As I now prepare to leave YMCA Heart of England, the inevitable question arises, ‘What have I actually done? Will there be anything left after I’ve gone in which I can take pride?’
When I was appointed as chief executive of YMCA Birmingham in the July of 2005, my first meeting was to discuss the replacement of our hostel in Erdington. But it was nearly 11 years later that HRH the Princess Royal conducted the official opening ceremony of the final phase of The Orchard development. I joked at the time that if I’d known how long it was going to take and what a struggle it would be, I might not have started. Similarly, in 2012 trustees approved a strategic plan with a commitment to opening an Alternative Provision Free School. Once again though, our ambitions seemed to be blocked at every turn and it wasn’t until July 2020 that we received approval to open to George Williams Academy in Myton, Warwickshire. By the time it opens (in September 2023) it will have been more than eleven years since we first started out on the journey.
As I leave the association after sixteen years, these two projects have taught me something important about leadership and charities. Firstly, that leadership often requires a degree of longevity in order to affect real meaningful change. When I arrived at YMCA Birmingham it was recovering after several traumatic years. I wanted to create a positive, can-do culture which was confident in its Christian identity but welcoming and inclusive. Being honest though, I think it took around eight years before I started to make real progress. Alongside creation of The Orchard and Magdalene, I think the culture we have (finally) managed to create at what is now YMCA Heart of England is a genuine achievement in which I can take some modest degree of pride.
The other thing that I learnt is that doing the things that are difficult is what charities exist to do. Statutory systems and organisations are often set up to follow the lines of least resistance, and they replicate those patterns regardless of the outcomes that they achieve. In such a world saying, “Yes, but could we try doing it like this…?” becomes a small act of rebellion. I’m proud of the acts of quiet rebellion that I have managed to stage during my time as CEO. Our application to open an AP Free School took so long to get approval precisely because we needed stakeholders to see that another way was possible (and we may yet end up breaking the school admissions process in order to get away from the failed model of linking admission to AP provision to exclusion from mainstream provision). But we have achieved something that was thought to be impossible within the current system. The point is that sometimes, unwittingly, systems can become centred on the needs of the people and organisations that administer them and not the needs of the people that they are supposed to be benefitting. I hope I challenged that thinking where I could.
At my final YMCA Heart of England Board meeting I was able to report to trustees that, despite all the challenges of the pandemic, in 2020/21 we achieved the best financial performance of my sixteen-year tenure. Given that both Birmingham and Coventry & Warwickshire YMCAs were loss-making when I took over, it felt like one thing I could point to as a tangible improvement I had presided over. There then followed an excruciatingly embarrassing final twenty minutes when the chair went around the table and invited each of the trustees in turn to say something nice about me. It’s never easy to sit through such things, but it was enlivened by the passionate testimony of Gabriel Imevbore. Gabriel came to live at The Orchard as a homeless young man in a difficult place. But he took up the opportunities on offer and engaged with our excellent support service. What happened next is testimony the transformative power of YMCA. Outside of the meeting Gabriel wrote to me:
From resident rep, to young leader of the year [at the national YMCA Youth Matters Awards], to sitting on the housing committee, to parliamentary visits, to Thailand [for the YMCA World Council meeting] and to becoming the youngest board member in our Ys history: [that] is the trajectory the YMCA has given me. Not just the YMCA, but a YMCA under your leadership. Under a culture you’ve worked hard to manage, maintain and manifest to everyone.
If you are ever wondering about whether you did a great job or contemplating the success of your time as CEO at YMCA Heart of England, please know, that from myself personally, you have helped to change my life. Many more young people will also have their lives changed from the ripples of your leadership, from what you have set in motion…
I’m eternally grateful to you Alan, and [that] I’m able to let you know, in my own words, how much your leadership and guidance has impacted my life and will impact many others who follow in my footsteps.
Of all the things in which I might take pride, I am proudest of all of that note. Because that’s why we’re here – to change young people’s lives, not to win plaudits for ourselves or prop up an organisational business plan so that we can provide lots of well-paid jobs for bloated executives. So, for all my mistakes – and there have been several (some quite spectacular!) – ultimately, I feel that I leave YMCA Heart of England in a better position than when I joined. And yet I know that the association can reach even greater heights under new leadership. Different times call for different skills and I am certain that now is the right time for me to move on. The one part of leadership that even the greatest leaders sometimes get wrong is not knowing when it is time to leave the stage. For all my mistakes, that is one mistake that I have always been determined not to make.
Group Chief Executive (2005-June 2021)