Craig Dearden-Phillips: The rewards of merger

Our columnist says the amalgamation of his organisation with another has resembled a long and gruelling road trip - but has been worth it

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

This month saw the public launch of VoiceAbility, the new disability charity created from the merger of Speaking Up and Advocacy Partners. I was the chief executive of Speaking Up and am now chair of VoiceAbility; our new chief executive is Jonathan Senker, the former chief executive of Advocacy Partners.

So, eight months into the merger, how's it all going? Overall, quite well. It helped us to think afresh about the new organisation's purpose – thinking which, certainly on the Speaking Up side, was proving hard to get right before the merger. We returned to the big questions: Why are we here? For whom? How can we deliver our mission to best effect? And how can we do all this an extremely challenging financial climate?

One benefit has been the engagement that the merger has generated in addressing these questions. We spent the summer running around the country spending time with staff, volunteers and trustees, developing VoiceAbility's strategy, identity and values. Another bonus from the merger has been far a stronger managerial, financial and governance base, as well as a bigger focus on quality. As chief executive of Speaking Up, I wasn't sure we would be robust enough to take what might be coming, and I thought a slide backward beckoned. As chair of VoiceAbility, however, I am confident that we can succeed in the future.

What's to learn? It hasn't all been plain sailing, of course. Just like in a marriage, the easy part of a merger is the paperwork. The real challenge is then turning two into one – saying goodbye, with fondness, to the legacy organisations while creating a compelling shared vision and direction for our future. Then doing the standard things right, like making the IT work properly and ensuring people know whom to call to get an expenses form.   

The key to our success has been simple. The board and senior managers are working together extremely well and have kept the whole organisation focused sharply on our users. Seismic changes – which mergers are – require strong leadership. It also requires leading figures to be comfortable with each other and to show trust and calm when the inevitable sticky moments arise. The relationship between myself and the new chief executive has been key to this. As bosses of the legacy organisations, we embody the merger in many ways. We fought for and champion it together. Of course, we challenge each other, as any chair and chief executive should – but always behind closed doors. On the fundamental principles and direction we are, without exception, a single voice.   

Looking back, this merger was a long road trip, starting with two chief executives sipping coffee in a strip-lit cafe in Kings Cross in late 2008, trying to look into the future. Today, with our new board and single staff team, we are confident that, yes, it was worth it.

Contact Craig at craigdeardenphillips.com

Craig Dearden-Phillips is the founding chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk


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