What are changemakers?
If you can’t beat them, change them: Meet the changemakers taking on corporations from the inside
When Jenny Burns took a job at British Gas 10 years ago, she knew it would be a tough gig. “The company was on Watchdog every week for cutting off old people’s gas and electric in the middle of winter,” she says. “People were dying.” Turning around the business was a daunting task but where most people saw only trouble, she saw opportunity. Two years later, she had pulled the utility back from the brink.
Burns is not alone: the UK is home to a small but powerful cohort of entrepreneurial people who specialise in effecting massive change within large organisations. Business innovation agency Albion has become fascinated by this elite group, dubbing them "changemakers".
“The UK is home to a small but powerful cohort of entrepreneurial people who specialise in effecting massive change within large organisations.”
Over the coming months, KBS Albion will talk to a range of changemakers from across the UK, finding out what drives them, and shining a spotlight on the incredible achievements of these - often unsung - entrepreneurial heroes. Throughout the course of its investigations, Albion hopes to understand why some individuals choose to dedicate themselves to driving change in large organisations, often at great personal sacrifice and for little reward. Do changemakers demonstrate common characteristics? What motivates them? Are they wired differently or could anyone learn the secrets to their success? These are the questions this campaign is keen to answer.
Burns, who is now reinventing retirement income for the modern age at Just, is one of five people who took part in Albion's maiden changemaker event, held recently in London. Albion also selected fellow changemaker Julia Groves to take part in their research. This proven intrapreneur co-founded BritishAirways.com in 1994 and is the former boss of Trillion Fund, a crowdfunding platform for renewable energy projects. She now leads the crowdfunding business at equity investor Downing. Jonathan Carrier, a veteran from the automotive industry with roles at McLaren, Mazda and Fiat, and the man behind Jaguar Land Rover’s innovative InMotion business accelerator, also joins the ranks. The final changemaker among this group is Jesper With-Fogstrup, who has made his name executing turnarounds at Laterooms.com and travel wholesaler GTA, and is now chief operating officer at the CompareTheMarket.com. Chef turned restaurateur James Lowe, who is the entrepreneur behind award-winning eatery Lyles – which provided the food for the event - completes the changemaker pack.
All of these changemakers seem to come from very different backgrounds yet all are united by one common trait: they are all driven by an irresistible urge to make things better. “I was always that annoying child in lessons asking, ‘Why? Why?’, says Groves. “I’m also incredibly lucky. I’ve got good health, I’ve had a decent education, and I have a lot of confidence. I feel it is my duty to do what I can to improve other people’s lives.” “Trying to effect change is never easy but drives a huge sense of satisfaction, which overrides every other purpose,” adds Carrier. “In large corporates, every day becomes the norm very quickly. It’s a challenge to go against that and sacrifice a little bit of yourself in pursuit of change.”
“They are all driven by an irresistible urge to make things better.”
When asked about their personality types, all of our participants immediately identify themselves as ENTJ on the Myers Briggs scale. ENTJ is often labelled “the entrepreneur gene” because it so accurately describes the traits required to launch new ventures. Yet these individuals don’t seek personal glory, preferring to change organisations from within – often anonymously – rather than creating their own. “At RSA insurance, I was working for a company that is more than 300 years old,” explains Burns. “The thrill of thinking I can impact something that big and established is incredible.” Groves adds that making even a small change in a large corporate has the potential to make a bigger impact on people’s lives than starting from scratch.
However, change is often viewed with fear and suspicion in large businesses, as it has become synonymous with redundancies and downsizing. This means that the changemaker is often an outsider, which can be painful. “At times I have felt lonely and that’s quite hard for an extrovert but you have to remind yourself it’s for the greater good,” says Burns.
“I tell people how it is,” says With-Fogstrup. “I say, ‘We’re going to move to a better place and for most people in this room it will be better but for some people it will be bad’. You don’t want rumours and ambiguity. But you have to accept that you’re going to be unpopular to some extent.”
All stress the need to take time out between projects. “It’s easy to burn out,” says Burns. “You have to learn to take care of yourself.”
“All of these changemakers have proved adept at building passionate teams around them, and influencing high-level decision-makers.”
Despite this apparent isolation, all of these changemakers have proved adept at building passionate teams around them, and influencing high-level decision-makers. This is partly down to charisma, they reveal, but also achieved through compelling storytelling. “People are mission-driven,” says Carrier. “You need clarity of purpose if you want people to subscribe to change.” Over the course of her career, Groves has learned how to see threats approaching, and drives change by illustrating how they might impact the business in future. “A lot of resistance to change comes from the theory that nothing’s broken,” she says. “If you don’t see an immediate fire, you’ll keep doing what you’re doing for as long as you possibly can – especially if it’s making money,” she says. “If you only ever think three months ahead you would never change anything.”
With-Fogstrup believes that part of his role is to find the changemaker in all of his staff and create the conditions where they aren’t afraid to speak up. “When people start working for me, I typically say, ‘Part of your job is to tell me where I’m going wrong and to constantly question if we’re doing the right thing’. We show people that it’s okay to change direction and to ask questions.” Yet all these participants accept that they are an anomaly in the workplace. “People become a product of their environment,” says Burns. “You meet them outside of work and see the glimmer of a changemaker, but they’ve been absorbed by their environment.”
Change for change’s sake is always to be avoided, the changemakers agree, which is why they are keen to move on as soon as they are successful. “I get bored quickly,” admits Groves. “When something works for the third time, you won’t catch me doing it a fourth.” They all have a healthy appetite for risk too. "Opening my restaurant was an enormous financial risk and at the time people didn’t think that diners were ready for anything new," says Lowe. "But I just knew Lyles would work." Groves adds: "We have a different risk appetite than other people. I would rather change something and have it not work than leave it alone."
Meet the changemakers
“When you’re born different you don’t aspire to be like others”
“As I get older, my ambitions get bolder”
“I always want to be out in front”
“When you’re born different you don’t aspire to be like others”
“I act based on data and a big dollop of instinct”
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