On Friday 18th March I attended the Swindon Strategic Partnership Conference for public, private and voluntary sector organisations to get together and forge a united, “Big Society” way forward for our North Wiltshire town.
The meaning of Big Society continues to elude many people. But sitting in that conference hall last Friday I started to get a very clear idea about how already busy people can do their bit for this new ideology.
I learned masses on the day. I heard wise words from Swindon Borough Council’s Chief Exec, Gavin Jones, who said, “We can do all the restructuring we want, but it won’t make a blind bit of difference unless we learn to work very differently with people.”
I learned that the market town of Highworth, right on the northern edge of the Borough bordering Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, has a population of 8000, but an incredible 146 different community groups.
And I also learned some JFK-esque wisdom about leadership – namely that we should each be asking what it is we can individually contribute on a daily basis to improve the lot of our neighbourhoods and communities.
Nick Stanhope from social enterprise organisation we are what we do gave us much to reflect upon when it comes to personal leadership. As a freelance business woman I was particularly fascinated by his 4 tenets of good leadership:
- Be wrong
- Know when to challenge and when to go with the flow
- Obsess on the details of human behaviour
- Be credible by being useful
It is this last imperative which has most inveigled itself into my thought processes over the past few days since the conference. It seems particularly relevant to me when applied to the practice of business networking.
Networking has become the latest essential business growth tool. People have written books about it; organisations have been set up to make money out of it, and no entrepreneur worth their salt would ever dismiss it as an unnecessary business overhead.
However, there are dangers in the practice of business networking. First of all, it is often confused with pitching for sales. Many are the network breakfasts I’ve been to when sleepy-eyed business owners attempt to out-do their counterparts in product and service offerings over the scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms.
Secondly, novice networkers believe it’s all about breathlessly telling everybody else about their own particular business odyssey, when more experienced practitioners will advise that the ears and the mouth be used in more appropriate proportions.
But mostly networking has become little more that another item on the entrepreneur’s checklist of things to do each week. As long as you’ve consumed a barely palatable fry-up in a chain hotel or pub at 7am one morning of the week, and sprayed your business cards around amongst your fellow breakfasters, that’ll be this week’s networking ticked off.
A much more sustainable approach to networking, however, is not to view it as a primary business activity, but rather as a by-product of other activities and engagements.
As a business owner, when people engage with my services as a writer and coach they are actually engaging directly with me. I am my business – and this is true for thousands of business owners from computer software developers to hairdressers.
So, as Nick Stanhope suggests, it makes sense that in order for us to build business credibility, we make ourselves into useful people in our communities.. And it is much more sustainable and enjoyable for us to make ourselves useful in the activities that are of particular interest to us.
Imagine someone who loves writing and reading and discussing ideas; or someone who loves sharing their skills and playing golf and putting people in touch with each other.
Such a person might make themselves useful by:
- setting up a community writing group;
- volunteering as a committee member for a cultural event;
- meeting the challenge of speaking at the local philosophy society;
- running workshops where people can learn a new hobby;
- offering their services as press secretary for their golf club;
- taking the time to connect together people who can help each other.
None of this activity will ever feel onerous because it is in line with the things that person loves doing.
Imagine if they also have a young family and run their own business too. It will be a full life, but a fulfilling one at that. And all the time they are demonstrating their usefulness, growing their network, building credibility for their business and role modelling community involvement for their children.
All of this points to the importance of knowing ourselves, and of recognising our interests, talents and skills. When we have clarity about what we’ve got the greatest amount of energy for, it becomes a lot easier to offer our talents to others, not for financial gain, but just to be useful.
For the past decade the concept of “a job for life” has been slowly dying. Not even the police force can offer such a phenomenon any longer, as Assistant Chief Constable for Wiltshire Pat Geenty lamented in his conference speech last Friday.
Since the 1980s, when jobs for life were more of a realistic goal, community group membership amongst the UK population stood at 60%. Today it has fallen to 10%.
So while we’ve been feeling sorry for ourselves about our lack of jobs we’ve also been quietly withdrawing from public life altogether and making ourselves less and less useful.
Of course, when there’s no money coming in life gets increasingly difficult. But instead of withdrawing from our communities, becoming blind to our inner resources and dismissing what we could endlessly give for free, we need to respond differently.
One of the questions that is haunting Swindonian council officials at the moment is how to engage more with the voluntary sector, and how to get more people volunteering.
Perhaps people aren’t volunteering because they perceive there’s nothing in it for them financially, and are overlooking the other benefits volunteering can bring. It’s a great way of being useful, of building up credibility and our personal network, as well as acquiring CV and mood-bolstering skills and experience.
So it’s time for a mind-set shift. It’s time to look within ourselves in order to know better how we can contribute in this Big Society age.
Nick Stanhope is nearly right when he says we are what we do. It’s even better when what we do is in line with who we are.