The Best of Both Worlds: Uniting Leadership Development and Corporate Responsibility

Gillian Murray has been Chief Executive of Pilotlight since 2013. Her previous roles include managing a language teaching and training business in Italy, and acting as country director for Voluntary Service Overseas in Laos PDR. In this article, Gillian discusses how uniting leadership development and corporate responsibility strategies makes good business sense.


Arguably, the single most important thing you can do as a leader is to hire the right people.

The demands of a rapidly changing environment make it more important than ever to attract, and develop, the agile mindset and adaptable qualities needed to take successfully businesses into the future. Attracting the best and the brightest, providing a development pathway for future leaders and ongoing learning for current ones is not getting any easier. And how do leaders themselves find opportunities to step outside their comfort zone and challenge their own practices and preconceptions?

One of the acknowledged benefits of a corporate responsibility (CR) strategy is a greater ability to attract talent and retain staff. The task of developing the learning and development pathway is usually the remit of the HR department. Too often, there is limited interplay between a company’s learning and development initiatives and its social responsibility strategy – in my experience, there are tremendous potential synergies here.

Business is being challenged to pair profit with purpose and demonstrate a positive impact in the wider world. And it is that concept of ‘impact’ that backs up my central proposition that aligning CR and HR strategies makes good business sense. The best illustration I can give is using the evolution of Pilotlight, the charity and social enterprise I lead, as a case in point.

Our programmes utilise the skills of our business members, whom we call Pilotlighters, to help charities become more effective and efficient. After launching our first programme in 2003, we set about devising a way to, first of all, ensure that what we were doing was actually making a difference to charities, and secondly, to identify and measure the outcomes of the programme. This has evolved over the years into a theory of change or outcomes chain which tracks areas such as leadership development, organisational development, income and reach, over a three-year period. Alongside a mass of qualitative information are hard measures such as data from the Charity Commission, showing that two years after the programme, charities’ income has, on average, increased by 46% (see our 2018 impact report for more information). The impact we are aiming for is that charities are delivering more effective and efficient services.

As a charity, we were sourcing our corporate business members through their CR departments and budgets. It was a few years before we realised that the programme was producing significant outcomes for our business members. Feedback from the Pilotlighters showed that, by taking part, they were developing skills, growing their professional networks and even becoming happier. It was a lightbulb moment for us to understand that we could model the outcomes and impact for Pilotlighters in a way not dissimilar to that of our charity partners. While initially a strong driving factor for Pilotlighters taking part in this type of programme to give back and make a difference, and this remains the case today, there was on top of this a clear outcomes chain through knowledge and awareness to skills and behavior, and ultimately health and wellbeing. I believe that improving outcomes in these areas is firmly in the domain of HR departments.

And this is why I am proposing a model of creating shared value by looking at the value of the learning and development opportunities as part of the CR strand. There is a strong human desire to do good and give back and this is often fulfilled through activities outside work such as volunteering, trusteeships, and so on. It does also take place in the workplace – often through volunteering days or fundraising activities. These are all good things, yes, but that personal satisfaction, embedded in an opportunity for professional and personal development is also very powerful. Last year, 79% of our Pilotlighters reported increased leadership skills; 87% improved coaching skills, 73% increased job satisfaction and 94% an increase in their happiness and sense of wellbeing.

These are impressive percentages – but what is the value to the business? I can’t entirely answer that, except potentially through the efficiencies of combining CR and HR strategies and I’m not sure it’s my place to do so. There are a number of studies supporting the proposition that companies able to harness the power of purpose to drive performance and profit enjoy a competitive advantage. To be able to articulate the social impact of the business through the learning and development of its people sends a strong and coherent message.

What I do know and see every day is the breadth and depth of development our business members experience – through stepping out of their comfort zone, having a very different client-facing relationship, learning to listen, and gaining a whole new perspective on how others live their lives.

Of course, people need, and charities need, different things at different stages in their life journey. My experience is just one way of aligning CR and HR behind business goals, which I believe is a simple concept, though not necessarily straightforward to put into practice. Which is why it’s ultimately a whole organisation strategy, led from the top – more of a mindset than a checklist.

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