Bubble Chamber CIC

The Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise

It may sound a bit over-dramatic to refer to the big issues facing social enterprises as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” but, having spoken to hundreds of social enterprises in the last few years, I feel justified in doing so. These four evils can scythe down everything in their path, stopping you in your tracks and having a serious effect on your impact as an organisation.

What shall we call them? How about:

Confusion

Famine

Failure

Ineffectiveness

Not quite as hard-hitting as the original four – Pestilence, War, Famine and Death – but it’s just as deadly when these marauders invade your business.

What do I mean by them?

Well, Confusion is A Lack of Clarity about your strategy and where you’re going as a business. This is the deadliest of all because without it you can’t go much further and your decision-making, your ability to take advantage of opportunities and deliver impact will be clouded by confusion and, ultimately, inaction.

Famine, in a business context, is A Lack of Resource, which means that you just can’t achieve what you want to, even if you’ve got your strategy sorted out. This can apply to time, talent and, of course, money. You have to be fully resourced and sufficiently funded or the going will be, at best, slow and soul-grindingly frustrating. In the absence of having unending resources at your fingertips, it’s vital to maximize those you do have.

Failure can mean lots of things but here I mean it as A Lack of Enterprising Culture. Social Enterprise leaders have expressed to us many times that they sometimes feel alone in developing their business as just that – a business, where sustainability and even, dare I mention it, profit are key features. This problem can be found even among CEOs themselves who, despite the commercial acumen they undoubtedly have, sometimes still shy away from seeing themselves as business leaders.

And, if it’s not coming from the top, you can’t expect anyone else in the organization to be switched on to the harsh realities of surviving in the world of business. A key to tackling this is developing what we call The Core Habits of Enterprise – Effective Communication (Understanding, Being Understood, Challenging and Transforming Conflict), Plan Do Review, Personal Productivity, Coaching and Being Comfortable with Numbers.

And then Ineffectiveness is A Lack of Social Impact. We’re all in the social enterprise sector because we want to make a difference but how easy is it to prove that you’ve done that?   You can work incredibly hard over many long hours but what does it all amount to in the end? What we find is that there is a lack of clarity on how social impact is actually defined and measured. I’m not talking about spending 1000s on measurement, just something that is appropriate for the scale and complexity of your organisation. Understanding the impact and change will ultimately ensure you deliver better quality services and provide the evidence for your communications and for funders, when you’re seeking investment.

So, taking all of these issues together, we can see that good intentions are all very well but are not enough. They have to be backed up by systematic planning and a set of solid foundations that mean your business is sustainable and the difference you make is real and long-lasting.

Where do these Four Big Issues come from, you may ask? I haven’t made them up. Talking to many, many social enterprise leaders over the last few years, my colleague Ben and I have heard these concerns repeated again and again. On Purpose, who also work with social enterprise leaders, have based their CEO Programme around very similar concerns, based on research they’ve carried out on the sector.

These issues stand out as the biggest challenges that face social enterprises and come from real-life entrepreneurs who are struggling to make that vital difference. So often, soc ent leaders we talk to are in danger of becoming disheartened or overwhelmed by these all-pervading issues.

And these challenges are not confined to the social enterprise sector. All business leaders face them and that is a vital point to remember: Soc Ents are in the same boat as everyone else and trying to survive the same conditions that entrepreneurs are facing in the commercial arena. The aims may be slightly different but we’re all subject to the same forces of nature in all its destructive power.

These Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise have given us the pillars of what we do at Bubble Chamber.   Our approach to business growth is founded on:

  • clarity of purpose (the starting point for everything that follows)
  • developing an enterprising culture throughout the organization
  • scaling up and becoming sustainable
  • delivering social impact

If you can hear the distant thundering of hooves, don’t ignore them but talk to us about the tools we use to help you un-horse these devilish riders and build a positive and effective future.

PS  If you’re wondering about the picture, it’s from the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but it could have been taken in some offices we’ve visited!

Peer Power – the value of Leadership Groups

What is the value and relevance to social enterprises of Peer to Peer Leadership Groups? In the commercial world they are well established; members can pay in excess of £10k a year to be part of one. So, how can they work in our sector?

Firstly, let’s look at what usually happens at the meetings? Most run on a set format – an expert speaker, followed by an issues session and the chance to network. 121 coaching outside of the meetings is becoming an increasingly popular addition. All of these elements derive value for the group members but it does require a half-day commitment each month.

The obvious value of the format described is:

➢ The expert speaker, who can give great insights into a wide range of business practices that allow you to grow your enterprise

➢ The issues session is a valuable chance to get insights into how other leaders would solve your problem, all in a safe and trusted space. This is often called “The Board You Can’t Afford”

➢ Networking is a chance to develop business opportunities and grow your network

➢ Coaching where you work with an experienced business coach to develop specific areas of your enterprise in detail

So, given all this value, why has the concept not taken off fully in the world of social enterprise and the charity sector? I think there are four key reasons (if my points appear provocative, I think we all recognise at least some of the issues involved in trying to develop sector talent). They are:

1. A reluctance to pay for anything and viewing talent development as a cost rather than an investment.

2. Charity leaders feeling they have to get permission from their trustees,who are risk adverse to spending money other than on delivery.

3. You don’t have the time. Sector leaders are notoriously time-poor, some of which can be justified but smarter working can help.

4. Ego – the feeling that you have nothing to learn from anyone else.

To alter these attitudes requires a change of culture and mindset. Now, that shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? After all, the social enterprise sector is built on the principles of cooperation and mutualism.

Bubble Chamber have teamed up with CAN to run a peer network within their Mezzanine operation. It proves the power of peer support and the impact it can have on growing individuals and organisations. Contact us if you’d like to be a guest at a future meeting.

Work On Your Business, Not In It

What you need to do is start working ON your business NOT IN it.

This is a growing catchphrase used by business coaches and consultants who are trying to help CEOs scale their social enterprises. Hands up, I’m guilty as charged here as well!

When you work with CEOs and leaders on strategy you will hear the excuses:

“I haven’t had time to do that”

“This and this came up that I had to sort out”

“I need to cancel a meeting” etc.

Working in the business, wanting to make the organisation run smoothly at an operational level, working directly with end users and getting stuck in to solve problems for the team is a great thing for a leader.

However this approach is not sustainable if you want to grow the impact of your organisation. To grow requires a real strategic lead and the headspace to look and work on the business. Otherwise you will be for forever firefighting, which can still allow growth but not to the scale and impact that is possible.

So what can you do as a leader to start to make this transition, to create time and get off the treadmill?

1. Get the right team in place

How does the old saying go – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

All the best leaders surround themselves with a great team. This will give you confidence to take that step back knowing that the organisation is being well run and you have empowered the team to take ownership.

Often overlooked is the importance of succession planning despite its potential benefits to the organisation; this should not just be for the leader but all key staff. The process ticks the boxes for keeping it strategic, fresh, innovative and is great for staff development.

2. Prioritise and delegate

Two key things to master but we are also notoriously bad at – prioritisation and delegation. All leaders at some stage would have gone through a prioritisation test or exercise at interview, obviously doing very well at the time but then forgetting the principles when actually starting the job.

The art of delegation – choose the right tasks to delegate, identify the right people to delegate to, and delegate in the right way.

3. Give yourself permission

Easier said than done and perhaps this should be No 1. This is all about giving you the emotional permission to take a step away from the business to focus on the strategic direction. I think this is especially hard for a founder who’s in a leadership role. But, if you have all the other support blocks described in place, then this will be easier to do.

4. Reconnect with your actual role

Have a look at your job description sometime – what does it actually say? It will probably have words like strategic, leadership, developing new business, building key relationships etc. – not firefighting in the business!

5. Write it down

We are all intelligent people but for some reason, we try and keep the ideas and plans in our heads. This takes up a lot of emotional energy; it takes time to keep it there and can be stressful. A plan needs to be written down so it can be shared with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders.

The strategy does not have to be complex; it shouldn’t be like reading a copy of War and Peace. A good plan can be written down in 10 pages or less. It needs to be accessible, actually used and updated on a regular basis.

Our Strategy on a Page is an even more economic way of presenting the absolute essentials of planning and guiding your enterprise concisely and with laser-like precision.

So, get the proverbial helicopter out and have a look at what is going on in and out of your organisation – it’s a flight worth investing in.