We manage higher education programs that attract individuals from around the world who are seeking change in their careers—and often at the very core of their lives. Although our programs operate from different organizations in different parts of the world and serve different audiences, we have noticed some similarities across our participants. Those similarities cluster around the life transition from high-performing professional to fast-moving change leader or social entrepreneur (roughly a third of the students in both programs are social entrepreneurs).
For those undergoing this type of professional transition—stepping it up a level, and driving toward innovation and social change, either by starting something new or evolving rapidly within a current organization—we’d like to share 15 insights from our experience that may be helpful when confronting change. To do so, we’ll follow the classic approach to leadership development (simultaneously leading oneself, others, and an enterprise).
On personal transitions
1. Define what you truly enjoy doing, become really good at it, and try to earn money from it. Getting paid for good work of real value to others earns confidence and independence.
2. Turn challenges into opportunities. Challenges are areas of exploration to discover concrete opportunities. Opportunity-oriented thinking generates positive energy, which leads to an optimistic and entrepreneurial attitude toward both work and life.
3. Be true to your values, but be willing to change your assumptions. For instance, when Roshan’s team was designing their first curriculum at Amani Institute, they assumed that the core market was recent university graduates. But in their first pilot, the average student age was greater than the average age of the faculty. Suddenly, a whole new market opened up, and gave the institute a chance to live up to one of its values: transcending artificial boundaries such as age.
4. The work of an entrepreneur is intensely demanding personally, and success requires preparation. A recent graduate, for example, might work at a successful institution before starting a social enterprise to develop some deep skills and build a wide professional network that they can later bring to bear on their own venture.
On working in and leading teams
5. Your passion and purpose give you necessary energy and persistence, but do not guarantee success. The quality of your plan and leadership are success predictors.
6. Work with people you admire and from whom you can learn. As the old saying goes, if we attract people larger than ourselves, we end up with an army of giants; if we attract people smaller than ourselves, we end up with an army of dwarfs.
7. Don’t wait for large amounts of funding to build your team. Test the vision and possibility of the idea by asking people to help not for financial compensation, but for the opportunity to learn and/or for fulfillment. Money is not the primary currency in the world of changemaking.
8. A creative team, a management team, and an operating team are really different things. Depending on what you need, you must look for different qualities in your team members.
9. As an entrepreneur, it is important to give your team, especially the first group of staff, a physical home, a tangible birthplace of your idea; that represents the excitement, experience, and experiment that is a new enterprise. For both of us, investing time, money and even love into the training space where our courses happen (in places as disparate as Amsterdam and Nairobi) has inspired and comforted students, helped faculty feel at ease, and built a reputation for being a place where intriguing things happen. It’s about building a home, not an office.
On social innovation and enterprise
10. Making change can require innovation, but innovation typically is not a goal in itself. Innovation creates new opportunities, subverts competition, and helps win against bigger and/or better-funded opposition. But it is also fraught with failure.
11. Because of the complexity of their revenue model and the number of different stakeholders involved, social enterprises are harder to pull off than business enterprises. It’s important to take bold steps, but you must have contingency plans against failure.
12. A great social enterprise has: 1) a product or service that people need or crave, 2) a delivery model cheaper than the market rate, and 3) an asset, skill, or relationship that gives you an advantage. Do you have these?
13. Many social ventures have a clear mission, but a proposed solution isn’t necessarily good simply because the cause is good. If a solution is free, for example, and receives little market feedback, how do you know it’s working? Ask questions not just about your business model, but also of your social impact model.
14. As much of the literature on innovation or design thinking points out, anything entrepreneurial is riddled with false assumptions (see number three above), even if you are an expert on that topic. You may not know what your customers really want or even who your best customers really are. Instead of relying on in-depth planning and analysis, run numerous pilots and experiments, then learn from findings (and failures). Most start-ups pivot three or four times before finding a path to success.
15. Stick to your long-term vision while focusing on short-term positive action; middle-term planning makes little sense in our uncertain and volatile world. This builds momentum in the right direction. It also applies to the rest of your life.
We’d love to hear your insights and questions on making the leap from motivated professional to global changemaker.