Space to Think works for women…

I’ve been delighted at how successful the pilot group of “Space to Think” has been.  The anonymous survey has shown that the women taking part have hugely benefited from working together, and that the format is really effective.  You can have a look at the results here:

Group members’ comments say it all: here’s a sample:


“It is just great to have a space where you can focus on what the real issues are and then have independent, non-judgement input from the facilitator and your peers.”

“It is a great place to stand back and consider issues in the round. It is good to listen too and learn and gain perspective through talking with others, uncluttered from work: a fresh perspective. It is also great to meet other CEOs and share the challenges we all face. I think this is important and will contribute to working development and my organisation in the longer term. “

“After every session I have actually implemented much of the suggestions received.”

“I like the themes and love your input and preparation of materials and questions that accompany this. It gives us a real opportunity to explore and consider the theme well and then discuss it. Interesting too to have the issue part – sometimes shared issues and interesting to discuss, sometimes very different but good to know and consider process and practice.”

“I have been going through some very challenging times and these sessions have come along at just the right time. Having people who are ‘walking in your shoes’ somewhere else is invaluable as they really understand what you are going through even though your issues are different..”

“Beanstalk Space to Think facilitated peer support has helped me to develop practical strategies to address staff and board issues within my organisation. (The most cost effective consultancy I’ve come across!)”

“It provides a fabulous opportunity for women in senior leadership roles to learn from and support each other, develop new skills, and benefit from fresh perspectives to everyday challenges in the workplace.”

So if you’d like to join the next group, or chat about your support needs, please drop me a line – – I’d love to hear from you, and I’ll be starting up a new group in the late summer/autumn.



Keeping the faith

Yesterday I went to one of those events where you get to hear about a rare new pot of money, some of which may trickle down to small voluntary organisations in order that they may make a difference to increasingly desperate people’s lives.  That’s after the big guys have creamed off all their profits….but let’s not go there.  I met up with a colleague who runs a small mental health charity that does extraordinary things and promotes creativity, positivity, and healthy lifestyle to people who are struggling with their mental health.

“I’m losing staff,” said my colleague.  “They can’t cope with the number of people who are dying.  Four of our service users committed suicide over the past few months, and we learnt of another three who died through self-neglect.”

Just hold that thought: we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet vulnerable people, all of whom have had contact with our mental health systems, are dying because they’re not feeding themselves and nobody’s checking to see if they’re alive or dead.  What does that say about the degree to which we invest in caring – or not caring – for those who are struggling the most in our communities?

The mental health charity, MIND, received 50% more calls to its helpline in 2012/13 than in the previous year.  People are facing more complex problems, and many are being triggered by financial crises and unemployment.  The Office for National Statistics reports that suicide rates rose significantly in 2011, from 11.1 deaths per 100,000 to 11.8.  Meanwhile, the number of mental health inpatient beds has been slashed, according to a BBC News and Community Care magazine report, the findings of which were broadcast on 16th October.  A Freedom of Information question revealed that at least 1,711 beds had been closed since April 2011, including 277 between April and August 2013.  This equates to a 9% reduction in acute care provision.  At the same time, local authority spending cuts are having a massive impact on community services.  In the borough where I work, all mental health day centres have been closed; most community support work is carried out in public spaces such as coffee shops (all the more profit to Starbucks, Costa, et al), and people’s access to support is time-limited.  They can, of course, apply for personal care budgets, but the pot is diminishing, fewer people are eligible, and at my organisation we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in those being funded for placements with us.  That means that more people are lonely and scared and don’t have anywhere to go.  And then there are our colleagues on the front line of advice and support organisations, and those working with elderly people who don’t know whether to stay warm or eat….These are some of the big political issues of our time, and there are many ways in which we might attempt to tackle them.  But in the meantime, community and voluntary organisations are on the front line.  Not only do we have the increasingly challenging task of advocating for, supporting, and enabling our clients, but we also have to try to stay alive in the face of budget cuts and dwindling resources.

So how do we make sure that those of us running services stay healthy, and maintain the spirit and energy to do an increasingly demanding job – keeping our staff and volunteers buoyant; creating new ideas that someone may want to fund; writing bid after bid to bring in the money?  I asked my colleague.  “I go away,” she said.  “I get as far away as I can, preferably somewhere where I don’t speak the language and where my phone won’t work.”  My coaching clients invest in time to think and vent and explore the complex issues with which they’re bombarded in the office.  Here are some other things that may help:

  1. Find a mentor/external supervisor who works some distance from where you work: use the journey to have some quiet thinking and reflection time, both there and back.
  2. Group supervision is a helpful way of sharing resources, approaches, and solutions, and I think is particularly important for organisations working in mental health.  Find someone you trust, and who knows about mental health, to facilitate.
  3. Be transparent: as far as possible keep your team in the loop with what the problem is, what you’re doing about it, and how they can help.
  4. Give people opportunities to create solutions.  That way they’ll feel that they have some power and influence in the situation.
  5. Take care of yourself: enroll in a yoga or qi gong class; learn some mindfulness techniques and incorporate meditation into your life; get plenty of aerobic exercise (I feel better on the days when I cycle to work); get plenty of daylight, and if your work space is dark, invest in a daylight lamp; eat healthy, natural foods; cut down on sugar and alcohol.
  6. People who are resilient maintain a good network of friends and supporters.  Make time for fun and friendship.
  7. You won’t have all the skills and knowledge yourself to keep your organisation on track, so make sure your team – including your board/management committee – have the skills that you don’t.  Bring in volunteers, advisors, whatever you need to make positive change happen.  Charity Days can put you in touch with people willing to work with you for free, or at a reduced rate.  Local businesses can be a great resource.  Check out Pilot Light.
  8. Build alliances and partnerships: strength and creativity in numbers!
  9. “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”
    Elizabeth Edwards
  10. Continue to visualise yourself and your organisation as successful; focus on what’s working.  Paying too much attention to what’s not, or to the problems, will take up brain energy that you need for getting through the tough times.

And yes, I have to work hard at all this too!  Do contact me if you’d like to join a coaching/support group, or are interested in one to one work, and please do reply with your own tips for staying alive.

Taking care in tough times

P1040697As you’ll know, if you’ve been following my online activity, I work both as a CEO of a medium sized charity, and as a coach.  Oh, and I write books, too.  Working as a CEO and also coaching others, as well as having been, until recently, a charity trustee, gives me a very particular view on issues facing leaders in the third sector.  These are really, really difficult times.  The results of a poll carried out by NCVO of charity leaders, published in January, indicated that charities were having to deal with declining income, whilst meeting increased demand.  Paul Ashton, CEO of Prospects, is quoted as saying:

“Our sector can’t expect to be immune from the economic challenges but further reductions in contract income will be devastating to an already hard-pressed and dedicated workforce. Local charities often provide a lifeline for individuals and families and there is a danger that many effective organisations will be forced to close, leaving the public sector to pick up the pieces.”

And of course we all know that the way things are going, there soon won’t be much public sector at all to even acknowledge the pieces, let alone pick them up.  And for the director or CEO leading their organisation, the challenges are enormous.  We have to balance the books, which increasingly means closing down services and making people redundant.  Increasingly, we have to adapt to a market economy, often bidding for work against colleagues in the sector.  We’re advocates for our service users, so we’re often having to protest to the people who have the power to fund us, or not.  As the health and social care environment goes through a revolution that is by no means bloodless, we have to understand new bureaucracies, build new relationships, prepare to meet a different set of customer needs.  And we need to provide excellent leadership for teams of people who, in many cases, are seeing their incomes fall as wages stay static and the cost of living soars, and who are on the front line, dealing with increasing need with fewer resources.

So if you’re a CEO, ask yourself this: is your board of trustees, or your management committee, a help or a hindrance in all this?  As a CEO, are you drawing on the strengths of your board?  Are you making sure that they’re as informed as they need to be about the aspects of organisation that affect them?  And if you’re a trustee, ask yourself this: what have I done this week to support the CEO of my organisation?  Am I doing things that are less than helpful?

There’s never been a time when working together in a spirit of trust and co-operation has been more important.  In order to function with clarity, and to the best of their ability, the CEO needs to know that she or he has the support of their board; and that challenges from trustees will be constructive and relevant to what’s going on now; and that board members will put at the organisation’s disposal their skills and energy, their buy-in to their particular cause.

They say that being a CEO is a lonely job, and you certainly know about it when you’re having to make difficult and unpopular decisions.  Many of us blame ourselves when things go wrong, even if the logic is flawed.  We worry that we’re not doing enough, we’re not good enough.  We fear failing, because the implications don’t just affect us, they affect our staff and our service users and heaven knows who else.  However good the board is, most CEOs will benefit from coaching, mentoring, or non-managerial supervision from someone outside the organisation who’s a skilled facilitator/consultant and has no vested interest in the charity.  Not only does it help to have a sounding board – and someone who can hold the mirror up to you – but taking time with someone outside the office gives you space and time to reflect, to take stock, to creatively problem-solve, to take a reality check, and to explore different options for tough situations.  You can let off steam and know that you won’t be putting your job on the line by doing so.  I’d urge boards of trustees to recognise that even if it means spending some money, your CEO is likely to do a far better job – and preserve their sanity – if they have someone outside the organisation with whom to work on a regular basis.  With my CEO hat on, this has been my own experience – and I also have a board of skilled and supportive trustees.

I was talking to the CEO of a small organisation a few weeks ago.  She’d been having some external non-managerial supervision, which she’d told me had been very helpful.  I asked her how it was going.  “The board haven’t agreed to fund it,” she said.  “I’ve had to stop.  Sorry, I’ve got to dash – it’s just crazy at the moment.”  This surely is not the way to get the best from someone who happens to be immensely skilled and impressive, but who looked to be heading towards exhaustion.

There’s a challenge here for coaches, mentors, and consultants too, especially for those of us who who want to contribute to making a difference through support of third sector leaders.  How do we make high quality coaching and mentoring available at a price that charities and social enterprises can afford?  It’s a tough one: our costs are high if we keep up our CPD, are members of an association, have coaching ourselves, and avail ourselves of supervision.  We have a living to make, after all.  What helps?  Consider having different fee levels depending on the turnover of the charity – you can check out their financial status on the Charity Commission website.  Is running a group an option for some people?  Do you offer different packages, depending on the client’s needs?  Do you give a certain number of freebies, or heavily discounted sessions each year?

It’s the start of a new week.  What changes will you make as a result of reading this?