When we usually refer to the term sustainability, our mind automatically goes to 3 things: a. Financial sustainability, i.e. how does an organization make sure it survives and scales in the long run and creates profits/covers its expenses, based on its business model b. structural sustainability, i.e. how does my organization, its structures and processes ensure that I can operate without “burning out” my people, without inefficient processes that are bureaucratic and time-consuming and how can I scale my operations (in different products, regions, target groups) without creating a “beast” that cannot be controlled and c. social/community sustainability, i.e. how do I ensure that my operations, my “community footprint” and in an extent my people and partners function in a responsible way?
There is a 4th element though, which is usually pushed to the back of the drawer. The human/talent sustainability, i.e. a human-centered sustainability. To be more precise, how do I make sure that in order to fulfill all the above (financial-structural-social) elements of the term sustainability, I make sure that I recruit, maintain and develop the right people? Obvious question, you will think.
From large corporations of 80,000 people to SMEs of 20 people to NGOs of 10 and start-ups or community initiatives of 3, the human factor needs to become the highest point in the agenda.
More specifically, as a leader, how can I make sure that my vision will continue, when I decide or have to step down?
As a founder of a social initiative, how do I make sure that I recruit and build the talent that can take over?
How can we create an organization that has the right people at the right places and that each one of them can step in, step up and continue leading the “ship”?
Naturally, you are thinking that is a high risk. Well, high risk investments bring highest returns, simple economic theory.
And naturally, you will think that most organizations care for that or that most people care enough to measure their value in their careers with the leadership they create and support and not by how many people they managed, how many followers they had and how big of a gap they left when they retired or moved to another role. Wrong.
It is not about having people in the organization that stay forever, or have so much knowledge and power that no one can move them. Rather it is about having those processes and the culture in place that ensure that the organization consistently and strategically builds up its biggest asset, its talented people.
When each person could potentially step up, step in and lead, such a potential creates the feeling of excellence, of worthiness, of belonging; a feeling that drills down to our most basic needs. If you have ever experienced the opposite, being in an organization where you felt very easily “replaceable”, then you know the difference and the way it shapes the relationship between the organization and its people.
When I usually talk about human-centered sustainability, a past employer of mine comes to my mind. AIESEC is a student-run organization (18-25), it changes leadership every year (according to its constitution) is already 70 years old, has approximately 100,000 members globally and has operations in 110 countries around the globe. This organization is lead also by young graduates, usually a team of 20 people from around the world. I has privileged to be part of two teams. So, how does AIESEC does it?
- Transition/Handover: Anyone that has any kind of responsibility does not leave his/her role, unless handing over knowledge, contacts, records and experience. This is done with theoretical and on the job handover, discussions with main stakeholders and a period when the newies are “shadowed” by their predecessors. A process, which can take from one week to 2 months. Seriously. They transition while running the ship.
- Coherent and integrated talent management systems that start from the 1st day of contact with the organization till the time you finish your membership. There is training, there is a very diverse learning platform, there is constant feedback by peers, 360, self-reflection and different roles that build that talent pipeline and sustainable leadership that the organization needs in order to be able every year to find new leaders from its membership.
- There is a very clear understanding of what people AIESEC wants to develop and what characteristics or attitudes will not tolerate. Sustainability involves also and perhaps is more about saying no, discontinuing and stopping.
One of the things I have concluded to from experience of the last year is that an organization can go as far as its people go.
I have yet seen no organization with poor leadership do great things, I have seen no new business/venture develop and scale up without its leadership envisioning that and its people, as a team, driving that vision forward.
There is a tipping point in this theory though; the focus is given on the team, the cooperation and the value that people can create together for the organization and the theory of change it brings. It is not about creating the one, the super star, the individual that will cause intentionally or unintentionally the fall-down, the collapse of the organization. This point makes the difference between organizations, structures and practices that feed the ego and others that focus on the impact they create and through that the development of its people. The problem is that it takes a long time for an organization or a founder to realize that he/she is the bottleneck and what is keeping the “ship” behind. Therefore reflective leadership is another key topic. And another blog post, as well:)
Finding such people that will be the organization’s powerhouse is hard of course and there is not a 100% success rate. Never. It is a process though and an investment that for personal and organizational reasons it is worth making.