The rise of institutional entrepreneurship

With rising demands on public services and diminishing resources to cover the costs, we desperately need to create a culture of innovation, experimentation, risk taking, vision and passion.

Apparently, the people who drive this change are known as ‘Institutional Entrepreneurs’. They’re the leaders within large organisations, who have influence, think strategically, act on purpose and who are motivated to make a difference by doing things differently.

A couple of years ago Shift CEO Andrea was introduced to one such person – Gemma Poulter, a Senior Manager at Nottingham City Council.

She’d been selected to champion physical activity within Adult Social Care and was in need of some guidance and inspiration. At the end of their first call she cleared her throat to make a confession – she wasn’t at all sporty and worse still, she was eating a Rocky Road!

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and we joined Gemma for a run up one of the Peak District’s hills. Apologising she may be a little slow due to the 20-mile run she’d done at the weekend, it’s obvious things have changed a bit since that first phone call.

Gemma’s now a committed runner and a strong advocate for embedding physical activity into the fabric of Nottingham City Council – for employees and citizens alike. Starting from within, she’s learnt the value of regular exercise and isn’t looking back.

Gemma explains:

“My job stretches and challenges me every day and always has done. It’s a strange mixture of a role with operational and strategic responsibilities operating within a political environment and there are always tough decisions to make. To cope with this, I used to bottle up a lot of stress, have a glass or two of wine in the evening or rant at friends and family.

My leap into the world of physical activity

“Following an appraisal with my manager I was thrown the curveball of leading on physical activity. I felt like a bit of a fraud as I wasn’t at all active and I thought I had to do something. I was lucky enough to meet an amazing Zumba instructor and that got me started; I love music and dancing so it was perfect.

“Following that springboard I joined a Bootcamp class being run by a colleague. I wasn’t sure how my colleagues would react to a senior manager working out with them. But despite my concerns it actually broke down barriers. It would be fair to say before this, I didn’t really know them and it was great to get the chance. In a senior post, especially when you’re in a separate building, it’s easy to feel removed and distant. This had really bothered me as I’d always been part of a team but I’d been feeling more divorced from my frontline colleagues.

“Those colleagues have since said to me talking at Bootcamp, seeing me roll around in the mud and battling a hill together, humanised me to them. Now I have much better communication with them.

Becoming a runner

“My journey into running started with me signing up for an obstacle race with some fellow Bootcamp recruits. But it was still a struggle and certainly not enjoyable. But, with another challenge, the Sheffield Half Marathon, looming, I knew I had to do something and joined a local running club.

“It’s really sociable, we’re talkers who run. Talking was one key for unlocking enjoyable running as it allowed me to find a suitable pace. Another was the social aspect of running with other people and the other was just being outside and enjoying nature.

“Physical activity has been a revelation for me as it gives me thinking space and is almost meditative. When I’m running I’ve found I can think about things, process them and maybe work out a solution. But it doesn’t stress or bother me in the same way as if I just sat at home thinking about things.

Overcoming challenges

Having witnessed such a transformation in herself, Gemma is now passionate about her role leading on physical activity but realises the difficulties.

She said: “It’s about shifting practitioners’ perception so they see activity as being beneficial to all. If you’ve got a long-term condition, if you’re over 70 or if you’ve got an organic impairment or disorder, you can still be active. Physical activity allows you to develop those relationships and friendships which make you feel connected to your community. This then creates its own informal support network.

“This is what I really want to lead on. But the majority of colleagues said we can’t talk to people about physical activity, they’re not interested, I don’t know enough about it and they’ll just say ‘who are you to talk to me about activity when you don’t look like you do any yourself.’

“There are loads of obstacles. So I thought the way to do it was to nudge colleagues to think about physical activity for themselves and to see the benefits when they get involved. I’m convinced, from how physical activity has transformed me physically, mentally and professionally, that, as more people experience what I have and see and feel the benefits first hand, the message can’t fail to get through.”

Gemma will be running the Yorkshire Marathon in October and is fundraising for Anthony Nolan – you can view her JustGiving page here.

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