Stories of transformation from the social sector

Poking our heads out

I’ve been wrestling lately with the way social media platforms demand (or invite?) a certain level of self-promotion. It’s an integrity challenge that I have found is not easy to resolve.  The version of this I know I don’t want to be was nailed by our new marketing consultant, Tina. “No-one wants to listen to a dog barking about itself,” she quipped. I guiltily laughed with relief!

But that doesn’t give me a license to wash my hands of social media. The work we do is amazing, and our clients think we rock. Interestingly though, that’s not the point. A few years ago, I was pulled up by a client who challenged me by saying, “I’ve been looking for exactly the kind of help you provide for nearly 2 years and I’ve wasted time and money with people that weren’t right. This isn’t about you. This is about you making sure, that people like me, who need what you do, know you exist.”

That feels better. And yet, here I am, after another few years on, still grappling with this.

One big challenge that’s kept me tentative is that our clients are people in prominent positions who are already taking a great risk in laying bare all that they are struggling with and trying to bring into being just by engaging us.  Coaching leaders is private and sacred work and deserves to stay behind closed doors. All over the sector are leaders that have us quietly standing behind them. But you’d never know, and we’re not about to tell you. And that’s just our individual executive coaching and career transition coaching work.

It is equally so for our work with Executive and Management teams. The adage that ‘things are changed by who is looking’ fits here. I can’t tell you the number of times I have wished I had the gumption (or insensitivity) to film the closing minutes of a team workshop. As people take turns in sharing how they have been changed by the few hours, weeks or months we’ve been working together, the room (or zoom) is silent and the alpha waves ripple across the space. Leadership Teams are such a critical unit of performance inside organisations and they only work well when individuals strengthen their trust with each other, figure out how to generate and navigate healthy conflict, repair, challenge, communicate effectively, get better at thinking strategically and really show up. You can’t lob in and film that without totally distorting the experience, and you can’t expect that people will necessarily talk about it to their peers or colleagues either.

And there’s another thing. (As you can see, I’m a veritable laundry list of objections, don’t you feel sorry for Tina!) The work we do with individual leaders and teams rolls up into the real driver of our mission, which is organisational transformation. We want a thriving social purpose economy of incredible social purpose organisations. And that kind of work, in our minds, only happens when we’re walking beside leaders as partners in transformation. The thing about a true partnership is that neither party in that gig gets to say “I did that! Look, see how I made you succeed?” That egoic (although appealing from a case study perspective) version of things totally distorts how profound change takes place.

Which makes me think of our client BackTrack, and the interview with its founder and CEO Bernie Shakeshaft. (Check out the video interview on our home page)

When I met Bernie, BackTrack had a turnover of less than a million. As he says in the interview, they had money coming in, they’d attracted a decent set of Board directors, their governance was in order – they were just clicking over from social sector start up to early stage established organisation. But they were in the weeds, busy and stretched as they tried to manage their growth and success effectively.

Today, 3 years or so after starting work with them, BackTrack will reach about $6 million. A six-fold increase in a couple of years. They have great talent and backing knocking on their door from every quarter – government, philanthropic, youth workers. They have a thriving whip-smart social enterprise, a national change agenda, media coverage to die for. The list goes on.

Did we do that? No. They did. But as Bernie puts it, even that very first bit of work we did with them “was a turning point for their organisation.” The speed and effectiveness of BackTrack’s growth, and the joy and relative painlessness of their journey, has been practically supported by Leadership Space being right there beside them. In practical terms it’s involved spotting the need to realign strategy and then doing that quickly and effectively, helping them to get values articulated  in one workshop and honing in on the opportunities to get that embedded as a living language, refining cohesive team behaviours, supporting individual executive performance, being a sounding board to make tough firing decisions, flagging key capability gaps and iterating the structure to keep pace with needs. We even took 3 years-worth of impact measurement work and in 5 blistering, joke-filled hours, synthesized it into a 1-page story of impact and a survey framework that will help them nail more funding, attention and drive quality service delivery.

The BackTrack story, from an organisational transformation perspective, is one of great leadership and an ability to spot and attract great talent and support and embrace it at the right time. Our partnership is just one example of that.  It is built on trust, deep mutual respect and a commitment to excellence and the fulfilment of mission. For our part, we’ve brought an understanding of what makes organisations in the social sector thrive and what gets in their way and a people-oriented toolkit to deliver on that potential that is a blend of executive and team coaching, facilitation, organisational consulting, and sector expertise.

So, as I look back on this struggle to figure out how to share insight into our work in line with our values I realise that just like the organisations we partner with, we’re evolving too. My job now is to find ways to share those stories and provide other leaders with access both to our support but also our cross-sector insights in ways that stays true to the way we think change happens for individuals, teams and organisations. And I’m starting here, with this.

I’d love to hear what resonates for you in the BackTrack story and what you’d love to hear more of from us! Email me

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