It’s fun to work at the BMC…

2 months ago

Having now had 5 months under my belt as a BMC employee I thought I would write a about my experiences so far.

I started in January in the new role of Commercial Partnerships Manager to identify ways to improve revenues or reduce costs against a background of potential reduced funding by Sport England. The broad job description meant that I was able to look at most areas of the BMC work. Having been a volunteer for the Peak Area and a representative on National Council I was well primed (in theory) for the role. The commercial skills I had where what was needed for the job. However, whilst I was going to work with people who shared a love of climbing and the outdoors there was a cultural mis-match between my entrepreneurial background and that of a bureaucratic not-for-profit organisation where caution tends to reign, and change and experiment is treated with suspicion.  One of my business friends said I would leave after the first month. I thought it more likely I would get sacked for being a nuisance.

Because the BMC is engaged in a lot of activities with everyone having different ideas of what should or shouldn’t be done there was a risk of getting pulled this way and that, getting bogged down and end up not achieving anything. Given that the role was advertised as a 12 month contract at the interview I proposed that I would spend the first four months investigating potential commercial improvements and at the end of that period set out those projects where I felt I could make the most difference in the remaining eight months of my tenure.

In life generally, getting things done is my primary motivation. However, making changes or doing new things isn’t easy at the BMC.  Most people in the Office where generous with their time to discuss their areas and offer views on how things might be changed for the better. As I explored things to get some ideas moving I realised I required backing from a Committee, the Exec or in one case National Council and the Membership. Quite often where I saw opportunities others saw difficulties. In retrospect this is hardly surprising when a lot of the ideas have already been explored years ago, typically enshrined in a half-forgotten committee paper, but then somehow never seeming to be followed through.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some very low points but I am pleased to report that things are much better now and the job no longer feels like a battle. Some changes I advocated (to anyone who would listen) are starting to happen and hopefully will snowball and encourage more changes. I now also have identified a set of achievable projects with tangible outcomes that I am now confident of putting to bed by the end of the year.

Recently I decided to modify my style a bit. After all, the BMC is not a business I run or own and the sense of mission that you tend to have as a volunteer needs to be tempered at times. Rab Carringtons sage advice “to calm down” is something that I have recently attempted to do both for my own sake and those around me.

So what insights can I share? First of all despite being involved with the BMC for 6 years it was still a bewildering task to unpick what the BMC does and how it works. Although the office only has 33 employees, as a volunteer organisation the real numbers working for the BMC runs into the hundreds and the total membership is 83,000. Not only do we have a relationship with the membership and volunteers but also a myriad of outside bodies most notably Clubs, Mountain Training and Sport England. Finally there is functional support from the Marketing and Communications, IT, Finance, and HR individuals and teams

Over the years the BMC has organically accumulated and developed varied work activities in an unstructured way. I think it is fair to say that its current makeup is the equivalent of half a dozen bodies melded into one. Mainly it is a representative body except in one area (indoor competition climbing) where it is a Governing body. It is also a Membership organisation, a Quality Assurance training body, a technical advice body, a campaigning and lobbying body, an events and competitions organiser, a publisher, a retailer, a specialist travel insurance business and a landowner. Did I mention we have three charities? And, I think, 23 committees. Phew! These varied activities are sometimes at odds with each other in terms of stage of development, priority, ambition, scope, pace, direction and goals and there are vocal adherents and detractors for the different areas in the membership who differ on where the priorities should lie.

Unpicking how decisions really get made through the Committees, the Executive board and National Council was a further puzzle. Putting it mildly the pace of decision making is much slower than I am used to. This is more a fault of the structure than the people. Dave Turnbull, the Chief Executive is the only salaried staff member on the Executive board and National Council. The rest of the Executive board and National Council members are dedicated volunteers that typically convene once a quarter. The volunteers should be applauded for giving up their time and there some amazing and accomplished people involved. Of course they interact between meetings but as part time volunteers can’t be expected to be immersed fulltime in all aspects of the workings of this complex institution.

I experienced this first hand as a National Council representative for the Peak when I was acutely aware that I was voting on a range of issues which I did not fully understand the context and implications, especially to begin with. Without fuller understanding, the quality of debate and decision making is hampered. Typically as an NC rep you are deluged with a variety of lengthy papers by email before the meeting to digest. The agenda was typically large and so time pressured. People naturally had their own personal hobby horses that were important to them (and why not!). There was a tendency to overly focus on procedural matters which, for me, was a turn off. It might be a democratic structure but was it the best and most effective way to decide things? I didn’t think I was achieving anything in the role  and therefore stepped down after two years when there was somebody I could hand over to (thank you Dave Brown).

So, whither the BMC? We now have an independent governing review underway which is examining our decision making (ie governing) structure as well as the organisational structure. When the recommendations emerge I am hoping they will be bold rather than expedient.

My view is that an element of disentanglement is well overdue perhaps by a re-organising into semi-autonomous entities that can forge their own identities, goals, plans and destinies whilst still being supported by and reporting into BMC central. This should allow the overall organisation to grow and develop and achieve more and be better understood in a positive improvement culture where developing new ideas and making changes is not so bloody difficult. Overall the organisation should benefit from a structure that empowers local, nimbler decision-making based on clearer central goals.  

I can only guess at what the specific recommendations of the Governing Review might be, but following investigation, my current hope is that we should aim to convert the BMC to a charity with different subsidiary bodies including a limited liability commercial subsidiary. Not only would there be potentially transformational benefits to our finances from charitable status but also it would crystallise our already predominantly altruistic purposes for the greater good of over 2 million climbers and upland hillwalkers above and beyond the narrower remit of representing member interests thereby raising our ambitions. If this was recommended I think the charity aims should include a pro-participation statement. These would be controversial matters, for at least some of the members, and consulting and communicating will be a big challenge if we are to successfully make the transition. Despite these considerable cultural hurdles if the benefits are so obvious for the BMC then we are just shirking responsibility not to try, otherwise we are holding back our potential to achieve greater things.  

When I started climbing I was an avid reader of Mountain magazine where Jim Collins a US climber featured regularly. Aside from being an accomplished climber he wrote a hugely influential business book based on extensive research and analysis called “From Good to Great” which charted how companies transition from being good companies to great ones.  The Governance review offers the tantalising hope that the BMC might also make a significant step towards this transition.

 (This is a personal blog and not an official BMC piece. The views expressed are my own and it was written in my own time.) 

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