Brightside at Harvard: Very long days; very short weeks

View over New York City at sunsetAnand Shukla, Brightside’s Chief Executive, has been sponsored by the Harvard Business School Alumni Club of London to attend the Harvard Business School course Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management and to go on a study tour of other organisations in the US. He will be writing a blog posting his thoughts and reflections during the course and study tour. 

In my previous blogs, I focused on the main observations and insights from the non-profit strategy course. This final blog will focus more on the people and organisations I had the chance to meet.

Following a whistlestop schedule of meetings across the US (San Francisco on Monday; Washington on Tuesday and New York on Wednesday), the Harvard course and non-profit study tour have now come to an end.

I always enjoy having the chance to talk to other social mobility organisations. At times it felt like we all worked in the same organisation as we discussed common challenges, especially in relation to impact measurement. In my experience, US organisations are further ahead than their English peers in the way that they capture, structure and report on their data. Although we are all some way from identifying robust metrics to assess how behaviours such as self-confidence and coping skills have been improved over the course of a project. It was a particular pleasure to catch up with Kate Schauth and her fabulous team at I Could Be, the American online mentoring organisation, and to agree an ongoing benchmarking programme between our respective organisations.

It’s been a privilege (not to mention inspiring) to spend so much time discussing common challenges with leaders of civil society organisations across the world. And what a diverse range of organisations and countries – whether the Indian social enterprise providing meals to 1.5 million children every day (1.5 million!), and grappling with how to scale up to meet need in India; the Australian legal aid centre providing legal support for low-income Australians or the US agency fighting sex trafficking in South East Asia. Very different organisations then, but all facing common challenges: maximising and measuring impact; managing growth sustainably; governance and funding were four recurrent themes. No matter where they are, non-profits inhabit a world where they are pulled in multiple different directions by lots of different stakeholders (funders; staff; trustees; and sometimes even by user need and preference).

And this is why the focus of the Harvard course was on, well, focus. Be strategic, keep your mission front and centre, be obsessive about execution, and focus on your people.

And what about the characteristics of leadership? Napoleon once said that it is the leader’s job to show reality and offer hope (something he said before he went to St Helena).

However, I was struck by the description of Andre Sougarret, the engineer who was chosen to lead the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010. A senior executive at the copper-producing company Codelco which oversaw the rescue described him as follows: “Andre has remarkable technical competence and is a man with a strategic view. He has a lot of patience, assertiveness, an exceptional ability to listen and reach conclusions after listening to all sides, and a tendency to speak frankly with everyone whether they are above or below his authority”.

To paraphrase Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, that’s a pretty good distillation of the requirements of leadership – whatever the context.