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In 1996, I was fortunate to be sponsored to attend a three week long strategic leadership course at Ashridge Business School. The course changed my life when during second week of the course I decided that after 18 years I needed to leave the housing sector and do something more personally fulfilling. At the time I had no idea what that was, but to cut a long story short, that decision led me to work in the social care sector. Despite the ups and downs, the successes and failures, that was without doubt the best career decision I’ve ever made.

I’ve maintained a relationship with Ashridge (now part of Hult) ever since and in particular with Chris Nicols, until recently a Director of Ashridge, and now the Co-founder of GameShift; an innovative strategic ‘movement’. In 2006, Chris wrote a ‘think piece’ called ‘Strategy as Relationships’. It was written as a counter to the historic militaristic and adversarial approach to developing strategy; best illustrated by how Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ became a must read for every CEO no matter what the sector. As a Chief Executive of a social care provider, I understood Chris’s thinking and I could really see how it could apply to the health and social care sector. I attempted to use this thinking to shape my organisation’s strategy, with admittedly limited success. However, now, 10 years on I believe it is it more relevant than ever.

‘Strategy as Relationships’ invites organisations to look at their relationship with existing and future ‘customers’, their relationship with their people, their relationship with the environment and their relationship with itself as it is at a point in time! Then to consider how it could be in the future as the foundation of its strategy.

Working in health and social care sector over the last 10 years has not been easy for any organisation. Trying to deliver meaningful outcomes for the most vulnerable in our communities against a backdrop of constant change, increasing demands, funding pressures, recruiting and retaining enough of the right staff and so on has become almost impossible! The next 10 years for looks even tougher, but maybe organisations who are brave enough to look at their futures differently and build their next 3-5 strategy on Relationships may find new and different ways to thrive and not just survive the next 10 years!

So what does ‘Strategy as Relationships’ mean in health and social care? It means asking yourself some very different questions, including:

How would your organisation describe the relationship it currently has with its customers at different levels of the organisation; the people you care for and support, their friends and families and those who commission your services? How would you want these relationships to be? What needs to change and what needs to be different in those relationships in the future? How will you need to be organised and structured to establish and build those new relationships? What do you see happening here and now, in your operating environment that could change those relationships? What would the ideal relationships look like and feel like?

What about your organisation’s relationship with its people; staff and volunteers? How would you describe it? How would they describe it? When was the last time you asked them? Did you listen? Did you change? Have those changes endured? How would you want the relationship with your staff to be in the future? What will be different in the relationship your organisation has with its staff compared to the relationship it could have with other employers? If you’re not sure, think about Sports Direct versus John Lewis! Increasingly, certainly in America, many employers are actively seeking to change their relationship with their staff from seeing them as time limited and dispensable, assuming they’re going to leave in a year or two no matter what, to one where they demonstrably seek to care for and support each member of staff as a whole person. Isn’t it obvious that in a sector that’s about care, staff who feel cared for are more likely to care for others? How do you have to organise your organisation differently to show that your people really are your greatest resource!

With everything else on the plates of health and social care providers, many just do not have the time or the energy to have even begun a discussion on their organisation’s relationship with the environment and sustainability, but strategically should it be on your agenda? How much energy is consumed doing what you do as an organisation? Could it be reduced dramatically by doing things differently? How much waste do you produce doing what you do? How is it dealt with? How could you reduce that waste to almost nothing?

What about your organisation’s relationship with itself? It’s often said that culture trumps strategy every time, so what’s your organisation’s culture? If you undertook a culture audit across the organisation, especially those that are decentralised, would it identify a collection of sub-cultures, perhaps based on what individual Registered Managers think and how they behave? Is your communication really two way? Do your staff really understand their rights and responsibilities? How inclusive is your strategy and policy making?

What might your organisation achieve if it saw itself as being in the relationship business as much as in the health and social care business?

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