal expense after tax…

Given that the growth of the business population seems to be increasingly rooted in people like me: the self-employed, surely its time for HMRC to review these rules so we don’t have to miss out on the festivities that others are enjoying…?

But this is Christmas time - not a time to be melancholic and upset, but a time to try and spread goodwill: so to all my fellow sole traders, you can hopefully draw some moral comfort from this in that you’re not the only one to feel you’re missing out on the egg nog and turn under the mistletoe;
to everyone else-  warmest wishes of the season to you and your loved ones;
as for me - I’m off to seek what’s on special offer at my local off-license, find a limp sandwich and pull my cracker by myself…

Thursday, December 6, 2012

are we all missing the real point of social franchising?

Social Franchising is seen by many as a Holy Grail or magic bullet to so many: depending who you speak with, it’s about:
  • ·      scaling your enterprise for even greater impact (Unltd)
  • ·   generating even greater impact in addressing social ills in society and communities throughout the country (various government policies and politicians)
  • ·      the way to increase the number of successful social enterprises to ‘critical mass’ (Social Firms UK)

and lots of other reasons, all of which are broadly in keeping with the sentiment that social franchising is talked about as a growth strategy for existing social enterprises to achieve more of the good they deliver.

But I’m wondering if everyone’s missed a really obvious trick here, and actually missed the point of what social franchising is actually really doing in practice: it’s a way of fast-tracking the creation of consortia within the sector without all the time and energy usually needed.

There’s lots of interest in consortia for all sorts of reasons (easier to procure larger contracts, greater purchasing power, saving costs on shared back office functions, etc), but consortia development always begins with the assumption that there are a number of existing groups who identify some common shared interest.

And surely Social Franchising offers the same things as consortia: a larger scale of linked activities through which it might (amongst other things) collectively more easily procure larger contracts, share administrative functions to reduce overhead costs, greater purchasing power,.... The difference is that the consortia that emerge in this way would do so without the need for the usual time-consuming and costly negotiations that are otherwise needed. They would also emerge more in line with current real market trends and opportunities rather than simply because “it seems to be a good idea...?

I for one would therefore like to see some dialogue happening between the various sector bodies that are currently encouraging and facilitating consortia and social franchises in completely separate ‘silos’ to each other. It may be that nothing comes of such chats, but it could perhaps unlock a new way of approaching both the development of consortia and how successful social enterprises look at how they franchise themselves...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

how did I get here...?

I've always been a fan of Talking Heads, and in particular their Twilight-Zone inspired track 'Once in a lifetime'; and while the lyrics are largely concerned with an existential mid-life crisis, there's a line that always strikes me, where David Byrne says:

"and you may ask yourself - well, how did I get here?"

And maybe its because I've been listening to some old Talking Heads albums recently, or maybe because I'm approaching a certain age... but I am catching myself increasingly reflecting on how I've come to be living the life I am - I've never had any grand career ambitions or 'life goals', so its not always easy to look back to spot the markers along the path I've followed.

However, one thing I am certain of is that a lot of who I am and where I am today is because of other people who (with hindsight) have had influence over my thinking and choices made - sometimes by offering an opportunity for work or visit, and sometimes through challenge or encouragement. And mostly they didn't need to do the things they did that have contributed to who I am today, but with graciousness and goodwill they freely shared something of themselves and their time.

So I've decided I really should try and thank these people as I now go forward into whatever (mis)adventures await; but in keeping with my avoidance of career plans, it won't be in any formal or structured way. It'll be when I come across them at conferences or their name is suggested as 'someone I may know' by LinkedIn.

So watch out - I won't be publicly 'naming and shaming' you, but you may be approached by someone in the future who says 'thank you for that time 10 years ago when you...'. 
I think its perhaps a practice we should all perhaps try and do more of in not only better understanding ourselves, but also in encouraging others to keep on changing the world for the better one person at a time...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

the day I realised I was a 'professional'...

so – its official: I'm a professional after all (despite what some may feel are my efforts to the contrary...)

Some of you will know that as a provider of support and consultancy services to enterprises, I 'fell' into self-employment and become a micro business by accident nearly 8 years ago. It was never part of any grand career or life plan, but rather a way that I could use what I felt were my skills and gifts in a way that I could continue to support myfamily, and also offer some contribution to the wider world.

During one of my rare attendances at aconference recently I made the most of an opportunity to hear about the work to develop and agree national standards for advisers to co-operativeenterprise. What struck me most from my participating in that session was how I clearly I exhibit the '3 pillars of professionalism':

-        qualifications assessed against national occupation standards
-        assessed and qualified CPD (continuing professional development)
-       subscribing to a recognised code of conduct (especially useful in handling those rare occasions that clients wish to file a complaint against me)

These are all things that I find myself naturally doing – qualifications are a quick and easy way to allow me to assureclients of my skill and knowledge; CPD assures me that I'm keeping myself up-to-date and having opportunity to reflect on my knowledge and thinking; and codes of conduct I subscribe to through my membership of trade bodies (such as the Institute of Consulting) help keep me accountable (and so strengthen my integrity).

So it’s gratifying to learn that these practices I've always adopted as being 'common sense' make me a 'professional', but does this now mean I have to start behaving like one....? and if so, does that mean I should start wearing a suit and tie and charging exorbitant rates for my time ;-)

Friday, October 12, 2012

why I won't be taking up the offer of unlimited bacon sandwiches...

(so: bacon sandwiches - who's mouths are watering already...?)

I got up at 5am this morning to drive into Manchester to attend a business networking meeting -  some of you may have already deduced from the time and references to bacon, that this was a BNI event.
(For those who aren't aware, BNI are a world famous business networking club, priding themselves on enabling local businesses to generate £m's of sales leads and referrals for and amongst their members. They're also infamous for meeting at "I didn't know this time of the day existed"-o'clock in the morning, and kick starting people with liberal quantities of coffee and bacon sandwiches.)

Anyways - I'd been identified as a business whose services weren't otherwise represented within this particular group, hence the invitation to 'meet and greet' and maybe sign up. 
And it was a good way to spend a few hours - I've always argued that its good for any business to put itself into situations it wouldn't normally naturally find itself, and given I work all over the country, the opportunity to meet with a 'local' business network seemed interesting...

However, despite the warm welcome, and seemingly limitless amount of bacon sandwiches, I'm not signing up. Not because I don't like bacon, or because I think networking and referrals don't work (its lovely, and they do!), but because the way BNI works is by members' commitment to regularly meeting each week, and given where I am in the time of my life, I can't offer the other members that assurance - and that would only be unfair on them, and ultimately myself, so sadly I'm forgoing the prospect of a weekly bacon sarnie fix...

But its an important reminder about the way we do business: relationships are crucial, and the way relationships prosper and thrive in ways that create mutual benefits is through commitment - and while we might not always be able to offer people in our networks the levels of commitment they might like, there are other ways to keep in touch and remain connected. Some people prefer to do this in person, others, like me, make the most of other means to be able to do so...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

why we should all be more 'phlegmatic'

(this blog first appeared as a guest submission on RubyStar as part of their series on words defining 21st century business - thought I'd share it in light of all the colds that people seem to be suffering with at the moment!)

Phlegmatism (phleg-mat-ism)

I know – it sounds like you’re full of a stinky cold, oozing unmentionable fluids from nasal cavities, and generally in need of emergency Beecham’s powders*, but it was once used by the founder of one of the most successful PR consultancies in its day by means of praising my performance whilst in his employ.

With business today becoming more and more like the PR industry that I remember from all those years ago (ever-shortening deadlines, increasing expectations from clients, things going wrong at the worst possible time…) my contribution to this RubyStar series is that word of personal recognition I once received: ‘phlegmatism’. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Greek and Latin, but today it means to be calm, composed and self-possessed. In times of increasing stress, we need to try and remain calm and carry on – we need to find ways to be more ‘phlegmatic’ in how we approach our businesses. For me, that’s about perspective – I was once employed in the health service, literally holding peoples’ lives in my hands; the implications of being even 2 minutes late back then is nothing compared to what it would mean for me today…

*(other cold remedies are available…)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

why mission statements are a waste of time

Any time you get involved with reviewing or creating a new organisation, someone inevitably asks (and probably rightly so), “but what’s our mission statement..?” – without such a focus, it’s very difficult to be able to get everyone working together, motivated and generally able to be better at what it is that’s being done.

But trying to define that elusive vision which provides the magic answer to unifying everyone, resolving disagreements over purpose, and enable you to easily tell the world what it is you’re about is rarely easy going.

You’ll find that you can easily spend hours (and even days) in consultations involving words, values, images, and so on, just to get to a collective agreement about the general focus of it. And then just as much time again trying to get the exact right words, in the right order (and with the right punctuation!)...
And all for what? Some inspirational statement that most people don’t even acknowledge the existence of, because their view of you is shaped by their experiences of interacting with you – how and what you do with them (as well as for them), and what they hear about you from other people.

What’s prompted me to embark on this seeming rant against the sacrosanct mission statement is that I’ve been invited to join a consortia, and we’ve just spent ½ day trying to agree between the 9 of us what our shared mission should be about... (and still only got it down to 3 options!). Surely we’d be better spending our energies agreeing the broad shape of what it is that’s united us in the first place, and then getting on and doing something to make the world a better place?

But what about me and my consultancy practice? I’ve often referred to having certain values that influence my approaches, so surely I have a mission statement too? Something aspirational, but also a bit vague and ‘woolly’ to make it easier for me to do the wide range of things that I do – so until the next time I review it, here it is:

“to not get caught...” 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The day I became a hashtag on twitter…

You may already know that I’m on twitter; you may know that I occasionally tweet ‘live’ from events I’m at; and you may even know that a few months back someone did a survey that identified me as one of the top500 influencers of social enterprise in the world based on what I do on twitter.

But what you probably don’t know if that earlier this week, I became a ‘#’ (hashtag) on twitter.
Hashtags are funny things - they let you easily find other tweets of similar subject matter, and also to help place the content of a tweet in some kind of context. They range from the celebrity, to campaigns, to movements, and even the ridiculous.

And the list of them has just been added to with one that’s all about me! And while many people know I have a gift for self-publicity, on this occasion I can’t claim the credit for it: it was someone else who, unprompted, began this new tag. I’d just finished having a chat with them about some ideas around the LiM tool that allows small enterprises to more easily and better identify and report on their social impact and value, and they tweeted about it, adding the hash tag #chattoadrian

A couple of other people picked up on this and retweeted the tag pretty quickly, meaning its moved from one persons random idea to something that others think is genuinely useful and helpful.

What does this mean for me in practical terms? Well, I’m realistic enough to know that I’ll never trend on twitter, but it is a way that people can more easily see who I’ve been speaking with and what they thought of me. And I like that - I’ve always been open about trying to be transparent and accountable in how I work and offer my support and services, and this new hash tag means that its even easier for people to say and see just how good (or otherwise) I’ve been. It’ll keep me on my toes more, and that can surely only be a good thing in the long run.

So - thank you Graham Gardiner for making a new rod for my back, and contributing to my notoriety!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Olympic-free haven...

Lots of people seem to be using the Olympics at the moment as allegory and parallel to illustrate various ideas and arguments.

Not me.

I'd like to think that there are some places where you can still escape from all the hullabaloo and drama and hearing people arguing about who should have won what.

So I'm going to keep my blog an Olympic-free zone (even though the Olympian values are strikingly similar to those of co-ops...)

'nuff said.

See you again when its all over.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

the delusions of senior management (...and why it harms all of us)

At a recent seminar I attended, I noticed that the more senior a persons role is, the more likely they are not to have brought a notepad/pen, etc. with them - yet they know they're coming to an event where theyll be exposed to learning, and so be wanting to keep notes for their reference later. 
Perhaps this is because that due to the seniority of their role, they assume that others will have taken care of such basic administrative needs for them (a self-delusion of how important they think they are)?

And this concerns me - this obvious erosion of a person not taking responsibility for themselves is surely at odds with their responsibility for the performance and well-being of others under them? If they cant be trusted to make sure theyve a notepad and pen when going to an event where they know theyll need them, then how can we have faith in their competency to manage significant budgets or large numbers of other people?

There are, thankfully, exceptions Ive seen to this - people whove been on leadership programmes with the likes of Common Purpose, people in co-operatives (where one of the defining values is self-responsibility), and people in faith-based organisations, where there is a commonality of theological teaching around proving you can be trusted in the small things before being allowed to take on the larger responsibilities

So perhaps we need to challenge people in authority more; not over the public failings that cost peoples livelihoods, but before they can get to that stage - check that your boss carries a notepad and pen with them when out and about

Friday, July 13, 2012

On being a 'Guru'...

People often refer to me on occasion as being a ‘Guru’ in different contexts - seeking to express their appreciation for my knowledge and skills in relation to social franchising, social and co-operative enterprise, governance, social impact reporting,… - and I’m always nervous if they do so publicly.

Not because I don’t think I’m ‘worthy’ of recognition, but because of the risk that I might start to believe my own hype - which leads to complacency and arrogance. Which leads to people I work with not getting the standard of support they need, and so not benefiting as they should do.

I find myself having to manage a difficult tension - presenting this hype as part of my expert abilities in order to win commissions of work, but at the same time needing to make sure that I remain humble enough to work alongside clients in ways that they’re comfortable with and that are appropriate, recognising where I might need to change my approach or invest in new skills.

There’s also a risk to my professional relationships within networks and with my peers - there are plenty of self-proclaimed ’Gurus’ out there, who through ignorance end up offering a poor quality of service and support that leaves clients in a worse position that when they started. As a result, people are often sceptical of ‘Gurus’, and I’m concerned that I’ll be tarred with the same brush.

The key lesson in all this is not to take a persons’ word for how great they are in their field of expertise - ask for examples and testimonials. If you’re not able to ask for such things (for whatever reason), then you can do things like look at their websites, or recommendations on their LinkedIn profile.
Don’t believe what you’re told at face value - you’re relying on the ‘expert’ to support you to resolve an issue or problem you don’t feel able to yourself, and its you who’ll be left to live with whatever they introduce or implement on your behalf - they can walk away afterwards, but you can’t.

Friday, June 29, 2012

How I (nearly) made a client faint - and why they gave me a fruit basket afterwards

As some readers of my blog will know, a lot of what I do is supporting people and communities to realise their visions by creating new co-operative, social, or private enterprises. And I do this through various means – training courses, consultancy, beer mentoring, etc...

Recently, I’ve been working with a number of south Asian women who want to use their skills to improve the well being of families in deprived communities, but also want to work in ways that ensure people’s dignity is paramount in that process as well. They were ‘awarded’ 4 days of my life through the co-operative enterprise hub to help them to pursue and realise this, and through that time I’ve helped them develop their business model, financial plan, marketing and also to incorporate themselves as a worker co-operative. And it’s this last part that caused their ‘excitement’ – they were so sure that they would have made a mistake on their submission to companies house (they structured their worker co-op in a guarantee company form, in case you’re wondering), that when their company certificate arrived in the post, they were overcome with excitement... they told me that one of their number almost fainted! (although I’m not sure I can take all the credit for that, as it turns out that the person also had a cold at the time...)
Anyways – they were so impressed with how I’ve supported and encouraged them over these few days, that at my last session with them this morning, they produced a fruit basket as a traditional means of expressing their thanks for all I’ve done with them over the last couple of months. And I’m very touched – normally, at the end of supporting an individual or group, there’s the awkward handshake and assurances about keeping in touch, but this felt really nice – so  thank you Access Alpha Ltd of Burnley, and may the universe reciprocate your generosity many times over.

(NB – i’m also partial to cake, beer and donughts in case any other clients I’m supporting are thinking of finding ways to thank me...)

Friday, June 8, 2012

a square peg in a round hole...

common purpose logo
Earlier this week I took the opportunity to spend a morning hanging out with fellow graduates of Common Purpose programmes in the North West (Common Purpose is an international charity that encourages people to develop leadership skills so that they can have more impact and generally make the work a more groovy and lovelier place for everyone).

 Having blagged my way onto two Common Purpose programmes over the years (renew NW and Local Links), I’m of the view that I don’t readily confirm to their (or most other peoples’) view of what a ‘leader’ is – everyone who usually participates in their programmes are employees and have responsibilities for other staff – I work as a freelancer and am usually the person being controlled by lots of other people...

But that’s OK because whilst immersing myself into the Common Purpose world hasn’t helped me to develop and enhance my leadership skills (on reflection I’ve felt that what they’ve encouraged people to embrace I already have quite a lot of already), it has and does give me some great opportunities to not only meet fantastic people, but also critically reflect on my own working practices and philosophies from perspectives and contexts I would have otherwise missed. As a freelancer, most of my ‘natural’ networking opportunities are with fellow sole traders and consultant-types - Common Purpose is very good at bringing a disparate group of people together to openly talk about the various challenges we face and how we can manage and resolve our fears in how we might best address them.

Adrian Ashton - square peg in a round hole
Common Purpose advocates and encourages you to take responsibility for ideas that would normally be seen to be outside of your role. I’ve always done that – but being part of the Common Purpose tribe has meant that I’ve been able to better reflect on how when I’ve done so I’ve been developing my own leadership, influencing and supporting skills and intelligences – its led me to realise that I’m very often a square peg in a round hole, but that this is usually a good thing to be.