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.


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.


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.



Duvet Week

Full disclosure: I’m hungover. I haven’t been out for about eight years, and certainly not to A Discotheque Club till the wee hours of the morn, and certainly not to a club where I’m older than everyone by at least a decade. (It was my best buddy’s hen party, it was a lot of fun, and it was on Saturday—which means it’s 48 hours later and, agedly, I’m still a bit broken). I confess all this because I’m going to write about a managerial move I made today that could sound incredibly progressive and cool. So please remember: I’m hungover. In terms of motivation, there’s a lot I will personally gain.

Birgitte Nyborg in

Birgitte Nyborg in “Borgen”

Yesterday evening, part way through my (epic/pathetic) hangover, I watched the latest episodes of Borgen. For those of you who read this post who aren’t white, middle-class professionals living in the UK, it’s the latest in an increasingly long line of Scandinavian TV series that a surprising number of my demographic are falling for. This particular series centres around a character called Birgitte who was once the Danish Prime Minister. Like the other Scandi dramas before it, this has gripped the broadsheet semi-literati generation: there’s scandal and intrigue with a heavy dose of women-led realism.

I’m also reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead“; and I am LIKING it.

Then, in my actual life, I’m coming into contact with more and more successful, inspiring women (including Dame Mary Marsh, founder of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, and Charmaine Eggberry, director of Wayra).

So all in all I’m having a bit of a fourth-wave feminsit love-in.

So there’s that, and then there’s still the hangover, which leads me to what I did today. I was on the train to London (not as early as I should be), desperately slurping coffee and reading “Lean In” and its chapter on parenting and working. There’s a quote from General Colin Powell on his vision of leadership that I liked.

In every senior job I’ve had I’ve tried to crete an environment of professionalism and the very highest standards. When it was necessary to get a job done, I expected my subordinates to work around the clock. When that was not necessary, I wanted them to work normal hours, go home at a decent time, play with the kids, enjoy family and friends, read a novel, clear their heads, daydream and refresh themselves. i wanted them to have a life outside the office. I a paying them for the quality of their work, not for the hours they work. That kind of environment has always produced the best results for me.


I mean, I wouldn’t refer to my team as “subordinates”, and I really don’t expect anyone to work “around the clock”. I’d also call into question my own levels of “professionalism”. But anyway, I like what he says.

As I was reading this, I got four emails in a row from four different team members explaining why they weren’t able to come into the office today. At the same time, I acknowledged the fact that my own eyes were barely able to absorb two syllable words.  I closed the book.

We have a team of six. Including me, that’s 83% of us who were feeling under parr.

I thought about the female characters in Borgen, and about Sheryl Sandberg’s own choices about childcare, and my own hangover, and the half-terms I used to have as a teacher that were just so brilliantly restorative. And I also thought about the fact that after my own kid was ill last week, I was reminded once again that I can’t ever be a good CEO if I don’t have the time or opportunity to be a good parent. And also that even people who aren’t parents need time too. To recover from all their many hangovers.

Just kidding.

So I wrote an email to everyone on my team. This is what it said:

Hi everyone

I’d ask how you all are doing, but from the emails I’ve had this morning CLEARLY we are collectively shattered. So here’s the deal for this week:

1. Set an out of office email for the week, explaining you’re away from your desk and only able to respond to urgent emails. 

2. Only respond to urgent emails.

3. Cancel or rearrange any non-essential meetings.

4. Do the bare minimum, work-wise just to keep things ticking over, so that next week rolls around and you don’t feel stressed out.

5. Spend time with friends and family, go to the movies/hairdressers/roller-disco.


7. Eat food that makes you happy.

8. Come to Brighton on Friday feeling refreshed and ready for a fun [team away] day.

I don’t care how much work you do or don’t do this week!  I DO care that you look after yourselves. So let’s have a few days to recharge and recalibrate. And this duvet week doesn’t count towards your annual leave.

TAKE IT EASY, and I’ll see you Friday (and I’ll send an email about that later today).


Right now I’m heading home to Brighton early to fetch the kid and cook supper for him and my husband for the first time in about two months.

I feel better already.


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.