Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Emma Harrison argues that a strong social vision can be the foundation for business success.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Having 'vision' in business sometimes seems like an optional extra. When I started in business, the initial vision was simply survival, getting from one week to the next. However, I came to realise that commercial results alone were not enough and I became uncomfortable with the business I was in.

I decided to make a change, and in 1991 I founded A4e - originally, Action For Employment - to provide training and opportunity for people made unemployed by the decline of the Sheffield steel industry.

Most importantly, I wanted to run my business with a total sense of purpose around one vision. That one vision was simply to improve people's lives. I decided that I would only ever work to achieve that goal, and it has helped me to grow a successful international business.

I call it 'doing well by doing good'. Everybody wants to do well in business, but if you set out just to do well you will probably fail, because you're likely to run out of faith and trust in everyone around you. You cannot only do good, because you will run out of money. There is no conflict between the business imperative and the vision: the more good we do, the better our results.

A clear, simple vision is absolutely essential to focus the organisation. For example, some time ago we went through a re-contracting period with the Government that was fraught with difficulty. Looking for a way forward, the board considered five options - all of which would have disadvantaged some of our clients. This went against everything we stood for. I nearly went for one option as the 'least worst' choice, but thought back to our vision: what would be the best possible outcome for our clients?

We realised that we needed to put the individual's requirements back at the heart of the process - and when we did, we quickly found a superb solution. A similar focus would benefit other organisations. The Health Service, for instance, seems to suffer from decisions that have not been centred on the needs of the individual.

It's also incredibly important to hold onto your vision with complete belief. It is not just a strap-line. When I started A4e I found the sneers of the City boys so frustrating. People would say: 'That's a nice strap-line you've got' - but that missed the point. If the vision in your company is just a slogan to pay lip-service to, it can be hard to see it as the core of everything we do.

Make no mistake: 'doing well by doing good' doesn't mean we're sloppy. A4e needs all the discipline of a large business to show that we are a safe pair of hands for government funding. That means having highly skilled staff, and our vision has attracted incredibly talented people who would normally be found in the City.

With increasing competition for talent, I think more companies will discover that if you can offer people worthwhile jobs with a great social purpose, you'll do better and better.

It's important that everyone carries the vision forward. As a leader, I believe that every day is about making sure that this happens. For example, I take two days a month to have up to 400 staff visit me at home. I talk to them about the story of the business, we have lunch together, and we have the opportunity to question each other. These sessions are so valuable - they effectively set the whole tone of the business.

We also celebrate success in achieving the vision through our Improving People's Lives Award. It is presented to the person in the company who has most inspired us by what they have done to help another human being. It's a great celebration and very emotional to hear about the incredible things our staff have done.

For me, it is essential that people are brave enough to follow the vision for themselves. It is too easy to keep a low profile and just tick the boxes rather than get to grips with the task of improving somebody's life.

My position is that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. If you are convinced that there's something special that needs to be done, get on and do it. In too many organisations, managers are too concerned with giving and getting permission. But so are some employees, because it is an excuse to do nothing. I try to give my staff the strength and support to stand up for what they believe in.

I'm sure we'll see even more organisations driven by a clear social vision in the future. The policy environment in the past 10 years has been fantastic. Before that, what we were doing was almost anathema: we had to be quiet about the fact that we were a private company doing social work. That was seen as the role of charities. After 1997, the Government took the view that whoever is good at making a difference should be supported to do it.

It is now much easier for me to work with charity people to share ideas and jointly tackle problems. The false boundaries between voluntary, private and public sectors are being broken down. With a clearly articulated vision, it is much easier to work in collaboration on a shared agenda that benefits all sectors - and, most importantly, the people that we set out to help.

CV: Emma Harrison, an engineering graduate, has founded several companies, including A4e, the multi-award winning international public services firm. A4e employs 2,800 people across 140 offices with a turnover in excess of £100m. Harrison is on the board of the IoD and this year joins the elite group of Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World. She lives in the Peak National Park with her four young children and husband Jim.

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