#69: Warriors, architects, and monarchs
A Q&A with non-profit founder and Chief Social Purpose Officer, Polly Mackenzie
I’m breaking with routine and sharing another Q&A this week.
Please meet Polly Mackenzie.
Polly started her career as a business journalist. In 2004, she became a UK Policy Adviser on housing and local government for Edward Davey MP. She then worked for Nick Clegg from 2006 to 2015, helping to write the 2010 Coalition Agreement, and serving as Director of Policy to the UK Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-15.
After leaving Government, Polly became the founding CEO of the Women’s Equality Party. She then went on to found the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, a charity working to break the link between financial difficulty and mental health problems. She was also the CEO of Demos, the UK’s leading social value think tank, bringing citizen voice and lived experience into public policy discussions. Today, Polly is Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of Arts London (UAL), a role which—to her knowledge—only exists in two other organisations in the world.
In this honest and hopeful Q&A, Polly shares what led her to the CSPO role, how collaboration was key to her former charity’s success, why she’s learning to lead like a monarch, and much more.
Let’s start with the big stuff. What’s keeping you up at night right now?
It’s hard not to start with climate change; with the irreversible catastrophe we are closer and closer to visiting upon ourselves because we haven’t the courage to change the way we work and live. I worked in politics for the first 20 years of my career and it’s hard to have much confidence in the ability of our leaders to really step up; for every inspirational change, there are setbacks and despair. It’s very easy to feel small—to feel like there’s no point trying to fix things because it might not make a difference. But I keep going by telling myself the other side of that argument: it might make a difference. Hope comes from action, not the other way around.
One of the many notable roles you held during your time in politics was as Head of Strategic Policy and Chief Speechwriter for then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg. What was one of the most valuable things you learned as a speechwriter?
It’s probably that most people aren’t paying attention most of the time. When you’re writing a speech, you get so focused on all the words that you can forget what it’s like to be the audience. You imagine people are going to be able to digest forty-seven different points. It’s like people who put up a PowerPoint slide with 200 words and then read them all out. Speeches have to be led by simplicity. If you do it well, you can expect people to take away one big idea and maybe two or three other nuggets. If there’s more to say, it’s much better done in writing. And that’s still true if you’re talking to an expert, technical audience. They’re still humans. You still do best if you make a joke, connect to them as humans, and keep it simple.
How did your experiences in politics and at think tanks lead you to your current role as Chief Sustainability Officer at UAL?
Politics is a very creative field: it’s relentlessly (and sometimes exhaustingly) about change. Now, that’s not great for our system of government, because in government the job of simply running things well never gets enough attention. But there is real value in the commitment almost everyone in politics has to imagine and campaign for a different way of doing things. Think tanks are another part of that ecosystem: looking for ways to improve human or planetary wellbeing. But I became increasingly convinced that we can’t just look to Government to tackle these challenges. I wanted to work in an organisation that was trying to change its own behaviour—to make the best impact it could possibly have in the world.
What does a Chief Social Purpose Officer do exactly?
My role is to support the university to maximise the positive impact we have in the world. I joined UAL a year ago, so we’ve spent the first year in a collaborative process to build a shared sense, among our staff and students of both our purpose—what we’re trying to accomplish—and how we want to work together to deliver it. Like a Chief Sustainability Officer, I have a team that’s working across the organisation to help us change our operations and behaviour. We talk about purpose because we believe—as probably the world’s largest arts university—we have responsibilities that go beyond the normal boundaries of sustainability. We also need to champion the role of creativity in bringing wellbeing, innovation, and prosperity to the world.
What does a purpose approach mean for the university sector?
I like to think universities have four different modes of existence: a purpose approach is about trying to contribute positively to the world in each one of those modes.
The first is as a teaching environment: people learn and take the skills they develop here out into the world. If we’ve got the right diversity of students and we’re helping them get the right skills, that should benefit not just them, but society more broadly.
Universities also do research; we are building new knowledge and new capabilities—but are we directing that research towards the world’s problems? We must.
Universities are also large enterprises with multi-million-pound turnovers. They may usually be not-for-profit but they have huge spending power that can influence local economies and communities profoundly. As businesses we need to be sustainable: reduce our carbon, make a positive contribution to biodiversity, treat our staff well, buy from local businesses.
Finally, universities are communities—at UAL, we’re about 5000 staff and about 25,000 students. We have ideas, ambitions, and to a huge extent, we’re activists. It’s in the nature of both students and academics to be that way. I think a purpose-led university should not resist that campaigning zeal: it should help harness it in the service of change.
New to Pass It On? Why not join us for free
In April this year, you were featured in a Creative Review article titled “How much should arts unis be pushing purpose?” Nick Asbury, a writer and poet who is critical of purpose and its role in business, picked up on the piece and argued the following:
“All this is a clue to what’s really taking place here—it’s not students pushing a purpose agenda into industry; it’s a corporate purpose movement pushing its agenda back into creative education, hoping to convince sincerely idealistic students that corporate life is a reliable channel for their idealism.” [...] Once you subsume art into politics, you have given up the whole game—all art ultimately becomes about a demonstration of the right political virtues, rather than a demonstration of craft, imagination, talent, humanity, transcendence. Of course, art can choose to be political [...]. But art is a different realm to politics: a different, deeper way of engaging with the world. And this is more than a philosophical argument—because subjugating creativity to politics leads to worse creativity.”
What’s your take on Nick’s position?
I am a lot more optimistic about politics than Nick is, but that’s probably because I define it very differently. Everything is political if it seeks impact or influence on others, and most of our activities do. Craft, imagination, talent, humanity, transcendence—all these things Nick wants to celebrate have (in my view) the same purpose: human wellbeing*, sometimes solely for the individual who’s doing the craft, the imagining, the art, the humanity or the transcending. But very often for those around them too—the audience, by which I mean those who experience the outputs, the innovations, the emotions of the art as it is produced. That moment when work has impact on other people is political. It’s making the world better, person by person.
*You can’t have human wellbeing without planetary wellbeing
How do you think AI will impact the university sector?
Initial responses have been concentrated on the questions of marking and assessment: how can we ensure that students’ submitted work is their own? However, in the longer term, it’s the question of how the industries our graduates go into will change. We teach artists, designers, performers, photographers, illustrators and more. We may need to change not just how we teach these skills, but how many people we teach, and what we teach them to do. A few years ago, we launched a Creative Computing Institute, which is a specialist centre for both teaching and research at the intersection between technology and creative arts. It may be that those methods of making become even more important over time to the way we work. But we may also see increased interest in authentic hand-making and craft skills as automation takes some forms of art into mass production that wasn’t possible before.
After leaving Government you founded the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. What surprised you the most about being a non-profit leader? What if anything from that experience has shaped the way you lead now?
It was an amazing privilege to be asked by Martin Lewis to found the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. It’s a charity he’d decided to set up after coming across so many people through Money Saving Expert who just couldn’t get the advice or support they needed to manage their finances successfully, and it was making their mental health worse. The most important parts of our model were both grounded in collaboration. First: we built a community of about 5000 consumers with lived experience of mental health problems, who were at the heart of all our research. Second: we collaborated with all the other charities and advocacy groups who cared about similar things. In the third sector you rarely have money: what you do have which is rarer in the private sector is your freedom to pool resources and collaborate. So lean into it: life’s too short for competing with others on the same mission.
If you want to bring more people into your mission, you have to spend time understanding the way they see the world, what motivates them, and how they structure their work. Collaboration has to start with mutual respect.
How can the tech and non-profit sectors come closer together?
Most sectors struggle to understand one another. I’ve seen this most when it comes to trying to get policymakers and academics to work together; they are very much divided by a common language. They mean different things by research, by evidence; they work to different timelines; they have different incentives. And they can only get over those barriers if they acknowledge them first. In the third sector, we sometimes think everyone is motivated by the same things, by the same definitions of justice, fairness, and values. But if you want to bring more people into your mission, you have to spend time understanding the way they see the world, what motivates them, and how they structure their work. Collaboration has to start with mutual respect.
What do you wish the tech sector knew about the non-profit sector and vice versa?
I wish they just understood how much they could help each other. Charities can be incredibly nervous about digital innovation, even about putting services online, because they’re worried that they might leave some of their users behind. But non-profits often have incredibly rich resources, relationships and capabilities that could actually help improve the quality of technology and make it work for people in harder-to-reach communities. If we could collaborate better, there would be a less stark choice between the cheap tech fix and the quality face-to-face delivery.
Which three books or other media have impacted you most as a leader and why?
I work with a brilliant coach at VC Talent Lab, Rachel Turner, who writes about three stages of leadership development: the brave warrior, the considered architect, and the wise monarch. Like most people who’ve founded things, my starting point is often the ‘brave warrior’—leading from the front, fighting fires and charging at every problem. That’s usually where you have to start when you’re in the first months of a new venture. But there comes a time when you have to step back and start to design systems that don’t need you—that’s the architect phase. And then you have to step further back, as you scale your business or charity, and become more of a monarch—watchful, wise, staying away from the action because that’s the only way to keep the perspective you need to actually serve your people properly. It feels uncomfortable to “monarch” if you’re used to being on the front lines, so you have to work hard at it.
Rachel’s book is called The Founder’s Survival Guide, but I keep her model in my head by thinking about The Last Kingdom, a TV adaptation of a series of books by Bernard Cornwell set in 9th-century England. The main character is Uhtred, raised by Vikings, who’s the archetypal warrior. He fights, he shouts, he’s always out there charging at things, usually covered in blood and mud. Then there’s King Alfred, who’s skinny, pale, cerebral and brilliant. Neither would be any good without the other.
Finally, it’s not a book, but I think a lot about the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer. I’m not in recovery myself but I’m not sure there are many wiser words than these:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
More questions for Polly? Tweet her @pollymackenzie.
I’m curious: do you believe arts universities have a responsibility to teach and embed purpose? Or are you in the Nick Ashbury camp?
This week, we’re shining the spotlight on Laura 🌻
Currently working for a large charity in England and Wales
Subscribed to Pass It on in February 2021 but have been reading since issue #01 on remote meetings
If I could pass on one tip: read Utopia For Realists by Rutger Bregman. It's all about how progressive ideas can be surprisingly old, that good answers to hard problems can be staring us in the face, and that the best way is always to consider humanity above all else.
The subscriber shoutout is a new feature for celebrating readers who are referring Pass It On to others. I’ll share more about this soon, but in short: if 3 people subscribe because you shared a post with them, I’ll be reaching out and asking to feature you. It’s entirely optional, and you’re in control of what gets shared. If you want to get a headstart, you’ll find the share button at the bottom of this newsletter.
Big thanks again to Laura for helping us grow the mission. And to everyone as always for reading.