Challenge a social enterprise founder... at your own peril

At the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship 2014, Isabelle de Grave talks to diverse social enterprise founders and finds out how easy it really is to challenge a founder.

Founders of successful social enterprises can enjoy a sort of celebrity status, particularly in the spotlight of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, taking place in Oxford, UK, this week.

But what impact does this status have on their work? Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre at Oxford, put this question to a panel of founders discussing The Founder’s Challenge: How to scale and keep the vision alive? at the Skoll World Forum.

On the one hand, you should "never discount the narrative power of heroes and legends, to inspire, to motivate and bring people together,” said Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, a social enterprise accelerator.

After all, having a high profile can make funders and investors more comfortable supporting an organisation, said Andrea Coleman, co-founder and CEO of Riders for Health, who won a Skoll Award in 2006.

But could celebrity status make staff uncomfortable criticising founders, and do founders get uncomfortable being challenged by staff? 

Jeff Skoll himself would be an interesting case study. He’s high profile, his films are meticulously produced and his ambition is to create the 'most important media company in the world'. How easy would it be to say: “No Jeff, that’s not the way we should do it”? He's a clever man with authentic values, a great team and a good deal of humility. But would you tell this billionaire he could be wrong?  

We’re all strong minded and strong willed, because you have to be, but we have to learn how to listen. Andrea Coleman, Riders For Health.

Celebrity or not, challenging the founder who occupies a position of power and a unique relationship with their venture emerged as a difficulty for some organisations during the session.

One delegate said that she had been invited onto the board of an organisation to invigorate its vision and bring a fresh perspective. But she found it impossible to challenge the founders and other well-established staff members. “I wonder why I’m there,” she said.

“I’d put the question to the founders,” said Coleman: “Are you going to listen to me or not?” Coleman went on to say that one question she now always asks prospective employees is – “How would you say no to the founder?”

“Setting up an organisation is like having a child,” John Elkington, founding partner and executive chairman of Volans told Pioneers Post. “You want to do everything in your power to look after it, and no one else has that level of commitment and passion,” he said.

“Criticism is something really critical,” said Elkington. "But I hate it," he admitted. "I go into a depression for about two months.” 

“We’re all strong minded and strong willed, because you have to be, but we have to learn how to listen,” said Coleman.

The credibility of the challenge depends on who is challenging. Dr Quratalin Bakhteari, The Institute for Development Studies and Practices in Pakistan.

The ability for staff to challenge their leaders can depend on the style of leadership and structure of the organisation. 

Bart Weetjens, founder of Apopo and a speaker at the world forum, said that he had adopted a form of “powerless leadership”. He explained: “It’s easy to say no to me, and I’m also very sackable,” he said.

At Apopo, Weetjens sits on the board, and he and the CEO, Christophe Cox, have crossover roles into the management of the organisation. But where Weetjens plays a neutral advisory role, the CEO has all of the executive power, giving Weetjens the same status as any other Apopo employee. If the board turned around tomorrow and asked him to leave, he would do so.

“I’ve organised things in this way because I believe the organisation would be sustainable enough to continue without me,” Weetjens said.

Dr Quratalin Bakhteari, founder of The Institute for Development Studies and Practices in Pakistan, said that she never called the institute “my organisation”.

People have to feel empowered and entitled to call you to account. John Elkington, Volans

“I created it from below together with a group of community based workers, so there is a lot of confrontation and mutual critique.”

In open structures criticism needs to come from a worthy challenger. “The credibility of the challenge depends on who is challenging,” said Bakhteari. 

 “I will take criticism from my staff if they have a good point, it also helps that most people that I hire are MBAs,” said Dan Berelowitz, co-founder of the International Centre for Social Franchising. “We have a very clear strategy, which makes it easy to take decisions,” he added.

“People have to feel empowered and entitled to call you to account,” said Elkington. He added that often the skill set of the team member challenging his point of view, would determine whether he takes heed of the advice.

Some founders also spoke of a need to filter out critique that deters action. “Sometimes people are critical for the sake of intellectual debate, which can degenerate into a form of self gratification,” said Bakhteari.

I spend my life saying, “No, this is how we want to do things” to push our theory of change up the hill. Wendy Kopp, Teach for All.

Wendy Kopp, CEO and co-founder of Teach for All, emphasised the importance of founders sticking to their guns when trying to do something that has never been done before.

“I spend my life saying, “No, this is how we want to do things” to push our theory of change up the hill, which counters traditional paradigms of teaching,” she said.

This brought to the fore the reality that innovative founders, going against the status quo have to constantly disagree with those around them, and re-assert their own point of view.

Does this make social enterprise founders inherently stubborn? What became clear in yesterday’s session, and in talking to diverse founders at the Skoll World Forum, was the vital need to accept critique and challenges as a founder, if you want your organisation to survive and thrive – and create real social change.

Andrea Coleman who founded Riders for Health with her husband Barry Coleman summed this up:

“Most days we nearly kill each other,” she said. “But we call it a useful tension – you have the equivalent in successful organisations.”