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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Saturday 2 June 2012

Doing good is good business / Good business is doing good

How many learning and work experience programmes end up with 100% retention and achievement outcomes for young people from Foyers? Getting a 70% return is typically seen to be a  good result, taking into account the many challenges young people have to navigate through and their prior experiences of training and work which can often be quite negative.  

I’ve seen lots of decent programmes come and go over the years, hitting between 60-80% returns, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the work experience programme we have just completed with Virgin Trains set up through Virgin Unite.  Where every young person was a winner.

The concept was simple enough: Foyers would refer young people to an assessment day with Virgin Trains, and a group of young people would get talent spotted for a 4 week work experience at Euston station and on the Virgin trains with training and mentoring. The work would include serving on trains, in the First Class Lounge, and helping with tickets in the station. The challenges included making sure Job Centre Plus didn’t stop people participating, ensuring that young people could travel in at very early times from distances such as Enfield and Ealing, hoping that nothing from life would get in the way, overcoming some of the negative stereotypes about employability created by ‘the system’ of welfare, housing support and careers advice, and trusting in the Open Talent philosophy that latent potential talent just needs the right places, people and opportunity to flourish.

As I sat in the audience on Friday morning, listening to the young people present back their reflections  from the programme graduation, I realised I was watching one of the most moving experiences I’ve seen for a long time. This wasn’t one of those dreadful disadvantaged thinking events where young people are asked to talk about their negative past, get applauded with a certificate, and the adults go away feeling good about themselves. I’ve had to sit through too many of those over the last decade. Instead, this was pure Open Talent: individuals focusing on who they really are, articulating the joy of sharing a positive experience, telling stories that made us laugh and cry, looking to the future from a position of strength.  Young people talking in their own authentic language.  I found it hard to watch, simply because it is so rare and precious these days. Here are all the young people our sector likes to tag as the disadvantaged, the people with complex needs, the homeless and NEET, and, with very little or no prior experience of the world of work, those same young people had performed presentations that would put to shame many of the so-called ‘key note’ speakers at employability conferences. 

I was fascinated to see how the values of Virgin Trains actually work for young people. This is an employer that prides itself on being fun, on looking out for each other as a team, on being passionate about customer service. You can read about such things on bits of paper and websites, but seeing it in action is something else.  The staff mentors spoke with genuine love and appreciation for the energy and enthusiasm of the young people they had worked with, and their genuine belief and ‘living’ of the Virgin values had clearly made a massive impact. For each young person, the ability to make a customer smile, to give something valuable to someone else, to help and support others, to be part of a real team, to wear a brand associated with positives, had all been life affirming and life changing.  Anyone who has studied positive psychology would recognise the obvious impact: if you focus on doing good, you feel good too. Perhaps the most amazing example came when one of the quietest of the young people in the group shared his first life experience on the programme of interacting with someone who was blind. He had helped the customer take his seat in the Virgin Trains lounge, serve and look after him, and before leaving him,  the customer had said, ‘I wish I could see your face’.  It reminded me of something that Greg Barton from Chance for Change had told me –if you give young people stories to tell, it changes the dynamic of the conversation.

Not only had all the young people completed the 4 week programme and demonstrated their work readiness for an environment thay cared about, Virgin trains had also found a couple of full time jobs to offer two of the brightest stars from the group.  I liked the way that the Virgin Trains philosophy of ‘bottom up’ meant that the mentors on the stations and trains - those with the relationships - were making the decisions. Again, the authenticity of the company’s values is important for the young people to respect and feel part of.  But of equal importance is the fact that the business too had gained from the experience of working with the young people. Both for the mentors and what they had learned, and for the company’s recruitment process by having immediate access to proven talent.

This is what I like to call the ‘ethical talent agency’ approach: the employer invests in working with young people further away from the talent pool, which has a profound impact on the lives and services of the young people involved; and in return the employer gets the chance to spot and develop the talent they want while offering their employees involved some interesting staff development experience. It’s not about CSR; it’s how good business is about doing good, and how doing good is good business. It's getting the deal right.  ‘SBAU’ as they say at Virgin Unite. 

I left the presentation thinking – how many other employers fit the same talent-building profile of Virgin Trains? What other work places have the value base that ‘works’ for young people from Foyers?  We need to do our own talent spotting to find the right employers as part of an ethical talent agency approach. Let's stop trying to put young people into silos they don't fit; let's match their talent potential with the places, people and opportunities where their talent can really flourish.

This programme had no Government funding. In fact, it had no funding at all. It had cost us time and resource to help facilitate, for which we need to find the future funds to support.  So, how can we get people to invest in an ethical talent agency approach?  How can we game-change the way that Foyers, other charities and employers work through a shared agenda of talent?  What can we create togther to give young people a stake in a more sustainable future? It’s time to make doing good business the only business in 'advantaged thinking' town.

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