Collaboration and Leadership for Impact
This blog was written by Thomas Lawson, Chief Executive of Leap Confronting Conflict and the Chair of the Centre’s new board.
Last September, I was invited to give the closing address at the Centre for Youth Impact’s annual conference. My central message was that the youth sector will not achieve lasting change for young people unless its staff, volunteers and organisations collaborate within and beyond its boundaries: we know that that the UK’s systems do not work for an increasing number of young people who, despite their talent and potential, face challenges that mean it is much harder for them to thrive. The reason our organisations exist is to achieve change for them – and that means changing the systems. Otherwise we are just tackling the symptoms. But we can’t do it alone. If we want to achieve significant and lasting impact, we must work together.
That, I believe, is the vision of the Centre for Youth Impact, and why I am delighted to be its new Chair. The Centre stands for a collective, collaborative approach that focuses on understanding and strengthening the impact of our work with and for young people.
With so many warning signs of an increasingly fractured society, understanding how we can achieve ever more impact with and for young people, so that they can thrive today and tomorrow as our next generation of wonderful leaders, parents, entrepreneurs, community workers, has never been more important. Without understanding how to measure the impact of our work, it’s impossible to understand how to improve it and achieve more for young people.
Collaboration can dramatically amplify impact, but it takes leadership – at all levels. I know this from my role as Chief Executive at Leap Confronting Conflict. Leap’s purpose is to give young people the skills to manage the conflict in their lives, reduce violence in our communities and to help lead our society. We have a deep belief in the talent and potential of young people. The young people for whom we work are those for whom conflict is most likely to turn in to destructive behaviour. They are over represented in the worlds of care, criminal justice, alternative education or may be on the edge of gangs. It’s largely one cohort of young people who bounce between those worlds.
With the complexity of the world we work in, it’s absurd to think that, alone, we can achieve meaningful change either for the young people we work with or to achieve significant changes to the systems that cause these problems. We have to collaborate in well-designed, highly-effective partnerships to do anything meaningful.
So, what about the role of leadership in collaboration?
From a leadership point of view, there’s the success of the organisation and the applause that goes with it. Some of my ambition is related to growth in turnover and reputation, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s just vanity. Once I think about it more deeply, I realise that what I really care about is growth in impact. And as the new Chair of the Centre, I’m well aware that we will never measure our success in terms of growth or turnover – it is no coincidence that the Centre delayed its move to independence for more than three years.
What I have learnt is that when we promote the high-quality work of our partners and partnerships to our funders, we strengthen both our organisations and our impact, much more so than when we are protective. We spend less time competing and more time working out how to succeed together. This is a different type of leadership, that calls on different skills, motivations and conversations. But I believe it’s the form of leadership that we need to embody and encourage as we look to the future.
It is critical to create a culture that recognises that leadership can come from anywhere in an organisation, or indeed a network. Participants can feel excluded if they are not part and parcel of the design, delivery and evaluation of the work – not as volunteers, but as paid personnel. Their expertise derived from their personal experiences is as valuable as any professional expertise I’ve ever come across, and gives us the best insights in order to have the best design. Many of those experts can be found in community-based organisations. We have to make sure that we partner on-the-ground with communities, as equals.
The speed of change in the worlds in which we work is also reshaping the nature of leadership. In the seven years I’ve been at Leap, public sector organisations have seen extraordinary levels of cuts. Local councils have seen 40-60% cuts to their annual budgets. We’ve seen youth services eviscerated. Local authorities and statutory bodies have found their roles shifting and stretching, often painfully, but of course there remain, in the face of these challenges, statutory partners who are incredibly ambitious and creative for the young people for whom they work.
In summary, these are the principles I think we need:
- Focus on impact, not anything else, not profile, income for its own sake, career development, just impact – the rest will follow
- Low ego and humility – and it takes practice, at least in my case…
- Find partners who offer complementary outcomes – by issue, geography, reach to participants, income, lived expertise
- Think broadly and beyond your own immediate world – get out and find out what other people’s motivations for collaboration might be
- Share data, learning, get intellectual property off the table, find common and motivating targets and measurements; share failures
- Senior leaders should show real commitment – in terms of their priorities and time; and make way for staff with innovation in their role to find ways to test out new approaches in a ‘fast fail’ way in this difficult-to-predict world
- Patience: if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together
If we can do this, the prize will be knowing that when you’re looking back at your career, you contributed to a change for young people the benefits of which you can still see; that you made friendships with a great diversity of people and grew your understanding; it was hard work, and you failed and got back up and succeeded.
This is my ambition for the Centre for Youth Impact, and I believe that its networks, funders, partners and my fellow trustees share this ambition. We have listened and we have learned. We’ve done some things wrong and some things right. Above all, we bring energy, openness and a commitment to leadership in collaboration, and I am excited about the year ahead.