A person-centred partnership is one where all members take part in the direction of the group, where every voice is valued and every individual accepted. Yet, in a larger form of partnership, to create the safe environment there must be one or more people who establish such a culture. In a Collective Impact approach a neutral facilitator is seen as important. Although neutrality would be ideal, it is ambitious and misguided to assume that a leader is completely neutral. A preferable aim would be a leader that aspires to be neutral and who works to uphold the values of the partnership over the interests of a particular organisation. In emanating the key person-centred value, such a facilitator would strive to be transparent and authentic in their approach, particularly when there are any identified allegiances.

To create an environment where differences are accepted there must be vulnerability and openness practiced by the group. The group leader can only establish this culture through role modelling openness and vulnerability. In Roger’s ‘A Way of Being’ he talks about person-centred communities and that in forming such communities the main task of the group conveners was to “be ourselves” (Rogers, 1980, p186). It is also important to notice how often in the professional world we feel the pressure to be unauthentic. Professionalism is not often associated with vulnerability, quite often the opposite. To create an environment of safety we need to openly name this conflict.

A story about group leadership

During one of the first groups I led with a new assortment of multi-disciplinary members I had a gut-wrenching experience. Many of the members were already talking openly about their aspirations for the group, their excitement about the journey we would be going on together and their passion for working with people. Those things were what I had hoped for. Participants were connecting on shared values and aspirations. However, half way through the group discussion one participant who had been silent until then begun to speak of his frustrations. He said that he did not want to be part of the group; that he valued his team at his own agency and he felt he was already doing good work and didn’t want to change his approach. I froze, unaware of how to manage this strongly expressed point of view that I thought was undervaluing what the group was trying to achieve. I thought I listened to his point of view and then I tried to move the group on to a less uneasy topic. Thankfully, another member of the group spoke out saying that she felt we all needed to talk more about what this one member was feeling. I was embarrassed and humbled. The group rallied around him and listened to him as he spoke of how he had not been given the choice to be part of the program we were all to embark on together. After the session I wrote a reflection that I sent out to all the members about what had happened. Months later the person told me that they felt heard and accepted in our group. For that, I can only thank the group and the brave member who helped us all to be vulnerable, sit with the uncomfortable moment and talk about the “elephant in the room.” She would say she was just being herself. But, more than anything, that’s what good leadership is: to truly be yourself in the moment.

Co-ordination is also required to assist pathways for ease of communication within the partnership and external to the partnership. Collective Impact calls for continuous communication. There must be processes by which partnership members can effectively consult, collaborate and share ideas outside of set meeting times.

The co-ordination or facilitation role must also recognise the value of the collective and as such use their leadership position to draw upon the experience and knowledge in the partnership. Partnership decisions must be consultative and it is the facilitator’s job to draw focus back to the person-centred principle when the path ahead is unclear. While the facilitation or co-ordination element is vital to bring a group together in the first instance and build partnership, the ultimate goal is that members of the partnership lead themselves. It is with this ultimate goal in mind that the co-ordinator aims to create a partnership with members that are empowered to lead it and processes that make it sustainable.

Culture change

As part of the co-ordination team for the Southern Melbourne Services Connect Partnership I would often facilitate group spaces and team meetings. There was one point a few months into the journey when myself and my colleague saw a noticeable shift in the dynamics of these group spaces. It had changed from the partnership members looking to us for answers to questions, for direction and for assurance. The group was now looking to each other. We knew then that the environment created was one where the expertise and opinions of all were valued. It will now be a change I look for in all groups I have the pleasure of facilitating.