The Value of Ambition

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Jul2014 28

Tom Ravenscroft, founder and Managing Director of Enabling Enterprise shares his experiences of developing the social enterprise and the important role that ambition has played.

It would have been flattering to call it a stunned silence. In truth, it was more a wave of incredulity.

I had just announced to the panel of a prospective funder that Enabling Enterprise, an organisation that was little more than a few months old in 2010 and was working with just a couple of hundred students would by 2012 be working with 10,000 students a year.

We had three business partners, an office space that was literally six foot by six foot, and no paid staff. It was just me, Charlotte (my fellow Director) and a handful of keen Teach First teachers who were voluntarily designing our enterprise programmes and using them with their classes.

Thankfully, the funders took a punt on us. By 2012, we had outstripped that ambitious target and were working with 11,700 students. By 2014, in our fifth year, we have over 35,000 students on our programmes.

What’s ambition all about?

Enabling Enterprise’s fifth birthday has put me in a reflective mood. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned over the last five years is the value of ambition – not personal ambition, but to be ambitious for the mission of our social enterprise.

With the deadline for the Teach First Innovation Award rapidly approaching, I wanted to share some thoughts on ambition that I’ve learned with the invaluable support of Teach First. My hope is that it may encourage a few more aspiring social entrepreneurs to think big.

Why does ambition matter?

When I started out in social enterprise someone highlighted the value of ‘future truths’ to me. They were suggesting that you could inflate your current success through a cunning switch of tenses from the future to the present. I felt uncomfortable with this idea, but over time I’ve come to see that there is a bigger point to draw out of it.

So often, what we expect to happen will define what actually does happen. We see it all the time – the privileged student who presumes that university is a natural next step, the teacher who knows that every child in their class can and will hit their targets or the school where culture and expectation ensure no child is left behind. I believe the same applies in social enterprise – the organisation that defines itself too narrowly will never leave that burrow.

I had the huge advantage of developing Enabling Enterprise whilst a teacher on the Teach First programme. Simply being part of a national programme spread the scope of my thinking beyond a single city to the national picture.

This way of thinking is reflected in the fact that Enabling Enterprise has always worked with schools across the country – in Birmingham, London, Manchester and the South Coast, and in many places between.

Ambition and humility

Ambition can have a downside though – it can be easily misdirected or become a blinker to reality.

In the world of social enterprise, the myth of the transcendent social entrepreneur can lead to confusion between the success of the individual and that of their organisation. While personal ambition has a place, it is important that this does not take over. And according to research by business guru Jim Collins, high impact leadership is about fully seeing your own success as that of the organisation.

In a study Collins carried out, the organisations that did best were not those with the highest-profile, best-paid, or most charismatic CEOs, but those where the CEO believed and acted as if their ego was fully invested in the success of their organisation.

Similarly, pursuing organisational ambition requires a real humility. Ambition and humility might not at first appear natural bedfellows but if you really want to achieve your mission, you have to be able to acknowledge which of your ideas are not working. Indeed, at that point ego and organisational ambition are in competition – and the organisation must win out. For me, that has meant climbing down from my own ideas.

So, have we been successful?

Enabling Enterprise is still a long way from achieving our mission, but we are certainly closer than we were a year ago. One day, every student will leave school equipped for real life – and we will have played our part in making that so.

I hope that the Teach First Innovation Award will recruit an inspiring set of organisations this year, on a par with last year’s finalists, like Franklin Scholars, Tutors United and the Girls’ Network. Beyond the potential prize though, I hope everyone who enters will do so with real ambition – and that the process of applying will in itself be an impetus for crafting a yet more ambitious vision for what they can achieve.

In the past year, Enabling Enterprise has worked with over 35,000 students. We work to ensure that one day all students leave school equipped with the enterprise skills, experiences of the workplace and aspirations to succeed. If you would like to find out how you can get involved, Contact Us.

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