I’m a massive supporter and satisfied beneficiary of effective support for social entrepreneurs and social enterprises provided by organisations such as SEL and SSE but I’m also amused by the apparent preponderance of social enterprises providing consultancy in how to do social enterprise.
In fact, if we temporarily ignore The Co-Operative Group, The John Lewis Partnership and assorted ethical banks, it would be interesting to know the comparative percentage of social enterprise income generated by social enterprises that tell other social enterprises how to do stuff, as opposed to social enterprises actually doing stuff. Interesting but maybe a bit frightening.
Frightening because while helping people to start and develop businesses (social enterprises or otherwise) is a potentially vital service (with fairly low barriers to entry), it’s also a service that it’s very difficult to deliver usefully.
This was well illustrated by last night’s episode of Mary Queen of Shops. Mary Portas is my favourite TV business guru by some distance – not least because she shuns Gordon Ramsey’s swearing and shouting for a glorious array of illustrative facial expressions.
Yesterday she was trying to help Angela, a lady who had been running a south London bakery for 36 years (a core message that she emphasised repetitively and with gusto) but needed to sell more bread and cakes. The essential problem, which Mary put across far more tactfully that I’m about to, is that Angela was providing a service for the era before supermarkets worked out how to sell bread.
Mary wanted Angela to start providing a specialist, more upmarket range of bread (especially) and cakes to give customers a reason to come to Angela’s shop rather than buying from the supermarket. Angela wanted to carry on selling the same stuff she’d always sold while miraculously increasing sales through giving the shop a lick of paint.
By the end of the show Angela had ordered the cameras out of her shop and, unlike in the more formulaic reality business shows, there was no redemptive success other than a tense final meeting where Angela and Mary agreed to part as friends on Angela’s condition that Mary left her alone and stopped trying to tell her how to run her business.
We never got to find out whether Mary had the right ideas about how to run an independent bakery in Wimbledon but the point is that it doesn’t matter. If you’re providing business consultancy to someone or some people who have a significant personal investment in their business then being right is, almost, the least of your challenges.
The job of consultants in this kind of situation is not to tell people what to do – someone who wants to be told what to do is unlikely to have chosen to be a social entrepreneur or small business person, and if they have the best advice may be for them to stop and get a job – but to help the client work out for themselves what needs to be done and how they can do it.
There does seem to have been an increase in the availability of business ‘coaches’ from various points on the motivational speaking spectrum but I’ve got a feeling that the ranks of business advisors in general could also benefit from an influx of people with a background in social work to complement the people with a background and certificates in business.
Mary Queen of Shops didn’t do anything wrong in the case of Angela and her bakery. The most sensible approach – other than the tactful persistence that Mary attempted – would have been to leave Angela alone for while until she decided (or otherwise) that things were going so badly that change was essential. That’s not really possible when you’re working to a tight deadline to film a TV show.
The underlying problem was that any questions about the contemporary market for bread in Wimbledon were completely squashed by the weight of 36 years of a lady’s life during which her identity, her sense of self and sense of a life fulfilled, were inextricably linked with her shop. If a business is about the people who run it and the business is going wrong, then pointing out what’s going wrong involves – to some extent – saying things that the people on receiving end will construe as ‘you’re shit’.
The social enterprise sector positively encourages the growth of businesses that are about the people who run them and their personal stories and motivations. That’s generally a good thing but it makes the job of consultants and business advisers even more difficult than it would usually be.
The consultants who succeed most often will be the ones who are best able to enable people to own positive changes to their business without telling them what to do. But more importantly, allied to that, the social entrepreneurs who succeed most often will be the ones who can put their stories and experiences at the heart of what they do without being crushed by the personal impact of accepting robust advice that says that those stories and experiences aren’t enough, in themselves, to make a successful business than delivers positive social impact for others.