Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Jo Williams argues that active leadership is needed if passion is to be turned into success.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sixty years ago, the charity now known as the Royal Mencap Society was formed by a group of feisty women determined that their 'mentally handicapped' children should have education and a place in society. Many had been told to leave their baby in hospital and try again for a 'normal' baby. It sounds unbelievable, but throughout the 20th century thousands of people were held in large subnormality hospitals. In 1946 those mothers were challenging orthodox views and professional expertise with a determination based on love and knowledge of their children. In my opinion, these inspirational women were leaders in their field.

As a result of their bravery, all disabled children have a right to education today and the 'subnormality' hospitals have closed. Mencap has become a well-known campaigning organisation strengthened by its experience of providing £150 million of direct services. But although much has changed, the nature of campaigning has remained the same.

A successful campaign requires leadership that is visionary, determined and engaging. Effective communication is critical to achieving support and action. All the time we are looking for resonance in what is being said, how it is said and who is saying it. Resonance leads to engagement and connection with the campaign, and if there are sufficient numbers of people actually concerned, then there's a chance that we'll reach the decision-makers and bring about change.

Mencap's campaigning work is still centred on improving the lives of people with a learning disability, and those of their carers. A major current initiative is a coalition to persuade the Government that 'every disabled child matters', asking the Treasury to identify resources specifically for disabled children and their families. Working jointly has brought the added value of a stronger voice and a larger constituency of interest.

Of course, working in a coalition requires different leadership skills. Leadership roles within the coalition need to be clarified to ensure focus. It helps to keep all coalition members on message - and, in my experience, these roles are allocated in a spirit of teamwork and generosity.

Working in a coalition also requires leadership in weighing the advantages of a shared vision and a bigger and potentially louder voice against promoting your own organisation's identity or brand. This can be a matter for serious debate among trustees, especially when there is strong competition for resources. The real issue is - as in all effective relationships and business partnerships - a need to build trust and mutual respect. In the charity sector, as elsewhere, the behaviour of the chief executive in promoting the vision and building partnerships will be a model for the whole organisation.

We have clear targets for every campaign, against which we measure our progress. A goal in our current campaign is to get an MP to introduce a Private Member's Bill entitling disabled children to short breaks. For every campaign, the communication strategy is a vital ingredient. It's essential to update the Mencap community on progress regularly and we have added skills to ensure our language is clear and consistent, because of the demands of our members with a learning disability. When staff tell me how proud they are of our campaigning achievements, I know we're doing something right.

Despite the progress made over the past 60 years, there is still so much to do. Nine out of 10 people with a learning disability are subject to bullying, and only one in 10 are in active employment. Thirty thousand live with parents in their eighties and nineties, with little prospect of housing, and people with a learning disability are still excluded from many aspects of ordinary life. There's a lot to get angry about. As I've learned, though, anger is not enough.

Active leadership needs to channel that anger and passion. Every campaign must be carefully planned. The preparatory stage requires thorough and painstaking research. We are fortunate at the Royal Mencap Society to have a rich source of information because we are a membership organisation, with local Mencap societies across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. They are separately registered charities affiliated to the Royal Mencap Society.

This structure brings with it all the tensions and challenges of a business that is dispersed. Groups have a tendency to go 'off message' and may weaken the brand by introducing what they regard as an appropriate local variation. My role is to persuade them that a consistent and harmonised approach makes us a stronger voice for those we serve. Leadership is about winning hearts and minds and ensuring a clear, consistent message about the vision and direction of travel.

I'm sure the issues identified are familiar to all leaders and managers: planning, effective communication, collaboration and teamwork led by vision, drive and energy from the top, while always striving to focus on our 'customers'. The added dimension for me in the world of learning disability is the direct connection with people who enrich my life because of their desire and determination to live an ordinary life.

CV: Jo Williams joined Mencap as chief executive in 2003, and is also a trustee of the EveryChild Board and Chair of the Research in Practice Partnership Board. In 2005, Williams was named by Community Care magazine as the most influential person in social care. She is a member of the National Learning Disability Taskforce and co-chaired the Third Sector Taskforce with Ivan Lewis MP, Minister for Care Services, Department of Health.


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