"" Tim Coates: November 2011

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Building a community or building a company?

I’ve recently become involved with an exciting initiative in Connecticut, reSET, aimed at promoting and encouraging social enterprise in the state and beyond. It’s an exciting space to be in. Business leaders are recognizing that increasing their organization’s social performance increases economic performance. And nonprofit leaders are recognizing that increasing their organization’s economic performance increases social performance.

As entrepreneur and former Venture Capitalist Garrett Melby says,“I believe this is a big movement. There are a lot of people with a lot of money to put to work. They want to inject meaning in their professional endeavors.”

Being good is challenging. The field is in a state of flux. Social enterprise and hybrids (part nonprofit part forprofit) are new organizational animals. Legal structures like B-corporations and For-Benefits to support a shared purpose are still being created.

My involvement with reSET has led to thoughts on how social entrepreneurs launch ventures in this flux.  John Roy at last year’s Face 2 Face conference said that in his experience, launching a social venture is more difficult than a private one. Success relies on not only a solid product and operations. It also requires significantly altered relationships and behavior.

The best way to change behavior is to engage people in a community around a certain idea. I believe a large part of our success launching 21inc came from building a strong, purposeful community. I tried to not miss an opportunity to speak or meet anyone willing to discuss our plans. Many others made presentations and networked the idea using that old fashioned tactic of face to face conversations. We were able to explain our ideas, our business model, and our social and economic goals.

Once it was time to launch, many key players were on board in official and informal ways. People wanted to belong to the community and be part of our work. We organized events so that the community was reinforced and strengthened. The community also gave critical feedback that we had to address or risk losing members. This led to innovation and trust we could leverage; trust that held us accountable.

We learned a ton too. We didn't always meet the interests of our community. Especially early on, we couldn't define the boundaries of our community. Nor did we initially have a coherent idea of what we wanted the community to be.

Growing a community has long been the way nonprofits operated (think about how they engage volunteers). Businesses have more recently jumped on the bandwagon. The November issue of Harvard Business Review devote their feature stories to explaining why good companies perform great. Harley Davidson, Teach for America and Picaroons are exemplary community building organizations. 

Whether a forprofit or nonprofit, achieving results in the social space like decreasing poverty and saving the environment are largely based on changing behaviors, not simply buying decisions. Creating the social capital and the underlying trust inherent in well built communities can be the difference between a successful launch and not launching at all.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Add Magnesium

Ignore for a moment that this video is clearly fake -- it’s amazing what a little magnesium can do.

I’ve been thinking about what makes breakthrough learning experiences after a conversation this week with one of my favorite professors at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Like the magnesium sulfate in the video, what ingredient (or ingredients) deliver the explosive combination that leave participants more capable of creating their desired future?

At 21inc, we spent copious amounts of time thinking about this and, to kill the recipe metaphor, continuously looking for and mixing different ingredients to bake a better leadership program. Earlier this year I hired a researcher to comb through our survey data and match it against “better practices.”

Some of the findings were obvious. For example, content mattered. This meant ensuring the topics we covered were relevant to the motivations and aspirations of our emerging leaders. How the content is taught mattered. We were very intentional about not only who engaged with the leaders, but how they engaged. This was true for action learning, peer to peer conversations and the traditional class room model. As we became aware of effective styles we worked with speakers and guests to make sure they understood what we were learning.

Having a safe space and a supportive peer network mattered. In all similar programs and experiences that I’ve either looked at or participated in, the peer network and relationship building is usually considered one of, if not the top takeaway.

Which brings me back to Harvard. Harvard’s educational decisions often spark national trends. Recent changes to undergrad curriculum, or the business school’s adoption of the case method are good examples.

During my chat, this professor said the PAE (the capstone project for the school's Masters program) and other executive education programs are undergoing seriously reflection. Harvard's professional schools in particular are experiencing pressure from students and alumni to better prepare them for the workforce. If there was any trend, he said, the schools are turning away from traditional lectures and cases to team based experiential or action learning.  

What interested and perplexed the professor was that despite much thought and study into program design, students, even executive education students (i.e older and more experienced), weren't relying on their student peers to help overcome professional (and sometimes personal) challenges. Relationships and peer networks don't capture their potential without these conversations. 

I remember the moment I realized that simply putting smart and driven people in a room won't create the powerful learning experience we desired. One of our selected leaders was putting together a forum on economic development in her region and asked if she could use the group and larger 21inc community to help with the project. She wasn’t asking for time in the schedule, she wasn’t asking for me to do anything, she was seeking permission to have a very specific and personal conversation with her peers.

Having designed the program, the realization hit hard. I had missed a very big piece of what would make this a successful leadership experience (fortunately, it was also early in our journey). 

Creating the safe space wasn’t enough. We needed to give permission and explicitly state what the group is for. How to use their new relationships and the bigger network. This conversation can be inspiring and liberating. It can come from the group itself and have lasting impacts on the experience, deepening relationships being built. But it has to be done.

The magnesium of good leadership programming is how participants engage with one another. We learned the lesson and never forgot it. In the hospitality suite after just the first session of our last program, the Emerging Leaders Summit, one of the leaders told me that he was surprised and happy with how safe he felt and what he was sharing with his peers. He had no idea how much we needed to learn to get him there.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Entrepreneurship, Act I

In some corners entrepreneurship has reached cult status.

A couple years ago I was attending a fancy gala, having a drink in the hotel bar with some colleagues, most of whom owned a business. Another friend came over wanting to introduce someone to us. She did so according to whether or not we were an entrepreneur.

“This is Chris, he’s an entrepreneur. This is Dave, he’s an entrepreneur…”

For her, the act of owning a business and being an entrepreneur were synonymous. And being an entrepreneur/business owner brought undeniable status. The fact that I had co-founded and led a social enterprise only got me halfway; I was introduced as a “sort-of entrepreneur.” Another friend who was finishing her PhD on participatory policy development was disparagingly introduced as an “activist,” clearly a lower human form than entrepreneur.

The economic slowdown, stagnant growth rates, and economic shifts has rightly moved the spotlight to entrepreneurs and startups. 100% of net job growth comes from new companies. (There’s plenty of important nuance to this statistic if you want it.)

I’m on the entrepreneurship bandwagon, cheerleading the need for more. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by limiting entrepreneurship to business owners and then claiming the entrepreneur is an advanced human form. We need a broader definition. Fortunately, research backs up this case.

The first person to coin the term entrepreneur, the French economist J. B. Say, didn't constrain his definition. Around 1800 he noted that “the entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” More recently, Duke University’s J. Gregory Dees defined an entrepreneur as someone who “mobilizes resources beyond their control to create value.” 

The act of entrepreneurship - creating value - isn't an indelible character trait. Moreover, with this definition every business person isn't an entrepreneur if resources are not shifted to higher output activities. (Did the new pizza place down the road reinvent takeout? Probably not.) This definition of entrepreneurship can be applied to all sectors of society. It focuses on specific actions and behaviors. And behavior is something that can be taught and practiced. 

Maybe then it's better to think of entrepreneurship as existing along a spectrum. On one end are what New York University Professor Paul Light calls the 24/7 type A entrepreneurs. In the middle are entrepreneurial teams, and on the other end are large and bureaucratic institutions. Entrepreneurial people are found alone, in teams or mired deep inside institutions. What they all have in common, in the words of Peter Drucker, is that they are “always searching for change, responding to it, and exploiting it as an opportunity.” 

Promoting all kinds of entrepreneurship (social, economic, civic, team, organizational) wherever it arises is our urgent priority. It will create jobs, fight poverty, and improve our quality of life. 

Lets keep the cult but open up membership.