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 is co-design and why should I incorporate it?

Co-design was championed as a progressive method for learning and teaching by Paulo Freire. It was known as critical pedagogy. I asked all interviewees to what extent they thought co-design was useful within their organisations.

The benefits are huge—in the short, medium and long term:

  • it makes people feel trusted and capable
  • it gives people a sense of ownership over their work
  • it inspires creative thinking and collaboration
  • it is motivating

“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.” Ruth Marvel

But it’s not a panacea. Co-design has its limitations and needs to be used thoughtfully and with good structures in place.

  • it works only if people have the bandwidth to cope with creating their own work pattern
  • you have to make sure you are asking the right questions at the start otherwise people will feel lost
  • you must share objectives and timelines at the start so that there is forward momentum
  • build in extra time because it takes longer than if you just tell people what to do

“It can feel like paralysis if there’s not strong enough direction,” says Carey Oppenheim.

What’s the best practice then?

Have a very clear idea at the start what you want to achieve from the project that is going to be co-designed. As the leader, or lead-facilitator, your role is to firmly delineate the parameters of the project:

  • aims
  • objectives
  • timeline
  • skills needed
  • resources available

The project needs a well-facilitated kick-off session or workshop, where the team (especially if they don’t know each other) has an opportunity to understand the project and to ask questions and to engage with the others involved.

Different team members will need different levels of support, structure and guidance. When people are given space to shape the project and how they are going to work, the leader, or lead-facilitator, needs to check in constantly—a bit like you’re Miles Davis giving people freedom to improvise while also ensuring that everyone is playing in time, in tune.

As with many projects, momentum will build quickly at the start, but might fade at different moments for different team members as they each face different obstacles. It’s important to plan for varied energy levels, to check in regularly, and to build in time for the team to re-energise and have fun.

Be prepared for mistakes, and build in time to use them as learning opportunities.

At the end of the project, make sure there is time to celebrate, and also time to reflect on:

  • what went well
  • what we could have done more (or less) of
  • what we’d like to do differently next time



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.


Njoki Yaxley

Njoki came to England 14 years ago from Kenya and lives in Norwich.She initially studied at the University of East Anglia where she successfully completed a law degree.

She first fell in love with the housing sector whilst volunteering for a local Citizens Advice Bureau, when she was asked to write a report looking at the plight of housing for ex-offenders. This sparked her passion for the sector and she then went on to work for a national housing association whilst also completing a Masters Degree in Housing and Regeneration. During this time she took on a variety of roles including helping customers struggling with rent arrears right through to securing grant funding for new affordable housing developments.

She currently works within a governance and compliance team at a social housing organisation where she is responsible for co-coordinating the group’s internal audit and risk management program. She is also the Clore Social NHF sponsored fellow (2014).

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

I tend to be very directive- explaining things very clearly. I’m trying to flex my style so it is less directional and more flexible

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?

In my earlier years, I was really good at delegating and ensuring we performed as team. I also chose people for their strengths. Over the years, I think I’ve forgotten this technique and perhaps stifled this aspect of my leadership

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

I would say purpose is to enable them to make and take decisions effectively. Knowing that they are able to resolve most problems without relying on too much direction

How do you set expectations?

I try to be as clear and as honest as possible. I also try to listen to what the person has to say—if there is not much use for them, then it’s best not to proceed and perhaps try and do it in their preferred style

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 would say that the most successful is when I use the ‘more time to think’ approach coupled with pertinent questions (in other words a sort of coaching methodology). In teams or groups, I would use simple questions—there is a system we use at my organisation called UIC—that works well for us.

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

I would like to be able to let them lead more, and take on more ownership and responsibility, beyond simple delegation

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

The opportunities lie in 121- or face to face opportunities, as well as securing help and connections where possible for faster growth. The challenge would be in getting or changing culture to allow for the growth, as well securing funds to enable that growth to happen.

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?

This is actually something that we do at our organisation relatively well. So project or teams are designed co-creatively and using experiences of all the teams. The benefit of this, is that projects actually deliver what they set out to do, and work is shared relatively fairly across teams. Also the actions or changes are set out in a way that they understand. There are some limitations when trying to use this process, but overall it is very easily understood.

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?

I would say they are actually the soft skills she describes are the most important thing to develop in life generally. I’ve often thought it is perhaps the main thing required in life—and valued it more so than actual educational attainment—as it is what I can attribute a lot of my successes (and failures to). I would say it is useful when the person is working in the comfort zone/ area of strength. It is not useful when the person simply doesn’t enjoy doing the task and is not working from an area of strength. It would also be difficult to measure in terms of performance management, although in reality grit and self control is what produces results.

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

Well-supported teams in theory should have the best results and impact. A well-supported team would be able to anticipate, avoid and manage a variety of scenarios, being highly resilient and therefore more likely to sustain itself.

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

A teacher or educator comes in many shapes and forms. I would describe them as a ‘parent, or coach- someone who believes in the person, and their abilities so highly- that they (the person becomes highly successful)

How would you define a ‘leader’?

A leader is someone who similarly encourages people, and hopefully enables them to shine too. I would say that the key difference between them and a teacher is in the expectations that leaders have. Typically, leaders are seen in the corporate view- business-like, successful, and profit minded. They have a variety of responsibilities usually laid out by law and are meant to agree to the wishes of shareholders and boards.

Pedram Parasmand

Pedram has worked in the area of personal and professional development for over 5 years and previously taught in South East London. He creates environments that supports others become more self-aware and develop skills to lead fulfilled and meaningful lives. He is interested in approaches that look at the whole person—not just what they are doing, but who they are being. His work is inspired amongst other things by Authentic Leadership, behavioural science and mindfulness. He is currently training with CTI as a ‘co-active’​ coach.

He is a co-founder and Director of The Skills Lab, a start-up which aims to facilitates cultural change in organisations that allow people to develop the soft-skills needed to learn, work and lead happy lives. He has previously worked at Teach First where he designed and trained others to deliver workshops and programmes in areas of self-awareness, mindset, and leadership. He was also the Programme Director for the Governor Impact Programme.

He is a founding trustee of Spark+Mettle. He is also a school Governor at Spa Special school in Southwark where he chairs the Education Committee. He holds a Masters in Theoretical Physics from Imperial College London.

What was the first role you had in which you had to manage or support other people?

It was over ten years ago when I was a teacher. I supported people in departments informally, as well as all the students.

How did you learn to support other people?

Through trial and error. It wasn’t formal. I don’t even think I even thought about it too explicitly at the time either.

How has your style changed about supporting or managing other people in this last decade?

In the last decade, I’ve tried to become much less directive. It becomes a much more collaborative approach where people have the space to be able to make their own decisions, to grow within the role that they’re doing, and they also have ownership departments as well.

What were the problems about being directive?

It was just too much hard work. Honestly I didn’t feel like people had ownership of the things that they were doing. I would constantly be chasing up and checking that they’re doing something, making it much harder. Recently I’ve worked in a way that enables people to collaboratively come together and create this big project from scratch. Then we attribute who is doing what, we’re clear about what needs to be done by when and by whom.

That way it just keeps things moving without me getting involved too much, if that makes sense. It’s not that I’m taking a step back. It’s just I’ve got the overview; I’m not getting too involved in the detail. I’ve just set the scope and the boundaries and let people do whatever they want with it.

Are there any other techniques or approaches that you’ve taken up or discarded for supporting others?

I’m still experimenting now. When it comes to check ins with team members, sometimes it’s really up to them to talk about whatever they want to talk about whether it’s their role or their personal development. But some things end up slipping. So recently I’ve played around with the format, given it some structure by focusing on annual objectives and leaving space for conversation around them.

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 creates a space for creativity and much more collaboration. It also encourages risk taking and people pushing themselves a bit more. I never want to ever create that illusion or a sense that people think that I know it all. I might have this position of responsibility but I’m process facilitating this and everybody’s opinion is just as valid. But it takes a lot longer. Sometimes what I might see as a very simple fix to a problem might take a half hour chat with someone to find their own solution. But once you get to the other end you hope that the impact is that the learning has stuck a bit more and you don’t have to go through it again.

Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups of people and then how you work with individuals?

I see them both as the same thing in my context. It starts off as a team thing and then it devolves into individuals. I use a coaching approach. I say to the team, “What does success look like and what should the objectives and outcomes be?” However I have my own ideas and everything which I will chip in which makes me more of a process facilitator rather than a coach.

I’m not precious about my role. I don’t want other people to not feel like they’re growing if I’m working with them.

How do you go about setting expectations?

I have an open and transparent conversation at the beginning. I ask team members to answer four questions.

  • What does success look like?
  • What’s my role in it?
  • When does it need to be done by?
  • How much time do I need to spend on it?

Does your organisation have any approaches or processes for recognizing character strengths and soft skills?

We’ve got ten competency areas that we use to reflect on and it’s quite rigorous. Every grade has a description of what the expectations are for your personal and professional competencies. Then you report against those. It forms part of your appraisal rating. You get appraised at the end of the year by how well you’ve met your role objectives and how well you’ve met your professional competencies. Then based on that, you can see areas of strengths and weakness. The ones that are developmental areas form part of your professional development plan which I then try to refer back to in check-ins. But this is based on areas for improvement as opposed to improving the strengths people already have. I’ve actually been trying to work with strengths but it is complicated.

How would you define a teacher?

For me the old concept of the teacher is defunct. It’s different now. The attitude that “I have got this stuff in my head that you need to put in your heads” does not work anymore. No teacher can any longer proclaim to know it all. To me, a teacher is someone who facilitates the growth of other people’s knowledge and skills.

Is teaching or education an aspect of leadership?

I see the parallel in terms of what I think teachers should be and in terms of what I describe leaders to also be. In my role and in my team as a facilitator I’m aware that I don’t have all the current knowledge or perspectives that other people do. It’s about creating and holding the space where people to feel empowered to bring all of themselves to their work and have a sense of ownership over it, so they feel that they have a stake in it. For me, leading people is about being an enabler; and I’m still on a my own journey to learn how to best bring the best out of people for common good.

Tom Bewick

Tom Bewick has a professional background in education, skills and enterprise policy spanning two decades. He is owner and MD of a skills and management consultancy, New Work Training Ltd., which is dedicated to helping clients expand the number of apprenticeships. As a local councillor in Brighton & Hove, and chair of the local education authority, he is currently leading the city’s efforts to eliminate long-term youth unemployment.

He was an adviser to the Government, 1997-2004, on youth and adult education policy. He was co-founder and Chief executive of the creative and cultural industries skills council between 2004-2010; and co-founder and Chief executive of the International Skills Standards Organisation (INSSO) Ltd., 2010-2015, where he advised several multi-national corporations and overseas governments on global workforce development issues. He has written several influential publications and blogs at

Tom has been managing others for 15 years and has mainly taught himself how to lead people.

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

Hire the right people. Leave them alone to perform. Hold them to account when they don’t.

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 was more of a “control freak” when I first starting leading organisations. I soon realised however that the art of building high-trust, high-performing teams is to appropriately “let go”.

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

You have to be a coach, a social worker, lead by example, show authenticity at all times, but also constantly challenge staff to aspire and achieve more.

How do you set expectations?

Provide real clarity about “the what”; i.e. that vision of what success looks like. It means you then have to be less consumed by the detail, “the how”, which you should leave to your staff.

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?

Supporting teams, I find challenging groups to come up with co-produced solutions a good way of underpinning the right dynamic. For individuals you need to deploy a variety of techniques depending on their personality types. Some people like straight-talking; others want to feel they are being left alone. The trick is to balance these tensions in the interests of organisational cohesion.

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 my career has developed, I’ve understood more and more the need to celebrate the success of teams at every turn, perhaps by doing some unusual things. I once took my start-up team of 8 for a long-weekend to Barcelona because we’d just won a major contract. Another time my PA was having a bad day, and I could see she was struggling a bit. I told her to just cancel my diary and hers; and we took off to Lord’s for the day to watch cricket! I think these “off-plan” things are what can make all the difference to motivating both individuals and a team. Sometimes it helps to share in everyday human experiences to understand what is going on at work.

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

By definition, I think, when you are putting a team together, you are constructing a scaffold. You look to hire people with a mix of skills and attributes. These differences in turn challenge new thinking and ways of doing things. The opportunity to cross-fertilise these experiences is what will often drive innovation. The challenge comes in ensuring the “creative chaos” of the scaffolding approach is working towards some shared problem-solving approach. Otherwise you get anarchy.

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 you can involve everyone in co-design up to a point. But equally, leaders have to know how to bring the right mix of people together with a specialised range of skills. For example, someone who doesn’t know how to write computer code or develop software would be lost in a discussion about the IT system architecture and wire frames. However, as a user of the software, they might have a unique user insight that challenges the way the developers go about their work. Apple are the best proponents of this approach. Users love the smart technology, but if the technology was clunky and lacked empathy with the user, people wouldn’t buy their products. Co-design and crowd-sourced solutions is a uniquely 21st century phenomenon thanks to the web.

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?

The danger with these systems is that character traits are not easily categorised in terms of their link to high performance and productivity. In my career, I’ve met a variety of character strengths in one work context that would be considered weak in another. For example, in the artistic context, indecision of a particular character can sometimes lead to a better decision being made because other characters in the team blend with the issue and eventually resolve it. But in some management roles indecision—and therefore a weak character—can be fatal.

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

The organisation is not separate from its people. If the people perform well the organisation will do well—simple as that. This concept is well understood in the sporting world. Look at the recent illegal emissions scandal of VW diesel cars. One rogue team has potentially the power to bring a whole corporation down because of its behaviour. The same happened during the financial crisis. I think CEOs who talk about the organisation as separate somehow from the people in it are deluding themselves.

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

Language has become a real dividing line in our understanding of how to motivate, develop and reward people in the workplace. The moment managers and leaders start talking about themselves as “teachers” or “educators” then there is the danger they will actually start to alienate their team. After all, many peoples’ experience of school (and therefore education and teaching) is not always a happy one. I prefer the idea of a coach, borrowed from the sporting world, because it recognises that it is individuals and teams that deliver results. The coach’s job is to create the right conditions in which to make the results happen. Clearly, creating those conditions will at times mean stepping into the “educator” type role. The key thing is to teach in an almost unconscious way.

How would you define a ‘leader’?

That’s the point really. I don’t think you can define a ‘leader’. History shows they come in all shapes and sizes; as well as leaders being a product of their time. Everybody lauds Churchill as a leader during WWII. Yet, he lost the 1945 election to a landslide. Clearly people’s perceptions of him as a leader had changed. Likewise, we tend to look at leadership in terms of ‘heroic leaders’, or the single entrepreneur toiling away in their sheds. Again, history shows us that the best forms of leadership often come from broad based social movements, where there is often no recognised leader or figurehead at all. For example, the cause of equality in gay marriage in the West took decades of social change—and multiple leaders—to achieve its aims.

Ruth Campbell

Ruth began her career as a community activist and gained experience in charities, Scottish Government and local government before founding Comas, a social innovation charity. Comas has pioneered work with people recovering from addiction to prevent relapse and recycling through treatment in the award winning Serenity Café project.

Ruth has steered Comas through a period of growth in which several areas of development became national resources and the charity set new goals for working on tackling poverty, with a challenging, goal oriented approach to making every household in one community better off. Ruth has used her different career experiences for her own learning, watching those around her, and attending some training.

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

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.

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?

Really it is the context and the people that has informed the style. The demands of a social enterprise requiring daily operational development and management over 7 days is very different from the style required in the civil service or local authority. People’s motivation and expectation of their leaders is different in different settings. In our organisation we also lead the community, many of whom are vulnerable and have difficult responses to some aspects of leadership. The critical point is, the style has to bend to the situation and the people being led, all the time. Anyone who has a fixed style wouldn’t achieve much.

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

The ultimate purpose is that we are all tools to achieve a social impact and make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people. The support to staff is to enable them to do that to the best of their ability and within the resources available. But support also serves to glue the team together, enhance our enjoyment of our challenge, build our ethos and energise us all – we aim to support people in immensely difficult life situations, so to an extent we also have to model that support with each other in our team, and to that end one of the purposes of support is to create reciprocity – I need their support too!

How do you set expectations?


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?

Straightforward and bullshit-free. Add fun and humour with groups. Add cuddles for individuals.

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

I’d add some deadlines and meetings. It’s not the fact of them that’s the problem, it’s how you do them.

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

In our organisation the scaffolding hits you on the head and because things are so dynamic, it never goes away. Even people who have been here for years are always learning something new. We don’t really do comfort zones, but if you have mastered something you will be left to get on with that autonomously.

We have a high degree of conscious learning in our organisation: we are an innovation organisation, so we are always learning as we go; we work with people in early recovery whose brains are still adjusting to sobriety, so we are always adjusting to ‘wonky learners’ and many of our staff are in recovery – we have to create a lot of frameworks to assist learning; we have an internship programme and are conscious of the cognitive overload that comes with being thrust into a new environment. All in all, we make learning, ideas sharing and feedback very up front, direct (rather than subtle) and, because it is all around us all the time, compulsory. People who get that we are all learning all the time and find this stimulating, love it. People who don’t really want to learn, hate it and don’t last long.

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?

We are community development workers so we have Freire in our DNA. However, I would say that this style suits people who want this. Some people – for example staff and volunteers in the cafe enterprise, have over-taxed cognitive bandwidth because of all the other life stuff they are coping with. They do want to be told what to do and have the comfort of defined roles and tasks.

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?

I really like this theory and I think there is a lot to work with in it. It is particularly relevant for our community members as well as our team. However, in as much as character can be developed, it can also be warped by situations, circumstances and faulty brain wiring/chemistry and the labile nature of character is the interesting thing. Essentially, people are fascinating and if we are very lucky we can create an environment where this fascination is in constant circulation. Because we deal with personal development for the individuals in our communities we can indulge this fascination all the time and it naturally expresses itself in our dialogue with the community and with each other as we try to create self-knowledge.

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

The knee-jerk reaction is to say ‘huge’, but I also think that people with a lucky bundle of strong character, vision and skill can transcend fragmented and dysfunctional teams to have an impact – think of local authorities and the occasional individual you meet who refuses to be held back by the system and does great things anyway. A well supported team would always be the ideal, but not having it doesn’t always mean there will be less impact. In fact, I have come across supported and supportive teams who stay so far within their comfort zone they cease to have impact or adapt to their environment; and also come across teams that focus so much on support for each other this has become their purpose—demands from external forces to evidence a wider impact are treated as a threat.

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

Teacher: provide the objective, show, tell, review and assess; Educator: facilitate goal setting, enable, empower and make wisdom and experience accessible on demand.

How would you define a ‘leader’?

Someone people love to collaborate with, emulate, follow, argue with and challenge. Someone who stirs energy, thinking, passion and mission.