Are you FREe?

Earlier this week I attended a concert at Kings College Chapel. As I sat there in the dark stillness a storm raged outside that rattled the ancient doors.  A nearby college clock chimed the hour. I recalled how exactly 27 years before I had first been in that place.

I remembered I had been a little shocked to find myself in higher education – as a working class lad who struggled a fair bit at school. Yet in my mid 20s I had applied to study at a tertiary level. When interviewed, some of the alternative angles I shared from my experience as a front line NHS worker, plus the insights from my union activism, seemed to appeal to those who selected students. Over the years I have found sitting in that building to be a powerful setting for reflection during times of significant personal change.

So, I was thinking – but on this occasion about my work. My studies all those years ago were the start of my deeper interest in how organisations perform (or don’t). Over the last few months I have been crystallising what I now know about institutions – from larger networks to smaller teams, from commercial enterprises to noble purpose initiatives.  This insight is based on my experience of working across sectors and continents. What makes an organisation worthy of commitment? What are the features that make them likely to succeed? And fail?

After a quarter of a century, I think there are just three things that are crucial. I summarise these with the word FREe (actually FRE, as you will see below).


Firstly, focus. Is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Do individuals know how their particular role contributes – and do they realise where their personal motivations fit, and where they do not?


Responsibility: are staff expected to use their initiative to sort out issues? Do they have freedom to act? Do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive – and do line-leaders avoid constraining their staff with overly detailed instructions or the expectation of involvement in all decisions? How clearly are all staff held to account for how they have used their autonomy?


Crucially, example highlights the role of senior leaders in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise plus the part played of line managers in re-iterating this.  It includes the important mechanism of peers in reinforcing, or undermining, the ‘right’ behaviours. Most of us are not saints or sinners, rather we absorb the ways others work. This starts with basic ‘pro-social’ interactions to do with decency and civility.  It extends through to the modelling of focus and responsibility, and other important attributes for successful organisations like curiosity and productive conflict. ‘Example’ is also concerned with making sure the implied attitudes at the core of a business’s purpose are actually demonstrated by staff, in both their dealings with each other as well as with customers.  For example, do we witness 'caring' in all interactions in health services? Is 'learning' seen everywhere in an education provider? What about 'speed' for a high street fashion brand?.

I am discovering how this simple framework is powerful in a range of settings.

Individuals, teams and organisations...

It helps individuals: it works when coaching leaders and also in prompting those being interviewed for a new job to ask useful (and interesting) questions.

With teams it is a checklist to test that the platform for achieving positive results is in place.

For organisations it highlights three important factors to get right in all places – to ensure well-served customers, content staff and a fulfilled mission.

Are you ready for FREe business?


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