In finishing my assignment, I wanted to try to sum up the work I’ve been doing with Live Well.
I had two very different roles: one as an operations manager, and another developing the strategy and transforming the business model. My assignment was complicated by GSK co-funding the business, and at times I was caught between doing what the different stakeholders wanted, which sometimes didn’t quite match up. I hope I managed to shift Live Well to be a bit more business-like, while ensuring that the social enterprise aspect wasn’t compromised.
In terms of day to day work, working as the operations manager for Live Well often felt like my job in Montrose; it turns out trying to get the sales team out to the field with the right stock is very similar to getting inputs and paperwork ready to get a batch on! This is where a lot of my existing skills and experience have helped Live Well, particularly aspects such as time management, forward planning, being organised and data handling. In all honesty, much of this was very frustrating and I struggled to make a lot of the efficiency-related change that I had hoped. I was up against a lot of resistance to change, partly because my background isn’t in sales and they were unwilling to see such principles can work across different businesses. My main success was in implementing institutional sales and this becoming a permanent feature of the business (see previous blog for more details), but it was an absolute fight all the way.
With the GSK-Barclays partnership funding coming to an end in 2018, Live Well needed to identify a new funder/donor, and revise the business plan to reduce costs. In order to develop that strategy, I worked closely with Live Well’s manager, Chikwe, and my fellow advisor Carey (from Living Goods) with lots of hours of discussion, some good debates and lots of research and number crunching. We used a tool provided by the Mulago Foundation that helps social entrepreneurs design a model to create lasting change at scale with a supporting organizational structure. (As an aside, I recommend browsing the website if you want to see some truly inspirational organisations and if you wish to consider alternative recipients for your charitable donations.) From there, we worked to develop the strategy into a 5-year business plan and financial plan.
I then translated that into a promotional brochure for potential investors. This was work originally destined to be outsourced, but I (rashly) offered to attempt it in-house to save money and actually turned out really well.
I also spent a lot of time doing deep-dive evaluations of the business over a range of topics and provided detailed reports to the Live Well Board in order to inform decision making and to justify the business plan. I was surprised that my work was so well received by the Board, having never analysed sales or business performance before. This was a good example of using some of my existing skills (data handling, report writing) to very different content. Maybe all those deviation investigation reports were good preparation?!
So though it lacked great photo opportunities, the business planning and evaluations were a huge part of my assignment and something that was challenging and enjoyable. I didn’t think I would be getting so involved in driving the strategy and I’ve never written a business plan, so that provided a huge learning opportunity for me.
I’m leaving Zambia with a greater appreciation of the reality of living and working in the developing world. I didn’t want my trip to look like one of voluntourism; Live Well isn’t a charity; it’s a business and I approached it just like I approach my work at GSK. It just happens that my business partners (our CHEs) are people for whom living on a dollar a day is reality. It doesn’t mean life is bleak or that they are perpetually unhappy; life isn’t miserable. But you can’t escape the reality that life is tough. When people get sick, they often die. The loss of a child is common, many of our CHEs are widows in their 30s, and many are raising their nieces and nephews. But that doesn’t mean that handouts are the solution, and after six months, I’m even more convinced of this.
From a personal perspective, I have managed (and grown) a sales and marketing business, managed a team of Zambian staff and supported our CHEs, and co-authored a business plan – all in a significantly different culture. From never imagining I could run a business, I’d now love to do it. Definitely six months well spent.