Learning about movement building: Active Soles and Active Souls

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Nicole McKeating-Jones
Added to All, That Counts, Walking on 25 Nov 2019

Since the TEDx Oldham talk in July 2019, it has been exciting, fascinating and a great learning journey, watching how a movement can continue to grow, given the right conditions.

Conversations are creating change all over the place. It’s brilliant.

It’s hard to keep up, and impossible to know about everything that is happening. This is a good thing. It means that it is growing out of our field of view.

People are asking what we’re learning and how it applies to them. People are also sharing what they are seeing, doing and learning too.

I am going to try to make sense of what I have seen happening in the past four months. I know I am going to miss people out, and for that I apologise.

Now I’ve started writing this, more and more stories are coming to mind…

I am particularly interested in how we can create the conditions for a movement to grow, and what matters along the way.

There aren’t a set of rules, but there are some principles that I sense are important.

There are also potential unintended consequences that I am keen to head off early.

A helpful way to think about this draws on the leadership lessons from the dancing guy, which Jon Little first shared with me back in January. I’ve used this 3-minute film a lot since then.

What matters in growing the movement?

Here are some things that I believe matter:

Like all the best movements, it started with people kicking against something. In this case, it was people kicking against the cultural expectations that we’ve created and maintained about workplace norms. It was born out of a conversation rooted in frustration and grew from there.

It is not really about trainers. It’s about wearing things that enable us to move throughout our day. In turn, it’s about prioritising moving. It’s about permission and culture change. It’s about Active Souls, using their Active Soles where that will make the difference. We can easily get hung up on the ‘wrong’ part of the conversation and think it’s all about trainers.

This is about changing cultural norms. If people are wearing smart, shiny shoes that they can do a lunchtime walk in, or run for the bus. Brilliant. That Counts!

Active Soles doesn’t belong to anyone, and it’s important that it stays that way. We should never ‘sell’ the rights to it to a brand or company. Someone recently suggested we should get a shoe company to sponsor it. I disagree. It should always be free, for everyone. Active Soles is simply a different conversation. But one which can change culture, and in turn, change the world. No one can own that.

So what can we learn from the dancing guy?

Keep it simple, instructional and easy to follow.

The ‘instructions’ could go something like this:

  1. Wear stuff you can move in (this could be your trainers, it might be a waterproof coat, an umbrella or off-road treads on your wheelchair).
  2. Find your way to move, every day.
  3. Tell people about how great you feel and all the benefits you experience.
  4. Invite them to join in.
  5. Ask them to invite others.

It really is as simple as that.

Publicly show people how to join in.

The ongoing twitter conversation is brilliant. Nicole, one of the GM Moving team has started to capture it in a gallery to help us gather important evidence of change, and understanding about how the movement is growing and changing. She has made some interesting observations already; about how diverse the range of people who are talking about it are. I’d like to explore the gender balance of this too. There is an important gendered element to this, which can help us to further close the gap in women and men’s activity levels across GM.

Nicole Mc Keating Jones Nov 19

Role modelling by senior leaders across the system is important. It shouldn’t be all about power and hierarchy, but visibility and influence do matter, and people need to feel they have permission.

Andy Burnham is turning up to more public engagements in trainers and casual clothes when appropriate. Walking the walk, with school kids, like these at Beaver Road Primary School, is setting a great example. In doing so he is showing them that what they are doing to tackle climate change, congestion and air pollution really matters.

Andy Burnham

Andy is talking about Active Soles in different public speaking engagements, which helps to spread the message into different bits of the system, such as last week’s GM Cancer Conference and the Greater Manchester Sports Awards.

Warren is still wearing his active soles and people are noticing, talking about it and tweeting pics of them. He is a mini-celebrity. I am considering commissioning some Warren dolls, complete with suit and active soles! Something like this, below, with more of a smile and a tie pin, of course

Public Statements of commitment and leadership by example are key. Particularly from those ‘super connectors’ in the system. This is partly about hierarchy and power, but it’s also about the critical yeast, rather than the critical mass that I wrote about earlier.

We need people at all layers of the system who connect to others, and invite them in. I see this happening every day.

Ian Hopkins, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police didn’t hesitate when I did the TEDx talk at at their staff wellbeing conference and asked asked him if his team have ‘permission’.

Leaders showed their support at the Greater Manchester Health and Care Board in October, where they had been invited to come in active soles, engage in active travel and build moving into their day. I spotted the Chief Executive of GMCA and the Director of the Mayor’s Office, Kevin Lee in their trainers and suits for the first time.

Women in senior leadership positions with a large sphere of influence have a particular role to play, as cultural norms around office attire disproportionately affect women.

It’s deemed to be ok for men to wear the same suit day in day out, but women can be judged for being seen in the same clothes. Women’s appearance is a much bigger topic of discussion than men’s.

Women in leadership are important role models are key in this movement. Carolyn Wilkins wears and tweets about her flat shoes.

Carolyn Williams

She doesn’t often wear trainers, but this is important because it’s about ‘shoes you can move in’ and Carolyn is showing that there are many ways to change culture. Tracey Vell wears her active soles as standard these days. Donna Hall is a big advocate and is regularly taking walking meetings. Cllr Eve Holt is another one who is always walking and cycling the #activesouls talk. Lisa Fathers has made some big shifts as a long time high heels fan. Her first step was to wear trainers to travel in, but there have been at least two occasions now where she has kept them on to present in board rooms and attend meetings with the ‘big cheeses’. The same goes for Yvonne Harrison who has chaired conferences in her flats this year. Other notable advocates, all doing it in their own way, include Claire O’Rourke, Rachel Allen, and Zoe Merchant in GM Cancer. We have Directors of Public Health, GP’s, teachers, policy leaders and many more women in leadership on board.

Sarah Brown Fraser, from Activity Alliance and the GreaterSport Board is continually advising on inclusion and accessibility, along with positive challenge from Elizabeth Stanley who prompted this conversation.

The GreaterSport and GM Moving teams don’t even need to think about permission now. It has become the norm to dress for your day, have walking meetings and scoot around town.

All these leaders and so many more are showing how it can be done and talking about the changes they’re making along the way. They are ‘critical yeast’ in the movement and are constantly inviting others to join in.

The most recent to shout about this is the Mayor’s LGBT adviser, Dr Carl Austin-Behan. Of course, I seized the moment and went to find him and talk to him straight after this tweet… to invite him to join in and spread the word.

Carl Behan

Embrace followers as equals, call to others to join you.

Show your appreciation to those who join in

This is so important. Every time I spot someone joining in, and using their public platforms to invite others to join in, I experience a moment of joy!

The movement will spread and strengthen if everyone feels invited, included and ‘allowed’ to lead it for themselves. If they invite others as equals, call them to join in and lead it themselves, the culture change continues. They throw their own pebbles into the pond and let the ripples spread.

A movement is public. Everyone must see the followers as well as the leader, because people follow the followers, not the leader.

There are different ways to do this.

One is to make it really clear that this belongs to everyone. Encourage others to talk about it, informally and formally. I have given the TEDx slides to people, to enable them to talk to the same agenda in their workplaces and in their speeches. I made it clear that people could use the narrative from the TEDx blog, to help them to make the case in their rooms. I have seen paragraphs and sometimes whole sections pop up in other people’s reports, articles and stories. And I celebrate this. We worked hard to get the words right, so I want them to be used as much as possible. They don’t belong to me.

There is more than one tipping point.

We are reaching Tipping Points in different places and spaces, but we still have a long way to go. We have momentum in our work circles. It is no longer risky or rebellious behaviour to wear active soles. Enough people are aware of it that it is starting to feel normal and less likely to prompt a challenging conversation. I am well aware though, that this is only really in our little bubble.

The conversation needs to spread further. We can achieve this by following the principles above; appreciating all those who take it on and spread the message. The week after the sports awards, some new people joined in. Active Tameside and Link4Life in Rochdale both took it on and tweeted out to their followers. The more people that do this, the more it will spread.

It will still need to be explained simply. I have noticed that people need to understand where it has come from and the context. I point them back to the TEDx blog, or explain, so they can understand the background and be clear that we want them to join in.

We need to notice where we are not seeing change, and intentionally take our conversation and evidence there. The active schools one is still a biggie. There is a dilemma here because people worry about the affordability of trainers. They don’t want to create a competitive situation for children whose families can’t afford expensive trainers. But something needs to change. Children’s inactivity levels are frightening, and inactive school days are part of the problem.

This is something we need to think about carefully and the shoe industry needs to help. Clarks are doing a study of how footwear impacts activity levels, with Salford University, and Nike are about to launch a range of trainers for clinicians that are comfy and non slip. This feels like progress, if people are allowed to wear them.

No egos in movement building

In the film it says that the ‘lone nut’ will get all the credit. I can’t even be sure whether I’m the lone nut for starting the conversation, or whether Rachel is the lone nut for writing her blog. The great thing is there’s no ego in it for either of us. The ‘credit’ for the movement is collective.

The other day, I saw Jane Ive from NAVCA, crediting Alison Page, CEO at Salford CVS for the active soles movement. And I rejoiced. Jane is more likely to join in and spread the word if she is following Alison, rather than me, or Rachel, or Andy. Alison is a leader that Jane knows and respects. Jane has a national role. Her followers may well see her as the lone nut, as she spreads the word. And this is brilliant. It is not to be corrected by those seeking glory or credit.

Policy change is coming.

One of our local authorities has given explicit permission in a weekly staff newsletter from the Chief Executive, Steven Pleasant.

Two of our local authorities are changing HR policy to make this permission explicit.

Policy change could be key. It enshrines culture change in the rule book and means that permission isn’t reliant on a supportive manager or leader. It also gives a sense of longevity to what might otherwise be a passing phase.

Other organisations are asking the question as they have realised that their current HR policy includes things that are in the way. If those that change policy can shout about it and share their new policies, this will help our Active Workplace and Good Employment Charter work.

Here is some draft wording from one of the policies:

Everyone is now encouraged to wear trainers or comfortable shoes. It allows us to move more at work. Of course be appropriate for your day – wear smart shoes when it’s needed. Reminder, here’s some ways you can be more active at work….

It’s not a campaign or a programme.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with colleagues who want to take on the concept of Active Soles. They have been looking at potentially putting a budget to it, asking their marketing teams to lead it.

One of the interesting things about this in GM is that it doesn’t feature in the GM Moving Plan, or in anyone’s work programme or objectives. Maybe that’s partly why it’s growing in an organic way?

I sense that to turn it solely into a ‘campaign’ and give it to the marketing team to lead, might limit its potential as a movement. It might limit its longevity, or make it feel like their job to change cultural norms, rather than all of ours.

I am happy to be proven wrong on this, if someone wants to try it. It would be interesting to explore it in different ways in different places, noticing the change that happens.

Events companies and other organisations are free to use it, to help us achieve our shared aim for an active nation, but that doesn’t make it theirs. Some of our big events are keen to help us spread the message, as part of their plans to be more inclusive. Ideas include walking events and campaigns in the run up to the event that use #activesoles and our #thatcounts messages to engage less active people in our ambitions for Greater Manchester as the walking city-region.

We would love to see more of this, with all GM sporting events considering how they can bring broader benefit and help us to address inactivity.

Potential Unintended Consequences.

Because there always are some, sadly… but we can notice them, address them openly, publicly, and ask ourselves the challenging questions to keep things heading in a better direction.

It’s not seen as inclusive and accessible for all

Sarah Brown Fraser had already helped us to ensure active soles was inclusive for those who use a wheelchair, but it goes far beyond that

Sarah brown fraser

Those engaged in active ageing work reminded me that we need a parallel conversation about the #takeaseat campaign, and our design of places and spaces. Elizabeth Stanley challenged me, and prompted a great discussion about how it could be more inclusive for all.

I have started to use #ActiveSouls as well as #ActiveSoles.

This gradual repositioning will help to show that it’s more about people than it is about shoes. Active Lives for all.

It could start to feel like a club that you’re either in or you’re not. Even worse, what if people are ridiculed for not joining in?

The leadership lessons film makes this point in a positive way, but there could be unintended consequences if it feels like a clique. He says “There is no reason not to join in. You won’t stand out. You won’t be ridiculed”. Here’s the important point. No one should be ridiculed for wearing high heels, or anything else. If it’s what they want to do. If it makes them feel great.

Not everyone wants to wear trainers to work. Not everyone can. The point is that it’s about shoes you can move in. The Women in Law event I spoke at in September helped with my thinking on this, as one of the firms said that they have a ‘dress for your day’ policy. And at the Greater Manchester Police wellbeing conference, Chief Constable Ian Hopkins gave his full support for Active Soles in the force, and reminded us that those in uniform are already enabled to walk and run in uniform that is comfortable.

So we need to be careful not to ostracize people or create a culture where you are ‘in the in crowd’ or not. I make this point often. And I have to admit, I feel a bit of expectation that I will always be wearing my Converse these days. Maybe one day I’ll be a rebel and wear high heels to work….

Or maybe not. It would take me twice as long to get to the train station in the morning… and I couldn’t run if I was late.

As you can see. There is so much learning, just four months on from the TEDx Oldham talk. And these are just my reflections. Others will have their own.

The important thing is that we want everyone to join in. So please follow the simple instructions at the top of this blog, and remember….

Leadership is over glorified. Courageously follow, and help us to change the world.

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