Author Archives: Judith Barker

Asking the right questions

Which are the best questions to ask to add value? Through Inspiring Partnerships, I am committed to offering a new insight or connection at each meeting.  As an external partner, organisations are seeking new insight and expertise from me.  The best value from my recent coaching experience with Bird Table is the fellow participants and coach asking me challenging questions.  I hope, that in economic development, I offer information and insight but so often the best way to work is to ask the right questions and the staff, within the organisation,  are then empowered to find the solutions to their dilemmas and ones that they are best placed to implement.


The trick then is being able to ask the best questions and often that is about having a fresh perspective. It is also about really listening and immersing yourself in the topic and your client’s issues.  I am developing some key content to ensure I explore all bases with clients and ask the best suite of questions to provoke thought and new solutions.  I’d be keen to have your feedback as the definitive list emerges.  The current questions are:

  • Engage positively. To have a external partner look at your work is a challenging process and can be uncomfortable. To make the most of the feedback, any officers engaged need to be thinking positively. Recognise the effort that has already been applied, use respect, humour and teamwork to move the content forward.
  • Understand the story first – ask the officers to summarise the work so far. The story from their perspective is critical and the element they are aiming to deliver. This gives them the opportunity to share ideas and lead the discussion.
  • Always ask open questions – don’t ask questions that require yes or no answers but ask why, how, when will that be delivered? Challenge the participants to think really hard about the activity they are planning.
  • Challenge assumptions – how did you reach that conclusion? Can you develop that further? What is the natural conclusion of that? What is the impact?
  • Ask, don’t tell! Avoid giving solutions – help the the participants find their own solutions. How can you solve that? What is the first step? Who needs to be involved to move that forward?
  • Don’t feel pressure to fill the silence. Thinking time is vital. Let people answer the question and don’t fill the void. The question is a tool to provoke an answer that is owned by the person developing that answer. It may take time.
  • The stupid questions are great – they are often the questions that need to be asked. Why do you do that? “Because we always have” comes the answer. It needed to be said but only someone external can say it.
  • Being a devil’s advocate is another route? Ask the “what if” questions to really stress test a proposal. If that wasn’t funded, what would happen? If you can only do half of that project, what would you do?

So that’s my 8 tips on questions to get the best value from a discussion. What do you think?

Bluebells to sunflowers – the benefits of business advice

Inspiring Partnerships has a new website! Our focus on enabling sustainable economic growth is sharper and we have three fields of work: research and business case development; project management; and stakeholder engagement. Do have a look at the new site which sets out our business offer and how we work with our clients. Thank you to existing clients for all the testimonials and we are hoping for many more!  The logo has changed from bluebells to sunflowers to represent the vibrancy and growth of the business and the outcomes we wish to deliver.sunflowers

To reach this relaunch has taken months of behind the scenes action and I have not been alone. The purpose of this blog is to celebrate the new website and its potential to grow the business but also to recognise the contributions of others to the process. Without them this website would not be here.

We received great business advice from the local enterprise agency funded by the local authority. They helped me look at the business offer and really clarify what we do best and can develop the best income stream.  Geraldine reviewed the business plan and website and acted as a brilliant critical friend – it is much easier to change something when someone tells you what needs to be done! It is also hard to see the wood for the trees in your own business.

I participated in a female business coaching group locally. The coach, Karen, was supportive and her techniques really  drew out what I needed to focus on and helped me plan a path for my business. The other ladies attending the group asked challenging questions and forced me to think what I really wanted for myself and my business.  We have the next autumn session next week and I’ll be able to go back and say “thanks ladies, I did it!”.

I appointed a wonderful web designer to help me redesign and understand how design and function of the website could help me sell my business online. She also helped me understand what value means in terms of web design. Many of the technically challenged (like me) need honest and trustworthy advice and a ready explanation for things we don’t understand. I got exactly that from Susie.

I recognise now how much business benefits from the advice of other business people who understand our business. I have been privileged to deliver business support but this summer have experienced this for myself.  Constructive criticism is key to making progress and I am pleased to present the result of this dialogue in my new website.  Let me know what you think….







Have SME’s got the wrong attitude about getting online?

BIS have published a report this week on the digital capabilities of SMEs. The report based on research of over 800 businesses suggests that although 98% of SMEs are using email, less than a quarter are making e-sales. 24% of SMES do not have a website and are not listed in an online directory. One of the conclusions is that there are attitudinal barriers to business extending their use of the online media. In particular it is a lack of awareness of the benefits. Continue reading

356,096 business start ups and counting!

356,096 businesses have started up in 2015 using data from 28 July Start Up Britain tracker! The UK is on target to reach 600,000 this year – the fastest ever rate. The net gain of business numbers is rising all the time as more businesses survive for longer.

The South East Midlands has the 5th highest start up rate of all 39 LEPs in England (LEP Dashboard 2015, ERC). So what are the factors in this?

  • Family and background – more businesses are formed by families with business interests.
  • Mobility – areas with a dynamic and growing population see more start ups than elsewhere.  More businesses are formed by migrants to the UK than rates among the local population (ERC, 2015)
  • Location – strong transport links, superfast broadband, international airports all make start ups a stronger proposition
  • Education – areas with stronger educational profiles with more people with higher level qualifications tend to have higher start up rates
  • Attitude – this is the hardest nut to crack but the people who establish a business are typically more aspirational, with greater ambition and a confident attitude to risk – and so much of this is linked to the issues above.key2success

So we are doing well on start up but how big do those businesses grow? Nationally 6% of start up businesses scale up to £1M+ turnover. The South East Midlands is in the middle of the pack among LEPs on this indicator so how do we grow each start up business?   There is lots of research on scale up that has been done in the last year – most impressively is Sherry Coutu’s report to Government in 2014

However we also need to understand that in the South East Midlands, 15% are sole traders and 22% are below the threshold for VAT registration and see a business as a way of generating an income as an alternative to traditional employment. We need to ensure that the start up and growth business support provides for both these economically valuable approaches.

City Deals and Employer led Skills – 6 key elements for progress

Strategy-Development2-290x220Earlier this month, UKCES and Centre for Cities produced City Deals and Skills: How have City and Local Growth Deals supported the development of employment and skills policies that reflect local demand? The report looks at how the cities developed a demand led approach to skills to support business growth. All LEPs are looking at how they can contribute to the skills system and ally growth hubs with employer led skills. Does this report give LEPs outside the major conurbations some useful lessons?

It is an accessible report and one that we should all consider. The 6 key elements seen as critical in the report are set out below:

  1. Partnership arrangements – To facilitate employers working with providers, we need to establish partnerships that work. This involves employers and skills providers working together. The experience of the last 5 years suggests that by meeting regularly, knowledge sharing and collaboration has developed. Stoke and Staffordshire reported that FE Colleges in the city now use a red-amber-green skills framework to set priorities in relation to local business demand.
  2. Employer engagement – this has worked at strategic and operational level; at partnership and co-designing courses at local level. This has included with employers directly as in the West of England and with representative bodies, as in Southampton. Leeds City Region has developed the Five Three One brokerage system which brokers skills support for any business in the city and is estimated to have added £7M to the economy.
  3. Intelligence – a robust and up to date evidence base is crucial to a demand led system. In Stoke and Staffordshire, an Education Trust has been formed to undertake research, keep it up to date and align research with employer priorities. The Trust comprises schools, FE, HE, Councils and employers.
  4. Shared objectives – this is about setting out strategic priorities and goals. This uses the evidence base to help set priorities. Leicester undertook a survey of over 1000 employers and held events to involve businesses in setting those local skills priorities.
  5. Alignment – this is often a long term achievement for a long standing partnership and it is early days in many locations but the examples above show progress and alignment. In Sheffield and Manchester where budgets have been devolved then there is greater alignment of local and national bodies around the core principles of a demand led system. Funding has played a central role in the extent of alignment achieved.
  6. Performance management and evaluation – all participants need to understand their strengths, weaknesses and progress. Evaluation systems have been in place at national and local level and have allowed the impact to be seen.

For LEPs and growth hubs with less funding and resource, we need to reflect on these core learning points and think how best to we use LEP resource to impact on growth. We should consider if that could be achieved by reinvigorating skills and employment boards and implementing these 6 elements to ally skills provision with employers needs? How can we use this report to best effect?