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The Leading Edge Commercial Skills with a Social Heart – Impact Report

Calico is a collection of not-for-profit businesses that exist to make a difference to people’s lives. The Leading Edge is a bespoke management programme, focusing on commercial thinking, finance skills and innovation, all with social value at its heart. Read on to learn more about the impact the programme has had and the exciting changes participants have made to their services.

Introduction 

The Calico Group is a collection of social profit-for-purpose businesses, charities and services, that exist to make a difference to people’s lives. For managers and leaders at Calico this means taking care of a tough balancing act: ensuring sustainability in commercial terms, whilst delivering services that have a social heart.

Each area of the group has its own expertise and specialism, yet they work collaboratively and in doing so have even greater impact. With around 1,000 dedicated employees, Calico strives to provide social housing, employment support, refuge for survivors of domestic abuse, homelessness services, addiction recovery programs, and construction projects aimed at regeneration. Every action they take is driven by their mission to help people live their best lives.

Greater social impact is very much in our hearts too, so we were delighted when Calico reached out in 2021 to see how we could support their managers.

The challenge

Calico is a complex organisation aiming to make a huge impact. This ambition relies on managers at every level feeling confident and able to make good decisions. In 2021, Jenny Taylor, Head of Service Design identified that  many strategic decisions were being made at the Executive level, and managers were sometimes operating in a reactive way to the challenges that their services faced. Notwithstanding dealing with the global pandemic, competition for both funding and skills, and ongoing pressure on costs, Calico also had strategic ambitions to grow and help people even more. The leadership team recognised the need to be more innovative, flexible and agile in its service delivery. Embedding business and strategic thinking, as well as skills throughout the organisation, was vital to enable this growth while simultaneously making a greater impact on people’s lives.

Like a lot of managers in the charity sector, management talent was grown from services and front-line staff. Therefore, Jenny and her colleagues were keen to find ways to support managers with their professional development.

The brief

A leadership programme called The Leader’s Journey was already underway so that any further training would need to complement that learning.  Managers had articulated a desire for better financial literacy and an understanding of the bigger picture. Through The Leader’s Journey, managers had also highlighted how much they enjoyed a blended learning approach, including workshops, self-directed learning and peer learning.

We also needed to recognise that participants on the programme would feel less comfortable focusing on commercial topics as they see themselves as being social purpose driven, rather than corporate managers. Jenny therefore wanted to see that any new learning intervention would enable managers to adopt strategic and financial approaches, which in turn have a positive impact on Calico’s work. She sought a programme that would enable managers to recognise that they are in the “business of creating maximum social impact”.

We were excited to meet with the leadership team at Calico, the Group Leadership Forum, to better understand their strategic goals. This was essential to clarifying the brief. By holding a focused discussion on what the programme needed to deliver in terms of behavioural change and observable improvements, we were also able to explore how the leadership team could support and empower managers to operate at a more strategic level.

What we did

Following the discussion with the leadership team, it was clear the Leading Edge needed to be a bespoke programme, so we underwent a process of co-designing the programme with Chris Chadford, Learning and Development Manager. It was essential to take a partnership approach and to really get to know what the ‘business’ of Calico looked like. From a deep dive on documents like the people strategy, to focus groups with leaders and potential participants, we were able to put together a clear picture of the competencies managers needed support with.

“We needed to take our time to get to know how each other worked. =mc Learning took the time to truly understand us and our business, allowing them to tailor the program to our specific needs. We are not an easy group to understand so I really appreciated their diligent and inquisitive nature in getting under the skin of what we are about. It’s absolutely been a bespoke programme carefully tailored to our objectives. For our managers this meant they were able to get to grips with the concepts and tools, readily understanding them in their own context” Chris Chadford, Calico Learning and Development Manager

It was also clear that =mc Learning would not be able to address every learning need identified. Managers were required to develop a grounding in financial awareness which is not something we offer. This too needed to be a bespoke approach that would help participants navigate the complexity of Calico’s budgets, systems and financial governance. Therefore we committed to working in partnership with their finance partners and together created a set of modules that complimented and built on each other. These modules focus on three areas:

  1. Commercial thinking with a social heart (=mc Learning) – this module looks at developing a business mindset while analysing effectiveness of services or products from both a commercial and social value perspective
  2. Finance for non-finance managers (finance partners and Calico finance team) – here participants learn all about finances at Calico, focusing on financial sustainability and ensuring impact through value for money
  3. Innovating for social value (=mc Learning) – in this final module, participants develop a mindset for creativity with a customer service focus to proactively seek ways to make improvements

Each module provided a toolkit that participants could apply straight away to real-work challenges. We also co-designed a brand for the Leading Edge programme, in keeping with the current L&D brand ‘Calico Campus’, so that participants would have a seamless experience through the modules alongside other programmes such as The Leader’s Journey.

Knowing this would not be a one-off intervention, a pilot group was invited to take part. They were asked to commit upfront to supporting an evaluation process which included feedback on each session attended, attending a review session, presentations to the leadership group, follow-up surveys and focus group discussions. From this it was clear that participants had gained greater confidence in the three areas (commercial thinking, finance skills and innovation), and had embedded their learning by continuing to use the toolkit provided. Jenny and Chris were also able to attend as participants, which enabled them to experience the modules first-hand and further support the ongoing co-design of the course.

“It was useful hearing about business models in a practical way and applying to real life business context. I took away clear messages around curiosity and accountability when it comes to budgeting. I won’t be so adamant that I’m not, or can’t be creative” Participant feedback, Leading Edge Pilot Evaluation Report, May 2022 

Evaluating the pilot in this way helped us to identify the impact the Leading Edge had as well as ways in which it could be improved. This enabled us to adapt the programme approach and again work collaboratively with Chris to ensure that the programme met the needs of cohorts. Changes were made to the delivery format, which included: having more time face-to-face, the materials provided (shifting to a folder of materials supported by digital templates), and reducing time needed outside the workshops for self-directed learning.

The Leading Edge continues to be a three-module blended learning programme:

Blended learning is a key feature of the Leading Edge. Each workshop is highly interactive and includes input from the facilitators, tools and techniques, time for reflection, and application via group and paired work. Alongside the workshops blending learning includes the following activities:

  • Pre-course preparation: participants are asked to complete a pre-course application articulating what they hope to gain
  • Pre-workshop preparation: participants are provided with pre-workshop communications showing what to expect
  • Line Manager support: participants are expected to meet with their manager before the course and after to share their learning. Participants are then provided with guidelines to structure these discussions and in addition managers are also given a Line Manager Commitment document to support this process
  • Peer support: participants are assigned peer-mentors and have reflective practice questions to discuss between workshops
  • Post-workshop challenges: these were specific challenges designed to enable participants to apply their learning in real time
  • Finally, self-directed learning: participants are provided with a folder containing full workbooks for each workshop. They are also provided with digital templates they can use again and again

Impact

“My main takeaway has been that being commercial is about having a good breadth of understanding across your service and its products, being aware of the external environment and making strategic decisions to achieve business goals. I feel like I have a toolkit that I can draw upon when making these decisions.” Sarah Edgar, HR Operations Manager, Participant, Cohort 4

The programme has been completed by four cohorts and future cohorts are ready to get started. The Leading Edge has a strong reputation and people are keen to join up. Overall, alumni continue to demonstrate that the toolkit the Leading Edge gave them has been invaluable. Despite the ongoing reality of day-to-day demands and busy services, managers are taking time to think longer term and be proactive in their approach.

We undertook a follow-up survey in 2024, and this has highlighted an ongoing impact:

  • Participants have appreciated having tools that not only make sense in a not-for-profit setting, but can be easily used without being overengineered and have been applying these in real-time as needed
  • Managers have shared their learning and the tools with their teams. Many have engaged their teams in working through tools like the Boston Matrix and Customer Journeys so that they too can seek ways to improve services
  • Customer excellence is a core Calico goal and many participants have actively engaged in customer review exercises using their learning from the Leading Edge

“Building relationships with other leaders across the business who we wouldn’t usually come into contact with was really useful. I also enjoyed having time protected and supported by my manager to develop ourselves in a way we haven’t been able to before.”  Rachel Jackson, Employment and Skills Manager, Participant, Cohort 1

A crucial part of the blended learning approach to the Leading Edge was the chance to network and meet with colleagues across the Calico Group. Doing this during the workshops was hugely popular. Every learning journey is different, and participants enjoyed hearing about the numerous ways in which the toolkit could be applied.

Find out more about their experiences in these interviews:

Jill Pickles

“Taking part in the Leading Edge was important for me because the business skills covered are crucial in my line of work. It’s really important that we keep customers at the centre of our thinking, so it was great that the programme blended these business skills with our customer care ethos”.

My role involves partnering with various business areas across the group. I provide support throughout the employee lifecycle such as employee relations case work, and people and succession planning, while helping my business areas meet their goals and objectives. It's a varied role with a wide remit. I get to work with a broad range of business areas across Calico, so I’m able to see connections between the various parts of the organisation. I see my role as bringing fresh eyes to the table which adds a different perspective when we need to make a business decision that involves people – which is a lot of them. Taking part in the Leading Edge was important for me because the business skills covered are crucial in my line of work. It’s really important that we keep customers at the centre of our thinking, so it was great that the programme blended these business skills with our customer care ethos. Throughout my HR work, I have to consider the impact we have on customers and how we can help communities positively. In doing so I’m enabling managers to make effective and innovative choices that strengthen our organisation's impact and reputation. Before the programme, I had studied business skills at various levels, including an ILM qualification. So I had a general confidence in business skills but saw the need for a refresher course, especially as the managers I work with were also going through the programme. Having the same set of tool and approaches has helped us to understand each other. The programme clarified some areas for me. For example, after diving into sessions on financial management, I realised that numbers aren't as intimidating as they seemed. I feel more financially focused and competent; no longer intimidated by management accounts. I have definitely been taking more time to consider the external environment before making decisions. I’m incorporating commercial impact and innovation into projects much more which means we’re working more effectively across teams. I can see more clearly where we need to invest, where we may not have staffing at the right levels and what we need to do differently. Within my team we work collaboratively to support business leaders and internal customers. This means we need to work in similar ways in managing processes effectively. By having HR Business Partners on the same programme, we have been able to review our current work using the Boston Matrix together. I was able to support my colleagues in seeing how that applied in an HR context which made priorities clearer. The programme reminded me of the importance of considering decisions from multiple perspectives, especially around the services we provide. We tend to think about customer first, which of course is good practice, but we also need to make sure we’re thinking about creating value for money and making informed decisions that benefit everyone. For example, we’ve recently been looking at a new site and extra care service. We had been very focused on what customers were telling us they wanted – which is the right thing to do. However, we also had many things to consider at the design stage and I supported the team to consider future regulation changes that may be on the horizon. Additionally, I supported the conversation around funder requirements, helping the group to look at how we would meet those. These perspectives come from different areas of the organisation – the building design and the service design. I was able to bring these together along with considering the people aspects of what we are trying to do. While not everyone is going to be enthusiastic about follow-up activities, I found the challenges and activities recommended to us valuable. I'm self-motivated and enjoy learning. I believe in continuously improving and finding new ways to interpret tools and techniques in my field. I also ended up supporting others from my cohort. Sharing these ideas together cemented what we learned – we were applying the tools in the real world in a collaborative way. That’s really important for this kind of programme – people need to focus on specific business projects or challenges so that they can use the tools straight away and in a way that works for them.

Hayley Cook

“Since completing the program, I’ve been actively applying the learning I took from the workshops in my day-to-day responsibilities. This comes through in areas like improving communication within my team or making decisions for our customers”.

In my role I wear multiple hats. Primarily, I’m responsible for overseeing our main income stream which is housing rental and supporting our customers. A big focus for me is handling arrears when customers can’t pay as well as considering their personal situation and needs. Enforcement and support is a delicate balance that requires constant attention and adaptation; this is where being commercial also needs to have a social conscience. We’re operating in a complex and ever-changing landscape. With factors like government budget cuts and rising costs of living, it's crucial to take a step back and consider the broader implications of our decisions. The Leading Edge helped me to do just that in thinking about ways to navigate these challenges while prioritising effectively. A key takeaway for me was a greater understanding of our internal finance system. I can manage budgets but working through the detail in our finance module has enabled a greater understanding and better communication between our departments. I’m currently studying my Housing Management Level 5. Housing is a complicated area and increasingly it’s important to be qualified. It’s been great to do this alongside the Leading Edge. With the housing course giving me legal insight, history, policy awareness and that bigger picture, the Leading Edge helped me apply innovative thinking into the here and now. Knowing what I know about the housing context, I can use the ideas from the programme to think about what that means at a more practical level. Techniques like SWOT analysis have been particularly impactful and have helped me create a sound business case for a new management information system solution. I just found out that has been successful which is great news – my case for investment has been approved. Since completing the program, I've been actively applying the learning I took from the workshops in my day-to-day responsibilities. This comes through in areas like improving communication within my team or making decisions for our customers. Speaking of my team, I've realised we are all working in a more strategic way. I think this is because I’m understanding things in a different way myself so I can explain my thinking better. I’ve been able to focus on how we can make improvements – changes that will make things better for tenants. I can look at what is happening in the world, even fairly remote factors like global conflicts, and then articulate the impact this will have on our work at a local level. We can then take actions based on that understanding - and by understanding together the rationale behind our actions, we've been able to better align our efforts and deliver greater service to our customers. Our customers have also noticed these positive changes. By adopting a more commercially savvy approach whilst keeping their needs in mind, we've been able to support them through difficult times without resorting to drastic measures like evictions. In fact, we haven’t had any evictions this year so far which I’m really pleased about. We know we can use enforcement if we need to, and we know that when we do that is because it is the right business decision to do so. So we’re not avoiding it, instead we’re being proactive to help people before it comes to that. We’re doing it the right way. Reflecting on the program, the follow-up activities we were challenged with provided valuable opportunities for me to keep learning. Of course some things are more relevant than others. Where I could use tools straight away I did, and doing so helped me a lot. There are some tools I haven’t yet revisited. However I have my workbook and all my notes so I come back to them when I need to. Working with a buddy was interesting in terms of hearing from other areas. It can be difficult though to keep that up especially when we have different schedules and work at different locations. It would have been great to do more of that, but it wasn’t really feasible. I got a lot from the face-to-face interaction with peers in some of the workshops. You can talk things through and hear about different experiences. While online learning has its advantages, nothing quite compares to the energy and engagement of in-person sessions. I’d recommend it to other managers and even aspiring managers. You can learn a lot of insights that can help at a service or project level. Overall, the Leading Edge has been a great experience, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to expand my skills. I made the time to apply my learning and this is paying off.

Alex Atkinson

“What has been really great to see is noticing a positive shift in our collective mindset. We’re more aligned in our approach, more consistent in our decisions, and we’re able to be more honest about what is working and what we need to change”.

My role is all about strategic reach, service development and operational delivery. This means I oversee various aspects of governance, compliance, people management and training, all while working closely with our customers (survivors) to develop processes and services that prioritise their needs. It's a challenging role and we need to constantly adapt to ensure our services remain effective and impactful. Taking part in The Leading Edge program was a big help. I felt confident in my skills before the programme. What the programme enabled me to see was how we can use business skills in a way that helps people. I got new tools and ideas I could use right away. These tools aren't just about crunching numbers or creating strategy documents; they're about being equipped and confident to navigate complex challenges, collaborate effectively as a team and plan projects in a way that takes into account the way big societal changes impact the services we provide. In learning to look at the bigger picture and focusing on what's happening right now, I learned to think about where we want to go in the future. Tools like the Boston Matrix helped me make better decisions about our plans especially after COVID-19. For example, one of the most valuable lessons I learned was the importance of letting go of or changing our approach with services that no longer deliver on our mission effectively. The program reinforced the idea that sustainability is really important in our work- and because we need to be there for people in the long term, it means we may need to step away from short-term gains, even if it means making difficult decisions. We did just that. I was able to reconcile with myself and move forward with the recognition that a particular service wasn’t going to deliver at the quality and standard we wanted it to, therefore taking the decision to not carry on as the provider without adequate funding in place to support us. The right thing to do then was to move away from that service in order to concentrate on what we know matters most to our service-users. In doing so, we’ve been able to use our resources, people and skills at their very best. Being proactive has ensured there is a smooth transition; people feel supported through the change and can see that it has been really well managed – instead of seeing the service fail or fizzle out. This really was a business decision, but social needs drove that decision. As a leader this meant I could be focused and determined, instead of taking a difficult situation personally. Since completing the program, I've been able to apply these skills and ideas in tangible ways. From strengthening our team's confidence in our mission, to better managing resources and reallocating them to where they're most needed, there have been some really practical outcomes. One area that saw significant improvement was our financial management. By taking a more proactive approach to financial reporting and analysis, I have been able to identify ways to make savings and this again loops back to being sustainable in the long-term. Some of my team members have also been on the Leading Edge. What has been really great to see is noticing a positive shift in our collective mindset. We're more aligned in our approach, more consistent in our decisions, and we’re able to be more honest about what is working and what we need to change. We can navigate risk much better that way and support each other as we make changes. I’ve seen team members really take on the tools and ideas, sharing them with the people they manage, and making changes in their work. The Customer Journey tool in particular was something that they found really useful. I think what makes a programme like this beneficial is being able to apply the ideas straight away. It’s important to make sure that participants have a certain level of experience before joining to help maximise its impact. Otherwise they may come away thinking they can’t make use of the tools or learning. Making the connection between the ideas they’re hearing about and their daily work helps bring the concepts to life. I’m now looking at ways I can encourage my team to find that connection a bit more. We’ve introduced financial reporting and want to keep encouraging them to do more to understand how that feeds into the decisions they make. Being on the front-line when delivering a service can make that difficult at times as my team need to make instant decisions but I’m making sure we keep discussing these ideas. It’s something I will keep working on as well: finding ways to engage in budget decisions, being part of that discussion and not just taking a budget and making it work. That has to start with understanding how it all works and fits together, and because the Leading Edge does exactly that I can be more influential in decisions. This is also a gift I can give to others: by understanding aspects like financial decisions better we can be more confident in our approach. In stepping back and looking at how things really work, we can make adjustments or tweaks. Innovation doesn’t always have to be about huge changes. At a front-line level, any tweak we make can have a big impact. Overall, the Leading Edge program has been great for me in continuing my leadership journey and helping me navigate these three dials: commercial, financial and innovation. It's reinforced to me the importance of continuous learning and I really enjoyed getting to know people from across the organisation. I know I don’t have to do everything – I’m not here to save the world. Instead I can make choices and focus on our strengths. For me, this all comes back to survivors: how we help them, what we can do to make a long-term impact.

Of course there have been challenges too. Two participants have struggled to apply their learning. This can happen when a manager does not have the scope or capacity to engage in this kind of thinking. However, the toolkit will always be available to them as and when they have the opportunity to use it. Therefore it is really important on a programme like this that participants are able to use their learning. This is captured in their pre-course form to ensure expectations and line manager support are clear. Some participants were very committed to working with their peer-mentor (or ‘learning buddy’) in principle, but they found in practice this could be hard to arrange and sustain after the modules. So we are reviewing that too and looking at other ways to help participants continually build their networks and learn from each other.

Overall, the Leading Edge has been a successful programme and that’s down to the hard work, engagement and commitment of the participants in using what they learned to making their services and products the best they can be.

“The impact of the Leading Edge program has been significant, and I’m confident that it will continue to benefit our teams in the long run. Since completing the program, I’ve been delighted to see a noticeable shift in our teams’ mindset” Chris Chadford, Calico Learning and Development Manager

What’s next

We are thrilled to continue to deliver the Leading Edge alongside the Calico Finance team. The programme will take place side by side with The Leader’s Journey, providing managers with everything they need to step into leadership. We love that collaboration and partnership are central to this programme. More cohorts are scheduled and we will continue to review and evolve the programme to ensure participants have the tools they need to deliver Calico’s goals.

Find out more

Curious to find out more about what Chris thinks about creating a programme like this and how you can do the same for your organisation? Read our full interview with Chris here.

This programme is based on a number of our established programmes around strategy, innovation and decision making which can be adapted to your organisation. We can work with your finance partners to enable a consistent learning approach, we also have providers we can recommend for these essential elements. If you’d like to talk to us about how we can support your managers with business skills in a not-for-profit, charity or social purpose context, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to speak to one of our consultants.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...

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