Outside my comfort zone
National Grid’s Good Leaders programme is linking volunteering more closely to personal development. Andy Cruise, National Contracts Manager, reflects on what was a life-affirming experience for him.
Outside my comfort zone
"My approach was to not supply all the answers but to plant some seeds of ideas and raise their awareness of what was possible"
Andy Cruise, National Contracts Manager, National Grid.
The school has about 20 pupils.
Source: Northleigh House school.
I knew nothing about Northleigh House school when it was suggested to me as somewhere I could volunteer for. But as soon as I visited the school and spoke to the head, Viv Morgan and her staff, I knew it would be a worthwhile project and that I could make a difference.
The school is out in the Warwickshire countryside and is a remarkable institution. It was founded by Viv and her husband for children who have been bullied at school and need specialist support outside of the mainstream. The school has about 20 pupils and does a great job of rebuilding their self-esteem and preparing them to return to mainstream education, confident and independent.
My contribution was to help with the financing of the school. Viv and her husband had both made huge personal sacrifices to set up Northleigh House, converting what had been their own home to set up the school from scratch. They are approaching retirement and want above all for Northleigh House to have sustainable funding so it can continue its work after they step out of the picture.
A clear objective
I had a clear objective in mind, to help Viv and her team make the school financially sustainable into the future. However, I approached the project with some trepidation. First of all, it was a sector that was completely unknown to me, where I wasn’t an expert. Secondly, I’d been partnered with the school not just for what I could bring but also to develop a skill that I admit wasn’t my strongest suit.
In my day-to-day environment I’m very task-focused and used to getting things done. I like to get to an answer quickly and (I’ve been told!) I expect people to be there at the same time as me. However, leadership training had shown me that it’s not just about the task but also listening, engaging the team and bringing people along with you. Now I had to take the theory and put it into practice, to focus not just on what had to be done but how.
I invested a lot of time early on in listening and understanding what problems the school faced and in building relationships with Viv and her team. It was very interesting to see the dynamic in their team, and then thinking how I could encourage them in a direction that was helpful to them.
As this was part of my leadership training, I was also supported by external coaches and I had a mentor I could go to for advice or to talk things over with.
Planting the seeds
Viv was very welcoming and open to suggestions. She knew her strengths and where she would benefit from advice and support. For my part, I was careful not to be critical of how they had been working in the past or to impose my style on them.
My approach was to not supply all the answers but to plant some seeds of ideas and raise their awareness of what was possible. I wanted to make sure I got their buy-in to the direction I thought they should go in and that they were happy to take ownership. That way, when I walked away, they would have a clear strategy and a capability that would serve them well into the future.
As I came to understand more about the school and how it was funded we explored various avenues and came up with some concrete proposals. Although there is no other school exactly like Northleigh House, we looked at five or six schools of a similar size and with similar facilities. We found that there was a significant disparity between the funding they received per pupil from the Local Authority and what Northleigh House was receiving.
It was then a case of helping them to build an objective business case to present to the Local Authority to help them bridge this funding gap.
Through our discussions we also came up with completely new ideas that maybe we wouldn’t have had as individuals. One of these was to take advantage of feed-in tariffs that were available at the time and look at installing solar panels and a ground source heat pump – and how that might be funded – so that they could generate electricity above their needs and provide themselves with an income.
Give it a go
Over the year I spent volunteering I think I did make a difference and happily Viv agrees. We were even featured in a case study on the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) website.
I would encourage anyone who has the chance to learn through volunteering to give it a go. I spent about three hours a week over the course of a year on the project. It is sometimes difficult to find the time, but finding creative ways to make time is part of the challenge. I found it extremely rewarding working on such a worthwhile project supporting Viv and her team. Being able to influence people in situations where you’re not the subject matter expert is a key skill. The lessons you learn, whether it’s from success or failure, are so valuable.
And I have applied the lessons back in the workplace. What I’ve learned to do is not just to focus on the task in hand but also on what motivates people. As a leader, if you take a bit more time to support people and understand what drives them, you’re much more likely to get a positive outcome over the longer-term.