Changemakers: Kate Robertson

How One Young World’s co-founder is supporting the next generation of global leaders

By Sophie Haydock 18 October 2019

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Millennials are often dismissed as irresponsible “snowflakes”. This couldn’t be further from the truth for businesswoman Kate Robertson, who co-founded One Young World a decade ago, an organisation dedicated to inspiring the next generation of global leaders. Her aim? To find and support the next Nelson Mandelas. There’s no shortage of them, she says.

Through One Young World, Robertson rubs shoulders with young people who are making the world a better place – whether it’s advocating for education in Brazil (Tabata Amaral, 26); challenging  the status quo when it comes to equal rights in Saudi Arabia (Loujain al-Hathloul, 29, a political prisoner after campaigning for women’s right to drive); or standing up for free speech in Hong Kong (Joshua Wong, 22, was deemed one of the “world’s greatest leaders” by Fortune magazine while still a teenager, and faces years in prison for his pro-democracy beliefs).

Robertson and One Young World co-founder David Jones work not simply to encourage and enable young people in their battles for social justice, but make leaders out of them – and in the process, accelerate positive change globally.

Why good leadership matters

“I’ve always felt there were vacuums of good leadership around the world and whenever it occurred, there were consequences beyond what was immediately foreseeable,” Robertson says. It is young people, she points out, who are forced to carry the burden of bad leadership, “From the housing crisis to the financial crisis, the lack of jobs and a culture of spiralling debts, it’s the young who ultimately lose out because of poor governance by those in power.”

Indeed, the younger generations are going to have to navigate some of the biggest challenges in history, thanks to decades-long failures of leadership by “C-grade candidates who wouldn’t last six months in the corporate world”. Take climate change, Robertson says. Very few global leaders have done “a bloody thing about it.”

“Nobody is exempt from that charge. At One Young World, we have never met a young person, anywhere in the world, who doesn’t look at us [the older generation] and ask, ‘Why didn’t they sort it out?’ That is our generation’s total failure. Climate change will dominate human history. Whether the human species survives on this planet or not hinges on that.”

Born in South Africa under apartheid, Robertson is “obsessed” with leadership: “Coming from where I come from, it took one man, maybe two, to change the course of history. I don’t think that sort of thing should be left to chance.”

One Young World ambassadors

This is precisely why Robertson and Jones set up One Young World. They hold annual summits bringing together young people from more than 190 countries. Delegates participate in speeches, panels, networking and workshops, “counselled” by influential political, business and humanitarian leaders and global figures such as Justin Trudeau and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Now there around 10,000 One Young World ambassadors worldwide. After the summits, delegates return to their own communities, be it the corporate  or charity sector, government or higher education, and many go on to assume powerful positions of leadership.

Can a person learn to be a leader? “When you see children in a playground, the teachers can tell you who the ringleaders are,” says Robertson. “Some people, even from a very early age, just have that ‘follow-me’ thing.” But leadership skills can also emerge later in life: “In some people, the latent talent is there, but it takes a new-found conviction or passion for it to suddenly wake up – and that can be the making of a great leader.”

Modern democratic leaders often fail to inspire, she says. There are “very few of them who stand and say, ‘Well, I know it’s unpopular and I know my party  doesn’t agree with me, but I believe X. When you look at [Margaret] Thatcher, like her or loathe her, that was a leader of conviction. She knew what she thought and what she wanted to get done.”

Being right isn’t enough, she says. Nor is being competent: “Theresa May was a very competent Home Secretary, but the change from Home Office to Prime Minister was simply a jump too far. You see it time and time again.”

From manager to leader

“People want that next slot, but wanting it doesn’t mean you’re the right person. It happens in business. You’ve got a candidate who delivers spectacular growth results or manages a department brilliantly, then wants to be CEO – they get the job and crash the car. Managing is not the same as leading. Competent management is not the same as leading. They’re very different things.”

What, then, are the skills for successful, dynamic leadership? “Determination. Creativity. Persistence. Being curious about people, attentive to people. Leaders have to have the ability to hear the mood music around them, to hear the people. You can’t get followers otherwise. Then there’s courage and bravery, that special kind of blind resolve. Often great leaders are so driven they can’t see anything else,” she says.

“Then it’s essential to have the ability to communicate. Trump is a good communicator. Brutal. Blunt. Ugly and unpleasant. But communicating just the same.”

“Leadership is everything.”

Robertson is clearly a communicator and a leader.  But would she say she has changed the world? “No. Not at all,” she smiles. “The young people I work with? Are they changing they world? Yes. That, for me, is everything. The day that leaders of the G20 are One Young World ambassadors, I am 100% certain the world will be a better place. Will it be perfect? No. Will it be better? Yes. That is my Mandela North Star.”

“Young people today are staggering,” she adds, emphasising the final word. “I’m ashamed of what I was doing at 30 compared to the young people I see today.”

Dynamic and focused, with her tailored clothes, impressive CV and great confidence, Robertson has the air of someone who has always been hugely accomplished. But she claims she was once “the most useless person on planet Earth”. Her twenties were a write-off: “I finished my law studies [in South Africa] when I was 24. I went into selling advertising space for a radio station. I did as little work as I possibly could. Then I went sailing for a year. Then it was back to advertising. Then I drank myself stupid for the next four years. I got myself transferred to London by sheer luck. No one I was working with could believe it. They were saying, ‘That drunken hell-raiser – what?!’ I was  a bloody disgrace.”

Robertson arrived in London aged 30 in 1986. She married an Englishman, had a baby. By her early forties, she had entered a “middleage permafrost”, where you “don’t look for change or challenge a damn thing, you just try to hold onto your job and anything that gets in the way of that is a pain.”

She credits her journey since to Jones, who called her up one day, having worked with her years before, inviting her to work at the advertising giant Havas Worldwide. She became Co-global President before stepping down in 2015 to concentrate on One Young World.

“David told me then he was going to run the whole thing. Not just the London office, but the world! I came because of David, because I thought it would be a good ride. I was very lucky.”

Jones is perhaps the best leader Robertson knows. “He’s such  an optimistic human bring. He genuinely thinks the best of everybody. That gives you the chance to be amazing. When you screwed up, he picked you up. He never pointed the finger. He’d say, ‘Never mind, onto the next thing,’ which meant that you screwed up more, and succeeded more. Because you did more and took more risks.”

It’s the baton of these great leadership traits that Robertson hopes to pass on to the next generation – dynamic, determined and indomitable young people from all walks of life. Their spirit and success gives her hope that a better world is possible.”

Promoting positive change through business

Full fees scholarship

LBS has partnered with One Young World to create the One Young World & London Business School Scholarship. This unique collaboration will provide a life-changing opportunity for a high-achieving young person to attend one of LBS’s world-renowned Early Careers programmes: Masters in Financial Analysis, Masters in Management or Masters in Analytics and Management. The full-fees scholarship, worth £55,000, will be awarded on a needs and merit basis to a member of the One Young World network who embodies the principles of both organisations and is committed to leveraging responsible business practices to realise positive social change. LBS will meet all programme tuition fees and include a stipend to assist with living costs for the duration of the programme. Dean François Ortalo-Magné said: “This confirms the School’s deep-rooted commitment to identifying, educating and nurturing the next generation of business leaders to drive positive change.” Applications are open for the 2020/21 academic year. One Young World

LBS delegation

As part of the partnership with One Young World, LBS is sending a delegation of 10 people – all of whom took part in a competitive application process – to experience One Young World’s 10th annual summit, from 22 to 25 October 2019, in London.

The delegation will comprise two current students and three recent graduates (all five from the Early Careers programmes), as well as two LBS staff members. Joining the LBS team for the OYW summit are three young leaders from Kosovo, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. LBS’s Early Careers team, together with the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, are funding these three places.

All the delegates have been selected for their leadership qualities and commitment to the role business can play in bringing about positive social impact. After attending the One Young World summit, delegates spearhead initiatives which focus on creating positive change in their community and beyond.

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