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INTERVIEW

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The Trust in me

The chief executive of The Prince’s Trust, Martina Milburn, listens to her instincts

WRITING

Ben Walker PHOTOGRAPHY

Phil Adams

Leadership is about trusting your instinct. When I ignored it was when things went wrong Dialogue Q3 2019

“If you meet the kids in week one of our programme, on the whole they won’t talk to you,” says Dame Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Prince’s Trust, the Prince of Wales’ UK charity for vulnerable youngsters. “They won’t even talk to each other. Some of them are there because they have been told by the local police that unless they go on the programme they are going to court. And then we say, ‘next week, you are going on a week’s residential, where you’ll share the cooking, you are going to do coasteering, you are going to do mountain biking’. And they will universally say, ‘absolutely not’ – usually with a lot of expletives added.” By the end of the programme, in week 12, the same young people have to report on what they liked best: “Inevitably, they will all say that the best bit was the residential. And they will all tell you that the programme wasn’t long enough.” Milburn is in the business of building confidence. “You can’t do that in a classroom. The only way you can do it is provide those kinds of opportunities. You have got to let them fall off their bike! You have got to let people make mistakes so they can learn and build their confidence. I’ve seen kids in tears at the top of an abseil, and it might take four days to persuade them to do it. But when they do it, you can see that switch; ‘If I can do that, I can do all of the other stuff’. It should be a key part of what we do with our young people.” Milburn’s passion for making positive changes has led her to the chairmanship of the UK government’s Social Mobility Commission. She has been emphatic about the challenges: social mobility in the UK is among the lowest in the OECD, she says, and has remained flat since it was first measured in a consistent way in 2010. She thinks that those who believe the key to increasing mobility is to encourage more people to go to university, leave their hometowns, seek professional employment, “are looking at the problem the wrong way”, and that local

solutions – non-graduate apprenticeships and the like – might offer a better route. She thinks Britain’s apprenticeship system offers too many places at graduate level and far too few at lower levels, and that entry requirements heavily based on students’ grades in academic school subjects are blocking some good candidates. “All the course leaders tell me that they hire for attitude – so if you got a D and a C in Maths or English, but you are the right person to do it, does it matter?” Her view is controversial. Does she think it will resonate with the government? “Possibly not.” Does she care? “No. I’m there as an independent commissioner and we will pay for the research, look at the evidence, then say what we think the evidence is showing us.” Milburn began her career as a trainee reporter in the 1970s. Journalism typically breeds scepticism: so how did someone from this most cynical of professions come to work in a field where hope is a vital currency? “Oh, I think that being sceptical is good,” says Milburn. “Particularly in the aid world, you need people who come and say, ‘well, hang on a second, does this add up? Does this look right? Does it feel right?’” Milburn is a proponent of what might be termed the ‘sniff test’ – her instincts tend to lead her to the evidence, rather than vice versa. After her days as a journalist, she worked at a spinal injury charity in London called Aspire. She found the place “inspiring”, she says, but even great organizations have their problems – and she used a reporter’s sixth sense to identify them. “Leadership is about trusting your instinct,” she says. “I learned quite quickly that when I ignored it, that tended to be when things went wrong. There were things that you started to look at in the charity and you thought just didn’t feel right.” She sniffed out the story, the data backing her gut more often than not. “I would go through it all with the chairman and say, ‘here’s the evidence, this is what I think isn’t

Profile for Dialogue

Dialogue Q3 2019  

In the decade since the Great Recession, the role of business in society has been a topic of constant debate. In a world defined by social,...

Dialogue Q3 2019  

In the decade since the Great Recession, the role of business in society has been a topic of constant debate. In a world defined by social,...