Welcome to Leadership worth sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Vicky Browning talks to civil society CEOs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.
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In the second episode, Vicky meets Josh MacAlister, CEO of Frontline, to talk about why and how he started Frontline when he was still eligible for a young person’s railcard, how Nelson Mandela’s words helped him tackle his self-doubt and how real leadership is about enabling freedom and responsibility then getting out of the way.
“We do not need to tell people how to work or where to work from. Because if you don’t trust them, that says something far more powerful and it’s a message that you’re implicitly sending to everybody that you don’t trust them.”Josh MacAlister
Josh founded Frontline in 2013 and has been the CEO ever since. In this episode, he takes us back to 2010, when a near appendix burst gave him the chance to put some thoughts into paper and kick start what would become Frontline within the following three years. He also tells how a mindset of taking one thing at a time has helped him face his leadership journey, and how his role as a leader has changed since the very beginning.
Freedom and responsibility are key concepts at Frontline, and Josh outlines how having fewer policies and rules are essential for the organisation.
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Vicky Browning: Hi I’m Vicky Browning chief executive of ACEVO, the network for charity and civil society leaders. Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which I talk to civil society chief execs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them. There are so many inspirational leaders working to make a difference in our sector and I hope that hearing from some of them will inspire and challenge you in the same way I’ve been inspired and challenged by all the people I’ve met through ACEVO. Today I’m speaking to Josh MacAlister, founder and CEO of Frontline, the charity with a mission to transform the lives of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding individuals into social work. We’re talking about why and how he started Frontline when he still qualified for a young person’s railcard, how Nelson Mandela helped him tackle his self-doubt and how real leadership is about enabling freedom and responsibility, and then getting out of the way.
Vicky Browning: I was really interested in Frontline and I was thinking about… if you’re making a Hollywood movie, you go in for your pitch, and you say “it’s the Teach First for social work”. Is that accurate? Is that how you saw it? Is that why you started it? Is that why you started thinking about putting it together?
Josh MacAlister: In the first few years that’s probably the best reflection of the one-liner that was used. Lots of people know what Teach First is. It’s a wonderful organisation. I left university and that’s the career I went into, which was teaching, through the Teach First programs. It was a very helpful crutch, for want of a better longer explanation, of what it is that Frontline does and should do.
Vicky Browning: Six years on now.
Josh MacAlister: Six years on now. And I very proudly have had a number of directors of children’s services explaining to their education colleagues that Teach First is the Frontline for teaching.
Vicky Browning: Excellent!
Josh MacAlister: So it goes both ways. It goes both ways. Where we start from now in talking to people about the problem is with the children who end up needing social work and their families. And there are about half a million children in England who don’t have a safe or stable home. For all kinds of reasons. Often reasons which are very complicated with compounding factors like substance misuse issues, violent relationships between parents, mental health problems, housing issues. So when you layer all of that on and there is some vulnerability for a child because of abuse or neglect, social workers step in. And we, as a country, don’t give a huge amount of attention to that profession. But when you think about those children and their outcomes when you see that many of them end up involved in the criminal justice system, far too few of them end up getting to university or doing really well at school.
Josh MacAlister: Their long term life chances in terms of their health and employment prospects are really poor. And so we’ve got this incredible profession which is there to step in and help families and reduce the risk and give those children a much safer and stabler start in life. And we can do that much much better. And that’s what Frontline is essentially all about.
Vicky Browning: Your profession was in education. So you haven’t experienced a background where you experienced social, professional help or social workers. What made you think ‘actually what I need to do is set up an organisation like Frontline which brings excellent people into a profession that suffers from not having that kind of appeal to it’. I mean, it’s graduates, that kind of people that you bring in, isn’t it?
Josh MacAlister: It is yeah. So we…the Frontline program, which one of the programs we run is all about getting graduates and create changes in social work, many of whom wouldn’t have considered it before. My way into that was. Well first of all my dad was a social worker. Growing up had some well being surrounded by him talking about his work and having some awareness of it in the back of my mind. And then I started teaching in secondary schools in Greater Manchester. After I finished university. And worked with a lot of children who were in school. I could see in the classrooms the human impact of life at home and what that meant for children’s ability to learn in school. And if they didn’t have that safe base at home there really was a massive limitation on what you could do in the school to help children succeed.
Josh MacAlister: That just became increasingly obvious to me over the months and years I was teaching. So I actually had a couple of tutor groups I was responsible for where children were in care were looked after or had a social work involvement and they were still living at home. And I guess interacting with some of their social workers and interacting with them and hearing what they thought about their social workers was pretty shocking actually. Was a bit of a jolt for me to think if there is a way of bringing more great people into this profession, so the chances for kids and their parents of a social worker showing up at the door who can really help… If we can get the odds of that up, that makes a huge difference.
Vicky Browning: You’re in school and you are seeing it firsthand the challenges. So that’s quite a big jump from that to… as I think you were 25… to go: do you know what? I’ll set up a separate organisation and I’ll get funding and I will actually tackle it. So what was the catalyst that made you…
Josh MacAlister: Yeah
Vicky Browning: Because you had to give up your job as a teacher.
Josh MacAlister: Exactly. I mean it wasn’t, it wasn’t as linear as that. And actually someone yesterday was asking me about when did I come up with the idea and then when did I set it up and there’s a huge… well, what felt now like not very long at all but at the time what felt like a long long time in between those two things. I think I was 21 when I started teaching. I had had a burst, a nearly burst appendix at school in my first year of teaching and needed to be off work for a couple of weeks. That gave me a bit of time to put on paper some of the thoughts about this and I essentially expressed in pretty naive basic terms in a magazine, a political magazine, that we should maybe find a different way of bringing more great people in social work.
Josh MacAlister: And that was in 2010. I think the stars aligned in a way because after that Andrew Adonis, who had recently left government because the coalition Government has come into power in May of that year, Andrew himself growing up in care, was now a member of the House of Lords, had been a secretary of state and had been in Number 10 Downing Street when Teach First had been set up. He… he was at an event I was at, I spoke to him about it, he got very excited about the idea. I could see it being something that could work. Immediately sort of gave me a bit of confidence about…maybe this is something we could go somewhere. Oddly The Independent did an editorial on something to do with child protection and made a passing reference to the article I’d written. And so slowly from 2010 onwards gathered some steam. And it was only in January 2013 I’d left teaching and was in it full time if you like. It was a long time between putting very naive thoughts on paper – only 500 words – and during the whole time I was still teaching full time.
Vicky Browning: And in terms of setting it up. Just setting of charities has its challenges. You’re 25. You’ve got this great idea, you’ve incubated it for a while and you’ve got some really interesting people really interested in it. This is a solo thing, was it a group… How did you actually sort of getting to that point going: right, now I’m gonna…
Josh MacAlister: Yeah.
Vicky Browning: Set up this charity and here we go… and then presumably go out and get funding.
Josh MacAlister: Exactly. So how did we get to the point where January 2013 I was working at it full time. I mean I look back on it now and I think why did anyone think this was a good idea? To sort of put me in any position of responsibility with it. Because at that point, I was 25 and amusingly when we started I still had a young person’s railcard.
Vicky Browning: Excellent!
Josh MacAlister: It meant for travel purposes… getting trains, it was really cheap. So to get around the country it was really cheap. There is one benefit of being 25. So Andrew was hugely supportive of the idea and of me personally. You know, far more so than I was at myself. Very doubtful of whether or not: a) this would get anywhere. Because the road from writing an article to getting some significant support to set up an organisation was vast and I’ve no experience of it. And secondly I wasn’t a social worker, I wasn’t a researcher and there needed to be a bit more research on this, and I wasn’t an entrepreneur. I was a teacher.
Josh MacAlister: There was a lot of self-doubt. I think what really helped was that between writing the article and setting it up there were a number of staging posts and in my mind, I just treated each one a separate part of the venture. That was interesting and I think in my mind pretty open to the fact that I might get it to the next stage and it might not go any further. And that’s okay. I think in 2012 I put some application in to get some funding, 2011 actually, from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, and that took a huge amount of time, and not unreasonably because they’re big, very well regarded professional funder.
Josh MacAlister: And again you know looking at it on paper this wasn’t something that would fly. Partly because of my lack of experience. But they took a punt on it. They gave it a small grant. I then worked in my school holidays and weekends with a couple of colleagues at the Institute for Public Policy Research and produced a longer report which put a bit more detail on the bones of it. And that was published in autumn 2012. And at that point, Andrew put the report in front of Michael Gove and said: look we need to do something new in this area. Consider this. We had a meeting. Which was a really unusual meeting because I… I was still teaching and regretfully and rather cheekily took a day off sick. I got found out for it from the school. I’m not sure they would have let me go. Had I said ‘I’ve got a meeting with the Secretary of State for Education to talk about this off the wall project that I want to be involved in in the future of it’, and went to the meeting with Michael Gove, with Andrew with an organisation that was prepared to incubate us, and a couple of other backers and said: if we put more work into this would you be receptive to us submitting a detailed business plan?
Josh MacAlister: And at that point, they said yes. I left the meeting. Andrew said to me: you either need to go in, all in on this or it’s not gonna go anywhere. So at that point, end of 2012 I needed to make a decision.
Vicky Browning: You said you weren’t an entrepreneur, you said ‘I wasn’t a social worker, wasn’t an entrepreneur’. This is incredibly entrepreneurial but you’ve never thought of yourself as that… you thought yourself a teacher.
Josh MacAlister: Certainly not at that stage.
Vicky Browning: And now?
Josh MacAlister: Yeah yeah I’ve set something up. With lots of support from lots of people. It’s an interesting question isn’t it because when you’ve not yet set something up there is an enormous amount of self-doubt that people who are entrepreneurs to be… I think there’s a lot of self-doubt about whether or not why are you the right person to do this. Surely someone else is more qualified. Those questions fly around all the time.
Vicky Browning: I like the concept in terms of tackling that doubt or tackling… this sort of stage process… you go ‘well I’ll just do this and if that goes well then we can…I’ll think again I’ll just do this bit now’. And so it’s kind of like that sort of taking, just keeping plodding, keeping those steps going. How else do you think you talked down that voice in your head that said you’re not good enough, it shouldn’t be you. You know, for God’s sake you still got your railcard, man.
Josh MacAlister: This is where it becomes a bit more psychoanalytical. I’ve been really lucky to have a very conventionally unconventional family. In the sense that my parents have divorced and remarried. But I was supported by incredible adults growing up. I had huge amounts of unconditional love and support. I came out as gay at 15 which was quite young at a time when attitudes around young gay people or gay people generally were changing in a big way. So Section 28 had been recently repealed. Civil partnerships had just happened or were about to happen. And I think that gave me a kind of self-assuredness, that has really helped me do this.
Vicky Browning: So you recognise the self-doubt but you don’t… You didn’t allow it to overwhelm you. I doubt myself but I’ll just keep going anyway.
Josh MacAlister: I’m going to absolutely mess it up because I can’t remember exactly. But there’s a really fantastic Nelson Mandela quote about being an optimist and whether that’s something that you were born to be or whether you learn. But you basically face the sun and keep moving forward. Something like that. I am optimistic in my disposition. I… in doing the project have just kept moving forward and even now I don’t spend a huge amount of time pausing and looking back on the last what are now nine years being involved in this, eight or nine years being involved in this project. Because it’s just another thing today. I just keep moving forward and I think that helps with the self-doubt. Doesn’t go away and if you don’t have any self-doubt, you’re probably pretty dangerous.
Vicky Browning: So, by the end of 2018, 660 people have been through one of your programs, 48000 families been helped. You got half the social services department in England engaging in partnering with you. Over a thousand people have been brought into social work through Frontline. And I was really interested in the statistics about a lot more men coming in. So I guess it has previously been seen as a female profession, so you’ve brought men into the organisation.
Josh MacAlister: We’ve now got over 100 full-time employees and turnover is about 16 or 17 million.
Vicky Browning: So you start off, you and some backers in the room with Michael Gove and now, nine years later…
Josh MacAlister: Yeah. Well, it didn’t start with me in a room with Michael Gove. It started in a corner of an office building, in a meeting room which we’d sort of commandeered as our office, with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and me and a couple of other people.
Vicky Browning: And presumably Krispy Kreme doughnuts being the fuel that’s driven…
Josh MacAlister: The fuel. Exactly. Well not anymore. I wouldn’t. Six years of Krispy Kreme doughnuts would have been bad for all kinds of reasons.
Vicky Browning: So you’ve had to build an organization, you’ve had to put in all the structures that a significant sized organization has. How have you gone about that aspect of the leadership, of actually creating an organisation? And how would you describe that kind of culture that you’ve built up within it?
Josh MacAlister: It’s changed a lot in that period. So, since 2013 through to now it feels almost like I’ve done, you know, four or five totally different jobs. And the team has grown and changed and so where we’re at now… I am a very different leader in the organisation. I also think I do very different things now than I did even two or three years ago. The main focus for me now I think is on a couple of things. One of which is organisational culture. And I think the best way to describe that… because of the world we work in – children, family social work – which is really overwhelmed by bureaucracy, risk aversion, too much process and a lot of complexity which has been built in through good intentions, but over time has led to professionals not having the autonomy to do the work they need to with families. Because we work in that system and because when you were growing really really quickly as an organisation which we have, I think we’ve grown up over 25 per cent a year every year for five or six years.
Josh MacAlister: There is a pressure, a natural pressure, to build in more rules and processes and policies. It’s often described as the growth paradox. Growth creates complexity, complexity kills growth. And I was starting to notice and feel that as the CEO of Frontline, probably in 2017, end of 2017, I’d be in meetings where we’d be talking about a problem and we were falling back on a pretty traditional mindset saying: well the solution to this is ‘we need to create a new policy’. Because, you know, 10 or 20 per cent of people aren’t doing the right thing. We need to tell a hundred per cent of people how to do it. And it’s so easy to fall into that. And that culture becomes very difficult to unstick.
Josh MacAlister: And so we have become very deliberate about creating a culture of freedom and responsibility. Each of those words has a huge meaning. Freedom because everyone who works in an organisation needs to feel and have autonomy and discretion to use that judgment to do the best work. So we have fewer but better rules. People who feel that they can act without permissions make things better. That there is as much as possible and non-hierarchical approach to giving and receiving feedback. And responsibility. And the two go together. People really feel accountable for their work and in a way that makes the work more enjoyable. And those things taken together by making work more enjoyable, and by giving people who are actually doing the work the scope to perform really well means the results are better. So actually in the last, I would say in the last 18 months, despite the fact we’ve grown – our programs have grown from for example two years ago there were 280 people on the Frontline program and it’s going to be about 450 this year. We have now got fewer rules in place. 450 than we had when we had 280 people. And I think we’ve got a team which is more deeply responsible with a higher concentration of talent, better culture feedback. So that’s the journey that we’re on. And I should say health warning is to say that this is still very much a journey for the organisation we’ve not got it right in every respect.
Vicky Browning: Presumably part of it’s about how you recruit people.
Josh MacAlister: It’s about how you recruit people. I mean, you need to come at this stuff from every angle. By having fewer rules, it’s actually possible to give people greater clarity about the rules that are there and to explain more about why they really matter. So you know we will have a rule at Frontline, if it prevents widespread disaster from happening, for example data protection. Secondly for moral and ethical reasons so we want to have rules about how people should treat one another so that they’re not discriminatory or abusive. And then the third one, which is the most contested, is rules that help really great people, really talented people do more and better work or systems. I should say systems rather than rules. Make sure you got really good CRM system or that you’ve got a really good applicant tracking system.
Josh MacAlister: So there is a need for some systems. There is definitely a need for some process and there’s a need for a small number of rules. But you want the fewest best possible rules so that you can free people to focus on all the other stuff. And when you do that, you know, when you say to a colleague: OK what if we got rid of a working from home or an office working policy? We do not need to tell people how to work or where to work from. Because if you don’t trust them, that says something far more powerful and it’s a message that you’re implicitly sending to everybody that you don’t trust them. When you start with having fewer rules you open up a conversation about: well if we had fewer rules what would need to be in place for us to have fewer rules? We need to have more trust. What would we need to do to have greater trust? Give more feedback. We need better management relationships. We need to hire more great people. We’d need to have a lower tolerance for people who are not performing well enough.
Josh MacAlister: And so all of these things come together and that helps you create the right culture. But it is certainly really hard. And it’s a constant calibration of have we got the right levels of freedom for people, have we got the right levels of responsibility that we’re expecting? And then senior leaders kind of need to get out the way and let people do it. And that feels really counter-intuitive. Because when it was me and three other people, I was all in the detail and doing stuff. And now my job is to get out of that as much as possible and help people feel the responsibility of it.
Vicky Browning: How does that translate into the relationship between you and your board? At ACEVO we do a lot around helping chief execs have good relationships with the boards, make sure governance is structured properly and quite a strong message we have is: get the processes in place, because the processes that underpin the relationships… then if a relationship starts getting wobbly you’ve got something to set back on, which is you know, this is how this stuff gets done, this is how we… So we know about delegated authority or we know about grievance procedures or whatever it might be. What level do you take it to in terms of the board?
Josh MacAlister: I mean it does apply to us still, we’ve got finance, audit and risk committee.
Vicky Browning: So you keep all the fun stuff.
Josh MacAlister: We keep all the fun stuff! We’ve had a full board away day with one of our local authority partners on Monday. So we took all of them to Birmingham Children’s Trust which was fantastic. And that they will need to make sure, because of some regulatory requirements, not only we’ve got some obligations to the Charity Commission, but also the social work regulator and our validating university partner. There are some responsibilities which we need to take really seriously. And it’s possible that you can get the board to be fully behind the culture you’re trying to build. And in a way, part of the job of the chief exec and the chair is that you… you are able to have the open conversation about whether or not what’s being proposed enables or disables the culture you’re trying to create.
Josh MacAlister: So if you’re in the finance, audit and risk committee meeting, and a problem has been spotted on the risk register, how finance, audit and risk committee members go about getting assurances that this will be addressed? Needs to be consistent with that culture. Otherwise, it undermines it. And that part of the job there is the chief exec, to bring onside the trustees behind the culture that’s being developed. And it really helps to have that written down. So we’ve got a document called Freedom and Responsibility. Anyone who comes through a job with us, sees it on the website, they go through, it and we hold each other to account for it. It’s explicit and it’s articulated. And when you can do that, you can get the board behind it and they actually become promoters of it rather than getting in the way of it.
Vicky Browning: Basically at the bottom of this is trust. So there are two things, trust and responsibility.
Josh MacAlister: Yeah, freedom and responsibility.
Vicky Browning: Freedom and responsibility. Underpinning that it’s got to be trust.
Josh MacAlister: Yeah.
Vicky Browning: Yeah okay.
Josh MacAlister: Yeah. A big bit of it is trust.
Vicky Browning: You talked about how your role has changed over the last few years. So you’ve been, I mean you’ve been the leader from the start, chief exec from the start. And now you see… a big part of your job is getting out of the way. What have you taken on in place of the hands-on stuff? So how do you see Josh as a chief exec now versus Josh when you started?
Josh MacAlister: There’s a guy called Bill Tate, who used to… I think he used to be the head of HR for British Airways, and he did some work with us on a model of leadership to teach people on our programs. And he had a really nice analogy which I think captures how I see my job now. Which is that part of the role is to pay attention to managing and leading the fish tank and the water rather than the fish in the fish tank if you like. Really my attention is shifted onto that in a way that I found, and I didn’t expect to find it, really enjoyable, is really enjoyable. How do you go about setting new norms for people which are implicit and explicit for how they do more great work? What is really exciting about this is it feels like it’s not done in that many places, but it’s done in enough places really well that I can look at other organisations and take inspiration from them.
Vicky Browning: So who would you cite as role models then, in terms of organisational role models. Who would you be looking at?
Josh MacAlister: One would be Netflix. Patty McCord who was the chief people officer there when they wrote that PowerPoint presentation, which was their expression of their culture, which I think is that something like 10 million views. She’s written a book on freedom and responsibility and how you build it. And that is really, are really exciting concepts. You know, people can show up to work as fully formed adults, and we treat them as such. And we fill the organisation with brilliant people, and we help them do amazing work. And that’s the job of organisational leaders. Another one is Jos de Blok, who is the founder of Buurtzorg, which is a Dutch nursing model.
Vicky Browning: Oh Yeah yeah.
Josh MacAlister: So Jos was a community nurse in Holland.
Vicky Browning: That’s about empowering the frontline.
Josh MacAlister: Exactly. So self-managing team of nurses covering a community patch. No more than 12 nurses. There are no managers. They together take responsibility for achieving these outcomes for their patients, and they spend at least 60 per cent of their time directly with patients. There are some reports which suggest that 80 per cent of social worker time is spent not with families.
Vicky Browning: In paperwork, in process.
Josh MacAlister: Exactly.
Vicky Browning: Ok, right, right
Josh MacAlister: Exactly. So just as sort of a comparison there. In the Netherlands with Buurtzorg, there are… I can’t remember the exact numbers, I think it’s about eight thousand nurses supported with a back office team of 50.
Vicky Browning: That’s incredible.
Josh MacAlister: Yeah. Yeah it’s incredible. And, so you know, ideas like that. And I do think this is where work’s headed and I think this is what organisations should be looking because it makes work so much more enjoyable for people. And the results are much better. What we’ve done over time is we’ve sort of built-in and we see a problem. You see this in public systems as much as you see it in an organisation. So if you look at justice, social work, education, healthcare… we see a specific problem and a very rational well-intentioned instinct kicks in which is to create a new program or a new rule or new law. And we start doing some work on, for example, knife crime or a group of children who are underperforming in a certain year group from a certain background. And over time what we’re left with is a total mess where you can’t really get much done because you’re spending all your time liaising with other people. The same is true within organisations sometimes. The third sector, charities, are not immune to that.
Vicky Browning: Yeah, absolutely. Frontline itself…you developed this culture. I’m assuming that then feeds into the training that you do for the people on your programs and they are moulded in that way. They then go into a system which is bureaucratic and expects them to spend 80 per cent of their time on paperwork, not with the families. Presumably, the idea is to change the system from the inside. Do you have those conversations with them? I think I might have got that bit wrong, but you’ve got about half the social, children services departments partnering with you.
Josh MacAlister: That’s right. Yeah.
Vicky Browning: Do you at the beginning of that have those conversations about how can we not just bring in these people in, how do we shift the systems within it?
Josh MacAlister: Yes I think it would be fairer to say that some of this thinking is emergent.
Vicky Browning: Have you just made it up today?
Josh MacAlister: Not today! But I mean emergent in the sense that it is genuinely emerging over time. It’s emerging over time not just within the social profession but in all kinds of other spheres of life where people are trying to solve pretty stuck complex issues. I, you know, whilst organisationally we’ve got the team at Frontline very clear on this culture. I think we could do a much better job with our trainees coming on board. That said, they do learn to do social work in a particular kind of way which is very relational. It’s all about how do you understand the system within which children and families are living and how do you work with the system to improve safety and stability for those children. If it becomes too individualized you end up in a position where social workers are knocking on the door, because they’ve got to see you every four weeks, because the child is in the child protection plan, and then all the time is spent referring and assessing the same children families around a very complex group of other professionals and services. And it can often end up being pretty predetermined from the outset.
Josh MacAlister: Not much changes, the family are really struggling. They don’t believe professionals are out all the time to help them bring about some change, and the outcomes are really poor for everybody. And no one really enjoys it as work. Families certainly don’t find the process dignified. A lot of the time. So you’re right to say that when we give people these ideas and we give them an opportunity to try them out. And then when they’ve done that they go into, once they are qualified, a very different context or a different environment. It breeds enormous frustration. But that’s a good thing. That frustration is a really good thing, that’s part of the process of change, is disruptive. And what’s exciting is that it’s not just Frontline trainees or Frontline alumni or people who’ve done our Firstline program. You feel that way. There are directors of children’s services who’ve been at this for 20 years, going: what the hell have I been doing? You’ve got academics who’ve been at this for many many years, researching it and going out into the field and speaking to social workers and thinking: you know, God what’s going on?
Josh MacAlister: That’s why I say it’s emerging and the process of change is never linear or smooth or clean, and the engine, the power of that change can often be people’s huge sense of frustration that things need to change. And so, we are now set on, you know, hundreds of alumni who are very frustrated and want the system to change and want it to change yesterday. That’s great.
Vicky Browning: That’s a powerful force.
Josh MacAlister: Really powerful.
Vicky Browning: If you Google Josh, there’s a lot about backlash, there’s a lot of people saying, you know: what does he think he’s doing? This isn’t properly evaluated, this is elitist. So, first of all, do you think that’s because that’s the kind of reaction to disruption and change? And secondly, how do you deal with that? You’re trying to make something better, you’re trying to… You’ve seen a problem. You want to make it different. I mean it must be very frustrating.
Josh MacAlister: I mean I think in trying to understand and make sense of it I think a huge amount of it is that when you’re trying to change something if something is hard to change there is a reason it’s not changing. There’s a Turner phrase which is ‘people like change they don’t like to change’. I wouldn’t exclude myself from that either. You know we’re all…
Vicky Browning: It’s a human trait, isn’t it?
Josh MacAlister: It can be, it can be nerve-wracking, unsettling, and we don’t know what the future will look like. And particularly for those who are currently, you know not currently, but six or seven years ago, had been the sole providers of social work education, which were universities. Who was I to say we should do things differently? And so in many respects, it’s quite an understandable reaction against something new. But as for how I kind of react or respond to it. When you meet people who’ve done the program and you speak to local authorities who’ve partnered with us now for many many years and they’ve now got lots of Frontline qualified social workers and lots of their team managers have been through our Firstline program. They’re doing better work for families. And these are families who are really struggling. And that’s the only thing that matters. Now what we need to do, all of us in the system is to make sure that when a social worker knocks on the door, a family has a better chance of opening that door. And I believe very deeply that what we are doing increases the chances of that happening. And that is why we have a social work profession. When you can lean into that, the criticism about, you know, all the kind of things you mentioned, and the noise, you can zone out you can turn the volume down a bit.
Vicky Browning: You mentioned Firstline, which is the development of leaders.
Josh MacAlister: Of team managers, yeah.
Vicky Browning: Leaders within social work teams. You’ve got the Frontline, literally frontline workers and that Firstline which is the management. I think you talk about developing outstanding leaders. How do you describe an outstanding, what is an outstanding leader to you? What does that look like?
Josh MacAlister: I think there are two crucial ingredients for active leadership. One is awareness. A deep sense of you and yourself and the world around you and what’s going on. So that you actually see problems, you see issues and you have an understanding enough about your interaction on the world and the people in it. And if you have that awareness, the bit that turns it from just being awareness into acting upon it, doing some leadership work, is a deep sense of responsibility. And so if you see a problem or recognise something that you’re doing which is causing a problem, and you’ve got a large degree of responsibility associated with that, you will act. Now, there’s a load more to leadership than those two things, but at its essence, I think it’s a combination of awareness and responsibility.
Vicky Browning: That’s presumably how you then see your own responsibility as a leader as well, through those two
Josh MacAlister: Exactly, yeah. We, as an organisation, we don’t always get things right, I certainly don’t get things right all the time, I make mistakes. Having a team around me who can, in a very kind way, remind of that very clearly and directly…
Vicky Browning: Oi, Josh! Stop!
Josh MacAlister: Exactly! Yeah, it often starts with an oi. It really helps. And so, if my response at that moment is to not to take responsibility for it, if it’s to say is someone else, to not have the awareness, that’s not enough. If you hire great people, you should really be looking for people who got great self-awareness and are very responsible. And actually, if you got those things in people, they can do amazing things.
Vicky Browning: And in terms of you, you’ve been there for nearly nine years.
Josh MacAlister: Actually it’s been… sorry, we’ve been talking about so many years. Right, it’s 2013, so this is now my seventh year.
Vicky Browning: Ok, so, seventh year at Frontline. So last year you were Third Sector’s CEO of the year, and you’ve been listed in 30 under 30 European Social Entrepreneurs in Forbes. So apart from getting your name out in the 40 under 40 lists
Josh MacAlister: It gets easier over time! 50 under 50, 60 under 60. Yeah!
Vicky Browning: Apart from that, what do you see, where do you wanna go next, where do you see your career path taking you? Or are you still within that ‘I’m just gonna do the next thing’?
Josh MacAlister: I’m just gonna do the next thing. And what I love about the work is to have some real agency over making a difference in the world. And I find that massively rewarding and energising and keeps me going.
Vicky Browning: You obviously have this huge amount you’re really proud of, and justifiably so. Talking to 25-year-old Josh, to say, ok, if I could tell you this one thing, as you start on this journey, do you think… what might that be?
Josh MacAlister: Oh.. God, that’s so hard.
Vicky Browning: Would it be ‘don’t do it’?
Josh MacAlister: Definitely it wouldn’t be don’t do it. Such a good question. And really hard, because I think a lot of, a lot of the joy, has come through learning through mistakes. Fortunately none of which have been catastrophic, and I think I probably wouldn’t be saying that if any of them were. But I think, you know, sometimes, I think you can create a narrative for yourself about things you’re not good at. And I think about kids who say they can’t do maths, which is just rubbish. They definitely can do maths, they need help. And the same was probably true with me on not being interested in system and processes, in rules and project management and all that kind of stuff. And I think my message to myself then would be: you need to pay enough attention to those things, so they are done really well. And, the way in which they are done is hugely influential on how the organisation works and its ultimate impact on the world. So that would probably one of them.
Vicky Browning: Well, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts, it has been absolutely fascinating for me to get insight into your world and some really fascinating insight into leadership as well. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you very much.
Josh MacAlister: Likewise. Thank you very much. And good luck with the future of the podcast.
Vicky Browning: Thank you!
Vicky Browning: This was leadership worth sharing. The podcast by and for civil society leaders. Thanks for listening and we’ll meet again in a few weeks. If you want to know more about ACEVO check out our website: acevo.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter. Twitter.com/acevo. Goodbye.