In our efforts as leaders to generate an inspiring purpose for our teams and organisations, we frequently get involved in the task of generating mission or vision statements. Worthy as these activities are, insufficient emphasis is often given to one vital factor – the power of ideas. Our passions aren’t triggered by the words in carefully refined sentences, but by the ideas that lie behind them. It requires wonderful ideas to capture our imagination, trigger our enthusiasm and breathe life into our spirit. And winning ideas are also the essential foundation for commercial success.
In my book, The Inspired Leader, I recount the stories of a wide variety of leaders to help us learn from their experiences and their sources of personal inspiration. In this blog, however, I would like to change the focus for a moment by sharing an important story of my own.
I count myself very lucky to have had a significant period in my life when I was driven by a big and purposeful idea. Back in 2000, I was working for Unilever in a job I loved as leader of their Marketing Academy. But as I looked to the future, there was no obvious direction ahead for my career and that was beginning to worry me.
In February of that year I went on a trip to New York with Mark Simmonds, a very bright and engaging consultant who was supporting Unilever with one of its key international training programmes. Mark and I had built up a strong relationship over the past couple of years working together. After a couple of G&Ts on the flight, a crazy, impossible, intriguing idea began to emerge in our conversation. What if we were both to leave our respective roles and set up a new business that focused on our shared twin passions for marketing and learning? That was the lightbulb moment when the idea of a company called Brand Learning first sparkled.
I have always found that the test of a good idea is whether it seems stronger once you’ve had a chance to sleep on it. Disconcertingly, this one did just that!
A day or two later, I shared the emerging idea with Mhairi McEwan. Mhairi had been a Marketing VP with PepsiCo and Unilever and was now an independent consultant working on global capability programmes for Diageo and for us at Unilever. It was one of the best decisions of my life. Mhairi has always joked that Brand Learning needed a woman involved or nothing would have happened – and she was probably right! Mhairi brought an exceptional blend of experience, expertise and energy that was crucial in driving things forward.
Once the idea had taken hold of us, there was nothing that could stop us. We were excited, but also a little uncertain about what we were committing to. Over the next 8 months, the three of us worked hard in our spare time to put all the building blocks in place. And in November that same year, Brand Learning was born and we started trading.
That was when we discovered that having a big idea is not the same as making it happen in practice. It was incredibly hard and stressful work, delivering on all our client commitments whilst also handling all the administrative and developmental work in the background (IT, HR, finance, legal, office, IP and brand development…there is a long action list in a start-up business!). Very sadly, this new life did not suit Mark well. The challenges of spending weeks abroad running client training programmes, as well as his attempts to oversee the financial and legal aspects of the business, finally took their toll. In April 2001, Mark had to take some time out on sick leave and he proceeded to go through a traumatic period of mental illness.
When Mark stepped back, Mhairi and I struggled to deal with the extra workload but did all we could to support him and his family. A few months later Mark resigned as a Director and became an independent consultant as his recovery began. It wasn’t long before he was back in action, but this time channelling his considerable energy and talent back into the area he loved most – the creative design and delivery of learning programmes.
It is a source of great regret that Mark wasn’t part of Brand Learning’s leadership team in the years since, but he proved to be an invaluable contributor to our client work and, as part of our wider consultancy team, to the cultural spirit of Brand Learning. He was a vital source of knowledge and support to the many marketers who joined us, venturing into the world of learning for the first time. His passion for consumer insight also helped fuel our work with clients around the world for many years.
In the years that followed, Mark was always the first to admit that he was probably not cut out for the pressures of leadership, so this journey played a key role in his own self-discovery. Mark is now sharing that journey in a brave new book – Breakdown and Repair – which describes the challenges involved in mental illness in an extremely honest and enlightening way.
Fortunately for Brand Learning, Mhairi and I enthused some other outstanding leaders with the power of the original idea. Indeed, with the early involvement of colleagues such as Michele McGrath and Nevine El-Warraky (now the Co-CEOs of Brand Learning), Jill Hughes (MD of its European business) and Ana Maria Santos (MD of its US office), and other pivotal leaders like Sam Ellis and Liz Lacovara who took on the Learning leadership, the idea itself began to evolve.
We were still very small as a business, but we had the grand ambition to help stimulate a transformation in our clients’ approach to building their marketing capabilities. We aimed to create a company that would eventually be a global leader in its chosen field; one that was commercially successful, but that also had a positive, engaging and genuinely human culture. And as a working mum, Mhairi was particularly keen that we built a culture that would really challenge the norms in terms of authenticity and flexible working.
This powerful concept was the guiding light for us all for many years. It was a great privilege for me to be able to work towards it with my colleagues through all the blood, sweat and tears involved.
As time passed, my personal passion gradually began to shift and I became increasingly drawn towards the idea of helping people flourish and succeed as leaders. In 2013, I began taking some time out to study for a Masters degree in Coaching & Behaviour Change and then to write my new book.
Brand Learning continued to go from strength to strength. From 2013, Mhairi led the company as Group CEO, supported by Niall FitzGerald KBE as Chairman and a superb team of Partners and Directors, leading up to its acquisition by Accenture in August 2018.
At that point, after 17 years, I made the difficult decision to step away and work more independently. For all of us it has been an extraordinary experience. But I am confident there remains a new and equally exciting phase of the journey ahead for my former colleagues. Mhairi’s incredible achievement in leading Brand Learning through its path into Accenture, with the aim of steering Brand Learning’s culture and capabilities into a wider sphere, is already bringing significant new opportunities for the company, its team and its clients.
Like many other businesses, Brand Learning has had its share of mission and vision statements over the years. And it will no doubt continue to evolve what it brings to its increasingly global client base. But the importance of our initial idea must never be under-estimated.
So, as you think about your own leadership agenda, is there an idea that lies at its heart? Indeed, is there an idea that lies at your heart? If you’re not quite there yet, my suggestion would be to stop worrying about mission and vision statements and start looking for your own crazy, impossible, intriguing ideas.