House

Our CEO, Rosie Ferguson, reflects in her latest blog on the challenges of leading in the current context and what we can learn from St Barnabas, the patron saint of encouragement.


Early Thursday evening at the House of St Barnabas; the busy bar is buzzing with members in the transition from coffee to cocktails. A folk band is doing a sound check in the Chapel ahead of a gig. Kenny, a participant in our Employment Academy, is on work experience on the floor. We are in many ways ‘back to normal’ and we are delighted to be so.

But like many people in different industries right now, it is hard to shirk a sense that while we’re all busy getting back to business as usual, we are operating in a whole new context, about which there is nothing usual at all.

I’ve been a CEO for nearly ten years now, and there were previously a few assumptions that you could pretty much bank as fact in the UK context. Supplies would arrive on the days you needed them, you could purchase equipment to replace things that broke, you could recruit good people to fill vacancies, central London would be busy, and prices were predictable. But these things can no longer be taken for granted and we have lost confidence in our assumptions as a result. This is a very different time.

We are so hungry to meet customer expectations, and to make sure all our members and guests experience attentive service, an extensive menu to choose from and no price inflation with it. But this isn’t always possible right now. Evidence given to the Business, Energy and Industrial Select Committee this week said that inflation could see costs for the hospitality sector rise by 14-18% in the coming year and we need to adjust our business models, which already operate on tight margins, to cope with this.

Our teams are exhausted – and there is a chronic skills shortage. We all know this one. In many organisations necessary staff reductions through 2020 have meant that we now (and for the last year) have had fewer people doing the same amount of work, and as demand returns and we need to grow, there is no one available to replace them. The impact of long term and significant resource shortage is huge, on morale, wellbeing and motivation. While it is easy to say, ‘you need to reprioritise’, in a business like ours there is just a certain amount of activity required for the model to be viable and dropping below that isn’t really an option. While we are lucky at the House to have been able to employ several of our own Employment Academy graduates in some roles, the main shortage is in skilled roles at all levels from Events Managers to Accountants, and it is not clear when this is going to ease. We are so grateful for the dedication and commitment of our passionate team who continue to share their energy with our members and participants.

There are still a high number of cases every day. While people aren’t dying or being hospitalised in the same numbers, the anxiety of Covid still exists, and I’m sure many organisations have lost more days to stress and anxiety in the last 18 months than Covid itself. ‘Learning to Live with Covid’ means seeing friends and family seriously ill, constant disruption to events and plans as people isolate or adjust childcare, new moral decisions around safeguarding unvaccinated colleagues and tension in the office every time someone sneezes. But as the public narrative screams ‘getting back to normal’ we just further absorb these additional stresses into our day to day.

We can no longer ignore the impact of climate change on our own doorstep. In the context of some of these immediate challenges and threats, it can be easy to postpone action on climate change as non-critical to the business. But London is flooding, and energy prices are rocketing. At the House we are privileged to be custodians of two grade 1 listed buildings, our magnificent House and Chapel. There is no longer the luxury to ignore the reality that climate change will impact all our buildings in the coming decades and that this will also have a catastrophic impact on our children and our children’s children. As businesses, planning for this is now becoming urgent, alongside everything else.
We are – quite rightly – being held to account on our approaches to equity and inclusion like never before. An increased focus on equity and inclusion in our collective consciousness is probably the most exciting shift of the last 18 months, as inequality has been further highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic. Leaders and individuals are now being held to account much more publicly on their values and actions. But is hard work understanding and tackling deep rooted and complex equity issues, both for those doing the holding to account and those working to change. We’re ambitious at the House to become London’s most inclusive members’ club and challenge some of the old ways of doings. We’re excited about how the balance of power is shifting I’m optimistic of the change that this can bring. It does however add further pressure within an already stretched and heightened environment.

This is all a lot, that leaders and teams are balancing every day as we try to drive forward whatever purpose or profit we exist for. But unlike in 2020, when it was considered acceptable to throw everything up in the air and reprioritise, we are now in 2021 desperately trying and expected to hold together our operational plans, budget projections, staff wellbeing and client safeguarding. We are supposed to be ‘getting back to normal’ whilst we don’t fully understand the world we are living in anymore.

Of course, we can have extensive business plans and scenarios planning, all of which will turn out to be wrong. But the most useful thing we all need to do in the context is to pause, acknowledge the reality of what is in front of us and approach it with forgiveness and acceptance. It is simply impossible to pretend we are ‘back to normal’, so the sooner we acknowledge what is achievable in the new world the sooner we can thrive in it. St Barnabas was the patron saint of Encouragement and our Chaplain at the House once defined encouragement as Vision plus Patience. So that is what I’m holding onto right now: we must maintain a vision for a successful, vibrant and more equitable future whilst being patient and showing empathy for ourselves and those around us for what we can achieve right now.

In the meantime, I think it’s time for an espresso martini.