Helping energy sector businesses flourish is how Bain & Company partner and director, Lili Chahbazi normally uses her extensive strategy planning expertise. So, when Social Business Trust (SBT) approached her about using those skills on a voluntary basis to help a rapidly growing education social enterprise, a sector with which she was unfamiliar, it seemed like a challenging and interesting opportunity.
Chahbazi cuts straight to the chase when she talks about her job. “When you run a business, a thousand things are staring you in the face, from the day to day to major projects. How do you prioritize them constructively? That’s my job. I decide which things matter so you can go from a seemingly horrible mess and break that down into different boxes and know what you’re going to do tomorrow.”
The organisation that SBT matched her with was Challenge Partners, already a successful social enterprise. For the last five years it has brought together groups of schools and academy trusts in national and localized networks to accelerate improvements in education for almost 200,000 children, particularly those from low-income households. One of the issues facing the organisation was that so many schools and trusts were rushing to join those networks, it was at risk of struggling to keep up.
Chahbazi says, “They had grown so fast by word of mouth. The infrastructure hadn’t had a chance to catch up.” Enter Chahbazi and her expertise in organisational effectiveness. “I came in knowing nothing about the education system and they had little experience of strategic planning, she says. “My job was to facilitate that thinking by brainstorming with them and challenging their ideas and plans.”
“We went back to basics; what are you trying to achieve? Has the market changed? Does your model still hold up? We had to go back to move forward to solidify their strategy and see how it would play out in the market place and then decide on future initiatives that fulfilled that strategy.“
She adds, “They were incredibly receptive and worked very hard to make the most of our time together.”
“I was basically a conduit for them to make sure they had strong foundations for what they were already doing by introducing frameworks and methodologies. It’s a bit like giving someone a Christmas tree to hang all the decorations they already have but are not sure what to do with.”
For someone of Chahbazi’s seniority, finding time in her packed schedule to give Challenge Partners the pro bono support they needed was sometimes difficult, she admits. She estimates that from early 2016 she gave the organisation six hours a month of her time. From day one she made it clear to Challenge Partners that they were to take full advantage of any free time she offered them because her schedule could change at any moment.
Their collaboration clearly paid off: SBT has now awarded Challenge Partners a package of investment worth £692,000. That includes a cash grant and continued expert business advice from Chahbazi – a specific request from Challenge Partners.
“I feel privileged to be able to work with them. It’s a fantastic organisation and I hope it will continue to grow from strength to strength.”
She’s equally complimentary about SBT who matched her with Challenge Partners. “They’re brilliant. They know how to build bridges between people with business know-how and passionate people in social enterprises. They are really trying to get social enterprises to be the best they can be. It’s such a difficult thing to do and they do it through coaching as well as investment. I’m delighted to help them.”
She believes the experience has also helped her professionally. “I’ve learnt a lot about the education system in the UK. But more importantly, this experience has made me feel more comfortable taking risks. I now know that by just using my core skills and couple of hours of preparation, I can get a business to tell me the information I need to know to help them succeed. I don’t need the tons of data beforehand that I used to believe was necessary to do the job.”
As for Challenge Partners’ future, she and the management team have a clear idea of where it’s heading. “It has ambitions to grow but it’s going to move into a period of consolidation – really solidifying foundations – and then it can resume double digit growth and will be stronger for it.”