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Leading from Values
By Martin Houghton-Brown - 14 November 2017
As I reflect on five years of service at Depaul before leaving at the end of 2017 to move to St John Ambulance, I am conscious that the single greatest impact on my leadership style has been the experience of leading a values-led organisation.
Depaul takes great pride in having a contemporary vision of a 400-year-old tradition, following in the footsteps of St Vincent de Paul.
There are, of course, written values statements and there are seminars and induction sessions that seek to embed the values into the understanding of staff and volunteers, but there is something quite different happening at Depaul.
It is a charity that holds itself to account, learning from its experience and challenging organisational behaviour because it is accountable to a set of values we proudly call "Vincentian".
There were some important tasks to be done in 2012, turning around a downward trend in income and broadening the financial diversity.
The charity was nearly 25 years old and some of the early days of passion and energy were not what they had been when the management committee used to discuss safeguarding concerns around the kitchen table. Somehow I needed to rediscover that passion.
There were, of course, areas of weakness but I hadn’t bargained on a huge social asset base in the values.
When I quizzed staff, volunteers and trustees about the charity, Depaul was described as going that extra mile, not taking "no" for an answer, being dedicated to working with those who others left behind.
Maybe, one of our defining moments was challenging government to rightly shape a Social Impact Bond so that we could work with the young people who housing and homeless services had failed. To choose to work with those young people the Depaul way, focussing on tenacity, energy, vision and hope for them.
It has been inspiring to watch us "smash our targets" and lead the way in services that follow the young person not the "bed space" or the "support hour".
I am not from the housing or homelessness sector, and when I arrived in the sector talking about costs per bed-night and costs per support hour, I was drowning in gloom.
However, as I discovered the charity's values in depth, through watching tenacious staff, ambitious volunteers and the beautiful people who were technically called our "clients", I discovered something different.
We were neither "Travelodge", aka bed-nights, nor were we "IT Support Desk", aka support hours. We were a group of people building relationships that could be transformative. That’s really how our theory of change, "Endeavour", was born, out of myriad conversations that talked about our values and how they affected the way we worked.
It was that original kitchen table around which Depaul was originally led that also found new life in these last five years.
We discovered that when we created spaces to work with young people "around the kitchen table" they worked so much better than "contact rooms" and "TV rooms" and "offices".
In a coastal corner of the North East, a double-fronted Victorian terrace has been remodelled and renamed as "Depaul House" and the kitchen is at the heart of that home. I would live there, and it turns out that when young people live there they get better outcomes. It’s our values in action.
And now as I depart, I look at a financially strong, ambitious and passionate Depaul with a huge heart.
Depaul may not be the biggest in youth homelessness but in my opinion it is without doubt the best!
* Martin Houghton-Brown is leaving his role as Chief Executive of Depaul UK in December 2017.