An invitation to Learning from and with One Another
by Gordon T. Smith
President of Ambrose University, Calgary, Alberta
The distinction is typically made between business and the so-called non-profit world. Business schools often have two tracks—the business track and the non-profit track. But increasingly, some see this as an artificial distinction. There are many who are called into business who have the same sense of calling and purpose as anyone who might be called into the non-profit world. Further, many of us in the non-profit world have boards that require us to be very clear about the economics of how this school or church or social agency is run.
By business, I mean the world of commerce—the production of goods and services—and, without apology, the economics of buying and selling and tending to such things as the profit margin. But for many in business, something else shapes their thinking. I think of the couple who had a toy manufacturing firm in Manila, the Philippines, with a powerful sense of call to provide quality toys, at accessible prices, while paying fair wages to their staff. Or the coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, where the owner and manager is committed to fair trade sources and quality products and also to the social, mental and economic well-being of his twenty or so staff and their extended families. And what strikes me in this is that—whether in business or in a non-profit—we are colleagues: learning from one another and learning together . . . that is, together asking how it is that we can be institutionally effective in a fluid environment. Those of us in the non-profit world need business savvy; I regularly lean into business leaders, asking for their wisdom and input. Yes, it is a different world; our CFO had to make the shift in culture and structure and decision-making when he moved from the world of business into my world in the non-profit sector. But, we hired him because he knew that world. And similarly, those in the business community need colleagues and friends from the non-profit world. Speaking as one who gives leadership to a non-profit, I offer the following to those in the business world who are very much our colleagues—partners together in doing good work for the sake of a greater cause.
First, we need clarity about mission and or defining values. What is our core business? What does it mean to be this organization, this business? What defines us—that is, in terms of our institutional identity? Whether you use the language of brand or not, you are able to answer the question: Who are you? And you come back to this again and again; it matters, and it is that which keeps you going through thick and thin. If you have to adapt and adjust and come up with a new business plan or means of delivery, you do so in light of the mission. You are clear about how you are different from your peer institutions or businesses, even your competitors perhaps: What is your niche, your demographic, your focus? And everyone on staff gets this. Together, you rehearse this sense of identity and call and come back to it in all planning and as a guide to all decision-making.
Second, you are unapologetic about the economics. You pay the bills. I think of the bookstore I visited in central Ontario, Canada, where near the check-out counter I noticed the little sign that said they offer a clergy discount. I asked the owner about it and wondered if this was to get pastors reading more or what was the motivation for that discount. He laughed when he said a new pastor to town actually insisted on paying full price—to his amazement. Why? Because that pastor wanted them to stay in business, wanted them to flourish as an independent Christian bookstore, wanted them to succeed and knew that if there were any discounts to be given, it should be to those who perhaps do not have much discretionary income. That pastor got it: the business can only work if the economics work.
Third, everything depends on the quality of your staff—the people behind the scenes, and those who are at the counter and in direct connection with the client or customer. Whether in business or in the non-profit world, it is not an overstatement to say that you are only as good as your people. Thus, we learn to hire carefully and astutely; further, we take care of our staff, tending to the quality and character of our work environment, making this a great place to work. Those who work with us and for us are never merely a role or a job description. They are vital players in our capacity to deliver on our mission. They make it happen. The tending of our people, then, is one of the most crucial capacities—and points of shared learning—regardless of whether we give leadership to a non-profit or a business.
Finally, we need to speak about institutional culture. I would suggest that a helpful reference point is this: Is the air we breathe, the conversations we have and the tone and tenure of our workplace marked by a resilient hopefulness? Leadership, whether in business or the non-profit world, is always about cultivating hope. This is not merely about being positive; it is more specifically about naming reality and then, against the backdrop of what is, rather than what we wish were the case, speaking about the possibilities. It means that we innovate and adapt and adjust (all, of course, in light of our mission). Business leaders get this, along with their colleagues in the non-profit world: a leader must be an encourager, able and willing to foster renewed hope in the face of difficulty, set-back and a changing environment.
All of this assumes that our businesses and organizations matter. We are invested in making them succeed—along the way. Whether in business or in a non-profit agency, we are learning from and with one another. CRA