Posted by Katie Buchanan, Head of Sustainability, Virgin Media
Bold moves, honest communications and hard graft: reflections on five years of impact
28 July 2020
This week marks an important milestone - we’re officially wrapping up our five year (2015-2020) sustainability strategy. When I set this strategy five years ago, I knew the only way to drive positive change was to move from multiple, unfocussed aims to fewer, long-term goals that were big and bold. In truth, when we set out we had no idea how we were going to achieve them but with the business behind us and a leap of faith, I figured we would find a way. And we did. I’m proud to say we achieved four out of our five goals, and for the one we didn’t, we’ve driven lasting positive change both inside and outside of our business despite not quite hitting the mark.
As I find myself in exactly the same position – setting our next set of goals, each with their own ambitious target to be met in five years’ time - I’ve been reflecting on my learnings from the last five years in order to shape where we go next.
Find your consistency compass
Whenever we lost our way over the five years it’s because we didn’t have our ‘digital’ and ‘human’ principles at the heart of our work. Right from the outset these two principles quickly emerged as the constant thread that should run through everything we did. For example, whether that was an idea for a storytelling film, or a social impact project with our charity partner, Scope, they’ve defined our approach to both the ‘what’ we do and the ‘how’ we do it. I call them our consistency compass. Once we focussed on these, things nearly always fell back into place.
Partnerships power change
Without doubt, the goal that has required most of my time and energy has been our ‘Transforming Lives’ goal – which is our strategic charity partnership to transform the lives of disabled people in the UK.
The shift from 31 charities to one charity is something that kept me awake at night in the early days, and over the past few years there has been plenty of blood, sweat and tears which have gone into making our partnership with Scope something that is meaningful and has genuinely transformed disabled peoples’ lives. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was arguably our most visible goal - both for our people and to the public. Secondly, we soon realised that we had the potential to create scalable and lasting change, and that came with the pressure to deliver at pace and to keep a sense of momentum, as well as to live up to the reputation we quickly built of driving an award winning partnership that made a significant impact.
Five years on, I’m thankful that we put in the work upfront to select a charity partner with aligned brand values and strategies. Just like in a marriage, getting to know each other first turned out to be vital along with establishing shared goals and clear communication processes. The connection you have is also important, particularly with the senior leadership team in both organisations. Partnerships in their broadest sense - internal teams, agencies or sister companies – have been, without a doubt, a consistent part of our success. We’ve achieved more by collaborating and leveraging our partners’ skills. It’s often their energy and focus which means you can bring others along with you. Adjusting to working styles and pace can bring frustration but in order to accelerate change we are definitely better when we pull together in the right direction.
Do few things really well
Anyone that knows me will know this has become my mantra over the last five years. Moving away from 31 partnerships and 25 targets to just five long-term goals gave us focus and head room to deliver a more significant impact. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s enabled our team to become genuine subject matter experts, coupled with consistent messages to galvanise our people, and the confidence to engage our customers with a cause – safe in the knowledge that our plan wasn’t going to change overnight.
Long-term goals also mean you can change path if you need to. Half-way into our partnership with Scope we realised we were tackling the wrong issue. We openly re-set our direction and have gone on to achieve a far greater impact as a result. By focusing on fewer things over a longer period of time you can get underneath the issue.
Budget helps but creativity drives success
I have never had a substantial budget or large team to work with. I have learnt the answer to success instead lies in a bold vision, a strategic focus, a small but mighty team, and lots of thinking outside of the box. I’ve enjoyed being constructively disruptive at times and put effort into building my networks inside and outside the business. Seeking and keeping independent views has been important; I’ve welcomed an outside and honest view about how we’re performing. I’ve found that if you create ways to mobilise and enable people to deliver your vision, change happens much more effectively. One of my ‘eureka’ moments was creating a squad selector tool that enabled our people to understand their role in helping us to reach our goals. In summary, you’ve got to take people with you, but don’t underestimate how much time cultural and systemic transformation can take.
Be product led
When I first joined Virgin Media, the Virgin Group had a well-used metaphor of ‘if your products could talk what would they say’. This mantra still goes around in my head to this day and has guided a lot of the work we’ve delivered over the last five years. It’s the premise that if you don’t know, you don’t care. This product mantra has driven our activity – particularly for our ‘Better products’ goal where we created a unique scorecard methodology to examine, and then share the story behind our products. We also applied this approach to the language we used to talk about our goals; being jargon free and clear to everyone was something we felt was important. Always put your customer and people at the heart of your core activity to ensure that you are leveraging your unique capabilities that they know and love.
Digital connectivity makes good things happen
Perhaps the most obvious but significant learning of all, is the role that digital can play to bring about scalable positive change. When we set out we knew digital could be a force for good, but what has been most interesting to see is how connectivity can help to achieve scale and reach in order to tackle some of the biggest social challenges facing the UK to day. We’ve learnt this particularly through our Scope partnership, and how our business has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic – where our connectivity has supported the NHS and front-line workers with their vital work, and helped our customers to work from home, home-school their children and stay entertained and connected to the people they love during this challenging time.
I’ve learnt that positive change comes from bold moves, honest and transparent communications and hard graft. We set out with a huge vision that we never veered far from, and we united our people around a few hero goals. And as I look ahead, I think ‘movement making’ is about truly knowing your consumer and how you can work with them to make positive change happen. I definitely want to do more of that over the next five years.
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