Friday, October 23, 2009

Panels, Speeches and Leadership

It's been a busy six weeks since my last post. I've made two presentations and participated in two panels. The former are posted on my web site. Some common themes are emerging that I'd like to highlight by event.

C-Suite Trust Panel, “On Leadership,” NYC, October 22

The most important take-away for me studying and experiencing leadership is being in touch with what brings you alive. This is sometimes referred to as authenticity, or "true north" as Bill George calls it.[1] It's two of the five characteristics Jack Welch emphasized for CEOs: Energy and Energizing.[2] There is nothing as contagious as pursuing your passion. To illustrate this, I told the story of the Tree in Zaire. Emulating the old man who sang the song at the core of the village moved mountains (or in this case a large tree.)

My second take-away is to immerse yourself in the dialog of the brightest people you can find. Try out your ideas with people smarter and more experienced than you; and be open to being surprised by how much your own thinking and creativity ratchets up.

Third, be the first one up the hill, and the last one to take credit. Being five steps ahead is both good and bad. People want to know where you are going, what’s the destination (the core to strategy.) And they also want you to recognize that change is hard. Bottom line: care.

Fourth, have the humility to partner and collaborate; going solo is to waste more resources than may be readily apparent. At NetHope, we’ve found that the key to collaborating is trust. Leaders would do well to remember that trust is long to build and short to bring down.

CCITDG Conference, “Making a Difference in Interesting Times,” UK, October 8

I gave the keynote address to set the tone for this UK NGO CIO leadership event. I posted my slides on my web site. The top three things for me that came out of the Q&A that followed were:

1) Immerse yourself and your organization in the courageous conversations.[3] For the NGO CIO leader, this means talking about divesting yourself of the infrastructure management and taking on more of the mission moving technology (i.e., Field technology.)

2) My epitaph: "He made connections for good." This was tied to Tom Peter’s nightmare of finding his tombstone with “he made budget” on it (which I paraphrased as “he cut costs”), and in response, to “what would I want on my tombstone. Asking the “legacy:” question is an important leadership exercise. In the end, what do I want my and my team’s work to be about?

3) Collaborate or perish as irrelevant IT. This was the conclusion of having a fifth less IT budget in NGOs on average than corporations, and erring on the side of “lights-on” IT, which in the end is irrelevant to our mission. To do the mission moving things we need to do, we must collaborate.

2009 NGO Executive Workshop, “The Role of NGOs in Unleashing Technology,” a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference, NYC, September 22

Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director of Community Affairs at Microsoft and a long-term colleague, presented an important paper to kick off this session. His title: “Unleashing Technology to Advance Social & Economic Development.” One of the statements he made summed up the challenge: “there are not enough healthcare workers to provide healthcare to every person—we need new delivery models.” I could not agree more. We need new delivery models—not only for healthcare but for all our program areas, in the Field and in the value-chains that reach back to the donors who drive the engine that is humanitarian aid.

Microsoft invited me and four other colleagues to discuss these issues in a panel that followed Akhtar’s noon-time address. Here are some the Q&A I contributed:

1) What are the key challenges with IT for NGOs and social development today?

Three things:

a) The tyranny of the “pie chart” that hampers investments in game-changing technology innovations[4],

b) Shrinking undesignated revenue that funds most IT spending in NGOs, and

c) The rise of ICT4D[5] applications in the Field.

This last one I consider an opportunity. The severe under-spend on technology in NGOs means that over 85% of the IT budget goes to operations and applications in headquarters. That needs to shift if we are going to take the ICT4D pilots to scale and have real impact.

2) How are you thinking about the new technology business models (social networking, etc?)

One of the growing trends is the new workers are bringing their technology with them into the workplace. The word we are hearing is that “my tech is better than your tech.” In many cases they are right. Many NGO IT directors are locking out these consumer techniques. I think that’s a mistake. Most significant changes in the IT department over the past 30 years have been through such user revolutions. We need to embrace rather than fight these changes.

3) You are a leader when it comes to IT for development. Where do you see innovative technologies being developed and what difference can they make?

I look to NetHope pilot projects as my innovation lab. Recent ICT4D pilots among NetHope members, like the Catholic Relief Services Cassava Root disease program using Intel classmates and messaging forms, are an opportunity to build on the work of one for the good of many. That’s a key value for NetHope’s brand of collaboration. It means sharing the results and taking them to scale across other members in other sectors.

Another source of innovation is student competitions, like Microsoft’s Imagine Cup. As a judge for the past two years, I’ve seen more innovation in a week from these amazing student teams than I’ve seen in five year at NGOs. We should take this as a positive challenge, and gain the humility to look to their ideas and prototypes as rich sources of technology innovation for NGOs. I’ve written about this experience in my Blog and continue to pursue the connections between students and nonprofit work.

4) Based on your advice and learnings throughout your careers, what advice do you have to put people on the path to using IT for social and economic development?

Understand your delivery value chain and where you can build capacity (improve productivity) for incremental and radical improvements. Of the seven levers you can pull, the first four are about people (hire better people, training those you have, advocate with local governments and agencies, and partner with other NGOs.) The last three are about technology (better tools, processes and standards.) This last one may be the most obscure, but the history of IT is clear: convergence of platforms and applications (a tenet of standards) costs less and delivers more.

NTEN Online Technology Conference, “Strategic Thinking for Leaders,” September 16

I presented a seminar on this first NTEN web-based conference, showcasing the book Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission[6], in which I authored the chapter on the technology future for nonprofits. I posted my slides on my web site. The top take-aways for this session bring us full circle with yesterday’s leadership panel:

1) IT Strategy at an NGO is about capacity building and moving the agenda up the strategy pyramid to mission-moving applications

2) NGOs cannot follow in the footsteps of corporations; we need to stand on their shoulders

3) Look to the future in the Field and the schools

4) Ask good questions

A fitting ending to this whirlwind tour is Ranier Rilke’s famous quote: “…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

[1]Bill George, True North, Jossey-Bass, 2007, p. 66.

[2] Jack Welch, Winning, Harper Business, 2005, see the 4-E framework on p. 84. Also note Howard Thurman's notable quote: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. What the world needs is people who have come alive."

[3] See David Whyte’s “Life at the Frontier - Leadership Through Courageous Conversation” audio CD, 2004.

[4] See By Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2009.

[5] See the ICT4D article here:

[6] Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders, Holly Ross, Katrin Verclas, and Alison Levine, editors; Jossey-Bass, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Whew, that was a whirlwind tour! I doubt I'll do as much in my lifetime as you pack into a few short months. You are an inspiration.

    The R. Rilke quote did make the perfect ending. I'll be sharing it straight away. It's a great reminder to maintain a gentle, open and humble spirit when contemplating the mysteries within ourselves

    Best regards,