Dimensions of social enterprise leadership: Part 3

Series: Third of Five

I like giving information interviews. (There. I have said it. If the phone now rings off the hook my own fault.) At least thrice each week, a brave entrepreneur (for the record, I believe they are all brave) sends me an email, or gives me a ring, to ask if they can “buy me a coffee” and “pick my brain” about their business. I make time for as many as I can.

Many—perhaps most—of these conversations are as fruitful for me as I hope they are for the entrepreneurs across the table.

A handful are truly inspiring—instances when I get a glimpse of the vast potential of a true and compelling vision. And some fall into another category—one best captured by an age old saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Leadership is about goals.

Most entrepreneurs suffer from ‘shiny object syndrome.’ They’re compelled to chase each of the bright new ideas that show up on their path. Successful entrepreneurs recognise that ideas are cheap and that what counts is execution. They stay focused and build something of enduring value.

Execution in social enterprise is the same as execution in any other organisation. It boils down to articulating a goal, working hard to reach it and achieving results.

Goal-oriented leaders—those that achieve admirable results—are TE Lawrence’s “dreamers of the day.” They’re the precious few who take their vision and follow the steps that will make it a reality. These leaders share four key practices that distinguish them from their vision-oriented peers.

Practice 1: Set a course for success

Most social enterprises exist to redress a complex problem. So their business models and practices are necessarily complicated. Successful leaders are able to break down complexity and share their organisation’s approach with others.

Clear, concise and compelling, their storytelling inspires their teams. It’s the day-to-day practice of what it means to be a visionary.

Future of Fish is a US NGO focused on redressing the complex challenges faced by the fishing industry.

The interlaced issues of over-fishing, mislabeling and supply chain opacity are preventing the emergence of sustainable practices. The issues are highly complex. And the solutions are complicated. Yet Founder and CEO Cheryl Dahle is continually working to refine her presentation, each time making Future of Fish’s theory of change clearer.

The story is already compelling enough to have attracted partners like National Geographic and Ecotrust, and to position Cheryl as a finalist for the 2012 Buckminster Fuller Award.

Practice 2: Align decisions with vision, values and evidence

Leadership decisions aren’t easy. The complexities of social enterprise only make them more challenging. Clarity helps. A well-framed vision is both aspirational (“we aim to create this”) and actionable (“today we’ll do this”). Successful social entrepreneurs are able to frame decisions every single day in the context of their vision, moving ever closer to the change they wish to see in the world.

Second, they make daily decisions consistently with their own values and the values of their enterprise. They trust their instincts about what is the ‘right’ way to proceed. And if they’re unsure, they defer decisions until clarity emerges. They resist the panic to make a decision, instead maintaining urgency, but not tipping into the conviction that any decision now is better than waiting for the right one.

Third, they make decisions not on how they wish or hope things might be, but based on objective evidence. This may seem obvious, but the truth is that too many social entrepreneurs are so convinced of the rightness of their mission that they fail to see when their approach isn’t working.

Practice 3: Take action to implement decisions

The decision is made. The path forward is explicitly clear. And nothing happens. Stasis, despite clarity of direction, is all too common in a social enterprise. One surprising culprit is the runaway empathy that’s so characteristic of the social sector: Well-meaning people are biased to leave well enough alone, when change means disruption or turbulence in their work and the work and lives of those around them.

So for the successful social entrepreneur, it isn’t enough merely to make decisions. Successful social entrepreneurs also exemplify active leadership. They act, directly and visibly, consistently with organisational values and in alignment with their decisions. Openness and transparency about decision-making is vital: Everyone in the organisation should know why their leader is acting.

Our intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge. – Winston Churchill

Practice 4: Take stock of progress and refine

Regular reflection, reassessment, and revision of plans is the final characteristic of goal-oriented social enterprise leaders. There are two equally important facets of this. One is metrics—leading social entrepreneurs are borderline obsessive about measuring their results and evaluating their outcomes. They refuse to let the complexities of their work dissuade them from defining the metrics that define their milestones on the road to success.

The second facet of assessment is about accountability. Successful leaders hold their teams and themselves accountable for successes and failures. They correct behaviours and revise plans that don’t move their organisations toward their vision. They embody the decisiveness of successful business leaders and the empathy of the social sector. And, ultimately, this is perhaps their greatest asset.

To move an organisation forward, decision-making and an unwavering focus on results are the hallmarks of successful management. But pushing too hard for achievement can have longer-term consequences on morale. Exceptional social entrepreneurs balance drive and empathy. This is the hallmark of successful leadership.

Successful social entrepreneurs are profoundly inspiring people. Yet their leadership can be learned. This five part series, profiling the various aptitudes and skills of successful social enterprise leaders has been assembled to share some of the specific insights we’ve recognised in our work consulting to social entrepreneurs around the world.

The fourth piece in the series will focus on coalition development and will appear online and in our next newsletter.


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