Martin Houghton-Brown: Leadership is hard, but the answers to the challenges we face lie in our fabulous people

13 Jul 2021 Voices

Martin Houghton-Brown explains why St John Ambulance is investing £500,000 as part of a three-year programme to create a lasting system-level cultural change

St John Ambulance volunteers during the pandemic.

I am as excited and energetic as I ever was about leading within the charity sector.

My heart still swells when a young person tells the story of their life turned around by brilliant youth work of the kind St John Ambulance provides, or when an accountant, after volunteering, tells me how she feels about giving the protection of a Covid jab to a man who spent the previous night sleeping rough.

And I still smile when a government minister says yes to a meeting and genuinely engages in the future of volunteering in the NHS. I love leadership and the idea that the role we play as leaders affects these outcomes. 

But I had underestimated what it takes to lead an organisation like St John. Let me explain.

Of course, like many, I underestimated at its outset the challenge of Covid. Running one of the most successful social enterprises in the sector, Workplace First Aid Training, is an awesome privilege, but seeing it close down and start to lose £1.6m a week during the first lockdown was frightening. Like so many, we were instantly plunged into a fight for our financial future.

Combine that with the stark recognition that we had to immediately mobilise our teams, into the heart of the pandemic, in ambulances, in hospitals and crucially in communities. Serving, saving lives. The foresight of operational colleagues in preparing us to do that work at lightning speed remains an inspiration. I believe in the importance of giving the leaders around me the space and support to lead, or in other words, not get in their way.

Difficult decisions had to be made

But our level of frontline activity did not make our financial crisis go away, and so difficult decisions had to be made. Which parts of the organisation to furlough, which buildings to close and keep closed for ever, cutting costs across the board. And sadly, many people lost their jobs, although thankfully our decision to consult early saved many livelihoods and ensured that all but a handful were voluntary redundancies.

We ended the year £10m lower on reserves, and losing £8m net, but with the help from government, NHS commissioning and our incredible collective fundraising efforts we have kept serving. Together, St John has now delivered one million hours of frontline volunteering during this pandemic.

Pandemic has bruised and exhausted people

But despite the achievements, I felt I wasn’t leading on every front in the way that I would like. All the communications, the hand-written cards and phone calls I’ve made don’t make up for the fact that this pandemic has bruised and exhausted people. Some volunteers and staff felt left out and left behind as we turned our whole organisation into a Covid response team.

Never has it been more necessary to recognise and thank people. That is why the decision to invest in our Ask Me brand campaign – featuring everyday St John people and tapping into the shared pride across the charity - made so much sense. 

But I am sad that not everyone in St John has felt loved in this last couple of years.

I knew that coming into St John I would need to lead and encourage more progressive and inclusive cultures. I thought that my mantra of ‘listening to the quiet voice’ and empowering leaders to talk about our values would shape leadership behaviours everywhere in St John. But when we asked our people how we were doing, the answers were not what I had hoped for and our efforts were not working everywhere. Some expressed concerns about bad behaviours and some felt their voice wasn’t heard. Even as we started to rethink our approach, we found ourselves being held to public account, being asked searching questions about our culture.

A huge push for major cultural change

So I took a deep breath and, with the team, drafted something much more radical. A huge push for major cultural change. The board were active and engaging and supported a major investment. To start with, we unlocked £500,000 which is bringing all our existing work together with new initiatives.

To tackle our most difficult issues, we have created a ‘Resolution’ work stream, investing in a subject matter expert to work alongside the leadership team to review every part of our systems. It’s a journey that will take us three years because it is going to be system-level change that lasts, but we will build a community of people who can resolve conflict well and restore confidence. Alongside this, we are expanding our training ‘Freedom to Speak Up’ advocates to support those who see that things are not right and want to speak up. 

If we are to lead St John people to do more for society whilst leading a cultural change that will last a generation, then we as leaders must change too. That is why we are working through how to make all senior leaders accountable for people and culture outcomes. And beyond that, over the next eighteen months, 1,000 leaders in the charity will be trained, supported and encouraged to embrace our “Leaders with Heart” behaviours at a much deeper level. 

Capturing the hopes and aspirations of our values

And finally, our ‘Values in Action’ campaign which will champion this change. We are co-creating across the charity a campaign that is designed to inspire and captures all the hopes and aspirations of our HEART values and our founding motto - In the Service of Humanity. Investing in engaging and developing our people.

I don’t have the magic wand that I wish was in my hand. I just have a firm belief that the answers to the challenges we face lie in fabulous people we have all around, and in our shared desire to do even more for our communities.

Our role as leaders is to tap into that incredible human resource and motivation. At the heart of St John is our knowledge that first aid saves lives. St John People - workplace trainers, First Aid volunteers, ambulance crew, back office, front office or community based, fundraisers or chivalric Knights and Dames - share one common belief: that we can save many more lives if we unite with care and compassion to serve humanity without judgement. 

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