VICTORIA SYLVESTER – GROWING A TRAINING COMPANY WITH A GLOBAL FOCUS – EP. 63

My guest on this episode is Victoria Sylvester, or Vikki for short. Vikki is the founder of Acacia Training, a U.K. based training company focused on childcare, healthcare, and dental care. I was very excited for this conversation for a number of reasons. First, Vikki sold Acacia to MBH through their Agglomeration model whereby Acacia’s private stock is exchanged for MBH’s public stock. We discuss the model in great length and it’s one of the more unique models for SMB acquisitions I’ve come across through the podcast. Second, Vikki’s role as CEO has changed dramatically over time as the company has grown and I was very interested to hear about each of those stages and what tasks have been challenging for her to let go of.

Over the course of this episode we discuss the early years of Acacia, how she receives feedback from her team and her students, what she looks for when acquiring other training programs, and her perspective as an owner selling her company.

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Thank you, Vikki, for coming on the podcast. It’s really exciting to have you. I was really enjoying reading about your business and the training model and being in the UK. I’ve never talked to a UK business on the podcast before. This is kind of fun in that regard too. I’d be curious to hear about how you started the business and how you’ve grown. And now that you’re part of MBH’s agglomeration program, I’d love to hear about that too. But we’d love to hear the story from start to today.

Thank you. And thank you for having me. It’s great to be on as your first UK company. I started in health and social care actually. I trained as a nurse and went to work in the British NHS. I’m sure everybody’s heard of the NHS. I went work in the NHS. That took me down an education route, working with workers that came over to the UK to fill a skills gap, supporting student nurses, that kind of stuff. That led me down an education path. And then decided with my family, it was actually with my mom, to set up a business that would deliver at that time just to the care sector in the part she was in, one care home. And it kind of grew from there. And I think sometimes the best businesses do happen by accident or through a passion for something, just something you wanted to do. That’s how we started then becoming a training provider in the UK.

And we deliver government’s funded, government regulated qualifications too, let’s say as the health and well-being space. It’s people like social care workers, residential childcare, children’s homes, dental nurses, beauty, sports. All in that health and well-being arena. And we deal with around 3,000-ish students a year that come through our systems, a lot were based delivery apprenticeships. I don’t think apprenticeships are huge in the US, but I know you have them. They’re like work based learning as they are at work alongside academic learning and learning those skills. And we’ve grown that over the years to quite a nice sizable organization for our industry.

And then in 2016, we got to the point, the company had been going for 16 years, where it was all the ducks were in a row. We were ready to kind of take on the next challenge. Where do we go from here? We were being approached by people to come and acquire us at that time, which I’d never really considered being acquired. But then once people start to ask questions, you start to explore. And that led us down the path of knowing, I suppose, what we didn’t want to do, which was be acquired. It was about our company, our culture. We still had a lot in us to give. And that’s when we came across MBH. And that led us on the path to becoming part of what MBH is. Do you want me to explain a little bit about MBH? Would that be useful?

It would be great.

MBH was a concept in a lot of respects when we first met the leaders of it. They were looking to list an organization on the stock exchange. It’s currently listed on the Frankfurt and cross-listed over in the US as well. And the whole idea of this model is to give investors access to being able to invest in small business, but on the stock market. We have a model where they take profitable, debt free, well run companies, business setup, business owner led. They are a bunch of entrepreneurs, in essence, that have grown their businesses over years.

There’s quite a lot of family businesses in there as well, that are kind of moving on to that next stage or that next generation. And we all work together in this collaborative environment, making one big organization, which is MBH. But the most attractive thing about it was you could retain your own identity, you could still run your own business. And the business owners exchange their private shares in their business for public shares or bonds within MBH. Actually, the company owners in the group own the vast amount of the stock and the shares, and gives us quite a lot of discussion and agreement and collaborative work in between us to drive the organization forward.

It keeps bringing new companies in. We’ve got 25 at the moment that we’ve brought in. We listed in August[redacted]And since then, we’ve brought in 25 companies, all different countries. Some from the US, we have got Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, UK. And different industries as well. Education, property services, we’ve got travel and transport, we’ve got leisure, we’ve got construction, and health. And the idea is we’ll keep growing those different verticals and keep bringing more entrepreneurs into the fold. It’s brilliant. And I sit on the board of that organization as well.

I’d love to hear about that a little bit more too. I’d be curious, though, when you were exploring the idea of being acquired, before you found MBH, what was kind of the messaging you heard from potential acquirers? And what were you not particularly interested by them?

For us, we wanted to be able to move to that next level, and knew to do that, that was going to be a big leap. And we wanted to do it with, I suppose, some support. And that doesn’t necessarily mean financial support, but even having the backing of, for example, the company’s accounts when you’re tendering, it just gives you access to bigger contracts and bigger routes to market and things like that. But the organizations prior to that, I suppose a lot of it was around we didn’t really want to exit and a lot of them want you to exit. And being really honest, I don’t think, personally, I’d work very well now under somebody else’s instruction, but have a free spirit for most of my career. And I really don’t know how well I would have been as an employee. I don’t think we made the best employees at all. Actually, I think entrepreneurs are a lot of themselves in a lot of respects. And I think taking away the direction of your own company was a big turnoff for us.

And the staff we’ve got that work for us, our team, have been with us for a very long time. Some of them have been with us for 15 years, and we are a family. We are a work family. We’ve grown together. And as soppy as it sounds, they are a massive part in your decision-making when it comes to what you do with your business. They’re part of your community, they’re part of your life. It’s not a small decision. And all of that kind of was off putting going into a organization where it was mostly about profits, whether or not you stay with the business didn’t really matter. And I was concerned that we’d lose our culture, I suppose, and all the work that we’ve done. And they also tend to try and unpick your due diligence and negotiate and haggle a lot more. Whereas this was just really honest and transparent. And the better you are as a business, that was kind of celebrated coming into the group. And the more ambition you got was celebrated. All those things kind of contributed to the decision. A long answer for that.

No, that’s great. You also mentioned that you don’t think you would be a very good employee after having been an entrepreneur for so long. I’d be curious, when you first started the business, was there a point in those early few years where that switched for you? Where you were like, “I really enjoy being an entrepreneur and not having a boss over me and being able to have complete control over this new organization that’s mine. And I get to explore all these different things and grow this business and build something new.” Was there a turning point for you in those early years?

I think that deep down, if I was really honest with myself, you might not know you are an entrepreneur. In fact, I never even used that term until I went into this group. But as an employee, I’ve probably always been a bit difficult, because I’d look at something and always think there’s a better way of doing it or a different way of doing it. And as much as I was an incredibly hard worker and would always give it my all, it probably would always come with an opinion of have you considered doing it this way? I think there is a better way of doing it. Some people find that challenging and not feeling confined and restricted. And I think when I worked for other companies, that is a little bit how it felt. It always felt like you were a little bit restricted, you just couldn’t stretch your wings a bit and go and explore and be curious. And that’s the fun part of being an entrepreneur, I guess.

And then as I’ve got older and wiser, and I wouldn’t say I’m wise, by the way, yet. Maybe we never get wise, I don’t know. You’re forever learning and it’s forever a journey. And I’ve been asked is entrepreneurship something you can teach or is this something that’s kind of in you? Is it just part of your makeup? And what I’d say to that, in my experience is, I mean, entrepreneurship is starting to become more attractive, and universities are looking at more programs around this.

Had I had some kind of learning along the way, I probably would have skipped a lot of pain and issues and mistakes that you make, because you’re kind of navigating your own way. I think it’s a bit of both where there’s a bit of it that’s in your soul. It’s just who you are and how you are wired. But I think building in some learning as well and getting really good solid mentors to work with or good people to learn from really helps you on the journey. I mean, some people don’t become entrepreneurs till later in life, do they? When they come up with their ideas. But that’s my experience. But it should be fun. It shouldn’t be stressful and hard and a challenge. It should always be fun, is my rule. That’s my rule.

Certainly you've grown to a tremendous degree, your decision or new program you either acquired or started, was there a point like that in your company?

Definitely. I always say to people that when you first go and start a business, you don’t even think about all the things that could go wrong, you just go and do it. Naivety has a place in business. If we weren’t naive, sometimes we wouldn’t do stuff. It’s that unknown, that adventure that makes you do it. The first few years were very setting the business up, it’s all exciting, you’re finding out new things. And then we secured. When it becomes real that you’re a business, however, you start to actually have a bigger responsibility, whether that be to your people or customers and so on. We won a contract and it was at the time the UK were investing quite a lot in education. It was a very, compared to nowadays, probably a straightforward contract to achieve. And it was just growing. They were investing and investing and investing. And we grew very, very quickly in a very short space of time.

And then we made the decision because of that to actually put a little bit of a stopper on our growth, because it felt like a hamster wheel where we were growing so fast, and we couldn’t keep up with it. We had a concern. I mean, it sounds clever, but at the time, I don’t think there’s much thought went into it. We just said we’ve just got to stop, take stock, improve the quality, make sure what we’re delivering is right. Go right back to the customer and the heart of the business rather than delivering lots of something that could potentially be really poor if we didn’t have the capacity and resource to do it properly.

That’s what we did, during a time where you can imagine all these other companies are growing and growing really fast, because this money was still being pumped in. And we made the decision to kind of go hang on a minute, we’re just going to slow down. It seemed crazy when business consultants used to come out. And they’d say, “That’s madness. There’s all this money. You should be doing this.” And they’d say things like, “You don’t just stick in health and social care, go and diversify and do logistics.” And stuff like that. My heart wasn’t in it. My heart was in what I was doing. We didn’t. The irony of it all is that some organizations at that point made different decisions to us. And eventually, some of them really struggled. But others have come across. We’ve just ended up at the same point anyway. We’ve just took a different path to get there. It’s quite fascinating to watch. There’s no right or wrong answer there with the decisions we made. And on reflection, I’m quite happy we did.

When Acacia was on that hamster wheel, what did you start noticing suffering within the business as growth accelerated?

It was the pressure on the team, recruiting the right talent into the business. I mean, we were competing with salaries. We needed to really move up our talent pool. We needed to upscale our team or recruit talent in. But we couldn’t. We were at a funny point where we couldn’t quite afford the higher salaries as the big organizations, because we weren’t quite big enough yet. But we needed more than what we had. And it just seemed to be you were never, not the ever feel on top of everything, but it always felt reactive. That’s how it feels when you are on that hamster wheel. You don’t feel like you’re working on it, you’re working in the business. And everyday was a new challenge. You weren’t doing a lot of strategic mid to long term thinking. It was all very, very short term. And I think that comes with its risks when you’re caught up in that. And sometimes just taking a step back and trying to review, that really helps.

It’s just very tempting, because you don’t want to say no to anything initially, do you? Because you’ve spent, well, four or five years really battling to even get a look in the marketplace to actually have any kind of presence. I was once told we were a minnow in a pool of sharks. This minnow is trying to get hold of whatever. You are not actually used to turning anything down. But there does come a point where actually you probably need to because if you don’t, you become a jack of all trades, master of none, and can’t deliver anything of quality. That was a bit of a shift from being a micro business, I suppose, moving into a small to medium size entity.

Was part of that time and part of that, perhaps, frustration with being more reactive rather than a long term thinking operator, was part of that you felt that there was a loss of control in your business where things were happening to you rather than you making proactive decisions?

Absolutely. There was change coming as well. And that just kept throwing in another ball to catch, if you like. As you’re trying to keep up with the day-to-day and keep everything going and recruit, recruit, recruit and sell, sell, sell. And then you’d got change coming from the government, or maybe the sectors that you were serving just lobbing a ball in as well for you to catch and try and juggle away on this path, then it just becomes unsustainable, I think. I don’t think it’s sustainable for any leader.

Part of growth is when you start your business, I suppose you are doing everything. You are the cleaner. You are the CEO. You are everything. And then as it grows, you have to learn to accept that you’re going to have to let go of stuff and let other people start to take it. And that comes with a lot of trust that you put in with other people.

And you know what? I think one of the challenges is figuring out which bit you’re going to let go of. It’s not as simple as, well, I’m not going to do this or that anymore. It’s figuring it out, because it’s not easy, particularly when you’ve had that control over everything. But if you don’t, then you’re not going to go any further and you’re going to burn out or shrink or disappear or get ill. You do have to, but yet it is challenging because you think you haven’t got time to think about it. And that sounds crazy. But you are that wrapped up in it. You think I haven’t even got time to sit down and properly think this through, and it’s ridiculous. You actually do need to make the time, actually make any significant progress or as much progress as you could.

We talked a little bit about that before hitting record. And I’m curious, how did you decide what tasks you were going to let someone else take care of and which ones you were going to hold on to?

Well, I know we talked about this a little bit before, that sometimes you make mistakes about some of the tasks that you hand over, actually. But what I’ve learned over the years is that you have to be really honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. And just be very vulnerable to that. Don’t think you have to be good at everything. Because you are the CEO, you don’t have to be the best at every single part of the business. Just because you’ve been there since the start or you’ve been there the longest or you think you know it all, it doesn’t mean that you are any good at it, or it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people that are better at it than you. I’ve had to spend a lot of time really figuring out what I’m good at. And that isn’t the same as saying you can’t do something, if that makes sense.

And I can give you an example, bid writing and tender writing and tendering for contracts. Something I’ve done from the business right from the start. I’ve been successful in the sense that we’d won contracts. You could argue that, yes, I can do it. But I absolutely despise it. I am not a very structured person. When somebody asks me to spend three weeks really focused on one task of writing this big long… It’s like back in writing an essay for university or college, I was always the one doing it a few days before. I was never the one doing it well in advance. It’s not a particularly natural skill of mine. It’s something I have to really work on. And then when you get somebody into your business that actually loves it and can do really well, all of a sudden you start winning more contracts. It’s that kind of stuff.

But I do think it’s about looking at what you’re good at. Sometimes I’ve asked people rather than decide for myself. But you have to ask people that you could trust will tell you the truth, because I think that’s another thing. When you’re the CEO, people don’t really want to tell you the truth. They’ll say, “You’re great. That’s good.” Or “I feel uncomfortable telling you.” Getting people around you that are going to give you very straight honest feedback is really important, whether that be a business coach external to you or whether that be someone in your life. I’m very lucky, my husband is part of the organization as well and has been for a long time. And he’s the most honest person with me that I know, good and bad. I’m quite fortunate. But I also have got some good external networks that would be totally honest with me. I’ve worked with them for a long time now.

How do you encourage employees of yours to be honest with you?

It’s a challenge, because it all comes down to your culture at the end of the day. And I think we’ve got such a positive culture. And I think getting across to them that they’re never going to be judged, that no idea is a bad idea. I’d rather have 1 million ideas, because we’ve got more chance of filtering out the good ones from 1 million ideas than people that just don’t want to share because they don’t feel they can. It’s kind of treating honesty with complete respect and consideration, and not being judgmental when people want to say something. And creating different vehicles for people to have a voice as well, I’ve found a really good way. Making sure things are anonymous.

And some people are quite happy only to be in a meeting. Every Monday, we get together for half an hour. We call it the CEO Update. And it’s the opportunity for me to let everybody know what’s going on, but also for people to ask questions. And I always say to them, ask me tough questions, because there’s nothing to hide. Ask me the toughest question you want, I’ll answer it honestly. They can do it there and then on the spot and put me on the spot. But not everybody wants to do that. Some people would rather drop you an email or not know it’s them that’s asked the question, but they’re deep down wanting to know.

It’s important to create a number of routes for people to be honest. And then not be judgmental, and always follow up on it. If you are saying you’re going to be honest with people, you need to be prepared to be transparent and honest and answer every question. And you know what? Even if they don’t like the answer, I think people respect honesty more than not answering it at all, from my experience. It’s a lot about culture, I think. And once you’ve got that embedded, it becomes a lot easier.

Have you had to internally wrestle with any feedback you received where it felt really personal and you were perhaps upset or offended but needed to make sure that that employee or whoever was giving that feedback still felt respected? How have you fought through that a little bit more?

I mean, I’ve never had anybody be abusive or anything terrible. But I did have one bit of feedback once where somebody called me foolhardy about a decision we’d made. And I couldn’t shake the word. I couldn’t shake the word foolhardy. What did they mean? Why would they say that? And it really stuck with me for a few days. But what I find is, it’s better just to go and reflect on it and maybe try and empathize with how they are looking at it and try and understand it from their point of view and from their shoes. And why, whatever that decision was. I can’t even remember what the decision was now. It came across to them in that way, why they felt it was foolhardy. Kind of I’m a bit of a reflector. I have these rules about don’t judge myself, which means just not giving myself a hard time over things or anything like that, but also not judging others, and understanding that everybody has got a different view on the world. And it’s healthy that they do. Maybe there was something she was spotting that I needed to take note of.

I think sometimes the negative feedback you get is probably the best feedback you can get, because you can do something with it. If somebody is giving you loads of positive feedback, then it’s nice to have, isn’t it? Because you want to be able to know you’re doing a good job. But the reality is you kind of ignore that a lot of the time. And it’s the negative feedback or constructive feedback, however you want to look at it, is the stuff you can actually do something with. That’s what you can make a change with or get curious about or explore more. And I think it’s actually that that makes your business better. But you’ve got to be open minded to accepting it. But I’d say when I was younger, I struggled with it a bit more now. I think I was a bit more defensive. But you get a bit older and wiser, don’t you, I think?

Absolutely. And as your team has grown too, what systems have you installed to continue to receive feedback from your team? You talked about having morning meetings, anonymous surveys, what are some other ways you found to be helpful with getting feedback from a larger group?

I mean, we’ve gotten all the usual surveys and bits and pieces like that. One of the things I think it’s really important that I always do, and I hope I can always do this, is I meet with every single member of staff when they join the business on a one-to-one. Every single member of staff that joins, we book in a call. I’ll always make time for them, just to learn a little bit about them. But then also that they don’t feel like they can never say anything to me, because they don’t know me that well or they’ve never had the opportunity to speak to me as the business leader or whatever. And I think that really opens the door for positive conversation.

And then we use an internal channel, which if I see messages come on there from the team, I will always make sure I respond. I will always make sure that they are included. It sounds like a lot of effort, but it really isn’t. This stuff takes two seconds to just drop a message. And I think it means the world to people because it means you’re listening to them, you’re there, and you want to know what’s going on. These are the formal routes that you would expect. Although, the Monday meeting is an open agenda. This is just for me to make sure every week, the team get to see me in one space or another and be able to ask anything they want.

But I find the formal routes are great if you’re collecting data. If you’re collecting how many people want to work from home? How many people are happy with the rates of pay or whatever? They’re good for data. But I think to really, really get an understanding of the people in your businesses, it’s conversations and reaching out to them and trying to make sure that they know who you are.

Absolutely. If you think about the students who come through your different training programs, how do you receive feedback from them? Is there some survey at the end of their training program? Obviously, you can’t meet each one of your students. But I’d be curious, what methods have you added to receive feedback from your students?

We do have surveys that go out at various points in their learning journey as well. We don’t just do one at the end, we do one straight after they joined the program, partway through the program. We’ve always got an understanding all the way through the journey of how they’re feeling at different points, what kind of things they’d like to see. We do also have an internal learner platform that the learners are on. And I am on all those platforms. I get to see the kinds of conversations the students are having, the kinds of things they’re saying, what they like, what they’d like to see more of.

And we have what we’ve called, we’ve called them little diversity hacks we’ve got running at the moment, which is where maybe we’ve got groups of students that are underrepresented, maybe nationally, or there’s a particular need. It might be somebody with disabilities. And we actually bring students that are open to have those conversations about their specific things, and bring them together in these little groups to talk through what the world looks like for them, and what things would make things better for them so that as an organization, we can also support and make sure that education is accessible to all. That’s our vision, that education is accessible to all. It doesn’t matter, it’s accessible to all. And they can have that. And everybody can have an opportunity to have a better life, progress their careers, and so on.

There is a lot of work that actually goes into those groups of learners that are outside of the core, if that makes sense, and understanding how we can make life better for them. And it’s been interesting during COVID, because they’ve had different challenges. Different groups of learners have had different challenges. And that could be even down to where they live. It could have been their internet accessibility. It could have been dealing with IT. It could have been just the fact they were being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, for example. We constantly keep these groups going so we can constantly get that feedback. And it isn’t a one time thing as well. Sometimes people think, well, we do an annual survey. And then we get this bit of feedback, and that means we are okay for a year. It’s constantly moving, because the world is constantly moving in a very, very fast pace.

I actually still do like talking to the students and finding out. They give you the best bits, because they just tell you how it is. They tell you what’s going on at work. They tell you what’s going on with your program, what they like, what they don’t, how it could be better. And some of them are quite tech savvy nowadays as well. You can find out things. Well, if you communicate on this, it would be really good. It’s really positive to speak to them.

I want to talk a little bit more about the different acquisitions that you’ve done. You’ve grown organically through adding programs internally, but you’ve also acquired a few different training programs in schools. I’d be curious to hear a little bit about how do you decide which different programs you would like to add? And whether you choose to build them yourself or go find a company that already does that and go buy them? How do you think through that decision?

When we moved into MBH, we started to look at acquisitions to add value to our offer to students, but in a proper collaborative working environment. Now, we wouldn’t have done acquisitions without MBH, because they gave us a route to be able to do it using the stock, we’ve been using bonds. As an independent, it would have been far more challenging, because it would have been borrowing from the banks. And I don’t know what it’s like in the US. But in the UK, you pretty much secure your soul as a small business when you go and borrow from the bank. To get an investment can be a challenge and off putting I suppose. It’s not something you want to do, so you don’t do it.

Our rationale behind it really was we’d worked previously in an environment where there’s subcontract arrangements. And there are barriers with subcontracted arrangements. It wasn’t proper true collaborative working. And you kept always trying to work very, very hard to be collaborative. But at the end of the day, you were independent businesses with different goals. It could be very, very challenging working in that kind of partnership. It wasn’t bad. But to get the absolute best for your learners and for your customers and for your teams, true collaboration, when you experience it, when you really have it, it’s like gold, it’s just the best thing for everybody concerned. But it doesn’t come easily. You do have to work at it. And you have to find the right trusted people to work with. When we were looking at the businesses we wanted to bring in, it was about how are we adding value to the people that we’re there to serve.

Every business is about people at the end of the day. Whatever we’re doing, whether we’re building a house or whether we’re delivering a course, it’s all about people, communities. It was all about what would add value to the people we’re working with. And then a lot of it was around the MBH criteria of being profitable and owner led and having that same kind of drive.

And I suppose the third thing was about the individual themselves, their ethos and their ambitions, and whether we were all aligned. And then if we could find companies where all those aligned, then there was the chance that this was going to be a really good productive working relationships. And it really does add value. We are, and I mean this honestly, a real true collaboration, which is just so lovely to see and be part of. People ask me quite a lot. It’s quite an interesting question, because obviously, you could view them as competitors. We are in the same markets, we are delivering similar products in some cases. In some cases, we’re learning products off each other. But I don’t view it like that. I view it as, at the end of the day, we’ve all got the same goal. We are all part of the same parent company. We’ve all got the same goals and desires to grow our businesses, and doing it together is actually a more productive and effective way than we would be doing it on our own. They are not competitors, they are partners.

And if one of them wins a contract that we didn’t win, happy days, because together we’ve won. And that’s kind of how we view it and how we work together and taking out their… At the end of the day, we’re taking out another piece of competition working together somewhere, unless they want to join. It’s been a real experience. We share resource and information and knowledge. And it is a genuine pleasure to work in, and I mean that. After working in subcontracting arrangements, where it could be very master-slave kind of orientated relationship where somebody at the top tells everybody else in the supply chain what to do. And every time, this is how you’ve got to do it. It could be quite restrictive. And might not be what you want to do for your customer base, but you have to do it because that’s just the way it is. Whereas in true collaboration, you work together through challenges, but you also work together through finding really creative and innovative solutions for your customers.

Have you found that a lot of other training schools and companies think that same way in that spirit of collaboration or have you found that to be more rare than you expected?

I think some would like to be. I think finding a route to be able to do it in the way we have can be a challenge. And I think it does come down to the fact we’re part of the same group. We are all trying to achieve the same thing at the end of the day. However we get there, we may choose different paths to get there, but the goal is the same, the vision is the same and our ethics and cultures aligned. I’ve seen better partnerships than others. I’ve seen also terrible partnerships. But I think this just steps it up a notch. And I don’t think they realize sometimes the value till you are in it, if that makes sense. You know what you know, don’t you? And you might be working in an arrangement that works perfectly fine and everything seems okay until you go and do something else, you then realize, actually, this is so much better. But you know what you know.

I find a lot of business owners in education, it’s quite like any job I suppose, but like any businesses, it could be quite lonely and quite stressful. And we all spend a lot of time doing the same thing. That sounds ridiculous. But you imagine how many hours we could spend with learners or putting in something really, really good if everybody wasn’t spending all their time doing the same thing. If somebody says to me, it doesn’t even matter if they were not in the group, but if they say, “Have you got a document on such and such?” I’m probably just likely to give it them because it’s a document at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it has the impact that a learner benefits, it doesn’t matter if it’s my learner or somebody else’s have it. But you find people are very precious over stuff. And I know you can’t do that with everything. That’s just an example. But all those barriers come down when you are in a proper collaborative environment, they just come down.

And any one of the companies in the group rang me for anything, they could have it. And I know I can ring them and speak to them, and they would do the same for me. And that’s even people. If you’ve got somebody off poorly, but you’ve got a deadline to meet or you are under pressure, you can share all that resource and you can work together. And it’s just a huge way as a business owner, having access to key personnel, experienced personnel across the group that you can support each other with.

Absolutely. And I know that in our previous chats, you’ve talked about charitable giving and your charitable programs, and Acacia being really important. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve structured those programs within your company?

I mean, when it comes to environmental and social governance, I mean, Acacia itself is a social impact organization, really. We are creating jobs, we are educating people and hopefully making the world a better place on that front. But we kind of approached it as rather than being what’s been described in the UK sometimes as a cross-cutting theme, which just sounds really formal to say cross-cutting themes. We’ve actually put it at the center and started with the environmental social governance part, which includes things like equality and diversity. Continued professional development is the starting point. What does society need? What does business need? And then kind of worked out from there to structure the offer, rather than structuring our offer as a business and then wrapping all the stuff around it and going what do we do now about social governance? Or what do we do now about the environment? Now we’ve pulled this stuff in, we kind of start with that and work out.

And we do a lot around the global goals and aligning with them and just trying to never lose sight of the bigger picture. And that values create value in a business. Somebody gave me a lovely expression today as well that the givers always gain. And I think that’s true. And I think if you can structure, we’ve structured our business around that, then it absolutely rips through the core. The staff are the drivers have it in a lot of ways, because they are the members of the communities that we live in, that we work in, that we serve in across the UK. They know best what is needed out in the world. They drive a lot of our activities. And we link closely with an organization called B1G1, which has a range of different organizations and charitable courses and things like that. But it’s actually about being able to, when we do something good in our business, we do something good somewhere else in the world. And it’s such a driver.

And during the pandemic, we delivered free mental health courses to anybody that wanted to get on there. These were face-to-face delivery. I’d got trainers that normally would be out face-to-face classroom. There was no classrooms, it was all online. Rather than them sit at home and wonder what’s next, we just rolled out a pile of free courses to businesses, to individuals about mental well being and how to cope during this crisis.

And some people might think that’s madness, because it’s just a cost to us as a business. But it isn’t, because people start to realize that actually, that’s where you start. And that makes your business attractive. It makes people think, well, they are supposed to be about educating and care. And they seem to also live by their values and work by their value. I think it really matters. And more emphasis, I think should be put on that in businesses. And I think it’s starting to. I think COVID has definitely accelerated the social element anyway. But even then, environmental governance is becoming more important to everybody, I think, and something that we just shouldn’t be avoiding and trying to wrap it around the edge like a lovely wrapper. It should be there right through the core of your business.

Similar to the topics around employee feedback, how do you encourage your employees to take part in some of these, like the B1G1? Or how can you help them or empower them to be part of some of these different programs?

They choose them. And we try to make it fun as well. I think giving should be fun. And what I mean by that is there’s no denying, is there? That there’s a dark side of the world and there’s things that go on that are not pleasant and not comfortable. But equally, drowning yourself in them is not healthy for anyone either. We try to make the activities fun. For example, we have what we call B1G1 time a few times a month, where we’ll just do something that’s just crazy. Like one of them picked something that they wanted me to do. And then they came forward with a load of suggestions of really stupid things to do. And then some of them were not legal as well, so they couldn’t be voted on.

But it was fun to see the kind of ideas they come through with. And then they voted on it. And it might be ranging from getting me to camp out in the garden, because they know I hate camping, or singing a karaoke song or coming to one of the updates dressed up as some character or whatever it is. But it’s just fun. And then everybody that contributes gets to choose a charity to donate to, for example. Or we might link it to a work activity. Everybody that achieves a certain goal that month, whether that be a sale or a learner achieving a qualification, then we can do x donation to whatever course it is they pick. They do a lot like that.

And very often, they also come forward and just say, “Look, I’m a volunteer at a school. I’m going to trying to raise money for a garden.” Or “I’m part of this charity here, it really matters to me.” Or “We’re looking to donations for the local female rugby team.” Whatever it is that matters to them, because these are their communities, they come forward. And I’ll be honest, I’ve never not supported any so far, because on the scheme of your business, it’s not a lot.

Now, a 50 pound donation or whatever you make as a business really means a lot to a small organization or to your team member. And then they feel part of it, they feel part of your success. And they feel that, and they are, it’s correct for them to feel this way, that they’re contributing to good in the world as well. It’s not just the people that sit on the board or the people that sit on the senior management team. Everybody is contributing. And I think that makes you feel positive about coming to work every day, when you know you’re making a difference, and it’s being celebrated, and you’ve chosen, that’s yours, that’s your impact.

But I think it really does come down to impact. When people can really see impact, that’s when it’s real. It’s not a strategy. Right? We have a strategy, but strategy doesn’t really matter to the person that wants to go and have a sensory center in their local community center. It doesn’t matter. The strategy means nothing. What matters to them is that they actually see something happen. We focus more on impact, and then make sure activities that fit the bill for them.

And in terms of the global goals, I won’t go on and on, but just in terms of the global goals, we’ve aligned ourselves to quality education, because that’s what we are. And then there’s some underneath that that we filter in like reduced inequalities, business development and growth. We have aligned ourselves with those. And we keep promoting those and reminding people about those. That’s the bigger picture global stuff. We keep our eye on that. But you know what? I actually really enjoy that. It’s kind of the best bet in a way. You get that shopping basket of requests that people would like to do for good courses. And you can’t beat it, really.

Is there any course that you’ve supported through an employee or someone else who you thought was the most notable or most unique program you’ve come across?

Most unique one we’ve supported. Gosh, we’ve supported loads. I know the ones they really enjoy. And that’s when we’ve done things like designing the best cakes and done a bake-off and things like that, very practical ones. I think the important thing is that an animal charity might matter to one person, sponsoring dogs to go into a care home to sit with people with dementia. That might matter to one person. But then on the other scale, it might be the neonatal unit at the local hospital. It might be supporting a school in a different country or whatever. Everything is different. We’ve done so many different varieties of things, which I think is just very positive.

I think, for me, supporting the lady’s rugby team with their strip, because it sounds really silly, but they had nothing, no investment whatsoever in anything. And not a lot of women play rugby, and just them being able to get out every week and do that stuff. That was one of the ones I think I particularly enjoyed doing. They say to you, “And you get your branding on and stuff like that.” But it isn’t about the branding, it’s about the fact that they’re demonstrating to keep their group going. And those little things I think are quite important.

Certainly. You obviously teach lots of different classes. But one of my closing questions is what class would you teach, if you could teach about anything you wanted?

I’ve had a look at this question. If I was to do a really formal academic subject, my choice would be human biology, purely because the body is just fascinating. It’s like a huge engine. Nurses and doctors, they are mechanics. It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s got a huge computer. It’s got all sorts of things going on. If I was to teach something a little bit fluffier and softer, I guess, I think I’d like to teach people about mental resilience and how not to feel guilty about being happy, or having enjoyable moments in life. I think we tend to just not enjoy them as much as we should. Or we tend to think that stress is a positive thing. And we should have stress in our lives to driver us. It’s stress that drives us. If I could ever educate anything, it would be fun to explain to people that’s just a complete myth. That yes, you can still achieve results with stress, but you can achieve results without it too. I think quite a bit about mental resilience.

I’ve got children. And I think that’s why it matters to me quite a lot that they live in this new world. And sometimes I wonder if my parents felt that way when I was younger. Did they think all this modern world is challenging? But I look at my children and I think resilience is something they’re not actively taught. But I think it’s absolutely massively important when you see what’s going on in the world.

Absolutely. That’s a great one. What’s a belief you used to hold strongly that you changed your mind on?

One of the beliefs I used to have, and I don’t really know where it comes from, but it’s around luck. And people say it was just luck or I was at the right place at the right time. And I really used to believe sometimes it’s just luck. I’ve actually learned it isn’t. You create your own. And it sounds a bit of a cliche, but you do create your own luck, because there’s a reason why you were there at that point in time, because you’ve put yourself there for whatever reason. Never sit and wait. Or something has happened to somebody else, it isn’t because of good luck, it’s because they position themselves to a position to be able to have that opportunity. That’s certainly something that’s changed for me over time in terms of a strong belief.

Is there a point in the early days of this business where you felt that you positioned yourself in a good place where it wasn’t luck, but you were able to take advantage of an interesting opportunity, because you put yourself in the right spot?

Yeah. And there’s actually many, many occasions. And they are often the most uncomfortable feeling situations ever. For example, networking, I used to find terrifying. I really didn’t find networking enjoyable. I wanted to avoid it. I didn’t want to do it. Now, I love it. It’s one of the best things that I did. I kept having to put myself out of my comfort zone, forcing myself to do it. And do you know what?

When it comes down to it, it’s all about judgment of yourself. It’s just we’re hard on ourselves. We think everybody in there is going to know everybody. Everybody in there is going to know more than me. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I can’t keep up with these people? What if they’re smarter than me? They are all doubts you put in your head. But actually you soon realize everybody feels like that when you walk in the room. This is what I mean about you then put yourself in a different place or you make new connections or it leads you to the next thing. It’s not luck. It genuinely is keeping and putting yourself out of different situations.

And MBH, I could argue that was one of them. I got invited to a meeting to learn more about it. I didn’t really know what to expect, and came out of that meeting with a real… In fact, do you know what? The decision was made by the time we’d walked out the room, for me. It was like this is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the thing. But it’s not by chance I ended up there. It’s through networking and talking to people and finding out more and being curious and asking questions and not being afraid to be a bit controversial at times and ask those tough, tough questions. That’s how I’d describe that.

I love it. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?

It’s a very tough question, because there’s loads of amazing businesses out there. And I’m going to go back to it. I know I’ve talked about it earlier on. I absolutely love B1G1. I absolutely love that as an organization. I love the fact that they’ve taken something, for everything you buy, you give back. But not just that, having real benefits for your business as well in doing so. And I think that’s such a smart concept, such a clever idea. It’s not charity, if that makes sense. It is giving, but it’s not charity, because that positive impact sends a good message to our customers. It resonates with our values and what we’re trying to achieve. And we’re celebrating success through giving. And I think definitely one of the best one. I should say MBH and Acacia Training really, because they’re the companies I represent. But I absolutely love B1G1 because I just think it’s such a clever, clever idea.

That’s fantastic too. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on the show and sharing a little bit about your experience running Acacia and being part of MBH, all these different programs. And we’re receiving feedback. I feel like we covered a lot in this episode. And I’m just so thankful to have you on the show.

No problem at all. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun.





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