The Human Element in Scaling

In the midst of the Social Impact Exchange Conference, which focused on finance strategies, research and frameworks of collaboration, the “Technology, Talent and Funding What Works” session on Thursday morning was a welcome hug after a series of handshakes. In this panel and subsequent conversation there was honest discussion about the people behind the frameworks. Even the conversation around technology, a presumably un-touchy-feely subject, revolved around relationship. Given how foundational talent is to the creation of social impact, I’m almost surprised that there hasn’t been a study seeking to prove how being a ‘people-person’ is good for impact. The fact of the matter is, however, managing people well is tough. This panel was even better than a study at proving this point and advising the lost through this reality of achieving better staff and technology management.

As an employee of the entertainment industry, I gravitate towards stories – particularly catchy ones. There are few things more compelling than stories of ego in leadership – a key talking point in this panel. As Michael Chu (of HBS) stated, “A CEO’s weaknesses always relate to the type of person that s/he is. Their constraints are always personal.” This is true not just of an organization’s CEO but of every person holding a leadership role. Leadership training can be a valuable tool for opening a leader’s eyes to their own constraints and better preparing them for their work. As Christine Rhee (American Express Foundation) explained, the skills one needs at the beginning of their career are generally different than what they need as their career progresses. Training during times of personal or organizational transition can be a handy tool to help management evolution, even if it’s group or peer coaching. These less expensive methods also garner positive results.

Of course, once you have trained and talented employees, keeping them on staff is a skill in and of itself – and necessary to cost reduction (Note: losing talented employees and hiring new ones is really expensive and disruptive to work flow!! Other note: keeping staff happy can be inexpensive!). Some methods that are effective in maintaining talent: allow employees’ opinions to be heard and be a contributing force to the content of your organization’s work; conduct exit interviews when people leave to identify where problem areas exist and then work to fix them; and finally, cut loose those individuals that aren’t having a positive impact on the work or organizational culture.

For funders that have questions about the staff of the organizations that they fund, they can often ask questions that the staff of those organizations can’t and these can be written in as requirements to funding. You’ll notice here that while salaries are important, they are noted as less important than making staff feel as though their opinions are heard and creating an attractive work culture.

People skills don’t just help one manage their staff – it can also make them technologically savvy. Chris Busselle (of Google) reminded our group that the fastest way to find the best (usually free) technology for improving work efficiency was simply to ask the youngest person on staff. Yes, this means admitting (gasp) that someone younger than you knows something you don’t. This panel advised everyone to get over it and ask anyway. Expanding on this, hosting a lunch or other in-person gathering is a good way to data share and learn new things. Everyone holds onto data and yet everyone needs it – introducing a people-focused event could catalyze the process of sharing.

As important as technology is to scale, one panelist noted: “We are missing the point if we don’t understand the value of the human element of our work.” Technological advances can’t replace this human element. However, as this panel proved, relationships with others can lead to technological advances. Remembering this will likely, make us more impactful while creating a better work environment.

Christina Lindstrom is the Senior Director of Social Action Strategy for Participant Media where she is responsible for leading all impact evaluation and analysis for the company’s social action efforts.