Lessons from a responsible leader

Professor James McCalman, Director, Centre for Strategy and Leadership, Portsmouth Business School, University of Portsmouth, discusses the university’s latest scheme which sees students shadow a responsible business leader

There is an unspoken assumption these days that we can make great leaders. Fortified by more and more management education and less and less concentration on how things get done, we think that by focusing the attention of students on the theories and models of leadership they will become great leaders by osmosis. How we wish that life was that simple! For this year’s Responsible Business Week, we wanted to expose our students to the leadership challenges of life as lived. To do so, we have managed to pair a select number of them with responsible business leaders to see how leadership gets “done”. Their experiences are about learning how leading and driving a sustainability and environmental agenda, has to take into consideration the harsh realities and compromises of a world where ethics and values meets realism; and how our responsible leaders subsequently cope.

As part of the experience, both Gemma Lacey from The Southern Co-operative and Anne Helmholz, one of our own undergraduates spent the day together. Here’s their story.

Mentor's story: Gemma Lacey, The Southern Co-operative

I took part in the Shadow a Responsible Business Leader day in March with a student from Portsmouth University, Anne, who came and shadowed me and my team for the day.

Anne is studying Business Administration. She fitted in really well with the business; she was bright, enquiring, and was really up for getting the most she could from the day. It was quite a lot to take in, but we gave her exposure to all of the different areas that come under me (digital, marketing, sustainability and communications) so she got a broader understanding of these functions. She shadowed meetings, spent time one on one with members of the team and attended a leadership team briefing with our new Lakeside fundraising partner Homestart. She also spent some time with The Southern Co-operative CEO Mark Smith. I was impressed that she didn't appear daunted by this and was confident in asking questions during the leadership team session, and both Mark and I agreed that she is just the sort of person we would love to attract to our business in the future.

Our being part of this programme supports The Southern Co-operative’s organisational values and demonstrates our commitment to nurturing young talent. It gives us valuable insight into what makes our business attractive to future recruits. 

Now that I am 15 years into my career it has actually been a great tonic to spend time with someone who is just at the start of theirs

- Gemma Lacey, The Southern Co-operative

Now that I am 15 years into my career it has actually been a great tonic to spend time with someone who is just at the start of theirs. Anne brought with her a fresh and enquiring perspective that comes with no pre-conceived expectations. There was also the sense of pride that comes with being able to showcase your business and the people who contribute to its success. It was a pleasure to host Anne and we wish her all the best in her career.

Mentee's story: Anne Helmholz, University of Portsmouth

In my opinion having the opportunity to gain experience in any business helps young people, like me, to develop personally. This experience has helped me to gain a better understanding of the business world and how I could fit into it in the future. The day I spent at The Southern Co-operative was really interesting. I got to know many different people working across the organisation and I was allowed to attend several high-level meetings. My mentor Gemma Lacey, who supervised me during my time there was particularly helpful as she did not hesitate to answer all my questions and kept a smile on her face. As someone who works in Responsible Business Management and Sustainability, she was a great role model for me.

Furthermore, the experience also made me think about other issues regarding the carbon footprint of a company, and how many different things have to be considered before deciding on a solution to these kinds of problems. It also made me think more broadly about sustainability. It’s clear that a responsible business leader has to consider not just taking action on environmental issues but also the impact of business on society. It is especially inspiring to see how important the local community is to The Southern Co-operative. Wherever I was and to whomever I talked to, whenever the word “community” came up, the employees’ eyes lit up. Alongside community, teamwork and approachability were also very important in the company and the way people worked together in the company impressed me during the day.

Without a doubt businesses should offer this opportunity to young people as it allows them to have a proper look into the business world and helps you to figure out what it is that you are passionate about. Following this experience, I think I would enjoy working in the retail sector but it has also certainly changed my perspective on retail and opened my eyes to how many different issues there are around sustainability in retail.

All in all, I do not yet know if it improved my employability, but it has definitely had an impact on how I see working in a responsible business environment and how you can take action to solve problems in society as well as the environment.

  • As part of the Responsible Business Week 2017, the University of Portsmouth Business School will be working with Business in the Community to provide local employers with an opportunity to explore latest thinking, share best practice, and find solutions to some of the challenges currently facing business and society. Find out more about the event and book here.