E28 The Unlock Moment: Steve Woolcock – Leadership Lessons as a First-Time CEO
In this episode I interview charity sector CEO Steve Woolcock, who became a first-time CEO last year when taking on the top job at educational charity First Rung, an organisation that exists to provide learning and employment opportunities to support young people in the UK to achieve success and fulfil their potential. Steve talks eloquently about how he worked on unlocking his natural talents and strengths, helping him to find his feet in the CEO role, define his unique leadership style and bring his best to this amazing charity.
Gary Crotaz 0:02
My name’s Dr. Gary Crotaz. And I’m a coach and author of The IDEA Mindset, a book about how to figure out what you want, and how to get it. The Unlock Moment is that flash of remarkable clarity, when you suddenly know the right path ahead. When I’m in conversation with my coaching clients, these are the breakthroughs that are so profound that they remember vividly where they were, who they were with, what they were thinking when their Unlock Moment happened. In this podcast, I’ll be meeting and learning about people who have accomplished great things, or brought about significant change in their life, and you’ll be meeting them with me. We’ll be finding out what inspired them, how they got through the hard times, and what they learned along the way that they can share with you. Thank you for joining me on this podcast to hear all about another Unlock Moment. Hello dear listener, and welcome to another episode of The Unlock Moment podcast. Today I am delighted to welcome Steve Woolcock to the podcast. Steve has been CEO of the educational charity First Rung since 2021. First Rung exists to provide learning and employment opportunities to support young people in the UK to achieve success and fulfil their potential. After originally training in engineering, Steve started his career in the steel industry in the West Midlands. He moved into training and development, including with major children’s charity Barnardos and First Rung was his first CEO role. We’ve been working together over the last year on unlocking his natural talents and strengths as a leader. I’m looking forward to hearing from Steve’s perspective about how he transitioned into the CEO chair, and what he’s learned about himself as a leader in his first year in role. Steve, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to The Unlock Moment.
Steve Woolcock 1:53
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Gary Crotaz 1:55
I’ve really enjoyed working with you in the last year and I was really keen for you to come on, because we’ve always had this very authentic and open conversation about leadership. So tell me a little bit about the journey that you went on that culminated in you becoming CEO of an educational charity.
Steve Woolcock 2:12
Yeah, like you, like you say, I started out my career after a couple of years out after university, I started out in the steel industry, which was, which was amazing but slightly unexpected. I just got an opportunity to do that. And actually very quickly ran one of the largest foundries as it was in the West Midlands, which was a terrifying experience with 300 tonnes of steel floating around every day. But then, as the years went by, I looked to change direction and got an opportunity with a construction training organisation called John Laing’s, which lots of people have heard of, to get involved in training and development, which I really found was a really good fit for me, I really enjoyed bringing in that sort of engineering-y construction side that I’d got in the past, to, to helping young people and young adults really get on that, those first steps towards a career training them to be carpenters and bricklayers and that kind of thing. And that moved on to, you know, a couple of other training organisations over the years. I must sound like I’m about 75! But anyway… moving through later in my 30s to a couple of other organisations, where I had some brilliant opportunities to run programmes where, you know, we supported people with disabilities, we supported people who have been long term unemployed, some refugees, some people who are homeless, to get into work and, and become self-sufficient and really develop. And I found it was a good fit for me, you know, I just really enjoyed the business side of it, you know, making training organisations work, they were commercial, making them make money, but really helping people at the same time, it was a really, it was a really nice balance that I found really rewarding. And that in turn led to an opportunity with Barnardos which was amazing. So I was Barnardo’s for six years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, working in an amazing team and some incredible people there. And we have a national operation then supporting young people into, into work, into apprenticeships. And, and just to get their, you know, get their lives moving forwards with some specialist programmes for care leavers as well, which really does transform those young people’s lives if they can just get that independence and that first job.
Gary Crotaz 4:32
It’s really interesting hearing you tell that little narrative of the journey you’ve been on because you started in engineering, and within that, a role that was around training and development, and within that, supporting some people where you felt real fulfilment for the work you were doing. And actually, that arm of what you were doing became the core of what you were doing as you shifted into Barnardo’s. So what what was the drive do you think, that took you from, My primary focus is engineering, to, My primary focus is making a difference to people?
Steve Woolcock 5:07
Some of it was necessity really, you know, the people, you know, can reinvent themselves and have changed their careers, you know, it, and, you know, traditionally, like, my, my parents generation, they didn’t, you trained to do one thing, you did it till you retired. But it wasn’t, you know after doing, you know, being in the engineering environment for a while, I just realised that, you know, it wasn’t going to be that long of a career, you know, the steel industry in the UK was diminishing, the opportunities therefore would diminish. I’d grown up in the West Midlands, I’d gone away, I’d come back again, a couple of times, and I’d just felt I, you know, there’s a, there’s a whole, whole world out there, there’s a whole country out there, I wanted to move to other places. And, and just change, you know, change life really. So it was very much what, what is the opportunity and looked at different things. And, and it was the, the opportunity that the crunch point where, where we actually changed direction into training and development, came with, you know, I’d run a small business unit in engineering, and I was taken on to run a small training business unit with John Laing’s. So they wanted business experience, rather than training. So I had this really great training manager, but the guy who took me on, who’s an amazing chap, but he did, I always felt he took a real flier on me, you know, because I had zero experience in training and development. And we’re running government contracts, we’re running contracts with the Department of Work and Pensions, and I remember those initial meetings where, you know, they clocked really quickly that I didn’t know what I was talking about. But we did, we were able to sort the business out and to turn that side of it around, and the experts in the, in the training and development, in the contract management, you know, helped me with everything else. So you know sometimes you just need to, you know, you need to take a chance yourself, but you need somebody to take a chance on you. And I just, like I say, I just found it really fulfilling and realised that that’s where I wanted to stay. That’s where I wanted to go. But you know, look at, look at other opportunities within that. And that was very much around training and getting work but, but also, you know, there’s, there are broader opportunities there with welfare to work as it was then, you know, supporting, you know, working with Jobcentre Plus, and working with young people as well. And that’s similar to, it seems, to where I am now.
Gary Crotaz 7:24
And I mean, we have listeners to this podcast from around the world. So paint a little picture of, of what Barnardo’s is, that organisation you joined.
Steve Woolcock 7:32
Sure. Barnardo’s is the oldest and the largest children’s charity in the UK, they traditionally ran orphanages. So people still think they do, they don’t do that! And they provide a huge number of services for children through children’s centres. They’re one of the largest fostering and adoption agencies in the UK. And they do a lot of work with, with care leavers. They also work with parents. So there’s a whole, whole range of programmes and packages of support that they offer. And as part of that, they have employment training and skills services. So, so there, you know that, those, using different sorts of funds, different sources of funding from the government, from corporate sources, from local government, national government, Scottish government, to develop and support young people to move forwards as part of the package of, whereas they get to late teens adulthood. It’s not just about looking at the child, it’s how do you how do you support them to become a, you know, a self-sufficient, all-round adult as well, so that, you know that the organisation is over 150 years old now. So it’s been doing that for a very long time.
Gary Crotaz 8:44
And how many people went for Barnardo’s? How big is the organisation, do you know?
Steve Woolcock 8:47
Oh, thousands. About 8,000 staff, I think 15,000 volunteers when I was there?
Gary Crotaz 8:52
Yeah, sizeable. So talk to me about your, your developing leadership as you progressed through the years at Barnardo’s, and the role that you ended up in as your final role there.
Steve Woolcock 9:04
Um, yeah, I was, I was in the same role all the way, all the way through that, but it was, it was very different to operate. Or I was quite concerned when I, when I joined the organisation that, that I was a bit too corporate, I’d come from commercial, a commercial background. I’d worked for a charity for 12 months when I was 22. So I was quite concerned that I wouldn’t fit in and I wouldn’t get it. And in some ways, you know, it took a while to fit into that kind of culture, but it’s a very commercial organisation, actually. So they’re in a lot of government funding, so you have to be. But during that time, I think initially when it, when I joined, there was quite a few challenges. I think it’s fair to say at that point, so we had quite a lot to, to sort out working with the team and, and they were, you know, they were, just the commitment of that team and, and those around us was just phenomenal and really infectious actually. So I just really enjoyed working through that, you know, developing new programmes, and, and hopefully moving, moving that department as it was, moving it on during those, those years. But it really did, it did allow me really to think about how I lead, how I managed, you know, I think, I think during that time, I was a bit overwhelmed when I joined. And I probably sort of loosened up a bit as I went through. And one person actually gave me some advice when I left. It took us a while to get used to you and to get to know you. And, you know, maybe, you know, maybe next time when you go on to First Rung, just, you know, be you from the… tell everybody who you are, and not be somebody else. But just be, you know, let people see the real you earlier on. And I think that was brilliant advice. And if this, if that person is listening, she’ll probably be chuckling at the moment! But yeah, it was it was really, really good advice. And hopefully, hopefully, I’ve done that.
Gary Crotaz 11:00
What did you take from that when they said that to you?
Steve Woolcock 11:02
I think they were right, actually, I think I’d have had an easier ride in the earlier days if I’d have been just more open. And, and less guarded. I’m quite a private person. So actually doing this podcast is quite, it’s quite interesting and out of the comfort zone! So thanks for talking me into this Gary! But, but yeah, I think, you know, I almost saw it as a weakness to reveal too much too soon. And I’m quite, you know, I’m quite private in my personal relationships and that sort of thing. I think people, they don’t need to know too much. But, you know, if you are out there a bit more and, and just show people who the real you is, rather than taking a while for them to get to know you. I think they can, you know, they can, you can connect more quickly, and people understand you and understand why you’re behaving in certain ways. And what you, what you need. So, you know, we’ve, we’ll probably go on to it, we did work initially around looking at my strengths through the CliftonStrengths analysis, and some of them really jumped out like, yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s, particularly around, you know, I need information before I make a decision, I need data before I make a decision. And if I’ve got that I’m fine. If I haven’t got that I’m at sea. And I, you know, I really, you know, get concerned. So those who know me well say just well, if you want him to make a decision, give him the data, leave him for 24 hours, and then he’ll tell you what’s going to happen, and we’ll be fine. We’ll move forward quickly. You won’t ponder about it. But don’t ask him to make a decision if you haven’t given him the full story. So…..
Gary Crotaz 12:31
Throw the slide deck into the room, shut the door, lock it, switch the lights off, and off you go! Did you, did you see yourself when you were at Barnardo’s as a future leader or not particularly? Or was that not an ambition that you had?
Steve Woolcock 12:45
I think really, really, because it, you know, I was quite a specialist at Barnardo’s. So I worked in the training environment, you know, so, so they, you know, people used to look at us and wonder what was in earth was going on, I’m sure at times, but, you know, it was, it was very much, I couldn’t see where my skills would actually fit elsewhere in the organisation. And that may not have been the case, actually. But, you know, there were some, you know, amazingly specialist people in fostering and adoption, and, you know, in social work, and I didn’t have any of those skills, I had the skills to do the job in, in the area I was in. And so, you know, it was very much a case of where, where, while I’m really enjoying this, where do I go from here? How do I develop? And one of my, one of my fears in life is getting stuck somewhere that I’m just not fulfilled any more. And, you know, I, dare I say, getting bored, and that and that’s, you know, that drives me on to say, Okay, I need the next project, I need the next thing. I need to do this, I’m not jumping around. So I need to, you know, do chunks of time. But, but, you know, I don’t understand if you change job too often because how do you ever establish yourself and really learn about, you know, how you develop in that post? But, you know, you do need to, I just, I just thought well, what is what is the next step from here? And, and that was, that was quite a big question in my mind a couple of years ago.
Gary Crotaz 14:14
So talk to me about what First Rung is and how that role came about for you, how you became chief executive.
Steve Woolcock 14:22
Yeah, it was, it’s great. First Rung is a charity, we’re based in North London, we’ve got two training centres down in Colindale, one of them in Enfield, and we have two teams in each. So we have what I call our vocational teams, who deliver all of the vocational training, so business administration, customer service, accountancy, and all of the functional skills of maths and English and IT and digital skills as well for young people, to give them the skills that they need to go out and get jobs. We have, and then we have our centre teams who provide all the wraparound support for those young people, so a lot of those young people need additional levels of support, school may not have been a good place for them, may not have worked for them. Or they may be just looking for a different way to go rather than a big college or a sixth form or a university. And it’s just a highly supportive, very positive environment in both of those centres with a highly motivated team. So at First Rung, people really, really do get excited about what they do, really work hard to treat each individual learner as an individual, and looking at all of the skills and all of the support they need, and packaging that around them. So that they can then you know, develop on the programme. And then we work with a huge number of employers in North London, who, who just really do go the extra mile for us and provide work experience placements. And often, very often, those work experience placements turn into apprenticeships, which we also deliver. So we can go on that long journey through development, work experience, into an apprenticeship, and then those, those young people stay with those, those organisations as well. And develop in the future. So that’s what First Rung does.
Gary Crotaz 16:14
And can you bring to life, I mean, I don’t know whether it’s possible, but bring to life with a story of a student that you know, a young person you’ve seen coming through that you feel like, you’ve really made a difference to them?
Steve Woolcock 16:26
Well, I think personally, I haven’t made a difference to them! But I think the team, who do have an understanding…
Gary Crotaz 16:32
I know it’s not you, Steve!
Steve Woolcock 16:33
So true! …they do have an understanding, and a great understanding of how to, how to… we talk about barriers quite a lot, and how to overcome them. So you know, it’s, you know, if this is happening, how do we actually move that young person forward, and we’ve had stories, we’re actually trying to capture stories, because it’s very difficult to explain in data, although I like data, in data, what we actually do. It’s about the individual person’s stories, and, you know, we’ve had learners who’ve, you know, come in, and been scared to come into the building, and then then, you know, really, really struggled to engage, we’ve had learners who won’t come out of the toilets, because it’s just overwhelming, even though they’re in a classroom with a very small number, there’ll be very small cohorts in that classroom, and we’ve got, you know, the team, the centre teams I was talking about, will work on a one to one basis with those learners and, and, you know, bring them out, support them, sit, you know, be with them in the classroom, as, as the teaching and development is going on, be with them at lunchtime. You know, we have the big open areas where we play computer games and board games, and that kind of thing. So literally go on the journey all day long to support those young people. And then we find, you know, they, they get, they pass their first qualification, they get a get a maths qualification, or they get an IT qualification. And they just, you know, the lights go on. And then we get them into work experience. And maybe the first one doesn’t work, but maybe the second one does. And then you’ve got you know, you’ve suddenly got a young person, you know, engaging on the apprenticeship, where they literally couldn’t speak to you when they walked in on the first day, but they’re there in with an employer, they’re developing with that employer, the employer thinks they’re amazing. So they’ve really got that, you know, that journey, that trajectory is happening for them where they didn’t believe it could, but you know, the team absolutely believed it could, but had to go on that journey. They weren’t quite sure what that journey was going to look like on day one.
Gary Crotaz 18:33
It’s so inspirational to hear that. And I mean, your team is really changing people’s lives. So talk to me about how you came to First Rung, what it felt like for you to sit in that CEO chair for the first time.
Steve Woolcock 18:45
Well, interestingly, you know, the opportunity with another organisation arose, I can’t remember, three, four years ago, well before the pandemic, and I got shortlisted for a chief exec role with a training organisation, quite a big one. And, and I didn’t get it. And, and the feedback was, yeah, you have a lot of the things we wanted, but you have no chief exec experience. And that’s it. That’s what we do with with learners. It’s like, yeah, employers want somebody with experience, but you know, the catch 22 is, you need to get the job to get the experience. And I was thinking, okay, so, so how does anybody become a chief exec? And is that really what I want? You know, where do I go from here? And what is the next step? And I’ve always been a bit of an opportunist, to be honest, in terms of, you know, things do happen in life that provide opportunities. And so I thought about that quite a lot. And like, right I need to think this through, I need to plan for this, and I probably should be reading some books around you know, how to develop in that area and become a chief exec and, you know, I’ve done it, I’ve got an MBA, so I did lots of work on strategy on that programme, is like, how do I incorporate that? You know, as the real front of the whole organisation, rather than the part of an organisation. And actually to be honest, the role came up through a contact who I’ve known for several years. And he had actually never recruited chief exec roles before. So he had never recruited that level, I’ve never been for a role like that. And, and he said, Are you interested in this? Because, you know, it seems exactly what you’re doing, you know, in terms of the, you know, the skills. It seems like the right job at the right time, you know, in terms of your next steps. And you live in the right part of the country, you live north of London. So yeah, I decided to just say yes, and go and see what happens. And incidentally, all of that preparation to be a chief exec, all of those programmes you can go on, those books you can read, I didn’t none of that. I had absolutely, I was thinking about it, did none of it. And so went to this interview thinking that probably, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen, they’ll probably laugh at me. And just, you know, the passion that we’ve been talking about in terms of the teams was there at the board level as well. So a lot of new, you know, some existing trustees which was great, a lot of new ones with loads of ideas, and, you know, really excited about the organisation. And, and so yeah, one thing, one thing led to another, and I got the role and I had to then make that crunch point decision, like, is this right now, because I felt very unprepared. And also the, you know, we, I’ve been working at home for a year, sitting in a room, you know, is it, can you can you start a new job in a pandemic, although I knew I could go in, and that was the, that was one of the key issues for me is that I can’t, I’m not going to do this if I have to do it on Zoom. So but because the centres have to be open because we’re working with vulnerable learners, I could go into work. And so that’s, that’s what I did. So yeah, I decided to just go for it and take a deep breath, talk to my wife, she, she said, you know, she’s very much you, you take opportunities, and if they don’t work out, you do something else. But you don’t get the opportunity to go again.
Gary Crotaz 22:09
And what was the moment when you decided, Yes?
Steve Woolcock 22:12
I think, I think there was an element of if not now, when. You know, yes, it’s not ideal. Yes, I could be better prepared. Yes, the pandemic was… side-swiped everybody, didn’t it really, and it probably would have been safer, easier to do it, when things were more on the level, but there was an element of, if I’m going to do this, opportunities aren’t just going to keep coming. It could be a long wait for the next one. And you just, why not? Why not see it, why not just go, go and give it a chance. You just have to be brave in life sometimes and do those things. And I think, looking back, there have been other moments in life where I’ve done the same thing, you just, I’m very, I like data, I like to think things through, I like to make decisions like that, but also, you do need to just go for it, occasionally.
Gary Crotaz 23:14
It’s so interesting hearing you say that, and I think that will resonate with so many people that, when you when you set out your plan for what you thought the path should be to becoming Chief Executive, it was something about reading a lot of books, something about thinking about how you’re going to incorporate strategy, all that kind of stuff. All great, none of it wrong. But in the end, also, none of it a requirement, actually, you know, and you’ve learned something about yourself that, that there are multiple routes to that?
Steve Woolcock 23:46
Yeah. There was also a piece which we’ve talked about during our coaching, was that I don’t, I don’t look or sound like any, any other chief executive I know, or I’ve worked for! And that… or behave to be honest, as well. And that’s, that, that is part of the, you know, the insecurities that you know, if you’re going to be good at that, you need to look like that. And you need to sound like that and behave like that. And, and that’s took a while for me to to get over, I think, and maybe I’m still doing that. But part of what was really useful and I really appreciated, was very much getting that understanding of what my strengths were, and how those strengths could really contribute to taking First Rung in the direction that we as a team, as a board, are going and I don’t have to look like anybody else. But if I, as long as I focus on what I’m good at, rather than trying to do what maybe I’m not so good at?
Gary Crotaz 24:49
And I think that, I mean that’s a brilliant segue into the subject of strengths, and for people that are listening, you know, who may or may not be senior leaders in an organisation, it doesn’t matter, the philosophy of strengths applies whether you’re a senior executive, or you’re more junior in an organisation, or you’re an artist, or you’re a sports person doesn’t matter, it’s anybody. A principle of strengths is, we’re just all different. And you can do this assessment if you want to, it’s the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment. And it tells you what your natural talents and strengths are. But one of the core principles is that the likelihood of you meeting somebody else with the same top five strengths as you, and strengths might be, to be a great communicator, or to be a great analyst, or to be a great diplomat, or to be a great networker – you know, that kind of thing. The chances are you meeting somebody with the same top five as you is one in a quarter of a million. So the chance of you being in the room with somebody else who’s substantially similar to you is just really low. But society teaches us that the people ahead of us are people that we should aspire to be like, so people think of a manager they’ve had in the past, a chief executive they’ve had in the past, a chair that’s chaired the board in the past, or, you know, somebody in life that’s inspired them, or they’ve looked up to, and they start to go, well, so I need to be like that to be successful or influential, or all those kinds of things. I’m constantly surprised now as a coach working with senior leaders in all different industries in all different countries, how common it is, that it’s a revelation to people to say, you don’t have to be like those other people. You know, for sure, draw inspiration from them. Remember what they said, lessons they’ve learned, all those kinds of things. But you’re you. And in your Unlock Moment, is this moment of you discovering what your strengths were and starting to process what that meant for you as a leader. So talk to me a little bit about what your strengths showed up for you. And how that made you feel.
Steve Woolcock 26:53
Yeah, because it was it was very much like, as you said, identifying the strength but also identifying that those strengths can be different from other people who could be very good in the role as well. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t be, you know it, but it’s using those. So, yeah, the one that was like the one that made me chuckle was that number one, my number one strength was being a learner. Which considering how many years I’ve been training and development now, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but it did slightly! But you know, it is, I do love to gain new skills, I really enjoy… And actually, in the last few years, I’ve really enjoyed doing things, because you can get into a habit of doing stuff you’re really, you’re good at, because you’re good at it, you know, and other people can see you’re good at it. Doing something you’re rubbish at… So I took up swimming, and because I really love running, but I knew I was gonna be able to do it forever. So I took it swimming, and I was terrible. And, but bit by bit and learning, and learning from other people, and lots of YouTube videos and that kind of stuff, there’s some really good coaches on YouTube, you know, just, just that was, it was really initially humbling, and then actually really rewarding, because you learn exponentially when you’re coming from a really low baseline. So that that was a real, you know, that was great to just see that on paper.We talked about data, I am, you know, one of mine is my strength is being analytical and needing to research and get everything on the table in front of me and really understanding it and really getting behind the facts. And my team will be telling you that as well, you know that the data is really important in the organisation to actually look at stuff on it, you know, we wanted them to say, well, let’s, let’s dig into that a bit more, and let’s understand that a bit better. But also that I can, you know, just then, you know, take that and make a decision and run with it, you know, so that balance, you know, I think was quite good to see. But I’m, one of them was, you know, I was, I’m a relator so I work quite hard on relationships and I individualise relationships, and I do that, you know, in work, I do that, you know, with my kids. And I do that with friends. It’s everyone’s, you know, I don’t have, you know, just a couple of tools in my toolbox and treat everybody the same. So that jumped out and and what did come out in the strengths was around, I do relate but I invest in quite a small number, I go for quality rather than quantity. And I really recognise that in myself. You know, I just really appreciate the friends who are the inner circle, who get me who understand me. And there’s that having that that safe space to bounce around, you know, challenges, personal work, and that kind of thing. So, and then seeing all of those things together. I was like, Oh yeah, that is me. But it also it also felt like that’s okay, you know, sometimes I think some of these things or maybe I take too long to make a decision or maybe do I really need that much data or you know, maybe I should be a bit broader with relationships and that kind of thing. And I thought actually, no, because that’s not me. And that’s, you know, that was quite a switch, an Unlock Moment as well for me. And, and it just takes, it simplifies things, it takes things away, you can just sort of understand and focus and just then just move forward more quickly. So I found that really helpful.
Gary Crotaz 30:20
And what’s interesting for me, I mean, I get the privilege of seeing you because we’re on video, but it’s an audio-only podcast so the people listening can’t see you. And so I’m going to tell them that I can observe you lighting up when you’re talking about these things that are your natural talents and strengths. And it’s a really important principle of this way of thinking. These are not things that you’re necessarily highly skilled in, like your story of swimming, the learning is progressing your knowledge or your skill over time. And it’s not something that you, you do because you’re, you have a high level of achievement at it, it’s that you find it easy to do, you find it enjoyable to do, you get a lot of satisfaction out of doing it. So when you’re talking about, for example, being with data, you happen also to be highly skilled, because you’ve been doing it for many years, but you love doing it, you love getting the data, there’s a lot of other people who are highly skilled with data because they’ve been doing it all through their career, and they still hate it. But they’ve learned to do it. And that’s a really important principle and you’re thinking about, if you create a future that is something that you really love what you’re doing. It’s about aligning what you do with the things that you find are your natural talents and strengths. And I, when I’m working with people on their strengths, you often find things that people were surprised to see there, because they don’t do them every day. So it’ll be something where they say, it’s interesting, if I did do that, I think I’d really love it. But I just don’t. So it helps you also to think about how you’re going to work to enjoy your work the most or to be most effective at what you do. Was there anything that showed up in your strengths, that was a surprise to you, that you didn’t expect to see there?
Steve Woolcock 32:09
I suppose in some ways, because self-assurance was in my top 10. And, and I suppose in some ways you do… part of taking yourself out of your comfort zone means that you, you don’t feel as secure. If you do what you’re really really good at, and you don’t take any risks… I’m not a huge risk taker, but I do take risks. You know, you do, you don’t feel as self-assured in that situation, when you walk in and think, Can I do this? As a strength came as a bit of a surprise. But, but yeah, apart from that, no, I thought, I thought it, you know, it was, it was quite, well very accurate accurately.
Gary Crotaz 32:52
So to make a decision, you gather the data and analyse the data, that’s your Analytical coming through. You probably talk to people around you that you know very well, which is your Relator coming into play, you may be reflecting on things that you’ve learned over the years or doing things differently and didn’t work out or did work out. And that’s that’s comes from your Learner. And you make a decision. And at that point, when you’ve made a decision based on conversations, based on data, based on learnings, how comfortable do you feel?
Steve Woolcock 33:22
Usually very, actually, but not that I’m always sure that it’s the right decision. But when you get to that decision, you do… if you continually flounder around and then make a decision and then change it the next day and that kind of thing, you end up going around in circles. And it’s quite a stressful place to be. Whereas if you make a decision, and a lot of this is you know actually, I’ve learned from my wife actually who’s been, you know, she’s extremely focused. And and she’s going to smirk when she listens to this, but she’s always like, let’s just do it because what’s the worst that can happen? And there have been times when I was like, There’s actually quite a lot that could go really wrong with this! You know, so, but it is actually really helpful when you’ve got somebody alongside you to say, What’s the worst that can happen? You go, Yeah, you’re right, and deal with it.
Gary Crotaz 34:16
And the listener here will have tuned into what you just said. So you said, you think carefully about making your decisions using data, learning, talking to people. At the point you make that decision you feel comfortable to move forward without wobbling too much, because, and that’s that self-assurance, that’s what self-assurance sounds like, it sounds like an inner compass that once you’ve decided you you go. Your number three strength is deliberative. Where you think about, deliberative is being a bit like a lawyer or a risk manager. It’s always thinking about, if there are 50 boxes we’ve got to tick before we can move forward, we’d better tick all the boxes So the bit where your wife says, let’s just do it, what’s the worst that can happen? It’s the deliberative in you that’s going, I can think of a really long list of the worst things that can happen! Because that’s, you know, that’s the sort of the health and safety mindset. So, you know, you can hear, and this is what happens with people, when they tune into their strengths, you can hear it all coming through. And if you can, if you can play it in a really powerful way, it can be so effective, it can be you at your absolute best, but also, these top strengths, because they are you all the time, in a really big way, can trip you up too. So, you know, self-assurance played at the wrong time, when you need sometimes to be a bit more, you know, mindful of risk, or, you know, wanting data, when there’s time pressure, and you just need to move, you know, you’ve got to learn, and I know you’ve developed this over time, as well, you’ve got to learn how and when to play these strengths. It’s not just a question of 100 miles an hour all the time, straight into your strengths. So are there situations, you know, as you’ve emerged into, you know, into your CEO role where you’ve, you’ve changed the way you’ve led? Or you’re developed as a leader, do you think?
Steve Woolcock 36:12
Yeah, I think I did, I did really take on board just being a little bit more open at the beginning. And that was quite refreshing actually, because I was also less worried of whether people warmed to me or not, it’s like, well, you know, this is it, really, we’re just gonna go for it. So, but I think, I think we moved faster as a result, and pulled together as a team faster, because of that, both within the organisation and a board level. But I think, also, just some of what you’ve said there actually, in terms of I haven’t, there were systems and processes that just weren’t there, we’ve had to build a lot, you know, build a data team, and that kind of thing. And so we have had to make decisions where we didn’t, I didn’t have as much data as I wanted. And then, you know, the, there’ve been some nasty surprises as well, you know, it’s been a very turbulent time with the pandemic and that kind of thing. So we’ve had to change direction and focus on different things. And, and so whereas I’d like to have a plan that’s based on data, and ABCD, and we’ll do it in that order… But this time we’ve had to continually change direction and mould around that, whilst hopefully, still moving the organisation in the direction we decided to take it in over a year ago, when we when we finished writing the strategy. So, you know, there’s an element of flex, it’s felt uncomfortable at times, to actually move when you haven’t got all that data. But as a result, we haven’t stood still, we were able to do that. But yeah, people do look to you, and, you know, there’s, you know, there’s that, you just, you have to call it, and you have to then act in the timeframe, not necessarily with… and that doesn’t necessarily give you all of the elements that you need.
Gary Crotaz 38:10
Something that’s very interesting about strengths is that the three least common strengths, if you look at the population, are Command, which is a natural talent for leading, Self Assurance, which is the sense of confidence and inner compass about the path ahead, and Significance which is being in any way in the spotlight. So averagely in a large room of people, you’re going to have a lot of people that don’t feel comfortable with leading, that are looking to other people for confidence and clarity ahead. And that don’t want to step forward into the spotlight. So I always talk to people that have, you know, high Self Assurance, high Command, high Significance, about the fact that, compared with other strengths, to have those high is quite unusual, more unusual than the population. And what that means is not only that you’re thinking about how to use it to its best effect, but also everyone else in the room is looking to you to provide that because it’s not there for them. It’s not something that they’re naturally comfortable at doing or talented at doing. And in an organisation in a leadership role, and what you said there is very common for CEOs to say something along the lines of … this the first role where it wasn’t possible for me to know everything that was going on. And I need to find comfort with that. Because if your reaction to not knowing everything that’s going on is to try and know everything that’s going on, you become the bottleneck in the organisation. You’ve talked before about this idea of an hourglass that sometimes you can feel like you’re in the middle of the hourglass, and there’s a lot above you and there’s a lot below you and you’re stuck in the middle.
Steve Woolcock 39:48
Yeah, because well looking at… you know, my perception of the chief exec role was… I’ve been in organisations where you have one line manager. And there could be other people on the board or that kind of thing, but you have one line manager. So when you’re, you’re just relating, you manage upwardly to one person, and then down to your team. So, so that can be like five or six people. So five or six managing, managing the team, and then one up, and I have this picture, you know, that it was like that, plus quite a huge amount of responsibility to manage a board. So there could be 12 people on the board, and then the team as well. And there’s the chief exec in the middle. And that’s how I thought it, to be honest I thought it was. And I thought that’s hugely challenging, actually. And that’s, that’s hugely difficult. And I think that was part of at Barnardo’s, looking at being part of a… in the charitable sector that you know, that’s how it can feel, you know, that you’re in that middle bit. And I was like, Can I actually do that? Do I have the capacity to do that? And, and it was really helpful to go through that process, because I think that was, that added quite a lot of the pressure in the early days at First Rung. And I say the early days, we’re only about 15, 16 months in… it’s still early days. But actually the discussion we had around that, it was was really helpful. And that clarity that you brought to the coaching around, you know, there’s the chief exec, and there’s the chair, you manage the organisation and lead the organisation forward, you’re responsible for the strategy, you’re the custodian of the strategy, the chair manages the board. And that was a bit that was extremely direct and extremely helpful. I know, you’ve had a huge amount of experience in the charitable sector as well as the commercial sector. And that was really helpful because, you know, our trustees contribute so much, and we work with them on projects, and that’s all fine, to work alongside them on the project. But, but yeah, it’s not my responsibility to manage the board. And that took a lot of pressure off actually.
Gary Crotaz 42:00
It’s very interesting, it’s something very particular to the charitable sector that trustees are unpaid, almost exclusively. And therefore they’re there precisely because they want to help, that’s the reason that they’re there. And so they want to help. And so, and they don’t know, what the other 15 trustees are doing so, you know, it’s quite easy, and I’m a trustee of a charitable organisation myself, and I know this sort of sense inside you that you want to give. That’s what, that’s why you’re there. And actually, for the poor chief executive in the middle who’s trying to, you know, give a clear direction and a clear steer, and the team should be looking to them. And then, you know, if you do start to have sort of emails firing in from random people going, Hey, I just thought of an new idea. Why don’t we do that? And people start responding to it because, Well, that’s quite important, it’s coming from one of the trustees. So, you know, you can lose control pretty quickly. So your partnership with the chair as chief executive was, became really critical?
Steve Woolcock 43:03
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And that’s, but that clarity had helped actually make that really quite effective. So that really works.
Gary Crotaz 43:11
Another theme that I mean I talk to a lot of people about, and I learned this from, from working with some really effective chief executives myself, one of the things that made them so effective was their ability and clarity around managing up. So again, it’s common to see chief executives who feel a little bit under the cosh from board, board members, chair and so on. And, you know, as the chief executive gains experience and confidence and authority, you see more that they push back and say, you know, we’ll do the things that really matter. But here’s a load of things that you might have thrown in that were nice ideas, or you’re trying to be helpful, but you didn’t understand the wider ramifications. I do, because I’m running the show. And actually getting that balance right of accepting the support and also challenge, but then pushing back and saying, it makes it impossible for us to run the organisation in this way. That’s an important thing as well, isn’t it as a chief executive that, that you remain in charge of the whole?
Steve Woolcock 44:14
Yeah, and I’m really fortunate because my board really understand that as well, we know what we need to know, which areas do we really need to focus on, where do we really need to bring value, and there are several areas that they really can and we really engaged those skills and that enthusiasm, but it is you know, the real situation now as I’ve gained that bit yeah, that’s a nice idea, but it’s not now, you know, but it could be, it could be down the track, but it’s, now isn’t the moment.
Gary Crotaz 44:43
So if you were talking to somebody who is you know, a former executive or current executive who’s thinking about taking up their first charitable trusteeship, they’ve never been on a board before. And you were going to say to them, you know, these are some of the behaviours or characteristics that will make you effective and not problematic. What are those kind of characteristics of a trustee that really help you in the organisation?
Steve Woolcock 45:12
I think just bringing, having a diversity of skills and expertise. It’s like, because where I find it really works is where I’ve got somewhere to go for, you know, to have like a board of consultants I can call on who will then get engaged. So they’ll bring that skill base to a challenge we’re facing or an area, a direction of travel that we want to go in, and really just embrace it. And they’re extremely busy. And that works, they can come and do a piece of work and advise and then just review what we’re doing and stay in touch as well. So they can come in for a while maybe and then step back while we get on and do it. That has been really, really helpful. So I think it’s very much, you know, get heavily involved in, in saying what you need from a board and then recruiting against that. So we need people who are experts in IT experts in HR, you know, experts in fundraising, or whatever those things are, so that you can see them as a partnership, but also, you know, people to come in and really help and really get alongside and engage with the team, when you get you know, when you get that trustees and the team on site delivering together, now we can post pandemic, that can be dynamite as well. But you also need to be quite honest about what you need and what you don’t need.
Gary Crotaz 46:42
And what is it about the team around you on the executive team that has enabled you to be most effective as chief executive, do you think?
Steve Woolcock 46:50
I think, I think it’s just enthusiasm to be honest, I really, there are days, chief exec roles can be very lonely, and I’m not sure I’m really, it can be at times, but having just people around you are very enthusiastic, and really passionate about the organisation, and really supportive, and will tap me on the shoulder and say How’s it really going, you know, and that kind of thing just is really useful. And, What can what can we do to help? is a question that comes up a lot. And just being honest about you know, what that looks like. I think as well, just in terms of you know, anybody considering chief exec role is, do get some people around you externally. I found your coaching Gary really helpful. But also talking to, there’s a couple of other chief execs I’ve linked up with, and we meet up for breakfast, meet up for coffee occasionally. But just having that really safe space for somebody who doesn’t really understand your organisation, but does understand the role, is hugely beneficial. And, and it is, you end up, you just talk about the challenges and yeah, and can give you advice. And, and also you can be their crisis point, you know, when when it’s really not working for them. And they’ve got somewhere to go outside of their organisation, and that’s away from the board and the team exactly is a safe place. And that’s, you do need that, you really do need it.
Gary Crotaz 48:15
There’s a strengths coach that I’ve worked closely with, called Dana Williams, who did one of the early episodes of The Unlock Moment. If you listen to that episode, she talks about the value of a personal advisory board, and how you pick the people to be on your personal advisory board. And I thought that was very helpful to the way it’s constructed. Her former role was as marketing director of Southwest Airlines in the US. So she’s again got that mix of sort of corporate, real life corporate experience, and also coaching experience. And then I did another interview with another coach that I work closely with called Dolly Waddell, whose advisory board is her children aged between five and 13. And she’s actually contracted them. So there are real contracts, they’ve actually signed, and they have board meetings, and they talk about topics, and then they give their advice. So it can happen in many, many different ways. You listen to Dolly’s episode. It’s hilarious the way she tells the story. So where can people find out more about the work that First Rung is doing and what support or help do you need from people if people are listening to this and thinking they’d like to support what you’re doing?
Steve Woolcock 49:20
Obviously our website FirstRung.org.uk. But also, follow us on social media, particularly LinkedIn we’re quite active on. Because the area we really do need support with as we grow is that we have more young people coming in, but we need more of those employer partners that I was talking about. So it’s, it isn’t an act of charity, let me tell you, because you know, if an organisation is at the moment, there’s a lot of organisations in London recruiting and looking for new talent, and the young people that come through, I’d like to say that most of them stay on with those employers. They start work experience, apprenticeships, stay on with the employer. Because, you know, they contribute so much, they commit to so much, and they’re seeing the opportunity that that that employer is providing. So if you’re, if you are recruiting in North London, and you’re looking for some raw talent, but who comes with a huge support package from a good charity like First Rung, I’d very much like to hear from you. And you can find me on LinkedIn as well.
Gary Crotaz 50:27
Amazing. And what are the kinds of organisations that have been really successful for you in taking on people coming through the First Rung programmes?
Steve Woolcock 50:36
Huge variety, actually. So we do, we do a lot of work with young people around accountancy, doing AAT qualifications, up to level two and three, business administration, customer service, we train teaching assistants for schools, and we deliver childcare as well for nurseries, so it’s quite a range there, but also with maths, English and IT, those skills can be transferable into a range of different industries. And we are developing on the hospitality side as well because there are so many hotels, restaurants in London that are really up against it for staffing at the moment, and we can help there as well.
Gary Crotaz 51:18
Fantastic. The Unlock Moment is that flash of remarkable clarity when you suddenly know the right path ahead. For charitable sector CEO Steve Woolcock, it was discovering his natural talents and strengths that helped him to define his own unique leadership style and bring his best self to work every day. In turn this enabled those around him to work more effectively as a team for the benefit of the young people they help. The work they do for young people is so important, and I’m looking forward to seeing First Rung continue to grow from strength to strength over the coming months and years. Steve, thank you so much for joining me today on The Unlock Moment.
Steve Woolcock 51:56
Gary Crotaz 51:56
This has been The Unlock Moment a podcast with me Dr. Gary Crotaz. Thank you for listening in. You can find out more about how to figure out what you want and how to get it in my book, The IDEA Mindset, available in physical book, ebook and audiobook format. Follow me on Instagram and subscribe to this podcast to get notified about future episodes. Join me again soon!