CEO of Shakespeare Schools Foundation, Ruth Brock, headed to Harvard Business School to take part in their Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. Here’s what she took away:

The Harvard Business School Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management Executive Education course is a week-long intensive on the HBS campus, for nonprofit leaders from around the world. The cohort of Executive Directors and Chief Executives is selected from a range of organisations, from those with a turnover of $1m to large multinational charities.

Organisations represent the breadth of the sector from health to education, international development to environmental protection. Using the renowned Harvard case study method and employing individual, group and classroom study, the course is led by members of the HBS faculty, with world-class expertise in products, services and markets, change leadership, financial management and high performing organisations. It’s very difficult to do justice to the richness of this course in a short summary. Through reflecting on what I’ve learned in the month since I’ve returned and discussing it with friends, colleagues and mentors, I’ve distilled my key learnings below. The curriculum skillfully wove together case studies on strategy development, organisational culture and leadership which provided me with new insights, but also validated approaches which Shakespeare Schools Foundation has already adopted, giving me new tools to build further on these strengths. Without space to include the insights and experiences of my new international network of non-profit leaders here, what follows is merely the headlines from an immensely valuable experience that will significantly affect my practice as a CEO. As a better leader of a more effective organisation, I hope we will be able to advance our mission further than if I had not had this opportunity.


From the Victorian explorer Ernest Shackleton, to the visionary fundraising CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, to the sector uniting leader of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the course provided a wealth of examples of leaders determined to advance their organisations. Common to them was an uncompromising focus on mission, an ability to learn from mistakes and from others, a dedication to empowering their teams to achieve incredible things – and an ability to hold their nerve! I would summarise my top four learnings as follows:

  • Be bold – ask yourself, what would happen if you were unafraid to fail? What would you do differently?
  • Never forget that it’s an incredible privilege and responsibility to be the person who can make a difference in so many people’s lives. “The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to accomplish,” says Nietzsche. A leader should be reminding themselves and their team every day of what we’re all there to do.
  • Lead from the front (it’s what you get paid for). If you fail, fail because you were too bold, too decisive. Your managers should be focused on keeping things going – leadership is about change – and helping your people to adapt to that (sometimes unwelcome) reality.
  • Lead with realistic optimism, building and putting faith into adaptability first and foremost. People and plans will ultimately break; being agile isn’t part of the strategy, it is the strategy.

As SSF is embarking on the formation of its 2021-2026 strategy, these sessions were particularly well-timed to help me develop my thinking and put this into immediate implementation. This was an incredibly rich series of lectures and case studies from the profit and non-profit sectors. From an organisation assessing different programmes to build playgrounds across America, to a CEO who sold his innovative, ethical beauty brand to Unilever, the cases gave me insights from organisations far outside my experience, as well as closer to home. The study was augmented by a suite of tools for generating ideas and making decisions through assessing programme feasibility, which I can use immediately.

My top four learnings are as follows:

  • Brilliant strategy development is based on human-centred service design. SSF should utilise these techniques; structuring divergent and convergent thinking into the process and finding ‘extreme users’ to consult (eg, teachers who have dedicated their entire careers to the arts, children who love science, rather than the arts)
  • As part of our strategy development, SSF must think clearly in terms of scale v. scope. To scale, three engines need to be firing at the same time; board capacity, staff and the financial model. Therefore, the second half of our strategy development process must involve detailed planning which covers the maturation of the organisation in all three areas.
  • By definition, every system is perfectly designed to produce whatever it’s producing. To change and improve the product, therefore, you need to improve the system. Nonprofits can change much more quickly than they think they can.
  • Contrary to some third sector thinking, in some instances, being driven by your donors and their ideas for projects can be really important – they might just be telling you what the world needs. A partnership may well be the right solution to achieving our mission – and there are a series of pre-conditions and preparations for a range of partnership and merger options that will make this more successful – and ultimately help to create the change both organisations are seeking.

A sustainable organisation – people and systems

As we often hear, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Leaders aren’t leaders without a team and can’t implement a strategy without the buy-in, expertise and talents of those around them. Contrasting the Oberoi hotel group whose people are the bedrock of their service culture, to Tessai, a cleaning company on the Shinkansen whose toxic management culture was comprehensively turned inside out to reverse the company’s downward spiral, we studied organisations whose leaders have created the conditions in which people thrive and prosper, become brand ambassadors and ultimately transform results. My top three takeaways are as follows:

  • Everyone in the organisation needs to be able to answer Question Zero. What are we here to achieve? The leader’s job is to remind people of this answer every day. Leaders should also help teams to realise that every mandate is limited – it has to be. Focus and vision are key, and this can be structured into management and team behaviours.
  • Spend time building an adaptable, resilient organisation that is equipped to thrive through inevitable change. As a first step, I will roll out a programme of staff development at SSF, sharing HBS learnings and spend even more time consulting staff on strategy development and creating the ethos of a fundraising organisation.
  • Continue to create the conditions for an organisation to thrive – this means giving the team the licence, capability and motivation to do more. SSF managers need to create a culture wherein people draw conclusions for themselves that they are cared for, valued and trusted. On the customer side, we should plan a comms campaign that helps our service users to see the work that goes on to make their experience happen, as this increases product appreciation. 

What next?

As the week progressed, it stimulated a range of specific ideas to develop internally, from ideas for new programmes and an alumni scheme to find the next generation of SSF supporters, to thoughts on digital development. On a different level, the course drew on a wide range of cultural references from leadership models in Hamilton to an Emily Dickinson poem on the judicious use of truth, which gave me deeper food for thought. These reminded me that leadership is a constant learning journey; and that to do justice to this investment in my professional development I have to remember that this week was only the beginning. Structuring time for reading and learning – and disseminating this – will create a learning, agile organisation (isn’t that what SSF teaches through our programmes anyhow?) In this way, this fantastic experience will, I hope, ultimately allow us to change thousands of young lives.