Corporate responsibility runs through the veins at National Grid. That passion was recognised when it was named Responsible Business of the Year 2014 by leading charity Business in the Community (BITC). John Elsegood is currently on secondment as a Business Connector in Birmingham. Here, he talks about how the experience has made him humbler and more resilient and how the programme benefits not only the community he works in – but National Grid as a whole.
I’ve worked at National Grid for 24 years and been fortunate enough to get involved with exciting projects such as managing the impact of the London Olympics on our gas business.
I’ve never wanted to leave National Grid but I’ve always been curious to see how my skills would transfer to other business sectors.
National Grid takes corporate responsibility really seriously and supports a UK charity called Business in the Community (BITC). The organisation works to shape a new contract between business and society, in order to secure a fairer society and a more sustainable future.
Employees from UK businesses are seconded into BITC as Business Connectors and placed in deprived areas for 12 months with a remit to work with local communities to improve outcomes in the areas of educational performance, employment and quality of life.
By committing individuals to spend 12 months completely away from work, it allows the Business Connector to immerse themselves entirely in the needs of the community.
As well as helping to make a positive impact on these communities, the programme has further benefits for our business at National Grid.
For example, it allows us to demonstrate a leadership position on the responsible business and sustainability agenda and be recognised as part of the positive solution to the biggest issues facing our world today.
I heard about the secondment opportunity and it sounded like the perfect arena to test myself, touch the hearts of the communities we serve and leave something of a legacy.
While the secondment sits entirely outside National Grid, it offers the opportunity to develop the sort of stakeholder management and leadership skills that are so important in today’s energy market.
These skills are vitally important for network companies like ours. We’re working under a framework called RIIO (Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs), which is our regulator Ofgem’s framework for setting price controls for network companies.
Over the next decade we face an unprecedented challenge of securing significant investment to maintain a reliable and secure network, while dealing with the changes in demand and generation that will occur in a low-carbon future. RIIO is Ofgem’s way of making sure this is delivered at a fair price for consumers. It encourages companies like ours to put stakeholders at the heart of our decision-making process.
Into the lion’s den
The secondment has given me an opportunity to learn in the truest sense how to engage with stakeholders. I’m in the lion’s den, so to speak.
It’s all about engaging more with communities that are perhaps under the radar when it comes to business and investment. To date, BITC has recruited 99 Business Connectors. I’m the second for National Grid, whose involvement began in 2012.
I’m working within an economically disadvantaged community and act as a sort of match-maker between community groups and local businesses. I’m looking to increase the positive impact of business in the area by harnessing the expertise and energy of business people to tackle local challenges.
So what exactly do I do? Well, there’s no average day. It’s all about getting out to Hodge Hill in Birmingham – the community that I focus on – and meeting as many people as I can. It might be a coffee morning for senior citizens, a creche, youth club or disability charity.
Many of these are very small organisations that aren’t easy to find. So it’s often a case of walking the streets and meeting people. At the same time I go to networking groups and also work with the council and local MP.
A boost for business
The other side of the job is finding businesses who can help these community groups achieve their objectives. One of the key challenges is helping these businesses understand the value of charitable work. There are very strong arguments for it.
For example, statistics prove that getting involved in charitable projects builds a happier workforce. There’s less staff turnover in the business as employees feel proud to work for a company that encourages them to participate in their communities. Another benefit is personal development for the employees, who get to harness their skills in a new environment.
Businesses can also boost their brand recognition. There might be a new shop that’s opened and wants to spread the word. Nearby, a school needs its playground painting. The shop can go and help and, by doing so, they get the community talking about their brand.
This secondment is the most accelerated development programme I’ve ever been on. I’ve enhanced my existing skills in stakeholder engagement, listening and leadership.
In most large businesses, it’s possible to get things done just because of where you are in the hierarchy. However, in this job, hierarchy is out the window. You’re just leading based on who you are and what you have to say.
This makes you more resilient. When you’re doing an office job, you don’t get the door closed in your face, but in this role it happens more frequently. You learn to take the knocks, brush yourself off and carry on.
The experience has also made me more humble and realise how diverse our communities are. Many of us work and live in our little bubble, but there are lots of people out there who are really struggling.
It’s part of our strategy at National Grid to develop leaders and improve engagement with our customers and stakeholders. The Business Connector programme really delivers on this.
With all the experience I’ve gained, I feel I’ll be a more rounded leader when I return to the business and understand much better the challenges that some of our customers and stakeholders face every day.
For me, the best example of how my work has made a difference was when we brought together a primary school, urban gardener and fund-raising bid writer. The school’s play area was run down and dangerous. You certainly wouldn’t want your kids playing there.
Thanks to the skills of the gardener and bid writer, we won a £12,500 lottery grant to rejuvenate the area. The gardener’s business was a social enterprise, so her profits also went back into the local community. Not only has this work transformed the area, it has brought the children and parents in a diverse school much closer together. They meet to plant vegetables and share recipes from their respective cultures.
I’m proud to work for a company that supports organisations like BITC. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity and am looking forward to putting my newly developed skills to practice back in the workplace. It’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had and I really believe I have helped to leave a legacy during my secondment.
National Grid has been named UK Responsible Business of the Year 2014 – Business in the community’s top award, in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry.
Generation Talent is a joint initiative between BITC and The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), developed by Business in the Community’s Talent & Skills Leadership Team to help businesses scale up the number of unemployed young people they recruit.