In the Arena

I have to say that I am usually a pretty up-beat and positive person. As a team we discipline ourselves to use positive word sets, to speak as optimistically as we can in any situation in order to build that positive culture throughout our business.

This last month I have felt bad, sad, tired, frustrated, angry…the list could go on. All in all it has been a rough month. I don’t need to dwell on it but save to say it is has been the hardest month since I founded the business five years ago. Cash flow challenges, HR barriers, testing relationships with external partners and investors, tough conversations with the board, and a pressurised senior team who have sometimes snapped at each other. All those things you would expect in challenging times. A kind of 360 degree bummer.

Good times too, though. In just over a month Create has been listed in the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Guide and won the Observer Food Monthly Ethical Restaurant of the Year. A roller coaster really. The problem with a roller coaster is that it is fine doing 50 miles an hour on a track 100 meters from the ground and fine doing the same speed on a track 10 meters from the ground. The movement down and back up again from low to high and back again, is the bit that really churns your stomach.

I have done two things to survive this time. Gone away and dug deep.

Gone away in the sense of short weekend times away. I have a small place in North Yorkshire. Don’t misunderstand, not a massive country pile, I haven’t done that well from government contracts. Just a very very small bolt hole to relax. Dug deep in the sense of re-connecting with why I started this business five years ago.

These two have come together.

When you are in North Yorkshire you are steeped in the culture of the countryside and the traditions it brings. The gentle flow of the seasons and the ancient arts of those who tend the land. I guess it was thinking about those things that helped me to dig deep. In the old days (as my kids would say, about Now That’s What I Call Music 3 time) people would plough the field using a team of cattle all yoked together to draw the plough. Perhaps three or eight cattle drawing a plough. The challenge with this is that each animal wanted to go its own way and the ploughman had to create a straight furrow. Well I have to say in the last month I have felt that the yoke had gone, the cattle were just going in whatever direction they damn well pleased and the furrow was all over the place! I am reliably informed that in circumstances like this all you could do is hold on and fix your eyes on a point on the horizon. Not the plough, not the furrow, not the cattle, fix you eyes on the horizon and head there.

I guess that is what I have always believed about social enterprises, they are purpose driven and principle centred and always head towards the fixed point of the mission focus. For some people that fixed point is money, or power, or market share or glory. I have to say, all of those are fine motivators. For me the fixed point on the horizon is running a great business that makes the maximum difference for those who have been homeless to get life changing jobs.

I guess this digging deep has focused my vision again on this fixed point to which I am heading to help me orient my journey, and the journey of the business I founded.

One more thing I learned. When you are purpose driven, I think that the way you travel is as important as the destination, the fixed point on the journey. When under great pressure, it is easy to be unkind, to play politics, to skirt around the truth. I think for me if you get to the destination but failed to make the journey with honour and integrity you can’t ever end up where you wanted to be anyway.

One of the things that has encouraged me more than any other are some words delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt. I will leave you with those and tend to my wounds…

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.


About Sarah Dunwell

Sarah Dunwell is executive director of Arena Partners and has twenty years experience in the corporate and business sector. After a number of senior roles in customer service and retail management, Sarah led her own successful catering business and is experienced in business turn around and SME growth. Sarah has a particular interest in the role of robust business planning and development in the not-for-profit sector. Her passion lies in seeing social businesses grow successfully and sustainably through creating mature businesses that deliver strong social agendas.
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