I’ve built a road into the future
Laura North had a long-standing fear of speaking in front of groups. “I had lots of ideas, but found it difficult to express them in a meeting of more than a few people,” she said. “When you see others around you apparently so confident, you end up being the quiet one.”
It’s a fear that will resonate with many. But when Laura realised it was holding her back in her career, she secured a fellowship at the University of the Arts London to research how to improve speaking confidence, and spent the next decade helping others overcome the barrier she herself had faced.
Laura is certainly not the quiet one now. She talks articulately and passionately about We Speak, the social enterprise she set up just before Covid to help students from under-represented backgrounds to improve their speaking confidence, and thus boost their employment prospects.
The business founder and her colleagues began delivering programmes face-to-face in schools and universities, and moved the business online during Covid. The business model is simple: students do a four-week online programme facilitated by mentors from big organisations that We Speak has trained.
“The corporate mentors find it rewarding because they can see the massive change in students’ confidence, and because we are connecting their companies with students who are developing skills around leadership, communication and facilitation, we are essentially developing a new talent pipeline for them,” explained Laura. Students increase their speaking confidence by an average of 44 per cent, based on self-reporting on a scale of 1-10 at the start and finish of the programme.
She and the business have already won a string of awards, including Investec Beyond Business (in 2019), UnLtd Award (2021) and NatWest Star of the Future Award (2022).
But she almost became a victim of her own success.
“The scheme was working really well, but I felt as though I was on a treadmill, focusing so closely on delivery that I didn’t have time for anything else, least of all business development,” Laura added. “And the organisations we got on board was really down to happenstance and luck, rather than design. Investec, whom we knew from the award, stepped in to help during the pandemic by providing staff to act as mentors for a trial of an online programme. Other amazing companies, including Just Eat Takeaway, Wavemaker, General Electric and Google, were due to recommendations or introductions.”
What’s more, the hard work was taking its toll on her: “I was firefighting all the time, and I was pretty much exhausted,” she remembered.
So, when a friend related her own experience of using the Be the Business Mentoring programme, Laura signed herself up and was matched with Chris Saul – chief strategy and innovation officer at Hitachi Europe. However, Laura admitted that Chris’s impressive CV “freaked her out a bit.”
Entrepreneurial, innovative and visionary, Chris has a 25-year track record of building and transforming SMEs and Fortune-500 companies, in both his executive roles and the board advisory roles he’s undertaken as a chartered director and fellow of the Institute of Directors. He also advises one of the 15 Earthshot Prize finalists and has just been invited onto their Expert Panel.
“I had a real sense of imposter syndrome, and felt embarrassed going into my first 15-minute introductory conversation with him,” commented Laura. However, Chris’ friendliness, enthusiasm and genuine interest in the business quickly allayed her fears. “I came out feeling on top of the world,” she added. “I knew we could work well together and that he would make a really big strategic difference to my business.”
She needn’t have worried. Chris was blown away by We Speak and by Laura herself.
“I love the premise of the business, which has deservedly won all these awards. And Laura is inspirational: she had an exceptional idea and is very very good at delivering it, but she is also incredibly modest.”
Becoming more efficient and effective
Laura was looking for advice on how to make her business more robust, resilient and capable of growing.
She recalled: “We typically run three programmes a year, and I was selling to businesses on a programme-by-programme basis. One of the first pieces of advice Chris gave me was to look at yearly contracts instead. I was also invoicing at the end of each programme, and because some of the corporates had lengthy payment terms, it meant cash flow was really up and down, which was difficult because I had to pay staff regularly.”
She has now developed an engagement model and contract, which allows corporations to pay on a quarterly basis. This has not only stabilised cash flow, it has also streamlined processes, reducing the admin burden on clients and on Laura herself, freeing her up to think and act more strategically.
“Now that the company is more stable, I can spend more time looking at how we can grow,” she revealed.
Chris also helped Laura develop her sales relationships. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea of cold calling, and much prefer the kind of organic growth you get through recommendation from mentors who are enthusiastic about the programme. Chris and I have worked through how I can do that in a more designed way, by talking to our fabulous mentor base s and asking them if they can introduce us to other organisations.”
Chris explained: “In essence Laura was selling, winning, delivering, billing – and that’s a very big burden on both her and her customers. I’ve helped her convert what she’s doing into more systematic revenue sources, which has the added advantage of allowing her to plan more systematically, and get the right resources at the right time. She’s now got more headroom for growth and expansion.
But it’s not just what Chris has advised her to do, it’s also how he’s done it, said Laura.
“Chris drip-feeds advice, which means that however much there is to do, it never feels overwhelming. In each monthly meeting we discuss things, I take loads of notes so as not to miss any of these gold nuggets, then I go away and try things out and report back at the next meeting as to how successful they were, he gives more advice, and so on. That’s how we move it forward. I used to feel as though I was running on the spot, but now I’ve built a road into the future and I’m progressing along it.”
Chris has also given Laura more confidence that she’s doing the right things.
She explained: “So many things go wrong on a daily basis: you’re always thinking what is going on, and it’s hard to see it objectively. But because Chris is so engaged with the business, and willing to spend his very valuable time giving me this strategic and practical direction, I think, ‘well, it must be worth it’.”
It’s not that Chris is uncritical, she added: “In fact, he’s very direct. But he never makes me feel I’m moving too slowly, or not doing well enough. Some things work, and others don’t, but I feel reassured that I’m moving in the right direction.”
The mentoring has exceeded her expectations “by a million,” she stressed. “My business is transformed, and so am I: I am so much happier. I cannot express how incredible Chris is. As a sole founder you can get quite insular and you go round and round in circles in your head. But I come out of my meetings with Chris feeling reinvigorated and reinspired.”
Chris said: “The magical thing about Laura is that she naturally does the right thing: she has very good, natural, commercial instincts, and makes good decisions. What I’ve done, essentially, is help her with a bit of tuning – ‘why not think of it like this?’ – so she can leverage the true brilliance of her character. With a very small amount of guidance she continues to do some spectacular things.”
Moving towards sustainable growth
Chris believes the scope for scaling We Speak is almost unlimited. “The number of people who would benefit from what they are delivering is never-ending,” he added. “So the challenge for Laura is to grow sustainably – and sustain her own work-life balance.”
Laura agrees: “We Speak is a big passion for me, but I need to ensure that I’m ok so that I can grow the business.”
As part of her shift towards being more strategic and balanced herself, Laura now does daily hour-long "focus coaching" sessions where she takes action on some of the ideas she and Chris discuss, including how to generate sales leads.
“That’s helping me to increase sales in a sustainable way – ensuring we can deliver for existing customers as well as winning new ones,” she said.
But her vision for delivering truly sustainable growth is a kind of ecosystem, whereby We Speak hires graduates of the programme to deliver workshops to the next cohort, and then they are hired into jobs and become We Speak mentors and advocates, and infect other organisations with their enthusiasm. “In fact, we’ve just had our first person do that. Fazira started as a student, she lacked confidence, she did brilliantly on our programme, trained as a facilitator, got a first at university, was recruited by HSBC, and is now back on board with us as a mentor. She’s a great role model for other students.”
As Laura says, success for a social enterprise means having a sustainable social impact as well as financial sustainability.
Chris and Laura started working together in November 2021 – and they are still doing so, several months beyond the formal end of the programme.
“I find Laura quite inspirational to work with, and I will continue to help her as long as she thinks I am adding value,” revealed Chris. “We both get pretty busy, so we are really flexible with each other, and it just kind of works.”
business size: 1-9 People
business type: Education
Tips from Laura for a successful mentoring relationship
Running a business is really hard work and it’s easy to think there’s no time for anything, so if it's fun, uplifting and inspiring like it is with Chris it's more likely to be sustainable.
I think you need to take action on advice and ideas because it fuels the mentoring relationship and both mentor and mentee can see real progress.
Being reflective and brutally honest about progress, including the things that are not going well. If you're not honest then your mentor won’t know the full story and can't help.