SVI 2013: Tonya Surman, Centre for Social Innovation

“Clarity around your value proposition is essential to partnering, and partnering’s essential to solving some of the complex problems we face.”

Some years are sprints. Some years are marathons. And some are marathons run at a sprinter’s pace. That’s the sort of year Tonya Surman had in 2012. Actually, it was more like 18 months. During that period, Tonya, CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto has seen the organization she leads grow from 12 staff to 45, and expanded to New York City.

SVI Hollyhock

I connected with Tonya shortly after her return from a hard earned vacation at what she described as “a cottage smack dab in the middle of where the Group of Seven painted.” It was just a few short weeks before the 19th annual Social Venture Institute, September 18-22 at Hollyhock, which Tonya’s looking forward to attending. We talked about her experience during the past year, about social entrepreneurs and the challenges they face leading ambitious enterprises, and her hope “to connect with people who will stimulate new ideas.”

“We wrote this beautiful, consolidated strategic plan”

Two years ago, back when CSI had just eight people, Tonya and her colleagues used Jim Collins’s famed ‘Hedgehog’ model to frame the best contribution CSI could make. Much of the focus was to be development of ‘constellations’ of organizations—a community of partnerships through which ambitious social change agendas might be pursued. They were confident this was their best area to contribute, and by January 2012, they were ready to consolidate it into a multi-year strategic plan.

Tonya retreated to her cabin, a space ideal for reflection and contemplation—largely because there is neither power nor cell coverage! There, she decided to do two important things. First, she decided to commit to being the CEO of CSI. Many founders elect not to take this road, instead turning over the responsibility for growth-ready organizations to new hands. But for Tonya, CSI held the promise of significantly more impact, and so she committed herself to the long haul, and to learning to be a better CEO. Second, she decided to write the plan in collaboration with her team. Together, they evolved the preceding work, and shared it with the staff.

Included in the plan was a single line easy to miss within the team’s seemingly ambitious agenda, stating their commitment to “explore creating additional spaces.” It was embedded in a section about their objective to ‘create and enhance platforms.’ Within three weeks, that simple placeholder would take on entirely new meaning, when CSI was asked to open in New York.

Pushing the Limits of Capacity

By June, the pace of expansion was so fast that the strategic plan was dropped. Between August 2012 and May 2013, CSI opened CSI Regent Park and CSI NYC; launched a microloan program with Microsoft, the Government of Ontario and a number of other partners; killed two product lines;  launched their own crowdfunding platform, CSI Catalyst; and quadrupled in size. “It was dizzying!” explained Tonya. “I received more ‘no’ responses than I ever had in my life. And strategic planning? Screw that! We were moving way too fast!”

CSI also fell into the hardest cash flow crisis any of Tonya’s team had ever had to navigate. Rapid growth can often feel like a house of cards to entrepreneurs, and Tonya felt that way, too: “We were going to go one of two ways,” she explained. “Either we were going to succeed and build something really important, or we were on course for an epic fail!” Tonya’s Board of Directors was asking the hard but important ‘What if…?’ questions, and the management team was working seven days a week to seize the fantastic opportunities ahead for CSI.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

As CSI now moves beyond this incredible year of growth and development, Tonya feels they’ve been through a ‘state shift’—a phrase she borrows from Robert Gass, whose celebrated ‘Art of Leadership’ course she took six years ago.

“When I arrived at the cottage a few weeks ago, I reopened the strategic plan we dropped last year, and I laughed,” Tonya said. “We’d accomplished 80% of what we thought we’d do in five years!”

This year, she invited her management team to join her for a few more days of planning, but equally to share time together celebrating their progress. “I’m so grateful for the team that got us to this new place,” she said, acknowledging that, “the teamwork was so strong—particularly because nobody had clear job descriptions – yet we came so far.”

On Entrepreneurial Leadership

As Tonya reflected on the past year’s experience, I asked her what lessons she would share with the entrepreneurs who will be gathered at SVI. At first, she was hesitant: “I don’t know,” she says. “We’re just starting to scale….” It strikes me as a remarkably humble note, after 18 months of flat out work. But it’s characteristic of Tonya’s style—and that of many successful social enterprise leaders. There’s always more work to be done.

“I’d start with explaining the principles that have underpinned our work, I think,” she continued after a short pause. One is “designing partnership into the structure of everything that CSI does.” Tonya sees many “young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs getting territorial, trying to claim all the space.” In CSI, Tonya and her team have not tried to be expert at everything that needs to be done, but instead have focused on being the best possible platform for social innovation. “Partnering will allow us to achieve scale,” she says. “Clarity around your own value proposition is an essential prerequisite to partnering. And partnering is essential if we’re going to solve some of the complex problems we face.”

It’s a wonderful alignment with the ethos of Social Venture Institute—itself a platform for a community of social innovators hell-bent on redressing inequity, mitigating climate change, and confronting other vexing challenges.

I also asked her how she managed the demands on her time and energy during the hectic pace of the last year—and what lessons she might share with her fellow social entrepreneurs. She paused and took a breath. “You know… yeah… I don’t know.” But of course she does. “I work hard and I play hard. I guess I do everything to extremes. But I’m also forgiving with myself. I think when you’re working on purpose, and from a place of integrity, it all ends up okay.”

Looking ahead, Tonya’s still excited about CSI. “We’re priming the pump for the next decade,” she says. “If anyone at SVI — or anyone else reading this article! — is interested to foster social innovation, please call us!”

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