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Solace blog

11th March 2016

Reflections on the Solace Leadership Forum

I have an odd feeling, my brain is whirring and the best way I can think of describing it is like a computer buffering. It’s like the spinning circle of dots that tells you that something is happening but you’re not there yet. This was set off by a thought-provoking day last Thursday at the Olympic Park at Stratford with 120 Solace colleagues talking about what we think our jobs are, what they should be and how we do them. We call it “leadership” for shorthand but as the three keynote speakers demonstrated, and our subsequent discussions reflected, it involves a whole lot more than that.

We heard from Justin Davies Smith about his leadership experiences and learning from the voluntary sector at a strategic, local and personal level. We need to think about how volunteering is changing in a digital age, about micro-volunteering, and about drawing learning from our experiences away from work.

Sacha Romanovitch inspired us with her thoughtful approach to leading Grant Thornton, emphasising the need to recognise that command and control is no longer enough. Sacha was compelling about the importance of actively ensuring diverse voices are heard, giving control away, creating an environment in which ideas and people can flourish and recognising that in a volatile, uncertain and ambiguous world that purpose, autonomy and the opportunity to do great work will make people flourish.

Matthew Taylor’s accessible and entertaining discussion of models and application of social organisation (hierarchy, solidarity, individualism, and fatalism) provided a framework that was recognisable and felt hugely helpful for today and tomorrow. “We no longer live in a world of maps as Leaders…we live in a world of compass points and our role is to navigate and set the course”. Matthew’s most recent blogs draw on his own experiences leading the RSA and explain his ideas in more detail. They are well worth the read.

Weaved around these contributions were questions, thoughts, and twirls from a great number of others in the room. At the end of Thursday’s session, Deborah Cadman drew together the strands we had identified as needing attention individually, in our work and through Solace’s work. These were:

1. Taking responsibility for jointly developing and owning a vision for a place.

2. Putting people not organisations are at the heart of everything we do.

3. Seeing ourselves as part of the collective leadership of a system as well as a leader of our organisation.

4. Being able to work across organisational boundaries.

5. Feeling comfortable with ambiguity.

6. Being good at building effective coalitions and trust.

7. Building shared sets of values, including willingness to speak truth to power.

8. Being brave and knowing when we have to remove bureaucratic and cultural barriers which stop people from
collaborating and being different.

9. Tending others and our own resilience and wellbeing.

10. Creating an environment which allows others to fly by letting go of control.

People talked about these issues in the context of devolution, of the shrinking state, of integration, inspection, and contracts. It felt like a discussion we had together rather than more standard conference chalk and talk, there was a lot of discussion at the breaks through the day, during the evening that followed and on social media since. So far so good, but how do we attach this to our day to day work and not just in conferences? Where are the private sector suppliers and investors in all this? How do we ensure our politicians thrive and succeed? What does that mean? How
do we avoid the earnestness that haunts “leadership” discussions? What about the next generations of leaders? Hence the buffering!

I know others have reflected on all that we talked about and enjoyed retelling the gems and applying the learning. We need to be honest that there are many answers, not just one and that the dots need to keep spinning, but it feels like we have started the right discussions. Solace is working hard to try and shape action and possibly a programme to help explore some of these issues. It’s only worth doing if it adds so if any of the above hits a chord do please let us know what you think. We will be running some design sessions in coming months potentially to co-create a development programme together. All interest is very welcome, you can contact me at

By Becky Shaw, Chief Executive of East Sussex County Council & Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Leadership and Learning