Entrepreneurs and funders must address talent challenges to successfully scale
By Erin Worsham, Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and Amanda West, Principal, Impact & Insights, Mercy Corps Ventures.
“People are at the heart of everything we do. Hiring, retaining, and developing staff is our most important calling as an organization, because having adequate people resources is a crucial factor for growth and impact. We do not think it is a stretch to say that people make or break our business.” - One Acre Fund
Talent has been named one of the single biggest problems in business today. While vital, it is often misunderstood, overlooked, and under-resourced. Yet, we know that without our people, we are nothing. Our missions do not get achieved and our impact does not scale if we don’t have the right people in place to make it all happen.
And, rather than getting easier over time, managing talent only gets harder as you scale. When we surveyed over 100 social enterprises from the Skoll Foundation portfolio of awardees and USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures portfolio, talent was one of the top challenges cited—even by those that have already reached significant scale. So, as part of the Scaling Pathways series, we decided to dive in and learn from leading social enterprises about the talent challenges they’ve experienced while scaling and how they overcame them.
Based on these interviews, we will be launching an in-depth paper this May full of actionable insights for both entrepreneurs and the funders that support them. In addition, three of those organizations—VisionSpring, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, and CAMFED—joined us at the Skoll World Forum earlier this month to describe their tactics first hand:
Here’s what they had to say:
Insights for entrepreneurs
1. Assemble the right mix of talent. In its first 10 years, VisionSpring sold one million pairs of glasses. Last year alone, VisionSpring sold over 1.1 million more pairs. In order to achieve this growth, Ella Gudwin, VisionSpring President, emphasised needing to evolve from a “lean team of doers” to more differentiated roles. For example, as VisionSpring scaled their model, they needed to add a head of sales with experience leading multi-country sales operations; a head of marketing to increase awareness about a product that people in emerging markets often do not know that they want; and, a director of technology to ensure the right tools were in place to connect the team and ensure knowledge sharing. Of course, when attempting to scale impact, it is not always about growing your own team but also about leveraging others, including partners and volunteers. For Sharmi Surianarain, Head of Solutions Design at Harambee, relationship management becomes a key skill to recruit for as you need to manage increasingly complex government, funder, and other stakeholder relationships.
2. Create structure to empower talent. Even with the right mix of talent in place, you will need effective organizational structures and systems to manage and empower that talent. Lucy Lake, CEO of CAMFED, underscored this point when she said, “If we're serious about people being able to live the values, live the culture, live the principles … the systems are absolutely fundamental to that scaling process to enable people to be able to deliver that.” By creating appropriate structures and systems, CAMFED has been able to scale its impact from reaching 32 girls when first starting out to reaching 2.6 million today. One of those systems is around governance. Lake recommends that boards have a deep understanding and experience supporting the risks inherent in scaling and also that they are deeply connected and accountable to the ultimate clients—in CAMFED’s case—the vulnerable girls and young women. In order to ensure this, CAMFED has created multiple levels of governance including an international board, multiple national boards, and over 800 district level committees in-country that are responsible for oversight and deeply accountable to local stakeholders.
3. Cultivate and motivate your talent. From formalising training programs to creating incentives and more, nurturing and retaining talent as you scale is critical. And what underscores all of that work is a focus on deeply embedding cultural norms throughout the organization as you scale. At Harambee, culture and values are core to their operations—not just words that are put up on a wall. Harambee’s six core values drive their employment training programs, candidate scorecards, performance evaluations, accountability for leadership, and even inspired a song about the Harambee Way of Working! Harambee leadership thinks about culture and managing people issues as central to their work, spending 60-80% of their time on such issues. Surianarain’s closing comments at the Skoll World Forum session were an appeal to funders to think differently about talent, treating it as critical fuel for the journey of scaling impact, rather than as overhead.
Insights for funders
1. Be Patient! Recognise that hiring, training, and managing talent is an investment that takes time. This can be especially true if a social enterprise is trying to hire local talent, or train and grow from within. We know that these strategies can help drive the mission more effectively over the long run so it is important for funders to recognise and support social enterprises in this important work—even if it does take longer.
2. Remove the pressure. Social enterprises may not feel that they have the time and flexibility to coach staff due to the pressure from funders to show shorter term results. Similarly, it can be challenging to address mis-hires in a funder environment that values continuity and stability to prove success. Funders can support social enterprises by having open conversations about these common issues and supporting the need to make critical talent decisions in a timely manner.
3. Allocate funding towards talent. Provide funds, recommendations, and connections to trainers, consultants, and recruiting firms who can help make the talent management process easier. Fund proactive talent development strategies—giving teams the time and funding to focus on identifying their talent gaps and planning to fill those. Let enterprises “hire ahead” by providing funding to allow them to upskill faster. This allows enterprises to get ahead of the scaling curve and be positioned to scale faster and more effectively, rather than always playing catch up.
Clearly, managing talent at scale is complex. To solve problems at the scale they are happening, we must learn from the experiences of others and be open to changing how we operate. If you are an entrepreneur struggling to manage your growing team or a funder that is looking to go beyond capital, please sign up to receive the latest Scaling Pathways paper on Talent and check out other actionable insights from the Scaling Pathways series on Finance for Scaled Impact and Leveraging Government Partnerships.
Scaling Pathways is a collaboration between USAID, the Skoll Foundation, Mercy Corps Ventures and CASE at Duke University that seeks to answer the question: How do social entrepreneurs and the funders who support them scale solutions to widespread problems, such as poverty and climate change?