Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.

The foundation, the house, the finishing touches

On my way to work, I walk past a house that’s been empty for more than a year.  The lot was vacant and listless for a while, and then a few months ago they started work in earnest, including demolishing the old house, clearing the lot and laying the foundation. It’s been slow going.

I went away for a week’s vacation, and suddenly the house is up. Not “the house” as in a finished thing, but a three-story wooden structure with walls, a roof, the works.

Now it’s going to take them another six months to finish it.

Those three phases – the pre-work and building the foundation; the framing and putting up of the house; and then doing all the work to finish it – are good reminders of how great teams work and where to place effort.

The pre-work and foundation-building phases are all about the composition of the team: who is on it, the norms of how the team works together; the psychological safety within the team; how (and by who) behaviors that are in and out of line with the emergent team culture are addressed and reinforced.

The framing and putting up of the house is what we typically consider the “work” of the team: the big pieces that are visible and that feel like the team’s formal output.

And then there’s the finishing, which is about getting all the details right: not just laying tile but doing it beautifully; making small adjustments when the door that’s in the plans doesn’t quite work. This is the work of smoothing off all the rough edges to make sure things not only work the way they’re supposed to but that they feel delightful and surprising to the end users. This phase can only exceed expectations if the team members truly care about the product and the end user experience.

What this means is that the work that really matters comes at the beginning – in forming the team and how it works together – and at the end – when the sense of care and ownership bear fruit. Yet more often than not we find it easier to fuss about the bit in the middle, the visible work product that the team is producing.

Great teams – teams with the right people in the right roles, teams with strong and supportive cultures, norms and behaviors – feel like flywheels. Sure, there’s big, hard and heavy work to do, but the pieces are in place to do that work quickly, joyfully, and with leverage.

Corrected link – ImpactMatters newsletter

Yesterday’s post had the wrong sign-up link for our new ImpactMatters newsletter.

The right link is: bit.ly/impactmatters 

To give you a taste: the next newsletter, which will come out on Tuesday, will have results from Acumen’s Lean Data sprint, in which we gathered data from customers of 18 Acumen investees across six countries – our team, incredibly, did all this in about two months.

I’ve been selectively sharing these results at speaking events in the impact investing sector, and as far as I can tell no one else has this sort of data across such a large swath of their portfolio.

It’s pretty exciting, and you can get the details of this sort of thing if you sign up. Enjoy.

Lean Data Podcast

On Monday, Tony Loyd was nice enough to include me in his great series of Social Entrepreneur podcasts. We covered a lot of topics but dug in most deeply on Lean Data, particularly on how we are using it at Acumen to amplify the voice of low-income customers so our entrepreneurs can better serve them.  It was a fun conversation.

(if you’re not seeing the embedded link click here)

 

If this kind of thing is up your alley, you might want to sign up to receive the specialized newsletter we’ve created to share hot-off-the-press insights on what we’re learning through Lean Data. We send it out once every six weeks or so, so it won’t clog your inbox, and it’s full of great stuff.

It’s called Impact Matters and you can sign up here.

 

The Hardest Thing

It isn’t figuring out how to solve the problem,

or deciding what approach will work best.

It isn’t sussing out what tactics to use,

or who will be your partners and your competitors.

It’s not figuring out product-market fit,

and it isn’t even hammering out how you’re going to convince skeptics of your story.

The hardest thing is figuring out what’s really important to you.

The things you want to work for.

The things that are worth sustained energy and sacrifice.

It’s the act of clearing away the dross, of quieting the voices that are the noise, not signal, streaming through your head.

The moment you state your goal is the moment you can’t hide from it.

It’s the moment you have to stop pretending that you don’t know exactly what it is that you are here to do.

A confluence of impact and scale

I spent last week at the annual meeting of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), and I was struck by three trends that could take our sector to the next level.

The first is around taking impact seriously. The second is how different the impact measurement challenge looks depending on where you sit. The third is the acceleration of the rate at which mainstream financial capital is entering our space.

Throughout the GIIN conference, impact — the role it plays in defining our work and how to improve the quality of our impact data — was front and center in a way that I’ve not felt before. For example, one of the first panels kicking off this year’s event was on market segmentation. While segmentation is not a new topic in impact investing, the panel was titled “Market Segmentation through an Impact Lens.” The panelists — from Skopos Impact Fund, Tideline, Athena Capital Management and Omidyar — discussed their research and client-facing efforts to make sense of impact investing from the perspective of impact objectives.

This shouldn’t be brand new, but it is. An orientation to start segmentation with an impact lens runs against the natural tendency to segment investors by asset class or sector strategy, and it’s certainly a far cry from accepting that “intentionality” (as in: my intention is to make such-and-such happen with limited accountability on the data to figure out whether or not real change is happening) is a high-enough bar to set for the sector in terms of impact.

If we could pull off organizing ourselves, as impact investors, by the change we’re trying to make in the world rather than by the investing strategies we’re using to make that happen, that would be a big step forward.

Second, we need much better impact data AND we need to help people who are drowning in too much indecipherable, low-quality data.

I had the chance to participate in two panels focused squarely on advances in impact measurement. What I learned from these panels is that better impact data isn’t enough — there’s a huge desire for simplification too.

At Acumen, our Lean Data work has focused relentlessly on going directly to the low-income customers we aim to serve so we can understand what they have to say. Our objective is to improve the quality of impact data we have by scaling up our capacity to listen to the voices these customers, so we and our investees can better serve them.

While I’m convinced that this kind of listening must to be the foundation of everything we do as a sector, it’s not enough. Listening to my fellow panelists — from Goldman Sachs, Zurich Re, Abraaj Capital and Leapfrog — I heard that big institutions with large, diverse portfolios of impact investments not only desire better impact data but they also need help simplifying and clarifying the reams of impact data they already feel they receive.

Ironically, these large institutions have too much data coming in and most of it’s not very good. Our job is both to improve the strength of the signal and also lessen the noise.

Lastly, it was impossible not to notice that more and more big-name financial players are coming to the table.

The simple fact of having an impact measurement conversation between Acumen and Leapfrog on the one hand (two organizations that are essentially growing startups, with between $100M and $1B in capital under management), and Goldman Sachs, Zurich Re and Abraaj Capital on the other means that there are innovations in impact management happening across the spectrum of impact capital. That’s hugely positive.

Then, at the end of the day, we got to hear Former Governor Deval Patrick and Deborah Winshel discuss the impact investing strategies they began implementing in the last year at Bain Capital and Blackrock. Both articulated their goals to fully integrate impact into the global practices of these uber-blue chip firms, firms that collectively represent more than $4.5 trillion in assets. While it’s early in the journey for both Bain and Blackrock, it’s clear that their actions could have a huge influence with other mainstream financial players and beyond.

As I left the conference and made my way back to New York, I was struck with the feeling that we are entering a new phase in our sector. Having passed through the teething pains of our early days and our loud, sometimes impulsive childhood, we’re ready to start growing up a bit. This means harnessing — rather than just shouting about — the increased momentum building in our space, thanks to the entrance of major new players, while also taking a much more sober and serious look at the ultimate goal of this work, which is to make a real, large-scale and lasting difference in the well-being of people and the planet.

If, in this next chapter, we can find a way to have impact investing go deeper on impact and bigger in terms of scale and reach, we will truly be in a position to take this work to the next level.

[Note: you can also follow the conversation about this post on Medium]