The Mother Lode

Since stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle and starting down a new line, I’ve received a number of encouraging and congratulatory responses. It’s been lovely. Some say that I seem to manage well the balance between work and family and purpose; others that I have achieved good things and will achieve more. Lovely, as I say, but I can’t quite imbibe the compliments: I feel like a total fake.

Why? Because any success or achievements to date are just a thin vein in a large rock of all my many actions (some abject failures, some that are neither here or there, others that are perfectly alright but end up not being pressed into anything worth noticing). I am no geologist, and I am far too keen on, er, mining analogies till they are barren, so you may well not want to read on..,

Mineral veins in rocks—like quartz or copper—come about from a couple of different processes (open-space filling and crack-sealed growth, if you’re interested) and there needs to have been some sort of tectonic action to get it going too. In other words, anything to make a little vein of gold you need some serious pressure, heat and some shifting to appear, and there’s a whole lot more that’s down to luck and circumstance that would result in anything like a mother lode. If there is any little vein in my big ole rock, it’s tin if anything

That sounds about right, in terms of success in life. It’s thin, a tiny fraction of everything, formed out of pressure and changes that are often outside of our control. And if wasn’t for everything else, that hunk of unshiny rock comprising all that we do, that gold vein of success wouldn’t exist and it wouldn’t be worth a dime.

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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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San Francisco panorama

Leading women

San Francisco panorama

I’ve just been in San Francisco to talk to people working in the ed-tech space, to figure out where Spark+Mettle should go next and to drink insanely delicious cold-pressed coffee.

I was staying in a “Hacker House”, a first-stop, loft-style hostel for people working—or looking to work—in Silicon Valley. The sort of people who have briefcases rather than backpacks, more into bench-pressing than bong-smoking. So that was good. Less good? There were sixteen people staying there; I was the only woman. Twelve of us slept in an airless dorm. Bunk beds. I haven’t slept in one for about fifteen years. On the third night a nice guy gave me some earplugs so I didn’t have to hear the nocturnal male chorus of farts and snores.

Only one of the sixteen was an out-and-out chauvinist git. He threw out a couple of comments about whether or not I’d be making breakfast for everyone, which I chose to ignore. (He also asked if people in the Czech Republic speak “Czech Republic” and believed it when an Australian jokingly told him New Zealand was part of Australia. He had a hypoallergenic dog and a penchant for pedicures. Hashtag lost cause.)

And asides from a couple of other requests for “a pretty cleaner” to come and tidy the place, the rest of the guys were super cool and respectful. Then again, they were not, in the main, the alpha male type. More like beta males: the engineers and developers, glued to their screens for eight hour stretches, drumming up a new website in a day or two. I learned a lot from them. In fact, they inspired me to sign up for a Rails Girls course asap.

Beyond the four walls of the Hacker House, the entrepreneurs and investors of Silicon Valley were different. Alpha. The few women I met were alpha too: ballsy and sharp. I’d love to meet a female leader who bucks the trend and makes it work.

Many of the conversations I had involved men sitting with their muscled thighs far apart, showing off how big their balls were. That’s metaphorical. Mostly. There were a few good guys I met, including the immensely cool and un-douche-bally Sam Chaudary, founder of the brilliant ClassDojo.  But the residual sensation I was left with was that Silicon Valley—perhaps like other entrepreneur and tech conurbations—was full of a lot of big talk and sly one-upmanship. These are the guys who have nailed the art of the humblebrag. It’s cool that it’s cool to fail round there, I’d like that except it’s pretty dementing that it’s now part of the schtick. Every pitch seems to pivot around the first missteps, and that downgrades their integrity and humility, or so it seemed to me.

iterativeAnd for all its talk of disruptive innovation, the tech start up world is made up of a lot of identikit folk. The relentless jargon, the slacker uniform, the upside-down work schedule: it all smacks of a new take on a traditional old boy’s club or fraternity.  You might not need the tie or a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet, but you most likely need some biceps and a good line in big talk to get accepted. If you’re not into that—guy or girl— then it does a good job of making you feel excluded, small, un-ambitious, un-exciting.

I went out there with the hope of figuring out where to take Spark+Mettle next, what to focus on, and how to grow. Thanks to a lot of illuminating conversations and a good chunk of time to reflect, I’ve been able to figure out how to kick the organisation into the next gear. It’s pretty exciting. The big new vision: to put Spark+Mettle’s online offer front and centre, to reimagine ourselves as an ed-tech organisation. As we shift our focus, we will continue to provide a pipeline of opportunities for marginalised young people to develop the personal and professional competencies needed to flourish, including paid traineeships. You can find out more in our latest report.

But I also came back with some other things I learned around what it means to be a female leader—and specifically a female entrepreneur in the ball-dragging world of tech start-ups.

  1. I am so lucky to live in a house of my own with a (silent-sleeping, clean-smelling) husband and kid.
  2. I am so grateful to have as a partner a man who is all man and at the same time 100% supportive of what I do, with no gendered view about who of us should be doing what at home or outside of it. He’s smart and insanely hard-working and progressive and liberal, and the more men I meet, the more I realise what a cool catch I caught.
  3. Investors and funders invest in the team. Their eyes also light up at growth curves that make a half pipe look tame. But it’s the team they want to know about. Are you ready to bust their balls to make it work? Are you smart? Are you hungry? Those are their questions. The business model, the market—they’ll change. But the team will stay. So it’s vital as a female leader or founder to be able to pitch yourself with confidence and without apology.
  4. There’s a lot of innovation in the tech space, and there’s a ton of interest in emerging ed-tech companies. But the boot-strapping, fast-failing business plans haven’t proved themselves yet. And the competitive, big-balls-club climate means that the  chest-beaters are the ones who get the funding to make their stuff, leaving other neat solutions made by quieter folk to fall by the wayside. So it’s important to find a way to sound loud, however that best suits you.
  5. If you want to be a power player, or just a player, in tech or enterprise or innovation, you can just pick up the rules and play the game. (Albeit in heels. Or not.) But for anyone, like me, who wants to take a more collaborative, complementary approach to solving social problems with tech-based solutions, we have to remember that we’re going against the grain. To disrupt the disrupter scene, we have to spend time forming compelling arguments that will resonate not just with the likeminded, but also with the kind of guys who like to kiss their guns.
Dolores Park, San Francisco

Blue sky thinking

 

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.