Tom Fleming speaks to city consultant Carol Coombes OBE, whose passion to help others has earned her an OBE
Carol Coombes has made a career helping individuals identify their strengths, challenge themselves and reach their full potential.
Her track record is impressive. She runs programmes for women including Sharpening your Edge and has set up the Second Mondays networking group. She also works with senior teams and gives keynote leadership addresses.
She has also created sustainable social enterprises, transformed the Midlands Citizen’s Advice Bureaux and being the first non-white woman on the West Midlands Power 50. She is just leaving the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee, after helping to recruit magistrates to the West Midlands Bench, and is a confident and incredibly youthful individual.
Carol is nothing if not driven. Her enthusiasm shines through when you meet her; she passionately believes in a person’s abilities and is determined to draw out the best in everyone. She’s interested in everything, however random, and gets real energy from looking at the world through her own unique prism.
Chat to her for even just a few moments and you’ll find out that the most important thing in her life is her family. Binki (real name Lisa) 29, Rik, (27), Shannen (22) and Tas (soon to be 21) are ‘all really good people, witty, clever and everything any mum could ask for’.
She is now a doting grandmother to three-year-old Jake and Alex who is 16 months. Like many other grandparents, her best moments are when she’s looking after them.
“I really love my work but when my grandchildren arrived I wanted to change the balance so I could spend plenty of time with them. As with many other parents, I feel like I worked consistently through my own children’s lives and missed out on so much,” Carol said.
“Working for myself seemed the best way to get the blend between family, work and voluntary work right for me.
“So far, so good. The current Sharpening Your Edge leadership course has just started and the next, beginning in September, is already attracting lots of interest. I have the freedom to focus on consistently making a real difference: helping people who want to be the best, identify what they do best and then do it more explicitly so everyone benefits. You can never predict what will happen next but right now it feels good to be in charge of my own future.”
Carol’s children were the driving force behind her first venture.
“I stayed at home until the eldest two were school age,” she said. “I wanted to work then and decided to send the youngest two to a nursery but there wasn’t one, let alone the brilliant one they deserved. I decided, with others, to set up a community nursery and from there went on to establish a community crèche.
“It was incredibly satisfying to see these two delivering great childcare and making such a massive difference to so many people. Many of the people who got involved hadn’t had much chance to think about their own future careers and, through developing Babywood, they were able to move into good choices.”
Next was a furniture project in Ladywood. “People around us were getting a flat or house and then were unable to furnish it,” she said. “This often caused a spiral which ended in their not being able to keep the tenancy or get another. The furniture project was simple. We sought donations of unwanted, good quality, furniture and then passed the pieces on to people who needed them.”
This experience led to a job as a social enterprise development worker in Ladywood in a voluntary organisation funded by Birmingham City Council. After a while Carol could look back at sustainable community projects her drive had helped develop, including child and domiciliary care, a funeral service and environmental projects.
Some of the organisations Carol had a hand in creating are among the longest-running in the UK; a legacy of which she is justifiably proud.
She then went on to the high-profile role of chief executive of the Citizens Advice Bureaux in Birmingham, which was cited as the largest voluntary advice agency in the world at that time. Keeping her focus on long-term sustainability, Carol transformed the CABx from an organisation dependent on grant aid to a thriving social business, securing the largest not-for-profit contracts with the Legal Services Commission and growing the number of trained volunteers.
“There wasn’t huge diversity in the CABx, which made it harder for people to feel that the volunteers identified with their issues,” Carol said. “Most volunteers at that time were middle-class retired people. Without these individuals the CABx nationally would not exist; they make a massive contribution. But I wanted to ensure the volunteer community was more representative of the people it served. We did this by getting funding for training and, crucially, funding for childcare and other access needs that made it possible for people from all backgrounds to undertake the training.”
Carol’s passion for bringing out the talent in people, which was fed and watered by her work with the social enterprises, came to the fore as she took on the role of senior programme director for Common Purpose in the West Midlands. Common Purpose is a global education trust and Carol managed the turnaround of the Birmingham office, working closely with senior leaders across all sectors, to involve them more in the way the city and region are run.
The next step was to Caret, an organisation dedicated to transforming business leadership. It was whilst here that Carol created Sharpening Your Edge, a programme that has won plaudits from everyone who has gone on the six-month course.
But why the particular focus on women? “I love working with clever people, men or women. But too often at senior meetings I’ve been the only woman, or the only non-white woman present,” she said. “Sometimes people can think that what works for me works for other women or ethnic minority women and this is dangerous. There is a wealth of experience among women, as with any sector of society, so it’s vital the voices are heard.
“In my experience, policy-makers want this diversity of experience but often don’t know how to tap into it.
“With insights into individual strengths and talents plus neutral peer feedback, the Sharpening Your Edge course is helping us, as women, turn this on its head.”
So far, 23 people have completed Sharpening Your Edge, and many attribute promotions or other progressive moves that happened during or shortly after the course directly to the insights they gained during the process.
Carol has achieved a great deal; she has built a career throughout which she has consistently empowered and helped others and dedicated hours over many years to a variety of voluntary work in the local community. The OBE she received in HM The Queen’s Birthday Honours list was in recognition of her contribution.
“When I understood the process, and realised friends and colleagues had nominated me for the honour I was incredibly touched,” Carol said.
But, despite all this, to Carol her greatest achievement is her family. “My family is very close, mutually supportive and lots of fun, through good times and bad. I am immensely proud of every one of them!”