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Want to Change the World? Be Resilient

By John McKinley, Harvard Business Review

What’s the difference between someone with a good idea and a person who can transform their ideas into real impact? To tackle the world’s biggest problems, we need to be able to identify and support the people who are capable of creating lasting change. At Acumen Fund, we spend a lot of time trying to find and train aspiring and established leaders from around the world who have the right mix of talent, ideas, and passion.

And what we’ve found time and again is: Resilience matters most.
 Resilient leaders have three key characteristics:
  1. Grit: Short-term focus on tasks at hand, a willingness to slog through broken systems with limited resources, and pragmatic problem-solving skills.
  2. Courage: Action in the face of fear and embracing the unknown.
  3. Commitment: Long-term optimism and focus on big-picture goals.
I see these qualities in the Global Fellows who are selected to work with Acumen’s investee companies across Africa and South Asia during a 12-month fellowship. These individuals bring exceptional skills and business expertise to their work. But that is not enough. It’s their ability to dig deep, roll up their sleeves and immerse themselves in the unglamorous trenches of seemingly intractable problems while remaining focused on long-term goals that allows them to buck the status quo and deliver meaningful change.

Grit: Natalie Grillon, a former Peace Corps volunteer and recent MBA graduate, embodies grit. She’s working in a remote area of war-torn Northern Uganda to develop an organic sesame business as part of Gulu Agricultural Development Company, which provides more than 40,000 smallholder farmers with access to international markets.

Overseeing a staff of 35 and a network of 50 buyers, Natalie wakes up each day determined to grow the business by training more farmers and improving their product quality. Some days she’s holed up analyzing financials and others she’s loading trucks for shipment. She has to be both an empathetic listener and stern director, often at the cost of not always being “liked” — a tradeoff she’s accepted. She works 12-14 hours seven days a week and pushes through daily challenges and physical fatigue.
The sesame business is new to this part of Uganda and is already increasing the yields of more than 10,000 farmers, providing them with new income that can go to school fees or production tools. Farmers, who until recently lived in IDP-camps, now live lives of freedom, dignity and choice. For Natalie, the unrelenting pace of work and many headaches are worth it.

Courage: I recently visited with current fellow Jay Jaboneta, a social entrepreneur from the Philippines who is embracing the unknown in Pakistan. He’s working with Pharmagen Healthcare Limited, a water-supply company that provides up to two million liters of clean, affordable water each month to low-income customers through water purification shops in Lahore.
By design, fellows are often pushed out of their comfort zone — required to live and work in regions or sectors that are unfamiliar. This was the case with Jay and, prior to his arrival in Pakistan, he was admittedly anxious about his safety as a foreigner in Lahore, his ability to integrate into a new culture without speaking the language, and stepping into a role that required him to learn how to market water products to BOP customers.

Jay has been able to excel in an environment filled with unknowns. He’s currently launching a rebranding and marketing campaign to make clean water more accessible to low income consumers. Now part of the community, he’s also learning Urdu one phrase at a time and speaks of dear friends and the doodh pati chai he’s learned to make with them.
Commitment: Abbas Akhtar, an entrepreneur and software engineer originally from Pakistan, is fulfilling a promise he made to himself long ago: to return to Pakistan, after years in the US, and contribute to the country’s long-term development. Abbas now works at Ansaar Management Company (AMC), a low-cost housing and management company that provides affordable housing to more than 30,000 people outside of Lahore.
Equipped with several years work experience at Apple, Google and an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins, Abbas could choose from any number of developed markets in which to live and work. But he chose his country of origin to fulfill his personal commitment. He readily admits it hasn’t been easy to adjust to the frequent power outages, cold days and nights without reliable heat, and long road trips between projects, but he’s more committed than ever to apply all that he can to AMC this year and Pakistan for years to come. And his commitment is already contributing to the growth and sustainability of AMC with the potential launch of two new community sites, which could provide 200 new homes to 1,000 BOP-customers.

While still early in their careers, Natalie, Jay, and Abbas exemplify the resilience it takes to drive lasting change on the ground. Above all, their experiences highlight not only what’s needed to build new systems, but also, what’s needed most to be a social impact leader.

And resilience can be trained. At Acumen, we focus on building not only the fellows’ financial and operational skills, but also what we call “moral imagination”, which requires balancing opposing values — humility and audacity — to see the world as it is and to imagine the world for what it could be. During their two-month training in New York, fellows spend time in the shoes of low-income customers accessing goods and services, honing their empathy skills; they prototype human-centered design projects with IDEO.org and create business model canvases, building strong listening skills to understand customers’ needs. They develop deep self-awareness by challenging their perceptions about leadership and authority by using Cambridge Leadership Associates’ Adaptive Leadership framework. Fellows draw on these experiential exercises to strengthen their resolve when facing challenges on the ground.
Too often we confuse management skills with leadership. We need to remain focused on building leaders who have the resilience to face stubborn problems head on for lasting social impact. The more we collectively define what it takes, the better we’ll be able to identify and train this next generation.

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