A Venn diagram

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.



So, after all this, what overlap is there between teaching and leading?

I asked pretty much every one of my interviewees to define a teacher or educator, and then to define a leader. I guess I was encouraging them to find distinctions between the two. The answers I’ve summarised on the Venn diagram above. In case you can’t see it, it goes a little bit like this:


  • provide objectives
  • show, tell, review, assess
  • believe in abilities of others
  • imparts knowledge


  • coach (enable, guide, empower)
  • ask questions


  • influence and inspire others
  • provide vision and guidance
  • open to counter-arguments and challenges
  • aware that part of broader movement, bigger picture


A couple of warnings to go along with these: Tom Bewick rightly pointed out that lots of people have had bad experiences at school, so the concept of a teacher can be alienating. And Rashid Iqbal said, in no uncertain terms, “Once you call yourself a leader, that’s the end, say goodbye, it’s over. You are garlanded into ineffectiveness and praised into conformity.”

What strikes me, however, is that in my mind, and in my experience, a good teacher needs to be able to do and be all of the above, as does a good leader. We might associate some of these attributes or approaches with one over the other, but in fact leaders need to practise and develop all of these skills, as do teachers. This is particularly true in a world where, for both teachers and leaders, the moments to be directive or draconian are fewer and further between than they once were. Students should no longer be seen just vessels into which knowledge should be constantly poured, just as workers should no longer handled as mindless bots existing to achieve the task in hand.

For both teachers and leaders, this is a time to hone the attitudes of flexibility and openness, while exercising judgment as to when to deploy skills such as truth-telling and clear direction, or coaching and collaboration. It’s also a time to reflect, regularly, on our own approach and style, to review when it has worked, and when it hasn’t, and to consider what we need to do more of and notice when we need to change.

If we can nail that, then we can serve as great role-models to others. And if we can’t, then our honesty and transparency about how we are leading will enable us to serve as authentic role-models too.


Key actions

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.

What are specific actions leaders can take to support individual and teams better?

This is a fun one.

Make time for fun. Provide space for fun and humour. This could be done by an impromptu trip to the seaside when everyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed. A team night out to a comedy club. Or even get an improv guru (such as John Cremer) to come and work with the team. “Off-plan” days are something Tom Bewick is a fan of. If humour bubbles up from within the organisation, give space to it and appreciate it—as Carey Oppenheim does at the Early Intervention Foundation where one staff member, unprompted, started sending out a “Friday Feeling” e-bulletin with a tongue-in-cheek round-up of the week’s events.

Show that you care. There are a gazillion ways to do this, and the ten interviewees highlighted some of the most important. Firstly, talk to them, regularly, as individuals and in teams, about who they are and how they are doing, not about the project. Regularly, that’s the important bit. Pedram Parasmand has lots of good ideas around this. Asking open questions about them, not their work, says Ruth Marvel, shows that you view them as a whole person (not just a collection of skills, knowledge and experiences). And keep your door open. Maybe literally, if you have one, as often as you can. That was Dame Mary Marsh‘s policy.

Start succession planning now. Rashid Iqbal is very persuasive about this. He tells new cohorts of apprentices that he won’t be there forever and they can, if they want, work towards taking his place. “It’s not just about me, it’s more about the ‘we’ culture and system, and it’s more about the aspiration of the leaders throughout the system…How do I create a legacy in leadership? I’ve shifted a little more from telling to nurturing, from pushing to pulling, although I will always be switching between the two”.

Be honest. We need praise, and a lot of it, but we don’t need hot air. That’s a euphemism. Ruth Campbell says it as clear as it should be said, the best approach is “straightforward and bullshit-free.”Diarmuid ÓNéill is a fan of fierce conversations. “The responsibility as a CEO to tell people when they’re wrong too is really important,” he says. “It is not always easy at all but critical for everyone involved.”

Connect their work back to the organisation’s vision and mission. Diarmuid and Rashid both have neat ways of doing this. Diarmuid convened children’s councils during which the street children Retrak supports share their ideas and help shape strategy and insight for team members. Rashid also supports children’s planning meetings in the LEYF nurseries, that feed directly into the work of the senior team as well as the local nurseries. And each member of staff “adopts” a child, and brings a photo of them into meetings, to remind themselves of whom they are working to support.

What’s this got to do with pedagogy?

All these actions apply to good teaching. Students need to know that you care for them as an individual, not just as a potential C-grade. They need lightness and humour to counter the graft that you chuck at them day in day out. They need honesty around where they are at, as well as direction on how to improve. And I suppose that there is a parallel between how adults need a reminder of how their work has an impact on the beneficiaries, and how students need to have personalised learning: we need to make sure that what we do feels relevant both to our values and who we are, as well as to the bigger goal (be that an organisation’s mission, or a school’s academic success). It comes down to a whole-adult / whole-child approach.


The Point

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.

Your paperwork should not trump your people.

“Sorry, John, but I’ve got a pressing deadline—can we reschedule our check-in for next Thursday? Hope the project is on track.”

For many of the leaders I interviewed, although there’s an awareness of the importance of supporting individuals and teams, this aspect of work often gets shunted by deadlines, meetings, campaigns or other frontline work.

So it was good to hear a range of views on why it’s important to devote time and attention to the people that make up the organisation. As Tom Bewick put it: “The organisation is not separate from its people.” There are lots of reasons to focus on the people, but some of the chief reasons are:

  • it enables leaders to bring out the best in indivudals, to glue teams together, empowering and energising them, which in turn leads to better impact on the ground. This view was clearly stated by Ruth Campbell and Kazvare Knox.
  • it is a great way to model how you work with beneficiaries, according to both Diarmuid ÓNéill and Rashid Iqbal.
  • it builds teams’ resilience and enables them “to anticipate, avoid and manage a variety of scenarios” according to Njoki Yaxley.

And if it is possible to find ways of teams or departments to feedback and support each other, all the better. Dame Mary Marsh is a strong advocate for getting people out of their functional silos as this enables them to “gain richer understanding and different perspectives.”

What’s this got to do with pedagogy?

This aspect of leadership links to the importance of feedback in teaching. It’s where a lot of the richest learning can happen. And as Diarmuid points out, “learning is critical to an organisation’s success.” Giving time and attention to individuals—time that is focused on who they are as opposed to the project they are working on—gives the leader an opportunity to listen, respond and adapt to their needs, enabling them to maximise their own potential  and setting them on track to do their best at the job in hand.

In other words, it’s crucial. A brilliant and impactful organisation is more often than not made up of well-supported, energised individuals. Intrinsic motivation for the organisation’s vision can burn out quickly when the leader’s focus is relentlessly on the goal or the beneficiaries and ignores—or forgets to prioritise—the needs of the humans who are helping them to do what they set out to do.

Leadership style

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


So, what’s the best style to adopt as a leader?

Many answers centred around adopting a coaching approach: asking open questions, being collaborative, and allowing people to learn by doing in a safe and guided way. Ruth Marvel explains, “By asking good questions somebody 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.”

It’s also crucial to lead by example. This is particularly true for social sector leaders working in values-based organisations: you’re going to come across inauthentic if you don’t. But if you do, it’s one of the best ways to inspire and motivate others. As Dame Mary Marsh says, “I think if you’re going to have expectations of other people, there’s just no integrity to it if you don’t hold yourself to the same.”

But you also have to be clear. Create the structure and boundaries needed for the team, or the project, or the individual, or the organisation to succeed. And you also have to be authoritative. Which is obviously different to being authoritarian. It doesn’t mean you have to know all the answers, but it does mean you have to make reasoned, timely decisions and hold yourself and others to account. I like the clarity with which Tom Bewick says: “Hire the right people. Leave them alone to perform. Hold them to account when they don’t.”

Saying all that, the most important thing to be is flexible. Sometimes you’re going to have to switch up from being a facilitator to being a task-master. Ruth Campbell comments, “It depends on the context. In challenging situations where a command and control style is required I can do this. In learning situations I can be a coach and guide. In either situation I aim to inspire people to do their best and motivate people by demonstrating my own energy and commitment.”

Sometimes you’ll need to close down the options, and other times you’re going to have to swing the project door wide open. The key is being able to read people— their needs and their current capacity — and to read situations—both what is happening right now and what the future scenarios might be. If you can do those things—have empathy and understanding for those you are leading, as well as the space and foresight to anticipate what is coming—you will be able to adapt your leadership style appropriately. It means you can support your team well, and can keep the organisation on track for having the most positive impact it can.

Does this have anything to do with pedagogy and good teaching?

I’d say yes. Yes it does. In fact, all aspects of leadership styles covered here would be front and centre of being a good teacher too. And a good parent. And human. I suppose what I take from this is: it’s not rocket science, this stuff. But these aspects of leadership are all skills that need time and energy invested in them—we’re not born with them. None of the social sector leaders I spoke to was given anything much in the way of leadership or management training early on in their careers. Perhaps this is because the social sector is particularly time-poor and impact-focused and it’s easy to put our own needs to develop and hone these sorts of skills to one side. Teachers get to practise these day in, day out, right from the start. That’s a luxury. But also essential—it’s a survival tactic.

Given the limited time and resources available, what could social sector organisations do to enable their employees, however junior, to develop and practise (and praise) these skills too?

I’ve got some thoughts, but in the spirit of good teaching/coaching practice, I’m going to leave you to find your own answers… #homework

Rashid Iqbal

Rashid was appointed as Director, Children and Families at London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), a charitable Social Enterprise, in November 2013.

Rashid leads the provision of early education services in a growing portfolio of nurseries seeking to transform the lives of children in London, with a particular focus on serving the most disadvantaged communities.

Rashid was until recently a trustee of Transform Justice, a national charity that works to secure a more fair, more effective and more humane justice system.

Tell me a little about your career to date.

I’m a great believer that your career never makes sense looking forward. It often it only makes sense when you look back. At the moment, when I look back it seems that there’s always been something interesting about the intersection between education and care. Early in my career, I ran the students’ support service for students attending higher and further education. I then moved on to work in running admissions and welfare services and being part of the pastoral support in educational institutions, for those who were attending them. In my spare time and outside of employment, I was either teaching through community provision or leading and supporting community groups, or doing lots of creative stuff. I was part of an art collective that engaged with young people all over the country. I did a whole welfare rights training and worked in Liverpool where the welfare provision was very much shaped by the cultural context of Liverpool at the time, which was a time of the decline of heavy industry, such as shipping in the ‘80s and 90s. I supported people transitioning into and out of poverty and education.

I guess coming to LEYF now, looking back I can sort through these themes. Vocational training and career childcare is sometimes hugely underappreciated. It should be imbued with care and love. I often think that in childcare we work in the economy of love. You trust people to love your children fundamentally. That’s creates a huge community asset. So the challenge is how do we create in a vocational world an appetite and a capability for love- to enable people to love someone else’s most precious child or relationship?

How you would define both education and care?

I think they’re symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other, but particularly in the early years. Our babies need love. Without that love, which you might use synonymously with ‘care’ and which fundamentally nourishes their wellbeing, their physical development, their health and nutrition—they can’t grow.

I think across my career with all education, all ages of learners that still holds true. Every school, college and university has some kind of institutional care system that underpins and acts as an enabler of education through love and care. You can extract that same approach and philosophy to managing teams.

How did you learn to manage others?

I’ve been working for 20 years now. I think it’s probably fair to say that I didn’t really have much of a clue earlier on in my career. I learned on the job.

I think you go through that phase of becoming a technical expert and competent in your own role, in the early part of your career. Then you have that paradigm shift of then trying to move up and manage others. Suddenly it’s no longer sufficient for the ‘I’ to be good or ‘the best’. It’s about the ‘we’ being good. That’s a very big shift. I think that lots of people stumble at this point, because you sometimes hear yourself thinking, “Well I can do it, it is pretty simple do this and to do it well” But people are looking at you, saying, “I’m not you!”

I think probably as a younger person and as an ambitious young manager I was fixated on the outcome for the individual and for myself and my immediate team, rather than thinking about the whole system and my role in it. I see the same pattern now with some of my technically very competent and ambitious staff. Actually they often struggle to make that transition between the ‘I’ and then the small ‘we’ which is, “My team is the best”, to the bigger ‘We’, which is “how do we all change the system”.

You do need a bit of a competition. You need a bit of hunger, drive and entrepreneurialism amongst your upcoming managers and you need to nurture the aspiration of your leaders to get things done. But, importantly they have to shift from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’ to the system and to work on creating, shaping and leading a culture and an environment. It becomes less about what you do and more about what you enable others to do. I think that was probably very bumpy for me in the early part of my career, particularly as I had to learn to actually care and pay attention to what people thought about me!

Are there any other things that you’ve taken up and adopted or styles or approaches that you’ve discarded and look at supporting others?

One of the things that I’ve adapted recently, as we grow, as LEYF grows, is thinking through what’s important. What are the priorities? There are a couple of things that I am interested in. One is about the 80/20 rule: where does that apply? What is it in LEYF that needs to be done this way because it’s the LEYF way and there is no alternative? What is it that the organization is more relaxed about and can encourage individuals’ autonomy, creativity and decision making? What is the optimal balance between the telling and the engaging, pushing and pulling? The core production and core construction?

The other approach that has changed is my obsession with succession planning. When I left my last organisation we had built a £10 million business unit from almost nothing. It was the only growing part of the organization. The rest was in static or in decline. That growth was primarily through contracting and the provision of children’s centres and nurseries, which was and is one of my passions. As I left, I saw that unit being dismantled. I realised that actually what I’d help drive through my own force of passion and energy and a ‘Che Guevaraesque’ standard bearing was fundamentally flawed because it rested upon a single person or team. What I hadn’t left was a strong legacy of people that could take on the baton for me.

At LEYF we have 40 apprentices starting this week. I gave an induction talk, during which I told them: “One of you needs to take over from me because I’m leaving. When you start in LEYF, you don’t start to do a job. You start to do a vocation and a career. If you want it, this job—my job—is going to be vacant soon. If that’s what you want to do, you are going to have to work to get it done. Some of you just want to be great practitioners. Some of you will never want to be managers in your life. All that is fine. For the one or two of you that might want that progression, I’m just letting you know there’s going to be a vacancy here in the future.”

Now, as I said it’s not just about me, it’s more about the ‘we’ culture and system, and it’s more about the aspiration of the leaders throughout the system. We have an aspiring leaders program which I support. We have an ambition for 50% of our future leaders to come from our existing workforce, and we are delivering against t this aim.

How do I create a legacy in leadership? I’ve shifted a little more from telling to nurturing, from pushing to pulling, although I will always be switching between the two. I think when you’re a revolutionary or someone that sometimes has to be a rebel and a fighter then that forces you or requires a different mind-set. They say, and I have experienced the truism, that the forces of reaction, of counter-revolution, are always stronger than the forces of revolution. You only need to look at the political world to see this. So, delivering a deep, cultural change or a seismic shift requires you to think about building a legacy from the start.

How do you then help translate a culture like this or of other examples into giving people the confidence and ability to be able to take things on and do it themselves?

As always in these processes there’s a little bit of a messy period where you’re trying to get the definitions of what’s an input, what’s an outcome, how does this relate to whole performance measures entirely if it’s only a SMART target?

A recent example that comes to mind is this. We gave a mock Ofsted to one nursery team and they underperformed. We came back with, “Here is the framework within which we want you to improve. Here are the outcomes we think you need to achieve. We would like you to tell us how you plan to achieve them. So, get your heads together as a team and come back to us with a plan”.

That nursery struggled, the leadership team in particular struggled and no plausible plan was produced that tackled the issues that we could see, from the outside, was relatively obvious. What we were trying to do was to give them ownership of their own improvement journey. But, they hadn’t yet done the work, the real work required, and they hadn’t yet collectively got into the space where they could do that. So, we switched to a task list. The nursery manager revealed to our area manager that she was struggling. As a result, we switched much more to a ‘show and tell’ process. That was a conscious process, born from reflection, whereby we concluded our preferred approach was not helping that team. The more autonomy we’re giving the less they understand. The more freedom and responsibility we hand over, the more it’s overwhelming their collective capability, even if they are able individuals.

I think it was partly because they hadn’t understood themselves as a team or done the work with themselves as a team. We wanted to get them to the stage where highly directive intervention was not needed. But we had to step back and work with them to scaffold them to a stage where they more effectively recognised themselves as a team. Now they’re flying. They’re on that journey, back on that journey and they are leading much of it themselves.

How do you scaffold learning and development for your staff?

Different people in terms of scaffolding learning have different stretch. I think we’re very conscious of that in our approach because we have a much higher than national average of outstanding nurseries, as graded by Ofsted. Those outstanding leaders need stretch and need support, in as much as those nurseries that are in the good category or are going through a period struggling to maintain that good, need more of an approach to embed and reinforce skills and processes.

We also acquire a lot of nurseries that are struggling, for one reason or another. We also see a lot of nurseries that are inadequate or on the brink of tipping into inadequate. Through the acquisition process, we bring them into the LEYF family and we help them improve. We can see into the bottom, in the middle, at the top if you like of the hierarchies of that Ofsted performance framework which we are aware isn’t the only or indeed the best measure of excellent performance but in terms of the framework everyone in the sector understands. There are scaffolding and development requirements for all the settings and their teams in each of these categories.

One of the things that we do for our outstanding settings is we buddy them up with other settings. We get them to peer support other settings. It’s not just the managers that we ask to support other managers, it’s the practitioners too. Each of them will have a different area that they’re working on and can learn more from by sharing and teaching with others. The peer-to-peer approach is a different kind of development that has the additional benefits of helping to knit the organisation together along network or lateral, relational lines. It’s a stretch to both give and receive.

We also expect our nurseries to undertake action research. Some of those action research projects are based upon core values that they’ve identified themselves or things that they don’t think they’re doing as well or where they’re doing well but they want to do even better. It’s not always a deficit position.

Our expectations around people’s learning is relentless. I have at some stage said to a manager who’s just got an outstanding result from Ofsted, “ You understand I hope that actually anyone could get an outstanding once. Come back when you got a third one and then we have really got something to talk about.” I believe in pausing to celebrate success, but then it’s back to focusing on the next task.

How do you encourage positive attitudes among your staff?

There’s a constant reinvention and giving people constant areas of stretch, but also it’s about being conscious that they do sometimes need to go back to the thing that drove them to this career choice, in the first instance.

For lots of our staff, they don’t want to lose contact with children, especially as their management career progresses. I don’t want to lose contact with children. One of the delightful things about working with LEYF – and I experienced it today because our head office is in a nursery, is the proximity to children we have. I walked in this morning without taking my headphones off, in my own internal world, into our offices. Then suddenly there’s a three year-old child—let’s say she’s called Y—who I know relatively well. She’s knocking on the window and waving to me and wanting my attention. I get to go into the nursery and say hello. We have a two-minute chat. That keeps me grounded and takes me out of my task list and into being present in the moment with the child. What could be better?

On any given day it’s easy to be reminded that I work with children. All of my top team ‘adopt a child’ in one of our nurseries. They are asked to check in regularly on their development and wellbeing and report back, and to think about the impact of any decision we make on that child. They have a photo of their child and they bring the photo of that child to our meetings. We have a gallery of our children around the table. The top team are thus constantly connected, even just symbolically, to the reason that they joined this area of work in the first place, that’s one way in which we aim to remember why we’re here and what we are for.

Based around the Paulo Freire model, have you got any further thoughts on the benefits or the limitations of co-construction and co-design beyond what we’ve been discussing already?

We actually use both Freire and Vygotsky in our own pedagogy. We have a pedagogical approach to leadership. We have a defined leadership model.

One of the reasons why I love our apprentices so much is because we have apprentices for two years. You can do apprenticeship in child care in six weeks in some organizations. We do it with two years. They learn all this stuff, they understand development and learning theories. Our most knowledgeable staff are often our apprentices. They’ve grown up and will continue to grow within the organisation to be managers and deputy managers and room leaders.

But there is a period at the beginning of an apprentice scheme which is very much like parenting, because you are supporting children and then young people becoming young adults. A lot of the apprentices are under 21 and are finding a way of fitting into this strangely familial structure of care. Around 80% of them will stick with us, and a number of those will go onto our Aspiring Leadership programme.

One group of nurseries has an action research project which they’ve just launched. There’s an 11% gap in school reading age between boys and girls. They’ll do what we call a sounding board or a pizza evening. One of the things that I keep reminding our teams is that we’re a social enterprise. Don’t forget the ‘social’- it’s a critical shaper of who we are and how we work. So we have pizza evenings. It’s essentially a meeting but we call them pizza evenings. How we name things is important. We call them sounding boards. When I need advice or the Chief Exec needs advice we open up a sounding board. Anyone can come. It doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, you can help- construct a way forward or help solve a problem.

I ran a sounding board in July about British values as I’m at times conflicted about this. We have our LEYF values. We’re a British company and a London based company. How do we translate this whole debate around British values, both the explicit and implicit purpose and politics behind this into something that’s useful and meaningful for a child? I asked, “Does anyone want to come?” 20 people came in their own time in the evening. We had pizza and good discussions. We came up with some ideas which converted to a policy which we then launched.

That was great because I don’t have all answers. I said to my team, “You guys have got over 200 years of childcare experience between you. I haven’t got that. My experience is not your experience. Around this table your experience is what you add. Give me your advice and give me your wise council. That’s what I need from you.”

Are there any processes for recognising personal attributes or personal strengths?

Yes, we do recognise individuals but equally we recognise team strengths. We give chocolates and cards as a way of saying ‘thank you’ and are always searching for new ways to give recognition that are appropriate to our organisation and sector. I think and we try and always remind ourselves to work from a strength-based position rather than a deficit model, as well as to value intrinsic motivations, rather than extrinsic. We try and show everyone that there’s a system, there’s a team and we work to address our issues and challenges. I do also try to focus my appreciation on the behaviours we most value and need to cherish as an organisation, this includes collaboration and cooperation, not just competition.

How would you define a manager or a leader?

For me, a manager is a function defined by its place in a hierarchy system. It draws authority from the place in that system. A manager’s job is to initiate or ensure the delivery of a set of replicable processes that give them the best and most predictable chance of success in a particular task. That for me is what a manager does.

A leader is very different. I believe leadership is a verb, not a noun. You lead. Once you call yourself a leader that’s the end, say good bye, it’s over. You are garlanded into ineffectiveness and praised into conformity.

A leader is someone who does something brave, who goes beyond the expected boundaries of their role. They have intent. Their intent is aligned in our world with our mission, which is to help children be the best that they can be and to work to change the world one child at a time. It’s the language that we use. Leadership without intent, to lead without intent is to manage or to manipulate.

The authority to lead is not drawn from a position in hierarchy like management. It’s drawn because there is a moral, social, ethical purpose that creates followers in the wake of a leadership momentum. In our world, the world of social enterprise, that’s how we need to teach leadership. An apprentice can lead. You can join in today and effect an act of leadership on your very first day by doing something that helps us improve what we do with the purpose that it helps children in a better way.

I’m not interested in “leaders” per se. ‘Leader’ is a self-serving, counter-intuitively self-defeating title. Labelling someone too much is a way of ensnaring them in narcissism and thereby attenuating their potential impact and disturbance upon the established system. Calling someone a ‘leader’ can neuter their nuisance potential or trap them into the same pattern of behaviour that once made them successful but may not be enough for the next but more significant challenge. I am much more comfortable talking about acts of leadership, or actions that lead or inspire and cause other to follow.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’ll leave you with a little insight. Last year we had children starting meetings in our nurseries. The children meet to plan what they want to do, no matter their age. They have meetings, they minute them—albeit in a symbolic way- and the outcome is an activity at the setting that the children choose. Last year we had nearly a thousand children’s planning meetings in our nurseries where staff supported children to ask them what it is that they wanted to do. Hopefully that little fact gives you insight into how we try to live what we believe.

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.


Kazvare Knox

Kazvare is the CEO of youth charity Spark+Mettle. She joined the organisation initially as an intern and in three years has grown to take the lead after I went on maternity leave. I have been amazed by her constancy and commitment to supporting those who have been working alongside her, and learned a huge amount myself from her approach to bringing out the best in others while also holding them to account.  Kazvare has worked with young people and has done so for many years, both in local government and with charitable organisations. She has been managing and supporting others in a professional capacity for ten years.

Kazvare has also set up her own graphic illustration and design venture and she has previously been contracted to do freelance design work for BBC One’s popular reality show The Apprentice. She also loves books and has been a longlist reader for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the past two years. She has a BA in Classics from Warwick University and an MA in African Studies from The School of Oriental and African Studies.

In one to three sentences, describe your leadership style when it comes to supporting others.

I really like structure and clarity; I think it’s great for productivity and morale for people to know what they’re doing and what is expected of them. I try to foster an environment where the whole team feels listened to and valued. Within the bounds of an overall structure and strategy, I also believe in having flexibility and letting others tackle their tasks with creativity and initiative. I strive to work with excellence so I think leading by example is important. This is all the aim anyway!

How has your style changed since you began leading and supporting others? Which techniques and approaches have you taken up, and which have you discarded?

I first started supporting others aged 6—I think that being the eldest child is the best training ground for leading others! However, I think I’ve learned the most from watching other people. My past two jobs have probably most informed my style. In my former, I picked up tips on how to formally manage supervisions and in my current role, I have learned the importance of helping people play to their strengths. I think in both, I have seen that encouraging a team and/or individuals is both crucial and fruitful.

How would you define the purpose of supporting staff in their roles?

The purpose of supporting staff is to empower them to do their job well and effectively. This in turn helps the organisation overall, so the larger purpose is to have a brilliantly functioning organisation.

How do you set expectations?

The first place to start is the contract and job description. I think also sharing the organisation’s overarching aims and vision and how each person’s role feeds into that is key. From there, I think having agreed monthly and quarterly goals and targets is good and then checking in at the appropriate times to make sure that these are met.

What approaches do you find particularly successful when managing or supporting others? Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups, and how you work with individuals?

I think that across the board clarity, honesty and kindness go a long way!

In an ideal world, with fewer deadlines and meetings and other pressures, how would you like to bring out the best in your team?

As a starting point, I would love to be able to spend a good proportion of time really exploring what the team’s strengths are—their own individual gifts and talents, and how these then benefit and blend into the wider team. In an ideal world, each team member would have a coach to work with them and as an organisation, we would carve out regular, consistent times in the year to make sure we are all playing to our strengths.

Reflecting on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, what opportunities are there for you to “scaffold” growth and development amongst your teams? What challenges are there?

Regular supervision meetings have been a great opportunity to scaffold growth and development. Time is a consistent challenge—making sure that a good amount is carved out each month for each person, amidst other commitments, deadlines and meetings. Another challenge for me would be that although I have learned a great deal through my own experience and watching others, I would love to have more training so I can be more effective in helping my team grow and develop further.

Paolo Freire was a proponent of a co-designed approach to education. To what extend do you involve your team in the design of a project that they are working on? What are the benefits and limitations of this approach?

I think this is super important. Especially because not all my ideas are always that great! The benefits of this are that people feel more invested, and sometimes some great things are produced as a result. At other times though I think that having ‘too many cooks’ and ideas can be detrimental to a project. There should always be points though where other people are informing the design of a project.

Angela Duckworth has developed a system for tracking character strengths. In your opinion, how important are these strengths or soft skills? Do you have any approaches or processes for recognising them in your organisation? When is it useful, and when is it not?

They are hugely important! I’ve woven in character strengths exploration into the induction period so that I can see which strengths that the new team member has. I also started weaving this into their monthly and quarterly goals—so asking them to think about how they might use their strengths to achieve their set KPIs.

What is the link, if any, between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?

I think there is a strong correlation between the two. An organisation is made up of teams and people, so it should follow that if the teams of people are well supported, the organisation as a whole will benefit.

How would you define ‘teacher’ or ‘educator’?

Someone who is able to instruct another person or other people, or impart knowledge and ideas.

How would you define a ‘leader’?

Someone who is able to influence and inspire others; someone who is able to provide vision and guidance.