Lessons learnt in 2017

Our CEO, Andrea Kemp reflects back over 2017 to events and experiences that have helped us learn:

According to Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking is about ‘the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail.’ It is about creating systems and cultures that enable us to learn from errors rather than feeling threatened by them. In day to day life, I’ve found reflective practice to be a really useful tool to enable learning from all sorts of experiences – good and bad, and as 2017 draws to a close, what better time than now to look back at the year and gather the learning.

For me and the team at Community Sports Trust, 2017 was all about building on learning from the previous year and translating the theories of Systems Leadership into practice. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can honestly say that the practical application of theory is a whole lot harder than acquiring the knowledge itself. Turning ideas into action is not for the faint hearted, it is tiring and can put you in a position of vulnerability, exposure and accountability. It’s dirty work (as in ‘sleeves need to be rolled up’) but as Julian Stodd suggests, ‘If not you, then who?’

In 2016 we’d spent a lot of time listening, reading, talking, deliberating, digesting and testing the words and advice of those brave people out there ploughing the furrows of asset based community development, social leadership and systems leadership (Cormac Russell, Debbie Sorkin, Helen Bevan, Chris Pietroni to name but a few). We felt truly inspired by their words and the concepts related well to the spirit of our work at CST.

Building relationships around shared purpose

So, following our instincts and with the support of several experienced and wise owls, we began to gather people we knew would bring energy, ideas, curiosity and rigour to our mission of building vibrant, active communities with a focus on Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire initially.

I set about convening conversations, some small in cafes and even pubs, other bigger in offices and conference centres. I walked the pavements of Matlock with the Director of Public Health, I cycled the High Peak Trail with an adventurous Leisure Officer and I navigated canal tow paths with University researchers and likeminded community activists in other parts of the country. I remember each conversation because it had a view, it had energy and life and I learnt that stepping outside a meeting room brings perspective and imagination to a conversation in a way that traditionally laid out boardrooms don’t normally allow. The theory behind Street Wisdom is powerful in practice and I intend to use this a lot more in 2018.

Interestingly, as I began to intentionally engage with people, to reach out and connect, the more invitations I received to connect with others – I guess it’s the Law of Attraction in action. In November, I was invited to join the NHS England online Leadership Development and Improvement Community – a network of system leaders committed to learning and sharing their experiences of system change with others. As a new member to the group, I’m already reassured to learn that the dilemmas and challenges we face in our sector are equally familiar to others and by collaborating honestly on matters of shared interest we will make progress more quickly than we might on our own.

Gathering diverse groups of people around shared purpose lies at the heart of systems leadership practice and is a principle I’ve experimented a lot with this year. It’s easier said than done! You can’t just send around a group calendar invitation to a meeting, book a room and expect people to participate, contribute, give of themselves and make cohesive plans together. There’s a whole world of ‘warming up’ to do beforehand – sincere engagement and tuning in. I’ve learnt that relationship building is a long and steady path, and is often about seemingly small, thoughtful acts such as sharing books and articles, introducing people to others and arranging short catchup calls and coffee. Shared experience and doing things together is critical and that requires effort, intention and ongoing commitment.

Trust grows with time, it’s not a given or something we start out with and I’ve found Brene Brown’s TED Talk on ‘The of Anatomy Trust’ really helpful here. She describes it as the cumulation of lots of small deeds rather than one grand gesture, so there are no short cuts to building real relationships and you can’t fake it either!

Self care

Putting yourself out there takes energy, time, and drive. As my sister regularly reminds me ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’, so knowing how to keep your cup full is an art in itself. I’ve learnt that my cup is replenished mainly by the enthusiasm, friendship and humour of others, but I also recognise that I need time on my own and space to connect with myself. Yoga has become central to my morning routine followed by dog walking and organising my diary to work from home one day a week to catch up on writing and anything that requires quiet and thinking time. Of course exercise underpins most of my wellbeing and I choose to run and cycle whenever I can. This year a great friend took me wild swimming before dawn – that certainly warms the soul and makes you feel alive!


The significant input required to build genuine and lasting relationships is dwarfed by the immense value created when people come together. Richard Holmes (Head of Inclusive Community Building at Barnwood Trust) describes community as ‘a place where you feel welcome and somewhere you feel you can all home.’ I believe this to be true of where I live in Derbyshire, but I also feel it applies to other settings – a school or workplace or a network of people. I’ve also seen ‘Community’ used as a verb and this really resonates. It’s what’s involved when we do things together – the connections we make and the opportunities we create to use our talents, ideas and passions with purpose. Enabling ‘community’ is what our work at CST is all about and realising/recognising  that has been a milestone in itself.

Over the last year, the CST team and I have focussed efforts on connecting people around shared purpose and central to this was an application to become one of Sport England’s National pilots to increase sport and physical activity using a place based approach. This was an ideal opportunity to build on the natural momentum emerging with the work of STP across Derbyshire. Down to the last 19 and with high aspirations and burning ambitions, we set about leading and collaborating a stage 2 bid.

After a year of hard work, the unsuccessful outcome was deeply disappointing and hard to swallow. Having taken the time to review the bid with panel members involved in the decision we’re clear where we need to develop going forwards and where our application was weaker than others. Discussing the feedback and reflecting together round a table rather than across a table felt like real progress and I’m glad we all ‘leaned in’ to do that.

Amongst the many positives to emerge from the bidding process was the strength of relationships developed along the way. Just as I was unprepared for a rejection of our bid, I was not at all expecting the influx of messages of uplifting support, shared disappointment and kindness. I quickly learnt that the value of creating networks and building relationships isn’t just for the road ahead, but also for those times when we need to stop, put down our bags and take a moment to acknowledge what’s happened and where we have got to……together.

In family life too, this year I’ve witnessed the fear of close relatives who have been confronted with life threatening illness and the sadness of losing people we love and care about. Again, the warmth and kindness shared and the strength of feeling demonstrated when people come together and say ‘I’m here for you’ is, I think, what makes us human.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead to 2018, there’s plenty to get excited about. There is widespread commitment to resourcing a place-based approach to building active communities across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and a strong desire to work together to learn, explore, discover and bring to life our shared ambitions. It now feels like fertile ground in which to sew our seeds.

With warmest wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year.


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