Five minutes with Chris Wright
Catch22 chief executive Chris Wright talks public policy reform and shaking up the sector in order to attract the best talent. The probation officer turned social business leader says in times of austerity, the UK has the opportunity to re-design its public services and warns that even the most established businesses should never leave the start-up mindset behind.
- Describe your organisation’s purpose
Our purpose is to improve the lives of the people we work with, and make public services as human and effective as they can be. We call ourselves a social business – the heart of a charity with the mindset of a business – and we’re happy to push the boundaries. We’re not here to uphold the status quo, we want to drive through public policy reform.
- How would you describe the culture at your organisation and how do you maintain it?
We are a dispersed organisation, there are some 1300 of us, which makes the culture hard to define as many work in vastly different environments, from prisons to schools to social care. “We aspire for the culture to be one that is entrepreneurial, driven, passionate” and wrapped in a commitment to doing the best we can for the people we support. There’s a real energy to do so across the organisation and a passion you don’t see elsewhere.
The people who work for organisations like ours are, naturally, values-driven and committed to the cause so it’s less about maintaining a culture and more about recognising when people go above and beyond so that they feel valued.
- How does your organisation prepare for the future world of work?
We deliver public services and over the last 8 years, as people will be aware, the environment we operate in has been one of austerity. Consequently, there has been widespread concern about the quality of public services, but at Catch22 we remain optimistic. Given the changes the country’s going through, there’s the opportunity to do things differently – a chance to redefine what public services look like. But organisations like ours need the opportunity to play a part. Others would see the economic conditions as a constraint but for an innovative organisations like ours that straddles traditional sectors, we see it as an opportunity to take public service delivery back to the drawing board.
- Does your organisation do any work in your local community?
We work in more than 200 communities, running alternative education schools. children’s social care, apprenticeship schemes and employability workshops. Everything we do is predicated on a community approach.
- In what ways does your organisation collaborate with others?
We work in partnerships across the board: from working to deliver contracts on a daily basis to providing back-office support and incubation services to smaller organisations so they can grow. We are currently working with Unlocked Graduates – it’s similar to Teach First but for the prison service. We give them access to our infrastructure, which means they can use our brand to help develop their voice.
- What is the main thing that attracts talent and retains talent in your organisation?
Mission, sense of purpose, values and energy. We’re seen as being different and entrepreneurial in a sector that can often seem static. I’m not claiming we’re a Nirvana, but I think people are drawn to our energy.
- In your experience, what is the best way to build diverse teams?
It comes back to values. If you’re seen as an organisation that recognises people’s capability regardless of background, then you’re going to encourage diverse teams to take shape. I’m exceptionally proud of the diversity of our own workforce – we have people who were formerly service users and are now in senior management positions.
- What has been the biggest challenge to your growth and how have you tackled it?
Much of what we deliver is ordinarily delivered by the state and getting over the idea that the state should be the default provider of public services can be difficult. Essentially, it acts as a barrier to entry for an organisation like ours. Even when the state opens itself up to competition, a social business like us comes up against commercial obstacles like exposure to risk and parent company guarantees. The operating environment right now is not conducive to the growth of an organisation like Catch22 but we’re working to change it. We need to encourage the UK government to open up markets and facilitate entry for organisations of our size.
- What would you say represents the biggest opportunity for your organisation in the next five years?
The re-setting of public expenditure, meaning, the debate on austerity and the rise of new economics. “With money in tight supply, public policy needs to be imaginative in how it achieves its goals, and how it spends what it collects – that’s where Catch22 can help.”
- What one decision would you go back and change if you could?
Not everything you do works out but if every decision was the right decision, you’d never learn. Even when things have gone wrong, we’ve learned a lot along the way.
- What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?
Stay focused. Don’t take your eye off the ball. “Running an organisation is relentless, so be prepared to seek advice and support.” Keep your foot on the pedal.
- What other organisation do you admire the most and why?
I admire start-ups because of their energy and the freedom of their teams to work across agendas and disciplines. “There are some real lessons for established organisations to take from the start-up mindset.” Don’t leave that drive, enthusiasm and willingness to take a risk behind when you manage to establish yourself.
- What does a Vibrant Economy mean to you?
A Vibrant Economy is an environment where people can participate and contribute to their full potential. We have so much capability in this country that is not accessed and we need to find ways to unlock it in our communities. We work with young men involved in gangs and if we could tap into that entrepreneurial spirit and turn it around, the results could be tremendous. If we could stop young people from failing schools by keeping them engaged, it could produce a world-leading workforce.
In the UK we have so much capability that goes under the radar, people don’t realise it exists. It’s time it was unlocked and I’d like to think Catch22 is playing a role in doing just that.