Carey Oppenheim

Carey is the Chief Executive of The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF)—a UK charity and one of the Government’s What Works Centres’. Founded in 2013, it is the go-to organisation for evidence and advice on early intervention for tackling the root causes of social problems for children and young people.

Carey’s previous roles include Co-director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, Special Advisor to Tony Blair in the Number 10 Policy Unit, specialising in employment, social security, childcare and poverty. Carey has also been a senior lecturer in social policy at the South Bank University, deputy director and head of research at the Child Poverty Action Group, chaired the London Child Poverty Commission and advised the Treasury on welfare reform, and the DfE on childcare and early years strategy. She lately trained to be a teacher and taught history and politics at an inner-city London school.

I first encountered Carey two summers’ ago when I attend an event on the parliamentary event on the importance of character and resilience. Carey was one of the speakers—unpretentious and compelling—and I introduced myself to her at the end, a fan-girl. A year later, thanks to the Clore Social Leadership Programme, I was able to go on secondment to EIF with Carey at the helm. There I witnessed an open and reflective leadership style that I found hugely inspiring. A few months later I spoke to Carey to get a better sense of how she leads others. But the first question I asked was one I had never quite got around to asking while at EIF—

What prompted you to leave the world of policy to train to teach?

I had always wanted to be a teacher when I first graduated. When our children were at school I loved helping them with their work and also then their friends’ work. I’d done policy for such a long time and campaigning work in organisations that were about children and families. I’d advised local authorities. They were quite practical things but they were not working with children directly. I just wanted to do something much more grounded about the issues I felt passionate about, but doing them in a frontline role.”

When you then stepped back from “the chalkface into the EIF, did learning to teach change how you then went about leading?

There are some aspects of how I lead which are just features of how I relate to people and my personality. But teaching completely grounds you in children’s lived experiences. It refreshed and reinvigorated in me a sense of purpose about leading an organisation that’s about children and families. In terms of ways of leadership, it is the teaching methods which were powerful—people don’t really learn much when you tell them to do things. They learn by doing and they learn by trying things out themselves in a safe and guided way.

I couldn’t say that before that I had a dictatorial style when I told people what to do, but it just informs how you think about how to work with people which means giving them a fair degree of structured autonomy. Finally it’s a really, really skilled job to be a persuasive communicator with a group of Year Eight children. If you can do that you can probably do that in all kinds of other settings, including going to go see a Minister.

How did you learn to manage or support others?

I made it up. I’ve never had any formal training about how to—apart from as a teacher—about how to work with others and motivate others. I am sure I could benefit from some formal training too.

How has your style of supporting others changed over the years?

There are some things which are more structured than they were earlier on in my career. Teaching helps to inform how you work with a group of children in the most effective way, how you need to set objectives and build the learning in steps. That’s not so difference from thinking you’re the need for clarity about the aims and objectives of an organisation and making progress to your outcomes.

Having some distance is helpful in terms of managing students in a classroom or staff. I’m not talking about not being myself – I feel like I am very much myself in my current role, but you’re not somebody’s friend. You can’t be somebody’s friend as the teacher, but you can be very approachable. You need to be very approachable. You need to be able to guide.

I was a frontline teacher, and therefore very junior in a large organisation. But actually in your classroom you are the leader.When you have a great lessons it all about handing over the reins to them and they chart their own course – but you make sure that they are really learning – something is achieved at the end of the class. You facilitate their learning. That is very much how I like to work.

Do you find there are opportunities for people to be able to grow and develop professionally according to where they’re at and what their strengths are or if it’s a bit more regimented and as per the job description?

It’s hard in a small organisation to have the scope to write roles around a person. Some people are very good at being able to just adapt and find the space that plays to their skills while doing the day job. The organisation is changing its strategy so we’re going to have to re-visit whether we are playing the roles that we’re best suited to do. . That will be really interesting. I haven’t thought about it in relation to the zone of proximal development but one could use that to think where are people now and what space there is that they could grow into within an organisational context as well as an individual context.

How important are character strengths and soft skills considered to be within organisations, and what are the approaches or processes for recognising them?

We have a team member who set up a humorous weekly round-up of events in and related to EIF. He is very good at connecting with people and has also got comic skills and talent. He is playing a role in helping glue the organisation together. There must be something about how you can create an organisation where some of those strengths and skills will just bubble up. But I’m sure we do that a bit more systematically and seed it and grow it. The danger is that in an organisation that’s got a short time span, a lot of outputs to deliver and funding pressures we squeeze out that creativity.

What are the drawbacks and benefits of a co-design, collaborative approach to working?

It takes quite a long time and occasionally it can feel like paralysis if there’s not a strong enough sense of the direction for the whole organisation. It can feel as though you’re continually rewriting things and redoing things. At it’s best collaboration is motivating. People have a sense of ownership about the organisation and not just their own jobs.. The key is really making sure that you’ve asked the right question, and that you’re not trying to answer too many different questions. If people are not totally clear about what they’re fitting into it can lead to frustration.

How would you define being a teacher?

It is not telling but asking the right questions and then facilitating and enabling and supporting and guiding people to their answers. Your role is to help others spark their own ideas off and but it is also to steer, regulate, amplify and of course motivate.

In an ideal world, where there are fewer deadlines and meetings and all the other pressures, what would you love to do in order to try and bring out the best in your team?

I’d like more opportunities for the team to have free time to do some learning and sharing, to go to other organisations and other settings to learn from what other people are doing in similar fields. Ideally, if you were setting up an organisation from scratch is that you would enable people to creatively work together in different groups to shape the organisation from the outset.

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