They are sins that social enterprises are prone to committing. However, they have nothing to do with religion. So it isn’t about wrath, greed, sloth, pride (OK, may be just this one), lust, envy, and gluttony.Liam Black, one of the UK’s best known social entrepreneurs, and the opening keynote speaker at the Tata Social Enterprise conference at City University in London, turned the spotlight on the sector’s ‘seven sins’. He took the audience on a whistle-stop tour of his journey so far, which includes his tenure as chief executive of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, a project he helped transform from a business losing £50,000 every month into a successful global brand. He has enjoyed enormous success at the helm of a number of social enterprises, and has achieved enormous social good as a result.
But over the course of his career, Black has observed a handful of recurring errors that have, at times, prevented him and his fellow social entrepreneurs from achieving real impact. He calls them the seven deadly sins of social enterprise.
Deadly sin #1: the belief that speaking at conferences, blogging, and tweeting are entrepreneurial activities
They’re not. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the blog you wrote last week that garnered a few dozen hits after you posted it on Facebook is making the tiniest dent in the problem you’re trying to solve. This stuff is background noise, and it’s important – but it’s not going to change the world.
What’s important is action. Action separates the real entrepreneurs from the wannabes and poseurs … of which there are many. Stop talking about what you’re going to do and do it. Quoting Jerry Springer, he said: “There are three types of people, those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those that ask ‘what happened?'”
Deadly sin #2: insufficient ruthlessness about purpose
“If I hear another word about empowerment, sustainability, paradigms, crowd-sourcing, or user-led activities I’m going to punch someone,” Black said. Abandon jargon-filled mission statements and get a clear purpose, a simple set of goals. When you know what that purpose is, look at everything you’re doing and ask, ‘is this serving the purpose?’
Deadly sin #3: unwillingness or inability to prove impact
You’ve worked out what your purpose is, you know what you want to achieve. Now you need to demonstrate that you’re actually having an impact, and crucially, how you’re achieving that impact. Good intentions are a great place to start, and wearing your heart on your sleeve is one way of convincing people of those intentions, but in business that’s just not enough.
Deadly sin #4: not nailing the business basics
Black said he used to pontificate a lot in the media about how he was going to change the world through social enterprise. One day, he said, he walked into his Liverpool office to find a note from Stan, the trade union convener at one of his factories: “Liam, I read in the Echo that you want to transform Liverpool. You can’t even get my wages right – good luck with Liverpool.”
“While I was out telling people that revolution was coming and business would never be the same again, back at base the basics weren’t working because I thought they were a bit dull,” he said. “When you set up an enterprise that offers paid work to men that no-one else will help, people who desperately need to be paid in cash, fucking that up is terrible.”A lot of business is dull. You need to make sure there’s cash in the bank and people are getting paid.
Deadly sin #5: Ego
Your focus should be on building an enduring organisation, not on creating a personal brand. For far too many social entrepreneurs it’s all about ego. Black said he’d swap the charismatic back-slapper with the massive grin that the media love for the operational genius that builds a lasting company, the guy that devours the day-to-day churn. He said there are three styles of leadership that he’s been guilty of at various times in his career:
1. The Messiah – this one’s very common in the social enterprise world. Do it because you believe in me. I’ve got a special vision, an incredible power, believe in me and my mission and all will be well. The trouble with the Messiah model is you end up with disciples, and devoted, unquestioning followers are not what you want in business.
2. The Superhero – this is the leader that can do it all, single-handedly. Everyone else can stand back and watch, because the superhero’s got this. This model’s no good either, because as soon as the leader stops personally fund-raising or moves onto a new project, the business crumbles into dust.
3. Stalin – ‘Do it, or else.’ Black was very clear about this approach. “We all know what happened to Stalin. He ended up dying in a pool of his own piss, no-one would come near him. Who wants that?”
Be mindful leaders. Be honest about your leadership style. Then think, ‘what culture do I want to cultivate in my business? And what leadership behaviours will lead to this?’
Deadly sin #6: not enough time spent understanding the customer
Black said one of his colleagues once told him that ‘confidence in service quality is inversely proportional to distance from the customer.’ The higher you rise in an organisation, the further away you are from the customer, the better you think your service is because you need it to be great. Black said when some projects he was involved in started to go off the rails it was so often because he wasn’t close enough to understanding what the customer really wanted.
Stay close to the customer.
Deadly sin #7: the sector mindset – social enterprise v private sector
“We’re social entrepreneurs. We’ve got the best intentions and the biggest hearts, we’re changing the world, we’re for the poor … unlike the bastards over there in the private sector, who want to screw you into the ground, fleece you for as much as they can, and destroy the earth.” Black articulated a sentiment that he said isn’t as much of an issue today as it was in previous decades, but it represents a mindset that still hinders progress.
Build networks across sectors and industries. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman said: “The good relationships and alliances you create define your ability to be effective.” You need to have a network that encompasses not-for-profits, corporates, public sector, government, everyone. To solve social problems – to really change the world – we’re going to have to work together.
Simon Stephens is the digital communications and marketing manager at the National Association for College and University Entrepreneurs, who organised the Tata Social Enterprise conference .
This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To join the social enterprise network, click here.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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