Karin Woodley: Insights from a black veteran chief executive

17 Jul 2018 Voices

As part of a series of articles from A Better Way's new book Insights for a Better Way, Karin Woodley talks about why building on strengths is better than focusing on weaknesses and says that as her organisation has become more honest with itself, it is "more confidently radical".

Sankofa – ‘it is not taboo to fetch what’s at risk of being left behind’

Remembering our roots are people not organisations is hard when our finances are diminishing, we are negatively scrutinised and we fear public scandals. In this adverse environment, we risk leaving our communities and people behind while we pursue business sustainability using public and private sector frameworks; sectors and frameworks whose failings we were first established to address.

As organisations born from community-based social activism, ‘polemics to policy’ is part of our DNA – we were skilled at taking radical ideas from the margins of society to the mainstream and we changed society for the better.

Fostering the innovation of our pioneering days means each of our organisations must return to a structure unified by a strong vision grounded in an equally strong community voice. This is the only way we will meet the needs of the people we serve and find new developmental paths.

Social activism is intrinsically a change management process that relies on us keeping our organisations personal – we forget this at our peril.

Horrible histories

Decades of chasing growth has left us with structures that have lost their focus, are organisationally siloed, financially at risk and more reactive to changes in the operating environment than the changing needs of our communities.

We’ve allowed funders to have too great an influence on the direction of our organisations’ strategies and we’re now browbeaten into complying with onerous regulatory reform – all in the hope it will help to turn the tide of apparently declining public trust.

Our organisations increasingly pursue self-preservation at all costs and our institutional structures are not fit for purpose – our legal and regulatory frameworks are arguably defunct. We’ve unwittingly, unstrategically, naively and sometimes disastrously participated in the privatisation of the state, aiding the transfer of risk from the state to individuals and communities while abetting the ‘race to the bottom’ in the provision of public services.

As a sector we’re still not institutionally diverse and inclusive, our organisations are not classless and our narratives too frequently rely on deficit model perspectives that stigmatise the people we were established to serve.

So, what’s a knackered chief executive to do?

Radical listening: To ensure our futures are defined by our communities’ experience, knowledge and appetite for progressive transformation, we should treat our communitiescommunities less as ‘consumers of services’ and more as partners and participants. We need to reconnect with our communities by actively listening to them – a theory of change model is just a pretty picture if it’s purely based on demographic desk-research and outcomes based on ‘what we’ve always done’.

Divestment: An unpopular word that conjures up the horrors of restructures and redundancies. Divestment is a positive tool that enables us to deploy resources strategically and helps us to be more self-determining. We can stop ‘vampires’ from draining our life blood: if you’re being expected to do the impossible at bargain-basement prices and own all the risk, hand back the contract.

Grow-your own: We’re used to nurturing and empowering our service users but often fall short when it comes to coaching and mentoring our own teams. There is no formula that ensures we recruit fully-blown social activists who can count, communicate well and consider our service users to be part of ‘the family’ – but driving radical inclusivity will reap long-term benefits.

Inbreeding based on class, race, gender etc leads to several organisational disorders and mutations – it stops our internal structures from being inclusive, stops our communities from seeing themselves reflected in our teams and fuels a ‘them and us’ discourse that distances trustees and staff from service users.

Have skin in the game: Don’t protect leadership and management at the expense of frontline services. For example, Merger – ‘yuk’; reduce your chief executive’s salary – ‘wot?’; share profit and loss accountability – ‘eh…’ Financial literacy and understanding is important for the whole team because it helps us to make socially responsible financial decisions. ‘

Collegiality: Leadership dependency soothes chief executives’ egos but undermines our sustainability. We can’t save the world or our organisation on our own – we need to be leaders, not bosses, and give our teams autonomy and the ability to be masters of their own (and the organisation’s) fates. Collegiality is not an easy or gentle process; it pushes us to share power, demands cultural competence and, by emphasising a shared vision, creates the right environment for creativity and innovation.

At Cambridge House we’ve done all the above ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’ – as we become more honest with ourselves we are more confidently radical.

Karin Woodley is chief executive of Cambridge House, a Southwark-based social action charity. 

This essay is one of a series being produced by A Better Way in Insights for a Better Way: Improving Services and Building Communities which is published by Civil Exchange, in partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust. The book was published on 4 July and is available here.


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