A new year resolution on cross-sector collaboration

Nearly one million under-25s are currently unemployed in the UK. This is a massive issue for the individuals affected, for our economy and for society as a whole. It seems obvious that we need to muster our knowledge, skills and resources to tackle this together, but there is a major barrier in the way: private and social sector leaders have so little experience of thinking, speaking and acting together as a matter of course that they find themselves unable or unwilling to collaborate.  

As an emerging leader in the social sector, I’ve worked with leaders in the private, public and social sectors for 15 years. Some of those experiences have had me tearing my hair out with frustration, while others have fitted like a glove. Why can’t we just get together as human beings and have good conversations?

Six years ago, I took part in Common Purpose with 36 leaders from the public, private and social sectors. I remember thinking, what am I doing here? What have we got in common? It turned out we all wanted to be better leaders and to connect. It was an excellent programme, but the place where relationships blossomed was outside the formal sessions, when we dropped our guard, let people in and opened our minds to each other and to collaboration.

As part of my Clore Social Fellowship in 2013, while on secondment to a private sector company, I came across the concept of blind lunches. The HR department randomly matches two people from different departments and levels to have lunch together. I immediately fell in love with the idea as a great way to get exposure to different people.

As part of my Clore research project, I decided to develop this simple concept into a cross-sector blind lunch, bringing a small number of individuals from the private and social sectors together. In preparation, I conducted one-to-one, warts-and-all interviews with each of the guests, who confirmed my hunch that private and social sector leaders often have deep-rooted preconceptions of each other that get in the way of collaboration.

I found that leaders in both sectors are equally likely to have prejudices, describing each other variously as “tree-huggers”, “well-intentioned do-gooders”, “flash cars and big suits”, and being “all about the money”.

In September I invited leaders from Accenture, Procter & Gamble, NECA – a charity working in the field of substance misuse – and the homelessness charity The Cyrenians UK to a blind lunch in a beautiful, informal private dining room. My guests arrived with a sense of curiosity and uncertainty. I asked them a series of questions about the preconceptions we have of each other, the barriers to building relationships and the tools needed to overcome them. Their views were both honest and challenging. Preconceptions were cast aside, the guests discovered how much they had in common and planned how they could continue the conversation.

I found the key was good quality conversation. Simple but effective. One of the most important things I’ve learnt from this exercise is that in order to open our minds and doors to each other, we have to leave our prejudices outside and be ready to listen. We have to stop being afraid to ask and be unafraid to answer.

I’ve created a three-minute animation to shine a light on why there is so little conversation and collaboration between leaders in the private and social sectors and what we could do about it – if we wanted to. My film, animated by CAVEpaint is available online and  I’d welcome your feedback.

Meanwhile, here are som top tips to get exposure across sectors and  increase collaboration:

  • Visit an organisation in a different sector that interests you.
  • Attend a social sector ‘seeing is believing’ event.
  • Arrange a cross-sector secondment.
  • Ask me how I did the blind lunch event and organise your own.

Most importantly – and above all else – open your door when collaboration knocks.

Marie Mumby is a 2012 Clore Social Fellow