How we do it

We have created a leadership development approach that is distinctive, different and sets us apart. 

Visiting Crossrail to explore its role in connecting people from communities across the city

Jonathan Donner, Vice President Learning and Capability Development, Unilever PLC, Chair of Common Purpose Student Experiences

"Common Purpose and its university partners have been working together for many years. The result is a game changer, developing the key leadership competencies needed today, whilst connecting students, cities and employers across a truly global network."

Leadership themes

As Common Purpose has developed, two big leadership themes have become central to our thinking: Leading Beyond Authority and Cultural Intelligence.

Both ideas concern leadership beyond traditional boundaries and organisational structures, where different skills are needed to achieve success or manage complex change. And both run through every Common Purpose programme.

Leading Beyond Authority

Most leaders establish their reputation inside their organisations, where they are given the authority to lead. When they look to extend their leadership across the organisation - or outside it - the skills that have brought them success are suddenly not enough. The rules change: and the strategies need to change too.

On Common Purpose programmes, participants learn this new approach to leadership. It can help them to cope in unfamiliar territory, or where they are outside their comfort zone; and it will take them beyond their own organisations and make them more effective in the outside world too.

This provides them with a powerful set of new tools that are relevant to any leader, at any level, in any organisation.

For more information on Leading Beyond Authority, visit our Knowledge Hub.

Cultural Intelligence

As people begin to lead beyond their authority, they need to be able to cross boundaries: between east and west, and north and south; between faiths and beliefs; between public, private and voluntary sectors; and between generations.

This requires them to develop their Cultural Intelligence (CQ): which we define as the ability to cross divides and thrive in multiple cultures.

Organisations often appoint leaders for their IQ. Then, years later, sack them for their lack of EQ (Emotional Intelligence). At Common Purpose, we believe that, in the future, organisations will promote for CQ.

Our programmes reflect the growing importance of CQ and aim to give leaders the awareness and the skills they will need to develop it.

For more information on Cultural Intelligence, visit our Knowledge Hub.

Watch a video of Julia Middleton talking about Cultural Intelligence at TedX East End.

The Common Purpose difference

Common Purpose programmes are designed for leaders who are looking to lead beyond their immediate line of authority: moving into unfamiliar territory, or where they have to lead diverse groups of people.

Our work is not for people who are purely looking for management training, or who want to improve their leadership within their current sphere of influence.

Equally, while other courses concentrate on academic, technical or in-job learning, Common Purpose programmes are highly practical and experiential.

Participants don't just sit in rooms debating issues; they go out and see them with their own eyes, and discuss them, at first hand, with the leaders who are responsible for dealing with them.

This creates a very different learning experience that sets us apart from other leadership development schemes.

Our approach

Out into the city

On a Common Purpose programme, you are likely to spend as much time on your feet as in a chair. We take participants out into the world. To smell the coffee. To see things at first hand. To discover the many pieces of the jigsaw and how they fit together (and don’t).

Instead of inviting people in to tell our participants about leadership, we take participants out to meet people who are doing it for real. Leaders of banks and NGOs; prisons and hospitals; companies and communities; markets and parliaments. Leaders with power, and leaders with almost none. Leaders with vast resources, and leaders with hardly any.

Participants see them all. Leaders leading well, and leading not so well, and a mixture of the two. Dealing with real issues - or failing to; but dealing with issues as they really are.


We take great care to recruit participants from diverse backgrounds.

The result is a rich group of leaders in one room who will have an enormous amount to learn from each other. From the outset, they will surprise each other by how much they actually have in common, how much they don’t and, after a while, how little it matters either way.

To this rich mixture, we then bring an even more diverse variety of contributors. They see issues from every angle, and from deep within each angle. They will often surprise participants: whose initial reaction rapidly turns into delight at the insight that is being shared. And, because they come from all corners, our contributors can reveal whole jigsaws, and not simply unconnected pieces.

Participants soon start to realise that, far from being limiting and uncomfortable, this diversity is exciting. It becomes a source of strength rather than discomfort.

Above all, it breeds real creative thinking. Good, innovative ideas come from well-led discord, not from rooms full of people who all look (and think) alike. We aim to create the conditions for this to happen at the start of every Common Purpose programme.

On some of our customised programmes, it is not possible to create diversity from the outset. But we make sure that the breadth and variety of contributors bring the same dynamic into the room.

Free to talk

We take participants out of their normal comfort zone into very unfamiliar situations. We expose them to a rich mix of different leaders. And, for many of them, our blend of practical and experiential learning is unfamiliar, or surprising.

We work hard to balance the discomfort so that open, generous and sometimes difficult discussion can emerge; so that participants feel pushed, but also secure. For this reason, we use the Chatham House Rule* on all Common Purpose programmes.

It means that everyone can speak more freely, including speakers who can (and do) talk openly about leadership challenges in their sectors, in society, or their own leadership dilemmas.

Everyone can speak as individuals and express personal views that may not be shared by their organisations. In these conditions, real issues can be aired, genuine debate can flourish and deeper learning can be achieved.

*The Chatham House Rule was devised at Chatham House (the home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London) in 1927 and refined in 1992 and 2002.

“When a meeting is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

Creating the microclimate

We have spent 25 years discovering how to create the Common Purpose 'microclimate': the atmosphere in which the participants will gradually feel comfortable enough to share their thinking; to challenge each other and take stock of what they discover; and to spark innovation.

It comes from our venues: which are all over the city, from conference rooms to community halls, from prisons to casualty units, from highways to dirt tracks.

It comes from creative techniques we have gleaned from many sectors: the arts, sciences, formal education, debating, policing and research (you are as likely to get a briefing from a senior police officer on how to interview a suspect as how to create a piece of dance from a choreographer).

And it comes from the people involved: the participants, our staff, as well as our speakers and contributors, who volunteer their time and their insights generously, because they believe in what we are doing.

All this combines to makes the conversations on Common Purpose programmes deeper and more trusting, the experience much richer, and the insights more valuable.

As a result, participants are free to think the unthinkable; and innovation thrives.

Deeper learning

When we take people out into the city, it is not just a tour. We take participants where tourists do not go, and we show them things tourists do not see. Then we help them to unpick their responses and discover their own blind spots.

To have any sustained impact, the experiences we provide can’t just shock: they have to be fully digested. We enable this in many ways. In big open sessions testing broad ideas, where participants learn as much from the contributors as they do from each other's questions; in smaller sessions where participants work on their own challenges in the intimacy of a small group; and one-to-one, with our staff.

Each participant also joins a Learning Group, where they are encouraged to examine their own leadership issues through other people's eyes. Here, you might learn about risk management from a prison governor, or the manager of a hospital casualty department, or an entrepreneur who has created a start-up company. This enriches the experience for each participant - and deepens the learning further.

Different programmes: the same approach

We run a wide variety of programmes, for a wide range of leaders, from all kinds of backgrounds, facing all kinds of leadership challenges, in all kinds of places. But the same essential elements above are common to every Common Purpose programme.

Out of the classroom and into the city. Diversity of participants, input and contributors. Practical, creative and experiential. All leading to innovative thinking, new answers and more effective leadership.

Signature techniques

We have also developed a range of signature techniques that enable participants to make effective use of what they have learned.


Common Purpose Collaboration Laboratories (Collabs) are bespoke hands-on workshops specifically designed for organisations and partnerships that need to do more with fewer resources, or reach an ever-increasing number of people.

Participants are tasked with representing real-life organisations involved in issues relevant to their work and community, and then challenged to negotiate partnerships to develop collaborative solutions.

With the aid of a diverse mix of cross-sector advisers, Collabs take participants beyond their current role to develop the collaborative leadership skills needed to work across departments, organisations, sectors and society.

For more information or to express your interest in Collabs or InnoVentures, please email us.


The demand for new ideas, new answers and innovation has seldom been greater. Organisations of all kinds increasingly need to achieve more with less; to reach a wider audience; to break away from standard solutions; to see things with fresh eyes; or to connect their disparate parts.

We have been doing this on our programmes for 25 years. Now we have gathered our knowledge and experience to create the Common Purpose InnoVenture: a technique that helps organisations to develop innovative solutions to complex challenges.

We have used this technique to help to create surprising and game-changing answers to a wide range of complex problems, with leaders from Europe, India, China, Zimbabwe, Libya, the Commonwealth and the Arab region.

Organisations frequently appoint leaders for their IQ. Then, years later, sack them for their lack of EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

Is CQ (Cultural Intelligence) about to become the way to differentiate them?

Most leaders establish their reputation inside their organisations, where they are given the authority to lead.

But what happens when they have to lead outside?