Sarah Kelly joined Stagecoach Performing Arts as CEO in a time of substantial change. Now she shares her insights
I became the CEO of Stagecoach Performing Arts in 2013. Prior to joining I had led weight-management company LigherLife for three years and spent my career helping franchises like Wendy’s International and Burger King expand as well as clocking up time with both Warner Bros and LOVEFiLM.
The role at Stagecoach was an immense opportunity for me to take a business to the next level but I knew from my interviews I would need to tread carefully, be tactful and take a measured approach. Why? Because the franchise network was hugely loyal to its recently-departed founders after 25 years of their leadership.
Franchisees had been given the chance to build a business, buy a house and support their families – a level of stability not often available to actors and dancers whilst still working in the industry they’re so passionate about. But they were also aware of a large list of things that weren’t delivering the franchise to its full potential – I had the chance to bring change if I did it right. Here’s my advice to those in a similar position to the one I found myself in nearly six years ago.
Firstly, take time to learn as much as you can. My position as a new leader gave the franchisees a mechanism to vent their frustrations without offending those they felt so loyal towards in the past. There’ll be positives in the past to be proud of, so you can talk about evolution, not revolution. Involving every stakeholder – head office staff, franchisees, suppliers, parents and students – in building a plan for a bright future took me six months and I was able to deliver a solid plan one year later at the next franchise conference.
That plan needs to follow a vision and mission – that really helps to emotionally tie in your stakeholders into going along with you in the process. This also gives those who don’t want to proceed permission to leave – you can support them to exit with dignity. Stagecoach’s growth had been static for many years prior to this point, so setting a big, hairy audacious goal and sharing it out there was a catalyst, especially for our support team and franchisees. I wanted to double the size of the business and become renowned as the preferred choice in performing arts education. Whilst I didn’t expect everyone to believe they could achieve this straight away, it instiled a growth mindset and provided a sense of unleashed potential.
Then we went on our search for our why. Even though I could articulate this huge goal, a vision and mission, I also needed to collectively engage everyone in a unifying belief as to why we all did what we did and communicate this in a motivating way to all stakeholders in order to grow the business. So the message had to be simple and meaningful. “Creative courage for life” became our message. Instead of having 350 different ways of saying our why it was one message – although perhaps with 350 different motivations behind it. This was delivered another year later at my third franchise conference in just over two years as CEO. It was unifying – it reignited franchisees to open new schools, motivated consumers to purchase, head office liked it and it allowed us to grow.
My final piece of advice is to stay aligned to your vision, no matter what. Personally, you need to be strong and resilient to lead a business through periods of change. I had franchisees come up to me at my fourth annual franchise conference admitting they weren’t sure about my plan at the start and were now so pleased I’d stayed true to my plan and weathered the storm. It wasn’t easy to restructure the head office team, some of the staff had been there a long time but we needed to bring in expertise to create a future for the business. We also had to invest every penny of profit back in to the business in those first four years – so be prepared to make hard financial decisions too. We invested in additional regional franchise managers to support existing franchisees, a brand-new CRM system, consumer research, marketing materials, new contracts, tailored training for new franchisees and teacher training to up our game for quality of educational provision to name but a few things.
How can I prove it all worked, apart from seeing growth to the bottom line? Our latest franchisee survey showed a huge increase in satisfaction. Not only that, one of the franchisees, Allison Malone, who was the first franchise to give me a long list of requests for improvement, can now tick off every single item and is shortlisted for the 2019 bfa HSBC Lifestyle Franchisee of the Year award.
So, listen, audit, don’t make judgements, be sensitive to the past, shine a light for the future and set a vision and mission. Be prepared to invest and surround yourself with great people – you can’t do it all on your own.