Tom Ebbutt

London January 2011 Fellow, now Executive Director of Strategy and Operations at Ambition School Leadership

Katarina Fischerova, April 2017 Associate, got the chance to interview Tom during her placement at Ambition School Leadership. He kindly offered to share his story of what he did before, during and after On Purpose.

KF: Can you tell me about your background and your journey prior to On Purpose?

TE: I grew up in Birmingham and my dad has always worked in and around business and my mum has always worked in and around education so my life was from the beginning at the intersection of different things, public and private sector. I’ve always been someone who was interested in taking ideas from one place and trying them in another and just generally interested in the world.

KF: And that led you into consulting after school?

TE: I could see that people who have been through working in the private sector were given a sense of credibility. That’s not an actual judgement on skills or talent — however it seems there is a slightly odd respect given to prestigious universities and to management consulting firms. To be fair, they do give you good training and because you work so hard you learn a lot because you are just doing more hours. It also exposes you to lots of different types of organisations. I was lucky that I could experience the BBC for a long time, the Cooperative Bank and various other organisations.

It’s not explicit in my career but I’ve always been fascinated with the practice of running organisations and what makes them tick. I always thought I would do a few years in the private sector and then transition. I was aware going into it you might get sucked in and never come back out. I was in Deloitte 4 years and after about 3 years, I thought if I’m not going to leave now I’m never going to leave because I’ll have a mortgage, 2.4 children and too many financial commitments. So I decided at that point that I was going to jump.

KF: So you jumped and landed in On Purpose?

TE: When I joined On Purpose I was looking to transition to work for organisations that are started from mission and purpose rather than started for profit. I thought that social enterprise, which is sort of blending of public and private sectors, is where I wanted to head. I had looked at different options and could have jumped straight into a role but I actually wanted to have the support, both of a cohort people who were equally moving into the sector and also the fact that the credibility of people connected to On Purpose would clearly connect you into the sector as a whole, accelerate the process of building a network. These were the two main reasons why I chose On Purpose.

KF: With hindsight, was the community the most valuable aspect?

TE: I think so, meeting my peers on one hand, really great cohort of whom a massive amount went on to do really diverse things, and secondly the people I met through the programme, that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I think the other thing which I hadn’t really thought about specifically before, and it‘s a bit of stating the obvious, is that there is a slight suspicion against people transitioning from the private sector into the third sector or social enterprise. Going through On Purpose, maybe even more so now, provides a stamp of approval, it shows that people are willing to demonstrate a commitment to the sector, get their hands dirty and I think that was very valuable.

KF: After finishing On Purpose, you started working at Teaching Leaders (now part of Ambition School Leadership), an education charity. Was education the sector you were most passionate about?

TE: I‘ve had a bit of education in my background and it was incredibly important in my personal life: I was the first person in my family to go to university after going to a standard, non-selective, state funded secondary school.

KF: Was that a deliberate choice, to go to a non-selective school?

TE: My mum was keen for me to go to the local school. Her beliefs were very much about community and equality and that you should not be putting different people into different silos, especially at the age of 11. I think it gives you a perspective on the world, exposes you to people from very different backgrounds that you don‘t get when you grow up in a very privileged environment. This doesn’t mean you can’t get that perspective in other ways but I think it is hard to replicate otherwise. I think in hindsight I am a big believer that part of the role of education is for people to become citizens of the country you are in and I think it is quite hard if you start segregating on wealth and academic ability but that is another discussion.

Despite education being incredibly important in my personal life, I didn‘t come out of On Purpose thinking I want to work in education. The thing I knew was that we need more organisations that start from mission and purpose and that they need to be bigger to start to prove that we can run organisations which can operate in a purposeful way at scale. What I was interested in after On Purpose was to be in an organisation that was going to scale and to learn about that process. That was what I was looking for, the fact I came to education was a bonus because I’ve had that background but one of the main reasons why I came to Teaching Leaders was that it had just won a big government contract and was going to grow. I wouldn‘t regard myself as an education specialist. I perceive myself more as a specialist in organisations, in how they run and what makes them work.

KF: You’ve seen this organisation change a lot…

TE: When I joined we were an organisation of 17 people, we are now over 200, so even though my job title is more or less the same, it’s a completely different organisation. I find it fascinating, striking the right balance and recognising when creating structure helps people navigate and do their work well and when creating that structure results in unnecessary bureaucracy.

KF: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.