• Madeleine Bonser

Spotlight on Dr Neil Cunningham

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

At Spotlight, we had the opportunity to talk to Dr Neil Cunningham, co-founder and CEO of Elite Journey UK Ltd, who spoke to us about shaping the leaders of tomorrow and creating opportunities for students that he wished he had when he was studying.

A Background into Neil and Elite Journey

In addition to working full-time as a doctor in the NHS, I am the co-founder and CEO of Elite Journey UK Ltd, an International Education Company with offices in China and in the UK.

I co-founded Elite Journey in 2015 whilst studying for my medical degree at the University of Cambridge. The company mission is to provide a quality, holistic education to students across the world, and to enable them to reach their full potential. Our vision to become a world-leading international school of the future, cultivating accountable global citizens with the global competencies to make a better world. Which we are achieving by providing a progressive curriculum which equips our students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions required to be successful in the 21st century.

Elite Journey has been recognised for its world-leading education programmes by The PIEoneer Awards (Professionals in International Education) and was a finalist for both Language Educator and Progressive Education Delivery of the Year 2020. We were also the winners of the 2020 Enlightened Employer award by LEAD5050 for our leading approach to women empowerment among our employees and across our curriculums.

Business Concept

Whilst studying at University, I could see lots of emerging educational companies and programmes, but none of these, I thought, had a focus on developing students holistically. I wanted to develop a set of educational programmes which developed students in a way which had been overlooked – I wanted to make education fun with a focus on soft skills, and that’s what the Elite Journey team and I are doing!

I had, and still have, a keen passion for travel, learning about the world and supporting young people. When I met our co-founder Austin, who worked at an international department of a secondary school in China, building an education organisation to help cultivate these holistic skills whilst connecting mentors and students from around the world felt like the obvious next step.

Biggest Challenges

The biggest challenge for me, prior to COVID, was definitely juggling both my full-time career as a doctor in the NHS and the Elite Journey programmes.

Since the COVID pandemic, there have been even more challenges. With new government regulations and travel restrictions globally, we have been restricted in running our residential camps which lie at the heart of what we do at Elite Journey. I have also had even more juggling to do with my own personal time due to the pressures on the NHS.

Not having an opportunity to run residential camps for over a year now has definitely been a disappointment. It’s been difficult for many reasons, though more than anything because of the impact it had on our students, who have not been able to access our programmes in the way we are used to Nevertheless, at Elite Journey, we have an incredibly fun, passionate, agile and adaptable team who have supported the company in overcoming the setbacks. We have made some tactical adjustments in our business to offset the reductions in revenue, and we have very quickly, with the unwavering efforts of the wider team, moved our programmes online for the first time, and expanded our online educational provisions.

We have been really proud of what we have achieved online, having virtually worked with over 1000 students last year across our courses and competitions.

Important Initiatives

In my role, I feel that supporting my team is the most important thing. I am passionate about welfare; the welfare of colleagues is something which can’t be overlooked, especially in such uncertain times. Key areas such as loneliness and managing mental health remotely have arisen due to the pandemic. This is something that I have seen in Elite Journey, but also something that I have a unique insight to through my work as a doctor.

So this year, at Elite Journey, we launched a new welfare initiative to help address these key issues of loneliness and managing mental health remotely. Our new welfare initiative is playing a vital role in combating loneliness through increased connectivity, virtual coffee breaks and virtual social activities.

I believe that it is important to encourage an open culture which doesn’t stigmatise or discriminate. Our welfare initiative provides regular communication about mental health and signposts appropriate support where required. I believe that this will help employees feel supported and will drive proactive action. Just like with physical illnesses, treating mental illness proactively during the early stages is important in order to deliver favourable outcomes. I am passionate about mental health and well-being, and believe this concept should be central to company strategies around the world, especially at times such as this.

Drive and Determination

I think I have always inherently had the drive and determination to try to succeed at whatever I do. Specifically, with Elite Journey, the drive and determination come from the students that we teach. A lot of the programmes that we host are programmes which I think I would have wanted when I was younger. If I had the opportunity to take part in these programmes when I was younger, I definitely would have!

So, I want to make our programmes that are available to as many students across the world as possible. Our current students will be the leaders of the future, and it is important that we equip them with the skills they need to be the positive pioneers that they can be.

Advice for People Starting Their Careers

To those starting their careers, my advice is the same as that we give to our students.

  1. Do something you’re passionate about because following what you love and feel passionate about will give you the drive and determination to fully commit, and ultimately succeed. If you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, you won’t be able to give 110%.

  2. Step out of your comfort zone. I think it’s important not to ever feel too comfortable about what you are doing. Once you feel comfortable in your job, I think it’s important to find ways to challenge yourself and do new things so that you can develop personally and professionally. This will ultimately lead to new and exciting opportunities, and more than likely, career progression.

  3. Take every opportunity to listen to and learn from others because no matter what career you enter, there will always be opportunities to grow and learn. You might learn from people in the industry who are more experienced or more accomplished, or you might learn from people who can provide a different perspective. Learning is a life-long process, and at the beginning of your career, is more important than ever.

Advice for Leaders

My advice for someone managing a team is to give your team the opportunities to grow and develop and to do things differently. Being a manager is not about making your team do things the same way that you would necessarily do things, but about listening and encouraging the team to try new things in their own way. Allowing your team to try something new and to fail is valuable to their own professional development if you can find a way to turn this into a valuable learning experience.

To lead a team effectively, it is important to develop a culture of freedom and responsibility. In the medical world, we talk about a 'duty of candor' which is centred on the statutory duty to be open and honest with patients, or their families, when something goes wrong that appears to have caused or could lead to significant harm in the future. In the business world, parallels can be drawn when it comes to leadership, by building feedback moments into regular meetings, you can set the stage for candour, openness and honesty which can help high-performers become outstanding performers, with frequent candid feedback exponentially magnifying the speed and effectiveness of your team. This is something Reed Hastings (co-founder and CEO of Netflix) talks about in his book 'No Rules Rules' and really resonated with me. I definitely recommend giving it a read!

The Best Part of Your Job

The best part of my job is two-fold and based on growth and development. Watching my team achieve and surpass not just their professional goals, but their own personal goals is so rewarding. In addition to this, seeing our students grow and develop during our programmes is super rewarding, I can see the difference that our programmes make on the lives of so many young people.

The Future is Bright

The future of our business looks bright. We have managed to expand our team during COVID and want to expand even further. Right now, we are working on a strategy to reach even more students globally.

If you would like to learn more about Elite Journeys, why not check out their website, Facebook and Instagram. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, there are plenty more inspiring blogs written by successful leaders on our website, check them out here.

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