Aiming to develop leaders who can cross boundaries, Common Purpose has become a big player within the diversity space. After taking home Championing Diversity at the 2018 PIEoneer Awards, Andy Coxall told The PIE about his company’s work.
The PIE: What is the aim of Common Purpose?
Andy Coxall: We see a world which is beset by very complex problems which don’t sit neatly within a sector, within a geography, within an industry. They cross boundaries, sectors and institutes of all kind, but too often leaders operate within boundaries.
“There’s a huge swathe of students who just will not do traditional mobility”
We’re very interested in the notion of cross-boundary leadership and encouraging people to develop their ability to cross boundaries and to lead. To do that, we run experiential leadership programs bringing together people from different backgrounds, different walks of life, different beliefs to develop their ability to understand others and to lead across diversity, to lead inclusively.
The PIE: What does experiential leadership entail?
AC: We take people out into cities to explore leadership in practice and explore leadership in action. All of our programs are based on the principle of using cities as classrooms. So, we bring together groups of leaders, and that could be anything, like a group of senior leaders in business government and NGOs to go out and explore leadership in context of what are the big issues in the city.
The PIE: And what type of leader do you help?
AC: We work with people at multiple stages in their leadership journey. We start off with university students, so that’s anyone from undergraduate or postgraduate enrolled in higher education. We then move up to emerging leaders; people with maybe five or 10 years’ experience. Then we work with senior leaders who have 15-20 years plus experience. We very much approach at that level.
Then our alumni network is a core part of what we do. Anyone who goes through one of our programs can get continued education for the rest of their lives. They can plug into online courses, face-to-face programming they can tap into the network of people who’ve been through the program so that at different points during their career they can continue to tap in and get the development they need.
The PIE: Congratulations again on your 2018 PIEoneer Awards win. In the nomination, you were quoted as saying “we have a moral imperative to do as much as possible for students from non-traditional and widening participation backgrounds”. What does that mean in practice?
AC: We’ve seen that there’s been a big drive to enable students in non-traditional backgrounds to benefit from a global experience because they’re massively underrepresented in the numbers. And we also know that when students from those backgrounds go on a global experience, the impact is much greater.
But there are very real structural barriers they face around finance, or length. For a semester or year-long program, they can’t afford to take that time out. The fact they have part-time jobs, caring responsibilities, they might be parents. And also the perceived barriers that these opportunities aren’t for them.
“We’re thinking about around how do you bring the generations together to tackle the complex problems”
There’s a huge swathe of students who just will not do traditional mobility and are missing out on that life-changing, transformational moment. That’s really driven us to refine our model to work with our partners very closely to find what works best for their students.
The programs are already short-term, but it could also be looking at it and saying “well let’s do it it’s a short-haul destination. Let’s go over to mainland Europe because then the timeframe is even smaller”.
Or in other cases working with partners and saying you know these students may not have another global experience like this so let’s give them a really, really immersive and different experience. That could be flying them halfway around the world to Kuala Lumpur, Nairobi or to Chicago to give them an experience that they just wouldn’t normally be able to access.
Through our partnerships, we’re seeing that the challenge they’re trying to overcome is offering different models for mobility that speak to these non-traditional students. Coupled with that imperative, if you go a level higher, is about ensuring as many people, if not all people, have the opportunity to benefit from global experience and from leadership development while they’re at university.
The PIE: In terms of scalability, is providing all students with an overseas experience something Common Purpose can do? Are there scale issues?
AC: It has to be a partnership approach. We know we are a small part of a much bigger playing field here. But there’s lots of different ways you can scale.
For example, the University of Hong Kong has committed to all their undergrads doing an international learning experience during their time at the university by 2022. That means they’ve got to get 8,000 students a year out which is a huge amount.
We’re working with them on a scalable model, starting small, because you’ve got to test the concept, but then growing up. We started three years ago with the pilot group of 70 students going to Manila for a month. That’s since scaled up now to five locations and the numbers have increased four or five-fold as a result.
“I’m really interested in is how institutions look at how all students get the opportunities that they want from higher education”
The other bit that can work is the online space. Online offers endless opportunity to get people to engage.
The outcomes are different, but the engagement is remarkably high and it means that people can have a global experience in their bedroom and engage with their peers across the world. They can exchange ideas they can get a global view. I think the opportunities there are genuinely endless.
The PIE: What would you hope for in terms of further diversity and inclusion?
AC: It in a way, things have shifted from widening access to widening opportunity. I’m really interested in how institutions, and on a national level, and then on a global level, really look at how all students get the opportunities they want from higher education.
Issues around widening participation and widening opportunity are so complex and so specific to that institution and the locality, it needs to be really tailored. The difficulty is there isn’t a one size fits all answer to it.
The big thing would be actually that all students, irrespective of background, can have the development, leadership development, and the global experience opportunities that they aspire to and that we can find different mechanisms of doing it.
The PIE: What is Common Purpose looking at moving forward?
AC: It’s our 30th anniversary this year as an organisation, so there’s a lot around that.
There’s a lot we’re thinking about around how do you bring the generations together to tackle the complex problems we face and how can cultural intelligence be a lens and a means to bring generations together. Bridging that generational divide is an absolutely crucial one across the world.
“I think the opportunities online are genuinely endless”
We’re also putting a lot of energy into bringing together leaders across geographical regions to look at how they can tackle the common challenges they face. We’re doing a lot of work across the ASEAN region, in partnership with the ASEAN Foundation, to bring together leaders of business, government and the NGO sectors as well as the African continent to look at how they can work together.
We’re increasingly doing a lot of youth legacy space, thinking about what is the legacy that young people want to leave and create for their region.
We’re also looking at continuing to track the impact of what we do and continuing to support our alumni through our continued education proposition for them.
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