I’ll be leaving my post as Chief Executive at CAW on 29 June. If you’ll permit me one final indulgence I’d like to leave you with a few bits of wisdom I’ve picked up during my five years here. I certainly don’t claim originality – these are simply a few things I’ve found to be true and always worth having in mind. I’m indebted to colleagues in and outside CAW for helping me to see these things.
It’s the relationships, stupid. “It’s the economy, stupid”, was a phrase coined during Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign. Ten years ago, I co-authored a report entitled It’s the system stupid – radically rethinking advice – a play on this phrase. Systemic failure, as many of you will know, is something I regularly call out as the bulk of what we deal with as an advice service. Systems change should be our business. But I’ve learned that relationships are the key to this. What we have done at CAW is to build good relationships with local voluntary, community and faith groups and statutory agencies, based on mutual respect. This is particularly so during the last two years in our partnership with Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network under our Big Lottery Funded Hardship Crisis Project in which we have built relationships with people and groups we have not worked with before. We have relationships now at all levels that give us influence and support. It’s essential that they are maintained.
Generosity pays dividends. If there’s one word I hope characterises my time as CEO at CAW, it’s generosity. We agreed this as a team as one of our core values five years ago and I have tried to live and work by this principle. Sharing our expertise, knowledge and resources, recognising that of other agencies and showing how much we value the contribution of our staff and volunteers is an important reason for our success. We have recognised and owned our privileged position as a large local charity with strong Council and health service support. We have been generous, I believe, in using this position to support the wider voluntary and community sector as a hub of local activity on social welfare issues. Our Advice First Aid programme is part of this. So is our part in the leadership of the local Universal Credit campaign. It’s not about taking over, but lending support when it’s needed and requested.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. This is a phrase I heard Malik Gul (WCEN) use earlier this year and it’s so true. We can make all the elaborate plans we like but if we don’t change the underlying culture, we don’t change the thinking and the system. I’ve been heartened by the moves made by the Council and health commissioners over the past few years to improve their engagement with and consultation of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and willingness to coproduce. We have a deficit of VCS support and involvement in the design and delivery of services and interventions in Wandsworth. While that’s starting to change, and I’m proud that we have been part of the group of agencies pushing for this, we shouldn’t under-estimate the challenge. Altering the default way we react and go about things takes a long time, honesty and understanding.
A CEO’s role is about risk and opportunity. Well, that’s not all of course, but these are two watchwords for me. Keeping a constant eye of the likelihood and impact of things that could go wrong – and making sure they don’t – is what all leaders must do. I’ve learned this the hard way occasionally. Likewise, a leader always needs to appreciate and seize opportunities. I think we have steered a careful path to create and place us well to take opportunities. Our expansion into health and wellbeing spheres is a good example.
Fortune favours the brave. A cliché, but worth the risk! Being aware of risk doesn’t mean never taking it. I’m grateful to our Board of Trustees for supporting what we have achieved by being prepared, after careful consideration, to back our development propositions. Our decision to move to Battersea Library, for instance, requiring investment of organisational reserves, has paid off in terms of improved services and new opportunities.
Messages are critical. We have paid close attention to communications at CAW over the past few years and it’s paid off. Our oft repeated messages about the value of our work and contribution we make to Wandsworth and the aims of the Council and health service, for example, have been a major reason why we have sustained support. The Council’s decision to directly award CAW a contract of up to four years to deliver community and specialist advice services was taken because of the work we have done – starting with the Grand Opening of our Battersea Library premises in 2016 – to tell people what we do and achieve.
Pride comes before a fall. Another cliché I know but what it means to me is that we can never rest on our laurels. Never think we are in a secure, unassailable position. Never be self-satisfied and complacent. When we do that we are at risk. It’s one of the reasons why it may feel like a constant process of change at CAW. We have tried to look beyond the latest development or achievement to the next one – a constant process of reflection and renewal. The time for investment and development work is when we’re on the path up to the sunny uplands, not when we’re approaching the cliff edge.
We can control how we feel and respond. This is a very personal one for me, because at times the pressure of my role has spilled over into stress. What I’ve learned is that how I react to and cope with pressure is within my control. The system, financial, legal and regulatory environment may not be something I can change, but I can control how I deal with it. It’s easy to blame other things and people. Don’t. Reflect first on your own thoughts and actions and take control!
I leave you with those thoughts and wish you all the very best.
I hope you will extend the support many of you have given to me to my successor, Mary-Ann Foxwell. I’ve learned lots from her and I’m confident CAW is in safe hands.
I’m moving on to do freelance, consultancy work – hoping to add value to a variety of VCS projects and organisations. If you want to contact me after I’ve left CAW, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and connect with me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/philjew/.