Martyn Drake: A family diabetes diagnosis made me focus on strategy

This unexpected turn of events reinforced my view that strategy is a series of decisions you should take on a regular basis

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

Easter is usually a quiet time here at Drake Towers, partly because I try to keep it that way to spend time with the kids, but also because half of my clients are usually doing the same. Instead, I try to make time to switch into a different mindset; to step back from day-to-day work and think more strategically about my clients, my own business and my desires for the future.

This year, though, things were different – two weeks before Easter, Child Two was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. There followed four days in hospital, with frequent follow-up visits, daily calls with dieticians and the diabetes team, and a learning curve as steep as anything I’ve experienced since my student days. For the uninitiated, diabetes is a condition in which your body no longer produces enough insulin to keep the right level of sugar in your blood. Too much blood sugar brings long-term health problems, as well as toxic ketones that make you very ill, very fast – that’s usually how people first get diagnosed. Too little blood sugar, and you slip into a coma.

So each day becomes a sequence of small needle-pricks and big decisions: how do we correct, now that he’s gone high or low? How much insulin with his next meal? What do we tell school to give him before his PE lesson tomorrow? These decisions are complicated by the fact that all newly diagnosed diabetics react differently to insulin and to the carbohydrates that turn into blood sugar. Their responses can vary with the time of day, with emotional state, with different food combinations and from week to week as the pancreas stutters back in to life, only to stop again.

In the early weeks, we were entirely in the "operational decisions" mindset – what to do in the immediate future. It’s the home-life equivalent of deciding how many staff you’ll need to draft in for the big fundraising event next weekend when there’s a big match on television, low pressure above the Atlantic and two of the team seem to be coming down with colds.

Pragmatism and experience make us faster and more confident with those day-to-day decisions over time, but there’s always another level of decisions to be made.

For us, it’s questions such as: do we need to make some lifestyle choices as a family? In which of the smart technologies for blood testing and insulin should we invest? And how quickly do we trust an 11-year-old to manage the "operational" decisions himself, knowing a wrong move means a 999 call?

These are our strategic decisions – direction, change, investment, empowerment – and our challenge is the same as for any third sector leader: how do you create the time to define, talk about and take, those big strategic decisions, when urgent imperatives consume all your attention?

I discovered relatively early on that when your wife walks out of your child’s bedroom at midnight, with a worryingly low result and the prospect of a 3am alarm to check he’s still OK, apparently it’s "not a good time" to talk about the relative merits of different continuous glucose monitoring systems. Who knew?

So this week we ring-fenced two hours to define all the big decisions we need to make.

Next week we’ve carved out the same again to make a decision on the first. Strategy, as I’ve said many times here, isn’t something you can leave to a once-in-a-blue-moon review, it’s a series of decisions you can and should talk about on a regular basis.

Weekly at most, monthly at least, but scheduled and adhered-to religiously, because there will always be more urgent things to talk about.

As for the diabetes, thanks to everyone who’s written or spoken to me over recent weeks. Suffice to say, Child Two has taken it all in his stride; he’s in better health than ever and is handling it all extraordinarily well.

If leadership is largely about resilience, he has a fabulous future ahead of him.

Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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