David has worked with autistic people for the last 35 years, mostly in the voluntary sector. He is the Director of AS Mentoring Ltd and took part in the 2015-2016 Generative Coaching Certification in the UK. He is an IAGC Practitioner of Generative Change: Generative Coaching.
Context: The climate and biosphere are already in crisis, the result of our ongoing overuse of the natural world’s resources. We have to do things differently if we’re to have a future, and central to this is the way we restructure our businesses and economies. We need to keep finding generative solutions, and we need to keep trialing them. If the effects of these various alternatives spread outwards as ripples, they’ll start to overlap and form waves.
What follows is a brief overview of how I’ve tried to apply these kinds of principles within my own company, AS Mentoring (ASM).
Background: I left the voluntary sector in 2013 after falling out heavily with my employer over deep, budget-driven cuts to the service I’d been responsible for the previous few years. I set up ASM in order to ensure such services would remain available. The world is stacked against autistic people, and many of them need effective support to be able to find and retain a foothold in it. To give you an example of this, here’s a recent quote from a client, a woman in her mid-30s:
“I started receiving mentoring support when I was in a very bad place financially, emotionally and psychologically. The mentoring was an important part of helping me to face the world and the difficulty of navigating interviews, resulting in getting me back into work. It has also been very helpful in terms of helping me to accept myself and face the fact that some of my habits were unhelpful and that I could function better. Also, my mentor has provided guidance in navigating difficult situations, recognising and avoiding problematic and dangerous situations, avoiding being manipulated, stopping being afraid of people, and standing up for myself with dignity and integrity.”
I’d seen many voluntary organisations come to grief over the need to constantly chase funding, and gradually diverge from their principles whilst trying to secure it. I’d also been overruled too often by boards of trustees, usually over these same funding issues. So for control reasons I set up ASM as a limited company, with me as the sole director; but I’ve run it from day one as a not-for-profit. The business model was (and remains) as follows:
Surprisingly, it’s worked; our income has proved both resilient and flexible. If an employer is paying us, or a client is funded from a statutory budget, we charge the full amount. If the client or their family is paying directly, we knock a third off the price. And if it is clear that someone isn’t in a position to pay, we’ve almost always been able to offer 3-6 months of pro bono support, funded by this sustainability gap. In practice we can’t have more than 10% of the total as pro bono clients, as anything higher risks pushing us below break-even. But there are very few people that we’ve had to turn away since we started, and we’re currently supporting some 140+ individuals. We’ve trebled in size every two years.
Here are some of ASM’s precepts, in no particular order:
You need good people to make this work. Ability and commitment are fundamental. ASM is what it is because of the people who built it, and who continue to shape it. It’s very much a shared enterprise, with a distributed leadership – only a handful of our various ideas and initiatives have been mine. I based the structure on that of the internet: nodal, self-organising, able to split tasks and re-route when necessary. Invoicing and admin functions are distributed amongst the team (all of us are specialist mentors) so if somebody’s away on, say, maternity leave, it’s pretty straightforward to reallocate tasks amongst colleagues. Payroll is outsourced, and I do the bookkeeping.
A flat structure; very little hierarchy. There’s 23 of us in the team at present (= 6-7 full-time posts), and we’re all paid in the same band. I’m at the lower end of this, because I don’t need to be at the top – the mortgage was paid off a couple of years ago, and the kids are grown up. My colleagues are paying off student loans, covering hefty rents, and trying to save something for the future. We all put in a similar amount of effort.
Keep overheads and outgoings to a minimum. We have no premises of our own, although we do rent some desk and meeting space three days a week. Mobile tech (phones, laptops, wi-fi, the Cloud, WhatsApp) means I can run the business remotely, and allows us to meet clients all over (cafés, libraries, the South Bank, Zoom, Skype). Many meetings are hosted by the employers we work with. We don’t market our services, or pay for advertising; people find us through the website, or just word of mouth recommendation.
Authenticity and full congruence: personal, professional, individual, organisational.
Reciprocal relationships: “Respect, responsibility and reciprocity” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass). This underpins the 1:1 mentoring relationships with clients, the relationships with employers, and our relationships with each other.
Cooperation and collaboration, not competition: society is a long way from autistic people being overprovided with effective, affordable, specialist support. Providers should be signposting appropriately, and working together for client benefit.
Open source: if you’ve developed materials which will benefit your clients, share them. Give stuff away if it’s going to be helpful. Help smaller organisations grow. What goes around comes around.
Be relaxed, and hold the reins loosely: when you develop and nurture enough possibilities – when there are enough plates spinning on enough poles – these possibilities begin to interact in unexpected ways, and take on a life of their own. People flourish. We’ve seen it time and again, and we know it’s where the exciting stuff happens.
It’s Generative. If we scale up the use of generative principles, we can potentially find ways to enable deep adaption to the way we live in our biosphere – as individuals, as colleagues, as societies – and we will be contributing to the evolution of a future that is both sustainable and sustaining.
Biographical details, and more info on ASM
I spent twenty-odd years working in, and then running, play and respite services for disabled children; about 30% of our users (which numbered 1200 kids across 8 London boroughs) were autistic. I then ran the National Autistic Society’s specialist employment service, Prospects, from 2006 to 2013.
At AS Mentoring www.asmentoring.co.uk, we work closely with a wide range of employers across the private, public, education and voluntary sectors. We variously provide training, consultancy and individual workplace support to the Bank of England, the Cabinet Office, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Department of Education; various Universities and NHS bodies; Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and KPMG; and we’re commissioned to provide services by the Department of Work and Pensions and a number of Local Authority Social Services departments. And we work closely with a superb charity called Autism Forward, which is making a significant contribution to the lives of autistic adults across the country. http://www.autismforward.org.uk/ email@example.com