Learning about leadership with purpose

Leading organisations is a wonderful but challenging occupation at the best of times. Leading organisations that must succeed as businesses whilst achieving positive social outcomes is nothing short of alchemy.

The Matter&Co team is privileged to have just run a truly inspiring event for 60+ leaders of social enterprises across the UK. Delivered as part of the NatWest SE100 Insight series – in which we aim to share stories and expertise among the 1,300 members of the NatWest SE100 Index – the two-day event themed around “Leadership with Purpose” was hosted by RBS/NatWest at their superb business school in beautiful countryside just outside Edinburgh, Scotland.

The event addressed a range of challenges faced by people leading social ventures – including access to finance, branding and marketing, effective team management, and how to measure and demonstrate your impact.

Charlotte Borger, communications director at Fair Trade chocolate company Divine Chocolate, told us about Marketing Chocolate with a Mission; Prof Alex Murdock from London South Bank University gave us a prodigious and pacy PESTLE analysis on the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental climate for social enterprise; Scottish social entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn inspired with the entrepreneurial belief that helped him book Bill Clinton, Muhammad Yunus, Richard Branson and George Clooney as conference speakers – which has now helped fund a burgeoning social enterprise sandwich shop empire; Amy and Ruth Anslow shared their motivational story of a career change to take on the big supermarkets with their own ethical supermarket chain in Brighton.

Most moving for me were our keynote guest, Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair of the Youth Sports Trust, and Simon Boyle, Chef Founder of the Brigade social enterprise restaurant in London.

Sue blew everybody away with her presentation entitled From Good to Great, in which she recounted how, as Chair for UK Sport, she led Team GB from 10th in the medal table to 3rd at London 2012, with the largest Olympic and Paralympic medal haul in living memory. With great humour and a wonderful Midlands twang, she described with laser-like focus how her own leadership style was based on ‘getting rid of excuses’ and instead ‘looking at reasons’; where attitude, commitment, ownership and responsibility were all important, and where people across her team were asked to consider: “What DO you do? What COULD you do? What stops you?”

Simon is an incredible force who knows what he wants and won’t compromise – both in terms of the quality of the food he puts out in his restaurant, and the positive change that he aims to deliver, particularly for the ex-homeless staff he employs. But life is rarely easy in a leadership role, and has a habit of hitting you in the face at the most challenging moments. Simon has had to dig deeper than most of us for the energy and motivation required, including times of failure, of big disappointment and of huge personal loss. Simon was willing to share his personal story with us in Edinburgh in a workshop looking at how leaders keep their ‘mojo’ – and I feel honoured and inspired to have been there to hear him.

This is the second year that RBS/NatWest have committed to running this event, in addition to the generous partnership that they have given the SE100 Index for the past five years. It doesn’t generate wonderful headlines or make them big profits. But it does show the long-term commitment that this bank – for all its recent problems and challenges – continues to make to supporting businesses driven by social purpose. 

As Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus has pointed out, big business may too often give itself a bad name, but businesses are run by people, and many business people – including the folk at RBS and NatWest – are just as interested in doing good as they are in making money. Both are important if the world is going to work. Sometimes the balance shifts in the wrong direction. Programmes like the NatWest SE100, and their support for leaders focused on social purpose with a business approach, play an important role in shifting the balance back to where it should be.