Ruth Marvel

Ruth was appointed Director of Foresight and Innovation at the national disability charity Scope in March 2014. As a member of the senior leadership team her responsibilities include horizon scanning, future trend analysis, new partnership development, and pioneering innovation across the spectrum of organisational activities.

Ruth is a passionate advocate for social justice and creative problem solving and she has a particular interest in public policy, strategy, social innovation and design. As a Fellow of the Clore Social Leadership programme she co-authored When Bees meet Trees’ – how large social sector organisations can help scale social innovation; and researched Beyond 2020: Care—a comprehensive new report on the future of social care—completed while on secondment with the Future Foundation, a future focused global consumer insight agency.

Ruth’s previous role was as Director of Policy and Campaigns at Scope. During her career she has successfully campaigned for comprehensive disability discrimination legislation, the ratification of the UN Convention on disabled people’s rights, greater investment in social care, and equal access to the voting process for disabled people.

Ruth studied history at Cambridge University, she is a Trustee of international development charity Riders for Health, and a non-Executive Director of social enterprise GoodGym.

How big is your team at Scope?

At the moment it’s just me and one member of staff. It’s really small but we’re focusing mainly on trying to capacity-build the organisation. I like that model. It’s about teaching and supporting internal teams to do this work themselves. I want to try and not have something which is about us locking ourselves away in the dark and then emerging with something, but actually to developing internal teams to go through a rigorous process of innovation themselves.

It sounds like you don’t directly manage a large team, but support almost everyone throughout the organisation through the way that you’re developing these materials.

That’s what I’m trying to do. One of the big things I’ve learnt over the last year or so is that any innovation project needs to land somewhere. It is all very well coming up with some great idea or great product but if there’s no place for it to sit logically within the organisation, if there’s no home for it then it doesn’t go anywhere. We have a quite traditional organisational structure. That’s one of the big challenges I’ve found: the more out-there the idea, the harder it is to locate it in the existing organisation.

At the start, when you were first learning to work with support or manage others, how did you learn to do that? Were you given any training or was it all on the hoof?

Most of it was on the hoof. It seems like a fairly typical experience for charities, only it’s fascinating the whole lack of attention we give to that aspect of work. I did have some early management training, but I tended to find that the way that’s delivered was quite classroom-based. There are all these wonderful theories of management, they look simple and but are quite difficult to actually implement.

I definitely found the theory was useful. But it was difficult to take it back and apply it. That classroom-based approach—go away for two days and learn how to be a manager and then come back—I don’t think it works very well. I think a lot of comes from what you learn through experience.

How would you say your style of supporting others has changed over the last 12 or 13 years, for example techniques or approaches that you’ve taken up recently or some that you might have discarded along the way?

In my early days of management I was managing one or two people but one level down. Then as I became more senior in the organisation I ended up managing quite big teams. You’d have a management team and then you’d have two or three levels of staff underneath them. I think there’s definitely been a shift between a focus on an individual set of tasks to supporting an individual to think about what are the different aspects of the department that you are trying to coordinate and the different types of conversation that you have to have.

I now really enjoy the action learning set approach. Open questioning really helps. By asking good questions somebody who can effectively come to their own conclusion about the right answer. It’s a much more powerful and stronger way of helping someone than to come to the right answer for them.

I have been struck by the general approaches to promoting people into managerial positions. Generally junior staff get promoted into managerial positions because they are performing well in a non-managerial role. Management tends to be an afterthought or something you do ‘on the side’ of your ‘proper’ job, whereas experience has taught me that good managers see management as their key role. I think recruitment processes could be improved to help identify people with great management aptitude, management is a practical skill so you can’t really test it in an interview. On the flip side I think there also ought to be promotion opportunities that don’t involve having to be a manager. In most organisations to be promoted you have to become a manager. I think it seems to be actually a slightly self-defeating organisational model as it can force people into roles that don’t play to their strengths.

In an ideal world if there were fewer deadlines and meetings and other pressures, how would you like to bring out the best in the teams that you work with?

I would start by saying “We’ve got a clear sense of what it is we’re trying to achieve and a clear understanding of the constraints we’re operating within whether that’s budget, whether that’s time, whether that’s skill.” From those basic foundations you can build a team where everybody understands the best role they are playing and how best to work together to achieve that.

I’ve always found in terms of management and teams stuff that sports seem to be quite a good analogy. It never seems to be as simple as that in real life. But I like the logic in just saying, “That’s the goal. We’re all trying to go in that direction. We need everybody to play their part.”

It does seem that the simplicity of that analogy is quite difficult to translate—particularly in relatively complicated and large organisations. “These are all the different skills that we require yet how are we going to find the different people, how are we going to collectively pool all of it together in order to achieve this goal?” When you see that work it’s quite inspiring.

So do you like the idea of employees “swarming” to different projects rather than having fixed roles?

I think that with that come challenges around people’s sense of belonging. You say, “We have got this pool of people with a set of skills that you can draw on as you need.” It makes a lot of sense. That’s the big consultancy firm model, they effectively have that pool of consultants and for each project they assemble a project team. In some ways I think that’s a very attractive approach because you’ll begin to select the necessary relevant skillsets. But in terms of the extent to which you can build a team dynamic and sense of belonging, I think that’s really difficult. People aren’t commodities.

How do you manage people who have very different working styles to you?

With difficulty, sometimes! I suppose that’s one of the interesting pieces of learning I’ve had about management and team building generally. There’s been a lot of emphasis recent on blind recruitment and the need to be fair in recruitment processes, which is obviously important as discrimination is still rife in employment for many groups of people. But people aren’t just a collection of skills and qualifications. I think the most important question I now ask myself in terms of new appointments is: how well is this person going to fit into what’s already here, will they complement the existing team, not just in terms of the skills they bring, but their personality, working style etc? When you get this wrong the results can be spectacularly catastrophic!

Are there any processes for recognizing strengths and skills in Scope and helping teams then work effectively together?

Recently we’ve been adapting the one-page profiles that we use with our service customers and using them internally for our staff development. One page profiles summarise people’s interests, motivations, preferred working style and strengths on a page. It’s quite a nice way of exploring somebody’s working preferences and strengths and getting people to share what’s important to them, and the ways to get the best out of them.

In a lot of the roles that we are hiring for, we aren’t very creative in the way we approach recruitment. We don’t think enough about culture and how someone’s going to fit in. How do you ask the right questions? How do you get people to demonstrate the skills that you need so you can be confident you’re getting someone who shares the organisation’s values or can work within our culture and processes? People aren’t being given very much support to do this, recruitment is still quite mechanical. So often we’ve made quite a lot of bad hires.

What do you think about co-creation within teams?

Human satisfaction is derived from feeling in control of your life and the things that you do. Roles which are effectively just “You do what we say,” are much less satisfying than roles where people have a sense of have control and a self determination to be able to take decisions for themselves and shape things.

If you can provide people with scaffolding and support they will be perfectly capable of doing most of these things themselves. There are the assumptions that the manager is more knowledgeable than the person being managed. That is a dynamic that is going out of fashion and quite rightly so. Co-creation is about giving people the credit and the support to be able to solve their own problems and design their work and deliver things in the way that works best for them. If you can do that then you’ll probably get a much better result than if you try to dictate how it should be done.

I think the modern management is definitely about that sense of investing and supporting individuals’ ability and strengthening people’s individual and collective ability to solve problems in developing themselves. People want to be able to self-determine. They want to be trusted. They want to feel like they can be successful. They just need the basic building blocks to be clear about what’s needed and what good looks like. Then a manager’s job is to support somebody to deliver that in a way that works. Good teachers do that too.

How do you bring out the best in people?

I have to say that during my time on Clore, I kept observing the overlap between management and parenting. It was one of the many things I suppose becoming a parent, you suddenly go, “Gosh, there are so many overlaps between work and home. How do you set clear boundaries? How do you make yourself clear about your expectations? How do you reward and encourage people when they do the things that meet those expectations? What are the consequences of not doing that?”

I’m definitely a better parent than I am manager. I looked quite a lot at how I can take that learning and the conversations I have with my children and apply them to work. Obviously they can’t translate directly into an organisational context, but in terms of the approach, the structures that you use to help your children to develop the skills that they need, to understand the boundaries and test those when they need to. I think there’s a lot about that that is very applicable to management.


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