Breaking In: 25 lessons learned from professionals in Social Enterprise

Sid is focused on the bigger picture of social enterprise.

As a Special Projects Lead & Chief-of-Staff for an impact investor at the Calvert Funds, he’s working on growing the social enterprise space through impact investing and other innovative approaches.

This work shows him the importance of having the right people working on the right problems. It’s also really pushed him to turn that lens on himself and consider the best role he can play in social enterprise.

So when I asked him about a couple lessons learned to be successful in his role, his eyes lit up. We talked for 20 minutes on just this question, and one example he used really resonated with me.

Sid has come to appreciate how quickly things change in his role, on his team and in social enterprise overall. Sid described how he excels in this environment with an analogy from The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Basically, Sid strives to be like a wrestler - ready to respond to anything that comes his way and always maintaining that stance of readiness.

More than just responding to change, Sid tries to view them as opportunities to learn something. Viewing change in this way can be tough sometimes, but it’s one of the highest valued skills Sid brings to his team. I think all of us as young social enterprise professionals have something to learn from this combination of flexibility, agility and humility.


For me, the best part of my discussions with young social enterprise professionals was the lessons learned question. Each professional I talked with was so eager to share what they’ve learned. I was blown away by the insights each of them had.

In my last post on what social enterprise roles look like for young professionals, I mentioned the importance of learning quickly on the job. Here are 25 (paraphrased, of course) lessons each professional has picked up while working in social enterprise.

CONSULTING

Focus on 80/20: The client only really cares about what’s going to have the biggest impact. We strive to invest in the 20% that drives 80% of the results over and over.

Communicate effectively with multiple stakeholders: Understand and communicate what’s important to others. There can definitely be disparity between what you find interesting and what’s important to your client, boss or team. Applying this can also help you manage your relationships at work.

Prioritize based on importance and urgency: I’m never able to get everything done that I want to get done. So at the beginning of each day and throughout each day I’m resetting my priority list. I need to make sure the important stuff, the urgent stuff gets done.

Build structure to tackle ambiguity: I’m constantly a part of a team solving a very messy problem. And so I try to establish some sort of structure. If I’m building a financial model and I have very limited information, I structure an approach that allows me to allocate my effort based on priorities and document my assumptions.

Be the source of positivity: What’s so powerful about this space is that there is a social mission driving us all. But it’s still a lot of hard work and we can all get quite overwhelmed. Being able to bring some positive energy and an upbeat sense of humor to the work (and one’s self and one’s life!) is so important.

Perseverance: We’re driving toward solving really difficult challenges. Sometimes there’s an overwhelming feeling about the kinds of things we’re trying to take on. Having a total commitment to the work and a relentlessness is extremely helpful.

Listen, execute, add: I think these are the three steps to being a great analyst. And what these three steps really mean is that a consultants’ job is to do the analysis which they are asked to do. It’s tempting to get into the higher level questions, but at the end of the day, doing your job really well means that you’ve done the analysis really well first.

MARKETING / BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

Learn the organization: We are really a support system for other areas of the company like our operations team. Get to know all of the other departments and what their goals and objectives are. This is the basis for effective cross-functional communication which is so important to this work.

Focus on traffic driving strategies: It's marketing's job to set the strategy for how we drive traffic. This is both a skill and a mindset. Be focused at the end of the day on driving traffic.

Be genuine and positive: Keep a positive attitude even if what you are doing isn't exactly what you want to do at the time. You never know what connections you will make or where a certain path may lead.

Practice humility: Stuff happens that is just unexpected and ridiculous. You just have to roll with it. There’s only so much you can prevent and there’s only so much data to prove certain things. Showing humility when things aren’t going well is really huge for learning from mistakes and bouncing back.

Listen: I try and talk less now because my teammates have great ideas. I think the more I hear, the better I am at piecing things together and prioritizing things.

OPERATIONS

Agility & Flexibility: Have the agility to embrace new information and experiences. Something that illustrates this for me is a dialogue between Morihei Ueshiba - who founded the Martial Art Aikido – and a student. The student asked him once, "Master how do you stay centered all the time?” Ueshiba responds, “I'm not centered all the time. I simply recover faster than before." When something unexpected comes at you, don’t panic. Find the opportunity in it instead.

Holistic Growth: Focus on growing yourself holistically as a person through the work. It should feed your curiosity and self-awareness. It should also include people who motivate you to learn and excel in all aspects of your life. Not just at work.

Have passion for what you do: If you don't love what you're doing, you're going to hate this job. It's the people who genuinely care and love the mission that are going to thrive and keep going.

Bring your own skills to the work: I came in and our website was a white google page. I said, "I can't look at this." and so I decided to make a beautiful webpage. My boss really appreciated it. It's important to realize that there are things from your own life and experience that you can bring.

Be a quick learner: This is crucial. I didn’t come into this as an operations guy. But, you don’t need to be a tech expert to do this sort of work. You just have to want to figure out how things work.

Make things easy to understand: Be personable and have the communication skills to convey what is important to other people. Make it really simple and easy. That and learning how things work in the first place is the bulk of the work.

Ask questions, as many as you can: Ask questions about what you’re working on and why you’re doing it. Try and understand the strategy behind the execution you’re doing. That’s how you learn, grow and stand out.

Get Involved Outside of the Office: Become part of the culture of the organization. Join social sports teams and go to company happy hours. It’s amazing how much you can connect with your colleagues outside of work and how much better that makes working. I don’t always like what I do. But I love working with these people.

PROGRAM MANAGEMENT

Communicate effectively between different teams: it's very easy to silo yourself among your own team. But, A lot of what I do in my role is work between teams, figure out who can help me with certain projects and approach them knowing exactly how to talk to them. You're going to get the most out of your role and really contribute to the organization if you can tap that collective wisdom and broader perspective.

Learn organization: I have to get things done, but I also have to deal with the administrative processes from working with funders and contracts. These things just come up and, if I know where to find what I need, they won’t derail my work.

If you don't know it, learn it: I came out of college not having any idea what I was doing. I didn't know how to create a project and push a project through. But I researched it and constantly read all the materials and talked to people about it. I figured it out.

Manage expectations while managing time: It’s really easy to say you can take on all of this stuff. But one of realities of work is that there’s always going to be a lack of time and resources. You’re always going to feel understaffed. Be realistic about that from the beginning with yourself and your clients.

Don’t be afraid to get creative: In social enterprise, there isn’t always a right or wrong way to do things. Being open minded and creative about how you approach situations and how you deal with different types of people can be really helpful. We’re not functioning like a traditional for-profit or non-profit organization. We’re straddling both. So in some cases, how we do our work is up to us.

Shoo! If you've made it this far you've probably noticed some trends emerge around this importance of communicating, learning and prioritizing. What lessons have you learned working in social enterprise?

This is the fifth post in a blog series called Breaking In which explores how young professionals are breaking into social enterprise. Learn more about the series here.