Bonus episode from the Clusters podcast

In this short series on Leadership and Learning to highlight other podcasts that feature inspiring guests, our guest episode this week is from the Clusters podcast.

The worldXchange foundation exists to advance the education and the capability of communities to shape positive sustainable change through collaborative, action led programmes across the world. “Clusters” is one of these programmes, bringing together representatives from across sectors such as Housing, Environmental, Health and Digital to explore new ways of seeing, being and doing.

Simon Bazalgette, Chair of Trustees at the worldXchange Foundation, talks to host Sue Stockdale about how the legacy of the Grubb Institute, which focused on organisational dynamics, systems thinking and psychology, has played a role in the creation of Clusters.

Simon is also the Chairman of Global Venue Services, which he co-founded in 2020. Between 2008 and 2019 he was Chairman of Jockey Club Racecourses, (JCR) the largest UK racecourse operator, and Group Chief Executive of its owner, The Jockey Club. JCR owns and operates 15 racecourses and puts on three of the top 10 best attended sports events in the UK (Cheltenham, the Grand National and the Derby). Prior to taking over the running of the 270-year-old Jockey Club, Simon had spent 15 years co-founding and running media and technology start-ups.
Simon talks about how self-awareness, systemic thinking, and empowering others are at the heart of effective leadership. He describes a powerful early learning experience he had as a volunteer running a youth club in a deprived area, where by using this leadership approach, they created a safe space for the youths to run their own organisation.

Listen to the Clusters series and your mindset will be expanded to discover what’s possible. Find out more at

Read the transcription for this episode below and connect with us on social media: Twitter  Facebook  Instagram  Linkedin

Bonus episode Clusters podcast transcription

[00:00:00] Sue: hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the podcast. You know, inspiration is like a magical gift within all of us. It’s free energy that we can give to others when we share our experiences and insights about what we have learned from life or work. our hope is that this podcast gives you inspiration. By listening to the experiences of guests from all around the world.

At the moment we’re busy preparing a new series that will launch in January. And for this month, we have created a special, short series on the theme of leadership and learning. It features five episodes from some of the other podcasts that I host. We hope that you find these episodes thought provoking as well as providing you with some ideas and recommendations and other podcast series that you can listen to that feature inspirational people. Today’s episode about leadership and learning is from the clusters podcast. It’s an interview with Simon Bazalgette who is chair of the trustees at the Xenergie foundation, a charity supporting Clusters, an initiative that brings together game-changers from all walks of life who care and want to help solve bigger issues in the world today. I hope you enjoy this and the others from this short series. So welcome to the podcast, Simon.

[00:01:24] Simon: Thank you.

[00:01:25] Sue: Now I know that you’re a chair of the trustees for Xenergie foundation, which has responsibility for the clusters project. And I’m wondering, how did clusters originally get created? Where did the idea come from? Because I understand you’ve been involved in the discussions about the creation of clusters from an early stage.

[00:01:45] Simon: Well, I think it’s really, it’s really coming from kind of two things coming together. Really a combination of some history that I have with an organization called the Grubb Institute of behavioral studies, which I was Chair of, which was a really a pioneer in the world of group dynamics from the sixties onward and what’s what would now be called organisational analysis, which is really how do organizations work together. How the groups of people behave and get things done together. It’s a fascinating area. One that’s been really important to me in my own career, my business career, and to say very much involved in the, in that Institute. When that closed about five years or so, probably more than that, maybe 10 years ago now some of those of us who were involved with the Grubb Institute, we’re keen to see some of that thinking continued to be developed. It had already launched a master’s program, which continued and a diploma, continued in other, with other institutions. But we were keen to, to help really be a catalyst for further thinking.

And we created a little fund really just to, to see really originally thinking it would be for to help support people who wanted to do some of the studies. We came across Lorna McDowell and [00:03:00] her company’s Xenergie and Lorna was a graduate of the, some of the Grubb training programs, diplomas, and we thought that her ideas for what she wanted to do with the thinking around organizational analysis and group dynamics, to bring people together, to connect people and to examine issues that were of importance to people and importance to society. And the world was a really interesting thing. So we helped to support that originally with a bit of seed funding. And I stayed in touch with Lorna and with her thinking in what then became Clusters and have been quite engaged in all of that. And as we started to put a governance structure around that, I effectively now have, have agreed for my sins to be the initial Chair.

[00:03:44] Sue: I can see that you’ve, you’ve had that sense of interest in this particular area. As the journey has gone on with Lorna and developing clusters. I’m curious to know from your perspective, Simon, what is it that interests you, particularly around group dynamics, organizational analysis, and so on? What is it thats curious and interesting about that to you?

[00:04:05] Simon: Well, the thing that I’ve always found immensely valuable about it has been a combination of self-awareness about how one behaves and how one can influence a group of people and also being in touch with what’s going on in the rest of the group. Out of that comes a whole lot of thinking about how organizations work and they have a very important group of tools called transforming experience framework, which is really around how do you, as a person engage with the role you’re in, in an organization, which has its own purpose, which has its boundaries with other organization, which is in the context of whatever world that organization engages with and is trying to do. And the purpose of it all. And those that, those thinking that starting from yourself to think outwards about how all of that comes together and how you can be most effective to help other people work with other people and help organizations meet their purpose. That’s always that’s for me being the heart of this.

And that’s what I think clusters is, is helping people to do. And it creates effective. It’s a systemic way of thinking, which doesn’t particularly just focus on the psychological, a lot of leadership and organizational.really boil down to thinking about the psychological issues and people, how people behave. And actually this takes, this is part of that, but this puts it within a systemic structure, which I’ve always found much more valuable than much more helpful. Yeah. I’ve seen it work in my own life and I’ve seen it work in other people’s lives, transformed the way then they’re able to fulfill what they’d like to do and fulfill themselves. And I think that, that, I think it’s an important tools , set of tools that can be used much more widely

[00:05:50] Sue: I can hear from your energy in your voice, how you sense that this is of value to individuals and to organizations. I’m [00:06:00] wondering, what do you hope that clusters will accomplish in the longterm? What do you see as is its end objective?

[00:06:07] Simon: Well, I think part of it is, is still to emerge. I mean, one of the things I learned through at the Grubb Institute is that you can have a, an idea about how you can make a difference, but things sometimes emerge from the process you go through. You don’t always know where you’re going to end up, but by working through a process, you find that you can really make some, some exciting progress and really help people be valuable members of whatever organizations they are in. But just to give you an example, I mean, it’s useful. I think maybe to think of some examples in very different areas that I’ve been involved with. I mean, the vet, my very first involvement with work, at Grubb was as a volunteer in the eighties, in some youth clubs that they had set up and these clubs were had that had the fairly usual idea that in very deprived areas with, with all kinds of problems where young people were getting into all kinds of trouble, Creating youth club is something where people can go and do something more constructive.

That was the kind of usual thing. I think it was different about these was the fact that it said what we’re not going to be as a group of adults going telling young people, how to organize themselves. What we’re going to do is create a safe space for them, where they can run their own organization. And then we will help support them and facilitate it, but it will be for them to run, they will set the rules.

They will decide how things should be enforced, not the adults and that it needed quite a lot of training amongst the adults to be able to do that because there was always a feeling that if something was going wrong, you wanted to step that effect to be, would have been taking the authority away from the young people.

But when it worked, it was amazing because you would see a young people who had been in all kinds of trouble with the police and, you know, with their families who had probably been written off by society, suddenly realizing when they actually realized that they actually had some authority of what was going on around them, how actually in the end, they wanted to use it to create something that was valuable to them and their community.

And we’re able to do that even though a lot of people are looking to say, well, they can never, never be any use to anyone. And then it took a lot of thinking and to get the structures right there, because you can easily damage that. And I’ve seen it work in lots of different areas. You know, the Grubb worked in schools where it talks about getting the students in schools, more involved in the running of schools, which can be quite scary for teachers.

But again, can have some amazing results because people start to take ownership of the organization they’re in and take some responsibility and some authority for what they do in a way that it’s very easy for people just say, well, I’m, you know, I’ll turn up and they’ll do what’s necessary, but I’m not really that. Actually you can create, you know, it works in business. It works in private and public institutions. If you can do that. And I think that’s an amazing unlocking of power and energy that really gets people engaged in the world around them. And I think there’s parts of the risk we have is that people either don’t engage or take responsibility for the world around them and see that they can be part of it or [00:09:00] expect other people to do things or they see it through a very disconnected lens, you know, which we can see on social media and these kinds of things where people think, actually, I just want to be with people who think like me, I don’t want really wants to engage with people who don’t think like me. And that’s that I think is, you know, is a really dangerous area to be in.

So really to help people think about connecting with everybody, not just people who think like them, but really could be part of a connected world. And the fact that actually, you know, you can achieve things you can take apart. And you can have an impact if you had understand how some of these works and how you interact with it. That for me is the exciting.

[00:09:36] Sue: You’re making me think about the analogy of lifting up the hood of a motor car and looking inside and seeing the mechanics and getting a different perspective of how all the different parts work in order for the car to function. I’m imagining that in terms of an organizational sense or are looking at the system to be able to see how all the different parts of an organization interact and not only the parts of the organization, the people within the organization. And what’s actually going on. If you like under the surface, you talked about people feeling a sense of a greater awareness and responsibility to then take action and ownership. In your example of the youth clubs. I’m thinking about the other side of that coin is also once those in authority being willing to relinquish control and to trust others.

[00:10:25] Simon: Absolutely. That’s a critical part.

[00:10:26] Sue: And I’m wondering what your thoughts are on what helps that to happen from a leadership perspective?

[00:10:32] Simon: I think that that’s a very important element of it because clearly I think in a world of why would say an old fashioned thinking, I don’t think, I think this is the world has moved away from it, but it’s still. Particularly for people in authority or leadership positions. It’s easy sometimes to think, oh, actually it’s just easier for me to tell people what to do the command and control structures of the past, which generally changed a lot over the last few years.

But the trouble with that is it doesn’t involve. In the running of their organizations, it doesn’t really give people authority. And so if you learn to find ways of giving people authority to take some control, then a lot of it’s around aligning people to what you’re trying to achieve, aligning with the purpose of the organization.

With the way that people imagine an organization works, what we would call the organization in the mind. My experience is a lot of the tensions I found in organizations. So because actually the way people think about the organization can be very different. Amongst different people, unless you get that on the table and examine that with your colleagues and with other people in the organization and people can be at cross purposes.

But if you start to align things and say, what are we actually trying to achieve here? What is the purpose of this organization? What are the values we’re going to live by? How are we going to work together and all have some authority to contribute towards that hole. Then if I’m leadership starts to spread throughout the organization and people take that responsibility and authority, and of course there needs to be some guidance. There needs to [00:12:00] be governance around that and all the rest of it. But, but that’s how you really unlock the potential of an organization

[00:12:05] Sue: so what that requires of individuals within an organization is to be able to disassociate themselves. From what’s actually happening to be able to take what I would call the third perspective and to be objective. And as you say, be able to look at what’s on the table in front of them, what’s actually happening as opposed to. Doing the stuff themselves, if that makes sense.

[00:12:27] Simon: Yeah. So I wouldn’t necessarily call it disconnect. I think it’s more, and sometimes it’s more about understanding, being more self-aware about the impact you have on the people in the organization, around you and being attuned to that, because that allows you to get more out of yourself and more out of the people around you. But you do have to be open to the fact that they will be people with other views there’ll be risks involved because people might not do what you expect them to do. They might, or they might have a different view about what the purpose of an organization is. There’s all kinds of risks around it. So then you have to manage those, but, but equally, you know, there’s a huge amount of potential. that can be unlocked can be that way.

[00:13:03] Sue: So when you’re waiting your hat of chairman of the trustees for Xenergie foundation, Simon, how do you apply this systemic thinking approach this understanding of organizational and group dynamics to the way that the organization is governed.

[00:13:19] Simon: We’re working that through at the moment. I mean, it’s about, there is no, we don’t know what the answers to everything is. We know a lot of the pieces that are coming together and we have an idea about what the value of the foundation will be. But as a set of trustees, we have to have exactly this discussion amongst ourselves. What is it that we see as the purpose of the organization? How are we going to work together? How are we gonna work with the people involved with Clusters both the participants in the cluster groups and the facilitation people around that, the coaches to create this organization. We will not create it. We’ll co-create it with the people involved. We have to have a way of working, which is really, as you say, the Clusters were working, which goes back to some of the Grubb thinking, which is effectively creates ways of doing that, which are proven to have the best effect and to get there in the most efficient way, but you’ve got to work it through and we are still at an early stage where we’re working that through. We haven’t yet set out very clearly exactly what we think our purpose is because we’re still discussing that. Refining that amongst ourselves, both within the trustees group, but also in the, within clusters itself.

So it’s really working, it’s reworking these things through, step-by-step getting on the table, being open with each other about what we’re hoping for, how we work, how we get the best out of each other and to create the structures, which align everybody into thinking, actually, this is something I really want to be part of. I really want to make work and I can see what my part in it, how I can make that happen. That sort of process.

[00:14:47] Sue: So I’m hearing a sense of willingness to be, if you like, the words that are going to my mind is sort of messiness and uncertainty that we don’t have crystal clarity from day one when we’re [00:15:00] evolving an organization in this way, and yet in the normal business context. And I’m imagining many of the people participating in clusters are working in organizations where there’s an expectation of certainty, of clarity, of getting things done and seeing impact very quickly. I’m wondering if you notice those two ways are sometimes in conflict with another

[00:15:21] Simon: absolutely one very important thing I’ve learned in my own career. And I think we, we will, we’ll see it as we develop the foundation and clusters is that you have to be ready to deal. As you say, with the messy stuff, with the uncertainty, with the anxiety that that causes. And there’s no problem about being open about the fact that you’re anxious about that uncertainty. As you say, in a lot of organizations, that’s not spoken, that’s not allowed to be there, be there in particularly in leadership, leadership leaders feel they have to be the ones who are certain that know what’s going on. Well, actually my experience. You can be a very effective leader and admits that you don’t know necessarily know what’s going on and that you are on certainly that you are anxious about things, but you make it, you know, as long as you do it the right way. , you know, that, that, that can, that that works. And in some ways it’s more effective way of getting things done because actually people get a better sense of understanding out of that.

[00:16:15] Sue: I’m wondering in terms of how, from your own business experience, Simon you’ve applied some of these approaches you said about. Expressing uncertainty perhaps, or expressing uncertainty in the right way. I’m wondering if you can give us an example of, oh, you’ve done that in the past that the listener can perhaps get a sense of how they might do it in a similar way that.

[00:16:35] Simon: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say my way is the way this would work for everybody, but I’ve, I’ve my experience. You know, when I look back, I’ve worked really, since I, you know, for the last, probably 30 years almost I’ve tended to work in quite complex stakeholder environments in joint venture type structures. And those tend to be quite messy and a lot of joint ventures fail and they tend to have a lot of interesting. But I’ve been quite successful in it. And I think this is precisely for this reason is because I’ve been able to engage with people coming with very different interests, with different aims and bring them together in a way where those can all be recognized, but in the interests of whatever the organization is and help to understand. For those who have to who aren’t so experienced with dealing with that kind of messiness, that there are certain things that just saying things should be different or people should behave in a different ways. It doesn’t really help you get anywhere. So just a very simple example, you know, when I was working at the jockey club dealing with different stakeholders in horse racing, Who would be quite, you know, it could be quite powerful and quite loud about what they thought should happen. You know, my staff, people worked with me, they’d get used to when they come to me and say, I’m dealing with the head of this organization. It’s so difficult dealing with him or her, you know, they, I wish they get themselves somebody who was easier to deal with. And I explained to [00:18:00] them, if they got a new person in that person would still be reflecting what that organization was trying to achieve and how they saw it, changing the person wouldn’t change necessarily. The issues that they were struggling with. They have to get more under the skin of what, what actually was, where that was that organization trying to achieve. And how was this person trying to do that and therefore work out what was the potential common ground there? What were the things that had to be challenged?

What the things actually you can say, well, actually that’s perfectly understandable and we can work with. Taking it away from just the personalization of everything, to the kind of systemic pressures that go on. So, you know, there’s, there’s always this thing you hear, you know, people should be themselves, but you know, we have to be honest, we have different versions of ourselves and we have different versions of ourselves depending on the role we’re playing at the time, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s a leader, whether it’s a follower, whether we’re whatever we’re doing, we tend to behave in a way that reflects that role. So unless you, if you just come at it from the psychological point of view, you’d miss the fact that these things all have an impact. And if you need to understand how the role and the organization that people are in affects the way things happen in the way people.

[00:19:08] Sue: You’ve got a lovely example there of how perhaps in an organizations and I’m imagining also in clusters, generating a sense of curiosity, a sense of interest to asking questions, to understand a better sense of what’s really going on. beneath the surface can have a very positive impact impacting help to give people a different perspective of what the actual issues.

[00:19:31] Simon: Absolutely. I would almost say that we don’t necessarily have all the answers right now. If we examine things honestly, and openly and put some of these things on the table, things it’s amazing how things emerge.. So it becomes a very creative process because, you know, you can be open to new ideas. And, you know, we all know that in a lot of organizations, they lose the creativity because they get a certain way of doing things, make don’t really want like new ideas and they closed them down too quick. If you’re just open to think about things, sometimes the, the first idea is not the right one, but it leads you to a second idea or third that. And if you stop really giving that space to do that, you can end up with a much better result than if you just try and kind of cobble something together at the beginning, not give that space.

So, and I think this is more and more, the way organizations are going to have to be in the future because, Hey, I think it’s clear each generation wants to feel more connected and more fulfilled in their work that they do. I think they want to feel they’re working for something. It’s not just a job for life. They want to feel they’re doing something that actually is making a difference and they want to feel that their contributing to that. And I think we’ve got to find a new way of connecting with people meaningfully, because you know, a lot of it’s now happening online, not in person. I think there’s a lot of thinking still to be done around. How do you get that creative process when actually you might be in different countries and not getting together, probably won’t get together as often in future, as we have in the past. There’s a lot of real challenges there. And I think these are the kinds of things. I think Clusters will be getting together [00:21:00] groups of people to look at, because I think these, these are the things that are gonna make the difference to us.

[00:21:04] Sue: So coming back to the bigger sense of purpose, the value of an organization helps then anybody that’s part of our organization to have a better sense of why they’re there in the first place. Thinking about that in terms of the purpose of clusters. And of course, as, as a charity, aiming to have financial support, to ensure it’s sustainable, what are some of the messages that you’re finding are compelling for those that are perhaps interesting in supporting the principal and the purpose of clusters in the first place.

[00:21:37] Simon: Uh, I think the key areas that are going to be really important, I think that people will wants to support will be around helping to develop skills in people and their capacity to to do things and to do more using these kinds of tools and getting these kinds of experiences and being able to, if you like within a cluster experience, how you might behave in a way that helps the cluster as an organization, which you can then learn and take back into your, into whatever your work you’re doing. So I think there’s a whole kind of capacity building and personal development area around it. I think some of the clusters will come up with ideas that will they’ll have much broader interest. You know, that the young leaders for example, are interested in how do young leaders learn from each other in different organizations and create a kind of network of learning?

I think the whole question of sustainability is going to be a big area where the examining. How do we all take some responsibility for the sustainability of the organization we’re in for the industries we’re in for the world around us? I think that’s going to be a very important one because we’re, you know, as we know everybody, to some extent is, is struggling with that. And I think there’s a lot of organizations who are there who want to support. Ways of developing those kinds of conversations and the skills that will be needed to make that work. So I think that’s the kind of area and citizenship, I think the whole question of citizenship, what does it mean to be a citizen of a country of a town of, of the world of whatever. What does that mean and how do we make that a, a positive thing that we all bring a different background and different perspective? Not as sometimes happens, you know, that that’s somehow we, we build the walls, not the bridges. And I mean, it’s interesting. The Grubb Institute, one of the areas that Grubb Institute was very involved in. Uh, at the early stages was the, what became the good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. And it was very involved in creating the ability for two communities who couldn’t engage at all in any other way than violence is thought to build the bridges that allowed some of the structures to appear that then could be used, be built on to create something that in the end became the good Friday agreement. So even in that kind of split world, we’ve seen the benefits there. And again, I think there will be. Examples of that, where this kind of thinking could be useful. I think

[00:23:50] Sue: it’s clear that the experience of the Grubb Institute has been very impactful in your life and as a leader, and just generally Simon, [00:24:00] I’m imagining that you’re hoping that the clusters experience for those participating in it be that as coaches or participants in clusters or the trustees for that matter, have a similar sense of value from their experience.

[00:24:15] Simon: Absolutely. I think it has the potential to do that. And I’m, I think we’re already seeing that amongst some of the people involved, both, whether it, as you say, from the trustees down to participants in the clusters or coaches and facilitators who are involved in that now, I think we’re already starting to see that. And we’ve really only scratched the surface.

[00:24:32] Sue: And if there is one hope that you have, for anybody listening to this podcast, wanting to find out more about clusters or participate in it, is there one message that you would want to share with them?

[00:24:44] Simon: Yes. I think, um, find out more, you can find out about what we doing.

If you’re, if it’s something that interests you and you want to learn more about it, engage with it. If this is an area where you’re in an organization that’s trying to resolve or address some of these issues. I think we could help. We could be a vehicle for doing that. We bring together people from different industries to look at whether it’s the health industry or housing or young leadership or the digital world. There are groups we are creating and people that want to examine issues in a particular area. And if there are issues that are concerning you, that relate to a particular industry or a particular place, so whatever it might be in a clusters could help, I think,

[00:25:26] Sue: Thats great to hear your energy and enthusiasm. And I’m sure that any listener that wants to find out. We’ll go on over to the website and take that action. It’s been really fantastic to speak to you today, Simon. Thank you so much for your time and I wish you well, as the clusters project continues forwards.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)