This has been an unforgettable year, and it isn’t over yet. When I started to plan the speech, I thought back to the beginning of 2020, and I have to say that I felt a little stab of grief for the 2020 that didn’t happen. All the plans that came to nothing, the challenges that I could never have anticipated and the ongoing sadness of being physically separated from so many of the people that make up my world.
I am not really given to bland statements of positivity, and this doesn’t feel like the moment for it but, as I was thinking about what I wanted to say, I kept thinking about a line from a Leonard Cohen song ‘Anthem’ – ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in‘. The picture around us can look pretty dark, so I started to look for the crack, and to think about the light.
This year marks our first full year as a social enterprise. Of all the decision we have taken, over all the years, this one is probably the best since the one where we set PPL up. As ever, I don’t just love the reality, I love the way we got there. It was a change that we made as a team; we learnt what it meant as a team; we have made it happen as a team. Separate from anything else that has happened this year, the core reality that whatever we deliver, delivers twice – once to the client and once to our broader social mission, is one that never fails to make me proud. I hope and believe it’s a pride we all share. I like to think we all walk taller and push ourselves harder because we know that we are going even further and doing even more than we ever have before.
I have never heard so much spontaneous positive client feedback as I have this year – people taking the time to phone me and Simon up to tell us how happy they are with what has happened and with the people who made it happen. That doesn’t just happen. As a team, we take the time, each month, to learn and reflect; we spend valuable hours on management; we are all trying to embody and follow a set of values that are designed to be tough and challenging. Above all, we are trying to be kind to each other – not nice, but kind – challenging each other, pushing ourselves, taking on new things, catching each other through the inevitable stumbles that are part of learning. People don’t always know or care what makes the plane fly – they just care that it does. Clients appreciate the results we deliver without understanding how we do it, but the reason I know our successes are shared is that I know how we do it – that it is a team game.
A client said to me this year ‘I don’t know how, but you always hire such amazing people’. Whilst I think that’s true, what I also believe is that this isn’t just a team of amazing people – it’s an amazing team.
I will never forget closing up the office in March. Simon and I have worked together for such a long time that we have come to recognise these moments as eerily familiar. We both remember sending home a team of people after the London bombings in 2005 – watching as the office emptied and then walking out into a London that felt somehow different from how it had done when we walked through the doors that morning.
We say at PPL that change is happening all the time, we often just don’t notice it. This wasn’t one of those times for any of us. There were no rules for how to operate as a virtual organisation – no-one who could tell any of us how to do it. The lights went out so quickly that it was hard to see the crack straight away. But it was there.
As we gradually adjusted, we found new ways to connect and to be together. We found new ways to be a team, new ways to connect with clients, and the crack got wider and things lightened.
In the pandemic we have all done some of our most important work to date. Not just those working on Covid-related projects, but those who managed to help their clients to keep going, to keep thinking differently and to prepare for what will come next – the post-Covid world.
Every single one of us has had days where getting out of bed has seemed impossible – where the enormity of what is happening around us just seems too much. Where we feel angry, sad, scared or just tired. All of this is normal – as I have said several times ‘only a psychopath would be enjoying a pandemic’, but what I recognise is the care and support people have shown to each other. I am so proud to lead a team where people are fundamentally allowed to be human beings and given the space to respond as adults to the challenges around them. I know that people have picked up slack for me when I have been overstretched. I suspect that we can all think of a time in the last 6 months where someone has caught a ball for us for no reason other than just because we are all on the same side.
I am not going to talk about the bright future ahead of us – it has never been more true to say that we have no idea what the future holds. I suspect we are about to start with 6 more months of pandemic and Brexit and that, afterwards, we will step into a world that will look and feel different from the one we stepped out of to walk into Jacob Street that Monday morning in March.
What will matter then will be simply who we are and what we can do. When I think about the past 6 months, I am not worried on either count. I wanted to end on two final thoughts. The first is the seemingly obvious one, that the people we have worked with in the last year are those we have worked with through the pandemic. This is a unique moment in our global, national and personal history. We are each other’s fellow travellers for this particular storm and the moments we have shared will be part of our personal and professional DNA. I am genuinely grateful to every one of the PPL team for being who they are, for showing up every day, for the professional dedication, the humour, the honesty and the resilience they have brought to the past 6 months – I couldn’t think of a better group of people to be on a raft with.
And, finally, the full line in that Leonard Cohen song, as some of you will know is:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
So, the thought I want to leave you with - let’s carry on ringing the bells that still can ring. Nothing is ever perfect, but the work we do and the way we do it is a beautiful example of the light coming in.