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Why OD - For Ash it's about finding basic humanity in every situation

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Today we're joined by Ash Thomas, previously with the British Heart Foundation and now a principal consultant at Mayvin. We're revisiting our mini-series "Why OD" to delve into Ash's unique journey into organisation development.
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Today we're joined by Ash Thomas, previously with the British Heart Foundation and now a principal consultant at Mayvin. We're revisiting our mini-series "Why OD" to delve into Ash's unique journey into organisation development.



Claire Newell  0:09  

Hello, and a warm welcome to the Mayvin people change podcast. This is the place to find thoughtful and heartfelt conversations about leadership and organisation development. Each episode is created with our listeners in mind. So if you have a suggestion for a topic you'd like to hear us talk about, please do get in touch with us. Mayvin are thought leaders in the area of leadership and organisation development, and have a wealth of experience in this area, we have a thriving community, and we offer regular free events. You can find out more details via our website If you enjoy listening to this podcast, please do leave us a review on your favourite platform to help us grow our audience. Thanks so much for being here. And we hope you enjoy listening.


Claire Newell 00:55 

In today's episode, we are joined by Ash Thomas, formerly head of leadership and talent development at the British Heart Foundation. But now a brand new principal consultant here at Mayvin. To give you a chance to get to know our Ash a little bit better. I thought I would revisit our mini series why OD. As I found last year when I asked our consultants how they came to work in this thing that we call organisation development, their own unique paths into the field revealed some of their individuality and what makes them them and Ash did not disappoint. This is a great listen. Enjoy. 


Claire Newell 1:31

Okay, so I'm here today with Ash Thomas, who is going to be joining Mayvin soon. So, hi Ash. Do want to start by telling us a little bit about yourself, where you currently work, and a little bit about you.


Ash Thomas  1:50  

So I currently work at the British Heart Foundation as the head of leadership and talent development. And previously, some of my career was spent in charities, private sector, public sector, doing people change development, leadership development, all sorts of cultural activities. And I think I've probably, I'm probably one of those people who sort of falling into this idea of what of what an organisational development practitioner looks like. So I'm definitely on the cusp of emerging into OD I think and bringing things that I can bring to that practice and wanting to see how I can use that to help grow organisations and help find the humanity in the organisations and amplify that. I think that's the common thing throughout all of my career. Actually, that's the I've only learned that this year. I didn't realise it, but I now think that's what it's been.


Claire Newell  2:48  

Okay, so take us back to kind of, so you start you start out in sort of people and sort of HR side of things, or learning development?


Ash Thomas  2:57  

Well, I actually started in in headhunting. So I started after, first degree in psychology was head hunting. And then, after a short career in head hunting, I did a master's in organisational psychology. So that sort of business psychology change and leadership development. That's where I started to get interested in what happens within organisations. So the thing about headhunting was this was really fun and exciting, and probably maybe more money that I've had for the rest of my career. But what was missing was actually being in the organisation, and actually seeing how organisations function and how people interact with organisations, what their experiences are, and what's a good organisation and a healthy organisation, and a good culture and a healthy culture versus one which isn't quite so good or quite so healthy. So I think I really felt that I was missing being part of making a good organisation and a good culture. So that's that's sort of where I started, I think. And my first really important job was when I worked at Stonewall after my master's, and I worked on authentic leadership development programmes. Ashridge was working with clients on developing inclusive cultures and organisational equity. And that's where I started getting really interested in in sort of the idea of good leadership and good organisational systems and organisational dynamics, I suppose was the other thing, all the invisible stuff, politics and power and all of these things. So I started getting really interested in all of that.


Claire Newell  4:39  

Sounds like you kind of discovered that fairly early on in your career then because a lot of people, so I recorded one of these with Carolyn Parker, who's joining us as well. She was saying when she kind of discovered OD it was like oh, that puts a name to all those things that I've been noticing or you know, like the culture and power dynamics, you kind of realise that that's what you're kind of paying attention to and then oh, it's got this name, and then it's got a field of practice. But it sounds like yeah, it was quite early on that you kind of discovered you're interested in it and to do the Masters in organisation psychology.


Ash Thomas  5:21  

That's a really good observation, before I started studying psychology and start started thinking about organisations. Firstly, my mum was a psychiatric nurse. And she used to take me on her community psychiatric nursing rounds. So often on the weekend, she'd say, we have to go and see this person, because they might not be very well. And I think I started getting really interested in psychology at that point, and understanding difference in people. And that was really interesting. And I think from then also, just in my family, there was a series of things in in my childhood, which were sort of family traumas. And in my role in my family has always been almost the mediator, observer, the person who, in essence, since about the age of eight, giving almost therapeutic spaces to people. And it's really interesting that you pick up on that, because I think that's where it all comes from. I was talking to somebody yesterday about when I was in a Catholic school, between the age of nine and 13. And one of the nuns said to me, you would make a really, really good priest, but I don't you think you'll be a priest. And I think again, now 30 years later, I sort of understand what she means. Whether it's a one to one conversation, or whether it's a roomful of 400 people. Convening space and finding connection, finding intimacy, and being able to communicate something useful, and sometimes universal, is much about what you're saying and what you're thinking but how you're providing that environment. And that comes that comes directly from some of those really early childhood experiences, some of those, noticing your family dynamics and your family system and what role you have to play in that. And also, on top of that, being mixed race, gay and in a society where you're always looking maybe from the outside of things, you're never quite one thing or the other. So I like to talk about the fact that my favourite word in the whole of the English language is hinterlands, because it's this feeling of being between one place or one space and another and always being in between. So my whole life has always been a process of always being in between and wanting to become something else. It's always this ongoing, ongoing questioning and inquiry on that I now have language like inquiry, and self reflection, and noticing and attention that I've grown up with, I think I've grown up with all of these things. And I think that's the nice thing about how we might describe organisational development is at the centre of it for me is that everybody can be an instrument in developing and changing and improving themselves and actually, therefore, the organisations and the systems they're in. So I think it's also intimately connected. So it's very exciting for me to be able to talk about it, and I'm so excited that it might actually be my job, I can't quite believe it.


Claire Newell  8:50  

Thank you, that was beautiful, by the way, and gave us such a picture of you and how you come into this and I think you're not alone in that, you know, I think Martin talked about having divorced parents and being that mediator and wanting to kind of creating that space and I think it's there's some common threads there, I think with other people that we have this conversation with and like you said, from your childhood experiences, creating that kind of emotional intelligence early on and recognising and picking up on things that other children might not have been exposed to or being aware of. 


Ash Thomas  9:30  

I wonder if that's part of what organisational development offers is the ability to notice things that maybe aren't always on the surface and maybe it's a comfort with being able to go beneath what might be happening and what might be more observable. So whether that's that relationship is not working very well, that being comfortable enough to to try and explore or figure out what's actually happening. That makes that relationship not work brilliantly. I had a conversation with my Chief People Officer Carrie, a couple of days ago and she reminded me that about five years ago, I think it was like HR magazine has an article where I'm talking about how I think all organisations need therapy. And and I think it's that, there is a relationship between some of those therapeutic practices and organisations and systems. And I think, really good organisations that are able to deal with the stuff that's uncomfortable are really, they're really progressive, they're bold, they're they're actually healthier. They are, I think, less prone to sort of toxic things that get in everyone's way. And I think they're more able to produce happier people who do good work and are healthier for it. I think there is definitely this relationship between it isn't therapy, but it might borrow some practices and principles, which is can you hold spaces? Can you surface things that ordinarily don't get talked about, but actually are fundamental to being able to make breakthroughs or progress or possibilities? I think that's, that's the nice thing. I, oh, God, this is so interesting Claire, because it's sort of like the blend of art and science, there is a multidisciplinary thing about organisational development, which is that it can draw from lots and lots of different things. So it can draw from empirical studies about what organisations do, but it can also borrow anything from I've often thought that the difference between organisational development, HR as a discipline, there's lots in common, I think it's like, organisational development is like modern art, because it's looking at relationships and abstracts and things that might not already be there in front of you. But if you can find your own relationship with it and make your own sense of it. Because I think HR can be almost like the classics and the sort of the old, the old masters, which is sort of literally there in front of you. And some people have a preference for the old masters because it's a bit more familiar. And you kind of can get taught the rules. I think organisational development can be a bit more experimental and a little bit more abstract. And that's that's why some people fall in love with it. And I think that's also why some people struggle with it. Because some people would go to the Tate Britain, because it's really familiar and some people go to the Tate Modern.


Claire Newell  12:39  

yeah, definitely and I think like you've used the words, tangibles and intangibles earlier. And I think that's another way is that, because I have to remind myself that I'm still learning about what organisation development is, especially as a non practitioner, so sometimes we think our topics or our articles can creep into, you know, oh, that's a bit more HR than OD and I sort of think of HR has been kind of policies and procedures and tangible concrete more sort of, and that the OD is the more is like the they say the intangibles, the invisible stuff that you don't, you can't see, but you kind of know, is there and it's kind of getting to those bits. 


Ash Thomas  13:15  

How would you describe your definition of OD? So you said, you said you're not a practitioner


Claire Newell  13:21  

We were getting on so well, you're not supposed to ask me the questions. Well, I have, it's interesting, because I have previously said that it's a bit like therapy in the workplace. But then I heard James saying he doesn't like people saying that. Yeah, it's hard. I think Carolyn Parker explained, well, we should, she hasn't perfected her elevator pitch yet. And I think it's very hard to simply explain it, if you've got time, sort of sit, give examples. And so a really quick reference, one that I might use with friends is there's just check ins and just saying that, you know, we check in with each other as human beings before we get to the work. So, you know, connection before content, as we say, so, just recognising that we're human beings, and that we might be bringing stuff in, you know, we might have had a bad school run or something that is going on at home and what you're arriving with and how that might affect you, and then how your colleagues can therefore best work with you and recognising you don't have to put on a corporate mask when you go into work and pretend that everything's fine and be a bit of a robot. It's that actually we are human beings and bringing that element into the workplace. So yeah, that's kind of a quick reference point that I used to kind of try and give a hint. And then I might say things like that we do team dynamics and leadership and kind of, you know, encouraging better relationships in the workplace and ultimately to make organisations more efficient and effective, that it's that's what it's, you know, in service of thats the end point is it's not just because it's it's nice for everyone to be happy. It's because ultimately it'll be more profitable if it's a private sector, or more successful and whatever that the company's objective is.


Ash Thomas  15:18  

It's nice, because then we could have everyone has their own take on it. So I think that's that's part of the challenge with it is that each individual might have their own take on it. But they're probably asking, there are probably some commonalities on there. And I think one thing I've learned one thing I've learned definitely this year, one thing has been really great for me, working with Mayvin is I think I've actually I think I've boiled it down for myself, in terms of what I can't talk about what is organisational development and lay claim to having the answer to that. But for me, I think I've worked out there, it's finding the basic humanity in every situation, and finding ways to amplify that for the benefit of the wider system that you're working in. And I think that's almost if I, if I have to boil down what my version of OD is, for me, I think it's that it's finding the basic humanity finding ways to amplify that, because it's good for the people who are interacting and relating with each other, it's good for the organisation as a whole, it's a sustainable way to grow. It's a good healthy way to sort of build people's capacity to change themselves and change the organisation and improve things that are happening in the organisation. I think it gives people basic humality and encouraging encouragement also, and some tools to give themselves permission to implement change, make the things better that they want to make better is, I think he's got this relationship between the individual and the whole system that other forms of development don't have. So it works at multiple levels, in a sort of incremental way, to shift things and change things. And you can come at that from lots and lots of different ways. And I think the beauty of it is that it's very genuine and responsive to actually what's going on, it's not, I think, sometimes it might be easier to define it by what it isn't. It's not a tool box or a box of tricks that creates magic solutions that fall away, the aim of it is to do the very opposite. It's to build capacity so that you can sustain the changes that are important responsibly in contexts that are beneficial to whatever is in service of the organisation on its people and its stakeholders. So it's I don't know if you can elevator pitch it Is the philosophy behind it? Isn't it? practices and philosophies that are more? Yeah, they're just the it's a broader set of practices, I think,


Claire Newell  17:55  

yeah, that was a really interesting way of putting it because as when you come on, they're kind of the consultant sides, you know, that's what I find fascinating with the consultants when we're working with clients is it can be so different, and they respond to where they're at as an expression, we use quite a lot, you know, in terms of what they've got going on for them, what's their situation, what do they need? What do they want? What do they respond well to. And we talked about the perceived weirdness in depth in terms of you know, and like you say, in terms of that toolbox of it being a mixture of science and art, and you'll find that in some organisations, they might lean right into that kind of, you know, the more therapeutic side and the more kind of out there and artful and side, but then other organisations, you might be like, Oh, actually, they need something that's a bit more staid and tested, not as out there and not as perceived weird as some of our other tools. It's fascinating that they've got that stuff in their armoury, they've got the models and the tools and the theory and then it's kind of picking what what suits who.


Ash Thomas  19:02  

That's gonna be really exciting for me because I don't come with all the tools, I think a come with a perspective and maybe an affinity for some of it and I'm really excited about being able to learn from my colleagues about actually in practice, what are the things that will start processes that over time have grown to be? Well, these are the tools that work really well in these situations? Here's how here's how you work with them. So that's part of the attraction for me is, is that there's so much that I don't know about this. I think I've got a feeling about it and a hunch about what I might do with it, but I'm not sure. That's the exciting bit is the opportunity to grow and I suppose that you touched on something which I think is quite helpful, which is, there's Yeah, you said that some organisations might respond really well to like the artful side of things and others might need, I guess more like, what's the provenance of this? And what's the tool that's going to solve this. And I think it's always finding the right balance to ensure that you're doing the right work with the right intention that the client, I suppose understand enough of, but it doesn't. But I suspect in this work, there's more risk, I suppose if something I just don't really get it, and therefore, it might take longer to get there. So I think there's definitely that phrase of like, trust the process.


Claire Newell  20:34  

Yeah, that was the phrase in my head.


Ash Thomas  20:37  

I had to do that and we've had to do that at the BHF. We actually really believe in this. And we can see that this will work if we try these different processes, almost that are sometimes countercultural. So I think your perceive witness at index question is, though, observation is a great one, because actually, perceived weirdness, we've got to tread a fine line between being familiar enough that people can trust what you what you say and what you do, but not being so aware that you get rejected. If you're not doing anything weird, you're probably at risk of making no progress at all, because you're not challenging the orthodoxy or the status quo. And I think a lot of when people say, oh, I want to we need to change culture, or meet improve our culture or something like that. It's quite easy to be like, Oh, I'll do an audit. And then I'll give you some tools and all these presentations that'll tell you how to change your culture. But it's actually really deep systemic work. So in order to do that, you've got to take your time and surface what's important, and you've got to handle discomfort. And you've got to build a shared mindset about what is it you're trying to create or repair or improvement or replace, because you can't do that as one individual. So I think the other thing is, yeah, this thing about relationships in the system. And lead is as a network of people who are part of our system rather than individuals who are like I'm going to force change on that system. That's that's also my as quite a big thing. That's quite a big thing, for me, personally, is freedom, and a bit of liberty and a bit of playfulness. And a bit of messiness. That's the other thing. If the messiness is something that I think we've experienced here at the BHF, which is, it can be really hard in empirically led organisation to allow social experimentation and cultural experimentation. Because we often want a hypothesis that says, If I do this, it will get that result. And I think a lot of organisations run on the comfort of knowing that they're going to get that thing out of it. And that's been an interesting experience. But a really, really worthwhile one, because I think you get deeper learning and deeper individual and collective shift in what we think leadership is, and what what culture is and what changes I think we've started to. That's really exciting. 


Claire Newell  23:10  

Well, as you've been talking for like a while, I'll reply with this. I've got about three strands in my head that in my head I think we can pick up on that and we could have conversations on that. But we probably shouldn't go into it today. I could talk to you all day, but it's your last day so I don't want to keep you.


Speaker 1  23:30  

I'm gonna go finish all my bits and bobs


Claire Newell  23:34  

you want to add anything that we haven't covered? That you'd like to talk about? Or are we there?


Ash Thomas  23:39  

Well, I think that I think the final thing is the exciting thing for me. And I think this goes back to this, the sense of who am I and my background and my identity is that I I really believe in finding difference in the organisation as a way of creating opportunities for change. Because the people that are, may be slightly different from the status quo or the norm can see the organisation from a different through a different lens and a different perspective. I think one of the things that really excites me is finding those different voices sometimes that aren't heard, and finding ways to give that voice, space or platform just because it improves the quality of perspective and quality of dialogue. Not because I think it's right, it adds different dimension and different colour, different texture to dialogue in certain spaces where often difference isn't present. So that's that's something that I'm in my own sense of what's important to do. In whatever I do. I want to make sure that I'm bringing bringing back into the work we do.


Claire Newell  24:53  

Perfect, I'm so excited for you to start with us.


Ash Thomas  24:57  

Yes, come on.


Claire Newell  24:59  

Okay, great. Thanks ash.


Ash Thomas  25:02  

Thank you so much, Claire.


Claire Newell  25:06  

You so much for listening to us today and we hope to see you next time. Take care. Bye bye.

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