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Step down

laroqueI’m currently in a tiny village in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border. I’m here on maternity leave, which has morphed into a whole family sabbatical. My husband is here to write before he cracks on with training to teach, our four year-old is here to spend a term at the local school, and our baby and dogs are just here to soak it all in and stay warm for a while longer than they would back in Brighton.

While out here I am finishing up some research as part of my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship (http://toteachtolead.wordpress.com). I am also in the process of determining what my next steps will be.  I am stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle, and moving to become its Chair. It’s a really good time to be going, and we couldn’t have a stronger team in place to take it through its next phase.

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Spark+Mettle has been on a roll since I’ve been on maternity leave. Thanks to Kazvare Knox and her whipsmart team, it has been developing and running a series of programmes to develop character strengths and soft skills awareness to other youth groups. It’s moved into wonderful offices in north London. And, as recently announced, it’s set up an extraordinary partnership with the British Council and HSBC to deliver skills training to schools in nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa. That’s right, it is going global.

I’ve chosen to step down as CEO for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always been aware of the dreaded “founders’ syndrome” and so had only planned to stay at the helm for just 3–5 years. Second, my delight and my strengths lie in getting things off the ground; Spark+Mettle is now moving into a phase where it needs to level off and with that comes a different leadership style. Finally, my work over the last five years has taken me to London a lot. But Brighton is home and it is where I want to be based.  I love a full working day but I have a young family; time with them is precious, not to be truncated by trains. At the same time, Spark+Mettle needs someone at the helm who is a lot more present than I can be.

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I am thrilled that I will be able to take on the role of Chair and support the strategic direction and growth of Spark+Mettle moving forward, while giving space for Kazvare—someone extraordinarily dedicated, talented and focused—to be in charge. It’s been wonderful over the last few months to watch the organisation flourish and demonstrate its independence. It fills me with huge pride and pleasure to see others achieve so much and evolve what was once a teeny tiny kernel of an idea that I had into something that is so much bigger and better than I could have achieved myself.

This is not the end. Far from it. It really is only just the beginning.

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Co-creation cycle

The co-creation cycle

I might be over-simplifying things. But here’s how I see it:

Co-creation cycle

  1. Messy messy mess mess as brains collide and fire off wonderful things.
  2. Funnel thoughts into a to do list and get cracking on the bits we like or want to try.
  3. Take time out to reflect on the process as a whole and our particular involvement in it.
  4. Jump right back into the mess and off we go again.

Whaddayareckon?

Messy work

The messy tale: from idea to actual thing

Messy work

If I was one of those bento types, with everything neatly arranged in my life, I may well have figured this all out a long time ago. I don’t know if that undermines or underlines what I’m now writing about, but it adds a neat (ha ha) level of meta-messiness one way or the other.

Let me begin. A little over a year ago, Spark+Mettle was invited to take part in Brainyhacks, a charitable hackathon modelled on a pub quiz organised by digital agency Pixelgroup. Our brief was finding ways of getting awesome but time-poor professionals to connect with aspiring young people. The teams came up with some *rad* [creative-speak] ideas that we took away with us. And we even got a mega-ace-volunteer-turned-trustee, Rina Atienza, out of it too. Here’s a neat little blog post about it from Pixelgroup. And, of course, there’s a video:

Brainyhacks 2 – Dec 2011 from Pixelgroup on Vimeo.

I’m now going to do fast forward for 12 months. Spark+Mettle and Pixelgroup become firm allies >> we try to figure out how we can actually make something happen out of all the *rad* ideas that have been generated >> we get a bit stuck (and Clare from Pixelgroup goes off and founds Code Club—also *rad*) >> then and then and then… the Design Council and Nominet Trust launch the Working Well Challenge >> we are one of three winning teams >> we spend five months working like crazy to make something kinda based on the Brainyhacks ideas but also a lot more than that >> we even have additional amazing support from the folks behind Good for Nothing in a 23rd hour [is that a phrase?] mad-dash-business-hash weekend >> we launch the site formally on January 30, 2013.

Discoverables from Spark+Mettle on Vimeo.

Discoverables founding teamI’ll no doubt spend the rest of the year talking about Discoverables, the platform that we made to help young people uncover, prove and improve key strengths and soft skills needed to succeed both in work and in life. Elevator pitch over,  here all I want to do is credit the brilliance of Dilesh Lalloo, Arfah Farooq, Gianni Bolemole and about 30 other people for turning it from a scribble on a bit of paper into a living, breathing, usable, exciting, revolutionary thing. If you’re super keen to get the ins and outs you can read about ’em here: www.discoverables.tumblr.com. But the point really of this blog post is to discover how an idea gets turned into an actual something.

Good for NothingPart of the answer, as put succinctly by Paul Miller of Bethnal Green Ventures, comes down to one long to-do list. That’s the neat part. The only neat part. And after about five minutes, at least in my experience, it doesn’t look all that neat any longer anyway. The rest of the answer is a mess. It’s all about a disorderly mix of brains and a huge amount of energy. Just like Spark+Mettle itself, Discoverables would be nothing were it not for the input and insight of lots of people. Young people, youngish people and definitely-not-young-but-nevertheless-youthful people. Amazing. But there’s a problem: I’m not much of a manager. BUT, as I just learned in fast-forward during last weekend’s Good for Nothing #FutureYouth gig, that doesn’t matter. People self-manage. They do it. They do it all the time. Thank you, Good for Nothing, for all sorts of things, but in particular right now, thank you for articulating and encapsulating what I’ve struggled to define and defend for a while (read: lifetime)—

We’re grown-ups, even the 16 year olds, and we can figure stuff out for ourselves. When we collaborate, there are peaks and there are troughs, there are splutters and flares and dead ends, but they are all important and valid. If people do stuff that they like and they feel valued (and there’s a vision and one centralised, updated list of the things that really need doing) then it all kinda falls together. There’s no need for managey-management or leadery-leadership. We don’t need a thorough understanding of group dynamics. With space and respect (and a to-do list), stuff gets done.

Good for Nothing team chatAnd this is a REVELATION to me. I have been jonesing for leadership and management courses, desperate to know the best way of getting things done, all too aware that in my professional world of education and non-profits, efficiency and organisation are rarely, um, optimal. But I can’t afford these courses and they mostly sound pretty dull. I keep looking at those bookshelves in the WHSmith at Victoria Station and nearly buying the “How To Be The Leader You Can Be” or whatever bullshit title is in the No. 5 non-fiction spot of the week. But I’ve always resisted. And I’ve always thought I’ve resisted because I do judge books by their covers and those covers are always horrendous. But actually I’ve resisted because, because, because… I don’t need a book. I figured I was just slapdash and a bit messy and disorganised, but actually, doh!, that’s what the whole co-creation process is about! If I wanted neat and organised, I’d be regional manager, heading up the corporate ladder at WHSmith, or someplace. I am not neat, I am not organised. Not in my work, not in my thoughts, not on my desk, not in my entire house, or car, or inbox. Especially not in my drawers or cupboards. Come over for tea and a rummage through one of my many bags stuffed full of random papers sometime. But I still somehow mostly get things done. And that’s mostly down to my love for (and dependence on) the brains and input of lots of other people. Lightbulb moment: I am brain co-dependent.

This is my conclusion: getting something from idea to thing, for me and anyone else interested in co-creation rather than decree, is messy and splattered. A bit like my kitchen table after my two year-old has finished his breakfast. And that is how I like it. Efficiency and orderliness? I reckon they’re a bit over-rated.