Speech: Innovation in Leadership | ACEVO 18 Conference

Speech at the ACEVO annual conference ‘The front line of leadership: from surviving to thriving’ at the Business Design Centre, London on Thursday 18th October 2018.

Good morning everyone. Thank you so much for having me here today – especially as a new member and maybe the youngest member, which is as equally as daunting as it is exciting. And I want to set ACEVO a goal – to get someone younger by the next conference!

I’ll start with my journey and how whilst I speak to you from this stage, I’m speaking from a position of experience: experience of a young person with the odds stacked against them their whole life, a young person who grew up in and out of care, a young person who, if we were to look at lottery of where you were born and how you were brought up, wouldn’t be standing here this morning.

I grew up feeling angry and out of control – believing that the world was against me.

Knowing that my life was laid out before me – and it not looking good.

I grew up in Bolton in Greater Manchester and I was 15 when in 2011, the country erupted.

Over that summer, young people rioted across the UK and whilst I don’t condemn the violence that followed, what angered me the most was the press coverage – it’s inability to understand young people and it’s lack of willingness to do so.

So I set up Xplode, my own youth-led magazine – to change the conversation about young people, by letting them lead it.

It’s now a registered charity and a flourishing magazine with a readership across Greater Manchester and employability and volunteer training for over 5,000 young people.

So when I talk about charity and social action being life-changing, it’s because it changed mine.

The opportunity to affect change on something that I cared about, the support from adults, and most importantly – the belief that I was meant for something better – all propelled my life in a totally different direction.

I volunteered to lead the organisation for 5 years, establishing it from scratch with no adults, before becoming Chief Executive two years ago.

And my story shouldn’t be a case study – it should be a way of life.

Now, I’m here, for the first time with SO many likeminded people in one room! The goodwill, talent and determination of the charity sector – all in this room.

Innovation is what I define as ‘never being satisfied with the status quo’. If you’re not moving forward, you’ll simply get passed by and that’s not good enough in a sector that faces a lot of criticisms and scrutiny.

I think that everybody can be an innovator – you don’t have to be a Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or a Richard Branson. You CAN be a Matt Hyde from the Scouts, you can be a Saeed Atcha from Xplode and you can be a Louise MacDonald from Young Scot.

Because innovation is all about people and culture. Innovation and leadership is about being you.

My key ingredients to being a healthy innovator are these: Experimentation, Asking provocative questions, and curiosity.

Experimentation – when I first established Xplode, I’ll be honest in that I had NO idea what I was doing. I knew what I wanted to do and didn’t really know how to get there but I trusted my gut and made decisions that I felt were the right ones – not all of my decisions were made on facts – there was room for experimentation and this is still embedded in my organisation’s culture today.

Asking provocative questions – This is the bit that helps me to think differently by speaking to as many different people as possible. It’s a way of me as a leader listening to challenges and gathering thoughts from many streams of knowledge – staff, volunteers, trustees and partners.

Curiosity – reading and observing trends, constantly learning, scanning the horizon and always wondering what the future has in store and how we can shape it – this gives my team the space to push ourselves and achieve.

Problems and issues are opportunities – the problems and issues that I had growing up, were the opportunity for me to realise that I can do something.

It was the chance for me to take my passion and idea all the way to impact – to break out of the mould and give plenty of others the opportunity to do the same.

For me, innovation isn’t always about big things – it’s the little things – small improvements that add up over time – they say pennies make pounds and we certainly know that in this sector! It’s the same for innovation. The little bits will all add up.

Practically, it’s about not accepting no for an answer! I grew up quite rebellious and a disruptor, if people were to challenge me, I’d absolutely challenge them back and creating that culture is essential. People must feel confident to challenge respectfully.

If I learnt to take no for an answer, Xplode wouldn’t be where it is today.

Being brave is important too – whenever I see an opportunity, I’ll usually go to the top and I encourage that in all of my roles – if people want to speak to leadership, they should be able to – we, as leaders, have a duty to make ourselves accessible.

Also, at some points in the early days of establishing the charity, researching the word governance and everything that goes with it. Risk management – risk assessments – funding applications – How boring and non-exciting for a group of 15 and 16-year-olds and actually, how inaccessible – sometimes you need a degree to decipher what a funder’s guidelines are!

We’ve made all of those things really inclusive – we involve our beneficiaries in the creation of our funding applications, often they’ll develop them. We try and make everything a little more exciting than it actually is and it pays off. One example is just getting young people together in a room. Innovatively, we created a partnership with Dominos Pizza and let me tell you when you lay pizza on, young people will turn up!

We’re innovative with our work-life balance. Flexible working, using lots of tools for task management and working smarter rather harder. We don’t do ‘to-do’ lists! We do ‘big lists’ that we draw things from daily, to create our ‘today lists’ where every task is time limited with built-in contingency planning. And the results, my team can go home with a clear head feeling confident that they’ve been productive.

To round up – small steps, curiosity, room to experiment and asking lots of questions.

Which all fits into my personal mantra – Be Bold, Move Fast and Focus on your Impact.

And this picture is of my team – your future Charity CEOs!

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Thank you very much.