Making Europe’s next generation of business leaders

When Oru Ogbo was asked by his employer last year if he would like to join a new programme to train and support young leaders across Europe, he did not hesitate. As a Nigerian who came to the UK a decade ago and was working with PwC, he was keen to share his own experiences and hear different perspectives.

“I wanted to listen to other people’s views on the big topics: climate change, geopolitics, misinformation,” he says. “And to be part of shaping the leadership model for the next generation. I discovered there were some completely different views on leadership, diversity and how immigrants should integrate.”

He joined an initial cohort of volunteers in their twenties, from many countries and professional backgrounds, who helped develop Europe101, a free series of online workshops and talks supported by a networking platform. To date, with its fourth cohort just starting, it has enrolled more than 1,000 participants. They discuss their own views and challenges; debate concepts of leadership linked to purpose, inclusivity and trust; and make commitments to each other, reflecting on how they will change and act in the future.

“We’re using a leadership programme to bind a generation and give those young people permission to be leaders,” says Julia Middleton, who developed the project, which is overseen by her charity Common Purpose. “Their perception is that leadership is something static and institutionalised to maintain the status quo. We are challenging that, to make them much more fluid in their thinking. They realise that the role of the leader is not just supporting [the employees] but getting the task done.”

Europe101 reflects a broader demand from individuals and employers for flexible new approaches to training and connection-building across national boundaries — and at a time when aspects of UK government policy have moved in the opposite direction, from Brexit to cuts in international exchange and volunteering programmes.

One example is the decision in 2020 by the UK to withdraw from Erasmus, the EU-backed system focused on supporting students to typically spend a year in a university in a different country. It was replaced with the more modest Turing programme of shorter-term placements for Britons, with no reciprocal arrangements for nationals of other countries to come to the UK.

There are all sorts of reasons to hone leadership, and young people feel our generation has messed things up. They want to be part of the decision making

“The best thing the UK could do would be to rejoin,” says Juan Rayón González, president of the Erasmus Student Network. He cites the benefits such as better communications, team-building, intercultural understanding and civic engagement. “Erasmus alumni vote more in European elections. It turns them into more active citizens.”

Other British-backed programmes have also been squeezed. For instance, the International Citizens’ Service programme, run by Voluntary Service Overseas to offer 12-week placements, was axed in 2020. “It nurtured active citizenship, built your confidence, gave you a better chance of employment and improved your wellbeing,” says Philip Goodwin, chief executive. “We talk about global Britain and opportunities across the world, but there is no money behind them. That’s a huge waste.”

Programmes like these may have the greatest benefits, but require expensive periods abroad. That restricted the variety of people able to take part, while also raising environmental concerns about the carbon footprint of the travel involved. The coronavirus pandemic fostered alternative, online approaches: it forced business schools and other institutions to adapt.

The growth of programmes such as Europe101 suggests the approach will develop. For employers such as Danny Bisland, a manager at the Scottish Football Association, which has nominated a number of participants, the benefits are clear.

“We’re seeing a huge shift away from teams to big community-led organisations,” he says. “Clubs in Scotland pivoted incredibly quickly during Covid from football to supporting food banks, older people, community care. That’s only going to continue. The role of the young person is so critical: they can speak to their peers. We’re really interested in promoting the integration of young people into decision making.”

Nicolas Kloos, a German mechanic who participated in Europe101’s weekly workshops, says the sessions helped him to better understand the importance of taking into account others’ perceptions. He thinks the networking, in particular, could provide the greatest long-term benefit. “The most important thing is not what you know but the people you know, and the connections you make,” he says.

Marshall Marcus, secretary-general of the European Youth Orchestra, which also sends participants, says: “There are all sorts of reasons to hone leadership, and young people feel our generation has messed things up. They want to be part of the decision making.”

He believes that with so many pressing issues now, such as the climate crisis, the programme highlights how complex a leadership role can be. And the more culturally diverse the participants, the more valuable the learning experience, he says.

Marcus also adds that the flexible “liquid leadership” idea behind the programme is essential across Europe — and pivotal in his own profession of music.

“We need to move away from an old hierarchical style of leadership. When musicians play together, it’s incredible how they are able to take the lead at the right moment, hold it and pass it on.”

The next test for Europe101 and other such “light touch” online programmes will be the longer term impact, including whether the participants retain and nurture the connections they make.

Arguably, relationships are easier to build when people are together in person, sharing an experience for a longer period — Erasmus participants, for example, would often live and work together.

But since his involvement last year, Ogbo says he has stayed in touch with a number of those he met. He has left PwC to establish his own educational start up, and become an “ambassador” to recruit other young people to Europe101. He sees an urgency in his generation to become involved in tackling societies’ biggest problems.

“We came out with a general sense that leadership should be flatter, and very hierarchical structures were a thing of the past,” he says.