Going for gold…

There are times at which I feel as though I am seeing the world through different spectacles to everyone else, when the whole of the rest of society is in one camp and I’m in another and today is absolutely one of those days.

You may have seen the news about the eight badminton players disqualified from the Olympics for failing to use their best efforts to win.  All four pairs were accused of wanting to lose their match in an effort to manipulate the draw for the knockout stage.  There was talk of poor sportsmanship, a poor spectator experience and a tit-for-tat of “they started it first” between China, South Korea and Indonesia.  All four teams are in disgrace and at least one of the eight players has retired from the sport entirely.

I heard the story, followed shortly after by what appeared to be a minor outburst of mass hysteria, calls for disqualification that might as well have been followed by calls for a public flogging, so strong was the condemnation of their actions, and here’s where I seem to be a lone voice on this one…

From where I see it they had their eyes on the prize, an Olympic gold medal.  They wanted to win.  The round robin system (as opposed to a straight knock-out tournament) meant that it was possible to manipulate the result in order to face the opponents most likely to deliver the result you wanted, moving you closer and closer to that final and to victory.  Is that really so bad?  In other circumstances, would many of us not do the same thing?  This wasn’t about match fixing for cash or other personal gain, it was about wanting to win.  Winning the match and winning the medal should go hand in hand, but in this sport it didn’t and it seems to me to be unfair to penalise the players who wanted the medal more than they wanted to win that early round match.  Their actions look more like strategizing than cheating, to me.

I run an organisation that’s proudly principle-centred, that cares about things other than share-holder profit and that acts in ways that are very different from most businesses.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t set out to win, that we wouldn’t hesitate to spot an opportunity and exploit it, in order to achieve our goal.  And if we were in that place of having to decide, do we win this early stage round or hold out and go for gold, I’m standing proud in saying I’d go for gold any day.

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While Rome burns, pitch for the rebuilding work…

While Rome burns, pitch for the rebuilding work…

Now far be it from me to use my blog to let off a little steam or pick a fight.  Far be it from me to pick a fight with Liam Black, especially seeing as we’re having lunch in Leeds next week!

But here goes, with perhaps another perspective on his leader article…

One thing I do have to agree with Liam on is this.  I think it is the time for social enterprise to stick its neck out and get some backbone.  I think it is time for social enterprise to recognise that when you take money from the piper they call the tune and sometimes they change the score or rip up the music.  But I guess that is where my experience is different from the example Liam, with great passion and guts, points to.  I love Jude.  I don’t know what product or service he sells and so I do wonder if he is a social entrepreneur or rather an amazing visionary leader of a grass roots charity that changes many lives.  We get ourselves muddled when we confuse the two, I think.  And so, you see, there has always been the problem with the piper calling the tune.

I am not the world greatest fan of the government.  They have got some things right, they have got some things wrong.  But fundamentally I think that social enterprise is about the hard truth that there is no they, no them, only us.  If social transformation is going to happen and happen with scale and impact, it is not ‘they’ that are going to do it it is ‘us’.  It is me. 

I think that those social enterprises whose business plan has centred on the drawing down of government contracts in order to deliver a service in their community are in trouble, but that isn’t true of all businesses.  During this tough tough period Create is successfully seeking investment, expanding into new cities, growing and developing all the time.  That is because our business plan is based on that etherial Harvard Business School dictum of selling stuff, food in our case. We have production kitchens and outside catering operations, new brasseries opening up and an Academy with 100 former homeless people on the journey to a job each year.  And so that is my gripe as a social entrepreneur – sell stuff.  I don’t mind what.  Products or services, it doesn’t really matter, sell stuff that people will put pounds in your hand for.  Lots of stuff to lots of people for lots of pounds.  Then, when you have done that, build your great big social impact on that strong platform.  That way you are the piper and you call the tune.  I always wanted to call the tune, to say “this is what I sell and this is what I choose to do with the money”.

When I went to the Big Society Reception a couple of weeks ago at Number 10, and yes I did have a cheeky little Soave, David Cameron asked what he could do to support social enterprise.  I thought about offering a diatribe on welfare reform but settled for the simple approach, “Who does your catering?  We are a great food company and I think we could offer you a great product and a great service”.  In my world that is the social enterprise approach.

I think that all the great radical social movements from diggers and levellers to the first co-operators imagined a different world and thought business was a great way to get there. Building businesses that are sustainable and delivering social impact from there, that way we plough our own furrow and no one tells us otherwise.

So Liam, I think we agree, kinda, and I would love to debate this if you still want to come for lunch.  Let’s find leaders with some backbone and in the fires of the current climate lets lead and challenge, but let’s start that not with ‘they’ but with ‘we’ eh?

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Firm Foundations?

we built this city

I, like everyone else, have spent much of the last few days thinking about the earthquake in Japan.  We don’t know yet what the full extent of this tragedy will be and there are, even now, new stories unfolding which further illustrate the full magnitude of the events.

I think this is not the subject of a blog and neither should it be because I have not been there, I am not there.  I am here and all the stresses and strains of my life in business and in social enterprise particularly are placed into perspective by this experience.  But you wouldn’t be human if, bombarded as we are with the news every day, we didn’t stop to reflect.

Two things that really struck me today were a tweet and a story.  The tweet was, as by nature it has to be, short and to the point and it said ‘I am struck by the inexhaustible dignity of the people of Japan’.  The other was a radio broadcast that was talking about the fundamental building principles of Japanese building design – flexibility. Drawing on the environmental factors and centuries of experience, buildings were first made of bamboo.  They were made of bamboo because under extreme pressure it bends and doesn’t snap.  Every development in building since has built on these foundations and learned these lessons and so even now with so much acceleration and advance buildings are still designed to bend and not break.  I’m sure that during this natural disaster, these principles will have saved many countless lives.

And so I am left with this over riding image of great flexibility and great dignity.  I am humbled by and want to learn from these qualities, not to cope with the traumas that the people of Japan have had to, but to live with authenticity in my world of social enterprise. 

Perhaps if I am more flexible I will be more resilient and perhaps if I can flex I will be less stressed!  Either way there are lots of things that make me grateful at the moment.

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parlez vous…

that dares to speak its name

It’s been a busy couple of weeks all in all.  After months of preparing for investment and planning the roll out of our business in lots of locations, we are full steam ahead! This is brilliant news and a very exciting time.  There are lots of challenges too though.  Opening a new restaurant, recruiting great news chefs for our food business, working out the mechanisms for managing businesses and people at distance are all ones every growing business wrestles with.  But for me there is an even more important challenge.  Learning to speak in a local accent.  Or perhaps learning to speak in many local accents.

Over the last week, I have been in Liverpool, the North East, the Midlands and London, building relationships with the people who will be our new staff, customers and trainees.  And one thing that I recognise over and over again, on the train or in the car back home, is the strength of the local accent.  And I have to be honest I love it…love the richness and diversity, the things to learn and the way to express things outside my home in Yorkshire.  I have to add at this point that I do not have a strong local accent.  My parents and Miss Witty, my elocution teacher saw to that!

So what’s all this about accents?  At CREATE I have always been passionate about great food and about believing that everyone has talent, especially those who train with us and work for us…those whose journey has encompassed homelessness and lots of other challenges.  I have also been passionate about the fact that the challenges and opportunities are different in different places.  So I have always been committed to the idea that if CREATE was going to develop great food businesses and effective employment training throughout the UK, it had to be a mulit-local and not a national expansion.

So what’s all this about accents?  In the places we are opening, in the opportunities that lie ahead, we need to express our business with a local accent.  We need to speak about our business and our passion for social enterprise in a way that makes sense and has impact in many different communities.

We are not a supermarket chain, we are not a branded restaurant or coffee franchise, we believe that great local food and great local people matter.

I think in all of this the great bard’s line in Hamlet is ringing in my ears – “to thine own self be true”.  This is not wishy washy playing up to some localism agenda. When Polonius speaks these words what he is saying is, stay true to yourself and your passion and, importantly, you will benefit.  This is not altruism but good solid business sense.  Be yourself, be different and it will give you the market edge.  Stay close to your USP and not those that worked for others and you will have the edge.

So I think this learning about CREATE as a business, as a great food business, as a great work based learning business, as a social business, is true for all of us in this exciting, crazy, challenging world of social enterprise.  To thine own self be true and speak your business and passion with a local accent.  If we open in Wales I will tweet you all for extra help!

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Thank you Mr Cameron

pointing left from the right?

I am now officially a fan of the big society, although I think I probably need to add a caveat to that before I am accused of selling out.

This week I received a letter and a certificate from David Cameron to say he had been aware of CREATE for a while and was delighted to announce that we were the second winner of the Big Society Award, a scheme he launched a couple of weeks ago.  Well when I say that I received the letter, I actually found it with some suppliers invoices in our production kitchen where it had been signed for and placed on a pile with the bakers and grocers invoice. Oh the joy of social enterprise.

Anyway I finally got it and it started me thinking again.

I have talked about the Big Society in blogs and conferences over the last few months but as I looked at the letter I realised I was officially a big part of this big thing, and that gives you a different perspective I guess.  So are these Big Society Awards a PR gimmick and whitewash and am I a willing accomplice?  Well probably yes but for very good reasons.  I think the Big Society Awards are a great idea, not because we won one, but because they make the concept real.

Society needs politicians and policy makers, academics and statisticians…but it also needs poets and story tellers. Poets and story tellers in the sense that we need to communicate our aspirations for social transformation in a way that connects with people.  I believe that the heart of the human challenge is the challenge of the human heart; and only when people feel the burning desire for change in their hearts (and not their wallets) will the motivation for change become the determined reality to deliver.

The Big Society or Big Idea goes back further than Alinsky, further than its US precedents, back through collective association, mutuals and co-ops, back through Tory Victorian philanthropy. Even back beyond Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Republic… 

The problem with all of these is that it is hard to see what the theory means, what it looks like.  The Big Society Award doesn’t diminish our ability to debate the issues, to wrestle honestly with the problems, but it does hold out a picture.  It says that this is what this concept looks like in practice; these are the communities and people who are supported and are flourishing when social enterprise, local and national government and big corporate business act together.

I think that might be called PR, but it works, it gives real flesh on the bones and challenges society to think again and act.  I think that is good, really.

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Bridewell Taxi’s

Bridewell taxi anyone?

Historically the Bridewell is an interesting place.  I say this partly because the Bridewell Taxis was an under-rated 1980s Leeds band, but I think I also say this for more significant reasons today.

For many years the central police station in Leeds was in the basement of the Town Hall and on a Friday night revellers who were getting out of hand were gently assisted into the back of a police van and given a lift in the Bridewell Taxi.

The name of the Central Charge Office of the Leeds Central Police Force is important because it takes its provenance from the small prison for vagrants and petty offenders in London, which was near the church of St. Brides, and also near a well, hence the name Bridewell.

Under the Bridewell Charter of 1864 (the same year the largest commercial retailer in Leeds was the Leeds Co-Operative Society) each prisoner was given “half a loaf of bread and a pint of ale together with sufficient straw for bedding”.

So why do I tell you all this. Well…not to put my head above the parapet at all, but here we go.  It was not long after the opening of the Leeds Bridewell that people realised it was a really bad idea to treat people who were out of work and out of a home (vagrants) and people who had committed criminal offences (offenders) in the same way.  Over the last few hundred years we have come to understand that homelessness, worklessness and criminal behaviour aren’t always the same.  I think that if people are made to do community service for the wrong reason that might muddle the understanding it has taken us three hundred years to appreciate.  So, in the light of the government’s announcement this weekend…I am passionately committed to any support or strategy which helps people find dignity through work.  I think that when people don’t have a job that reality harms them and damages society but I think mandatory work offers as many problems as it offers solutions. 

1864 was a good year in Leeds, the Bridewell Charter was fair, the Co-operative was transformative.  I hope we learn the right lessons from history and don’t confuse those ideas it took us years to work out.

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on this day in 1512

please release me

I am not a big fan of the on-this-day-in-history-inspiration-and-motivation-start-to-the-day thing but today seemed different.  The first of our graduates from Create’s pre-employment training academy started work in the new Morrison’s store in Leeds AND there was a national announcement that Morrison’s would commit 1000 jobs in its stores to people who have come through the CREATE training programme.

So great news on two fronts.  The first wave of students starting their first day at work and the promise of an anchor retail partner to encourage other retailers to come on board as we expand our work around the UK.  A story very personal to those who started work and to me but also exciting to consider the scale of what Create will achieve in the next few years.

So the day did feel momentous in many ways.  Any way back to the on-this-day-in-history-inspiration-and-motivation-start-to-the-day thing.  As I say I am not usually into this kind of thing but I always say, don’t knock it till you have tried it!  Any way it turns out that on this day in 1512 Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were first exhibited to the public.  This made me think of the story of Michelangelo, when he was first commissioned to create the magnificent statue of David.  It is reported that he walked into the quarry and beheld a huge rock in the middle of a pile of rubble.  Embracing the rock he shouted “I must release David from this stone!”

I think the inspiration of this story is that the great, gifted, visionary Michelangelo didn’t feel he was creating anything, he was just releasing something that was trapped but was, in its own right, beautiful.  As a social entrepreneur, I believe that change is good, both change in people and change in society. I also believe that homelessness like many other problems is a trap and that a great job brings more rewards than just a pay packet.  I felt today, standing with them in the fresh produce section, like our Create lads had been released not by us or the training we’d given them, but by themselves.  We just helped along the way and it was bloody brilliant.  In related news shower gel is on two for one in Morrisons, so a good day all round really.

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