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How to manage difficult conversations

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto you to take forward on your own journey.

I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.

Here are some stats: this year we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these young people to make their voices heard?

In some sections, many were silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest. Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there were people who might have been experts in their field.

I experienced many times the impostor syndrome. However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without understanding the foundation of what was taught.

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

In a world in which “business as usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore, we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.

Speak your mind

How many of us question the things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus. Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

It’s not about the merger post acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and unexpected consequences.

Speak with your heart but wrap your position in data: every time

I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.

Be assertive  

When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

How to manage business remotely

Whilst doing your Oxford MBA!

You run a growing social business and things are going well. But you soon realise that with a little extra business knowledge and global connections, your business could be so much more impactful.

So, you decide to take some time to study your MBA.

But what happens to the business? You think, ‘surely there will be plenty of time to run my business remotely, it’s the 21st Century for goodness sake, it’ll be like I’m practically in the office with all this technology at my fingertips’!

Well, sadly, most of the time this is where our Oxford MBAs can quickly get overwhelmed. In their hopes to do both, get an Oxford degree and run a successful business from 5,000 miles away, only one will prevail in the end.

So, what can we learn from those who have come before?

Mohsin Mustafa, Oxford MBA, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar, and Skoll Scholar 2018-19, offers some handy advice for any prospective MBA looking to keep their business ticking over whilst they take a year out to study. 

Some background…

I run a healthcare business in Pakistan. We have pediatrics Clinics and we run those clinics in partnership with schools where we provide preventative care services. My enterprise Clinic5 is three years old and we have a team of 15 people. One of the biggest concerns I had when I was leaving for the Oxford MBA was what would happen to the business in my absence. So, I would like to share with you my experience and what worked. For advice on this aspect I would really like to credit Sidhya Senani, MBA 2017-18 who faced a similar dilemma as I did whose advice was crucial in helping me plan my transition this past year.

What to DO:

Have a lead in place

Having one person to contact while you’re away makes it much easier for you to administratively manage affairs in your enterprise. Also having one second in command makes it easier for your other stakeholders (suppliers, clients, rest of the team) to know whom to contact in case they want an issue to be solved.

Pilot not going to the office for at least 2 weeks

This pilot helps everyone in the team see how things happen in your absence. If you’re the cofounder, its quite possible that you were always available, both in person and with your time, now that you would be gone for a year, the gap would be felt so it’s always better to first give a feeler to the team and troubleshoot the issues that come up. Trust me this will come!

Set aside dedicated time for a weekly video call.

This is very important. Face time with the team every week makes them see you still care about the work. It’s quite likely that the ownership you feel towards the business is much higher than anyone else. Feed the team with that energy every week. Additionally, during these calls, keep negative feedback to a minimum. Primarily serve as the motivational speaker or the cushion for their stressors. Let them speak. At your end reiterate the achievements during the year and how much longer the team must go before you join them and what’s waiting in store for the team after you join. Sharing the vision goes a long way.

You will get a few calls from your primary point of contact every now and then. Prioritize that call. Important for your primary point of contact (your lead) to feel that you have their back.

Also, if other team members call, try and route them through your primary lead. If there’s a call, document it immediately through an email so that everyone in the team is aware of what was discussed. This practice reduces the chance of misunderstandings. This year will be a real challenge of your business leadership skills.

Set aside cash flows so that your business operation does not suffer.

It’s possible you might get cancelled clients, it’s possible that your business development plans for this year do not work out. The cushioning of cash flows for your business should be greater than what you keep. You need not share the exact level of cushioning with your team. It’s more as a safety net for rainy days.

What NOT to do:

Don’t intervene in operational matters.

Let the team on the ground deal with them and TRUST their decision even if you think you would’ve done things differently let it be. Unless and until you think a certain decision is an existential threat, resist the temptation to intervene. This is essential to empowering your team.

Don’t get involved in office politics back home.

Some will happen inevitably. When that happens try not to take sides

Don’t give negative feedback over a group phone.

Call if you must do it, do It one on one

Don’t plan to scale your work this year.

It exerts immense pressure on the team

A year later, I could safely say, things went by quite smoothly for Clinic5. I would give this credit to my brilliant team: Dr. Taha Sabri, Dr. Selina Hasan, Muhammad Irfan and Syed Kareem. Additionally, my father kept an oversight on financial matters which took a lot of stress off me, so thank you Abbu!

This time away might have been a blessing in disguise since people took up more leadership responsibilities within my organization and now when I go back, I can really focus on scaling.

If you’re taking part in the Oxford MBA this coming year, brace yourself for an intense and exciting year.

Best,

Mohsin Mustafa, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

How might big business fight poverty?

Puja Balachander is an outgoing 2018-19 Oxford MBA, a member of the inaugural Impact Lab, awardee of the Skoll Venture Awards 2019, and social entrepreneur. On Friday, 11th July, she attended the Business Fights Poverty conference at the Saïd Business School. Here she shares her own personal experience.

Having spent my former life working in the public sector, I have to admit I’ve often been frustrated by the narrative in business circles around social impact. The message is often implicitly or explicitly that government and philanthropy have failed, and therefore business needs to step in to save the day by bringing the “rigour” to the impact sector that it desperately needs.

I walked into the Business Fights Poverty 2019 conference prepared to hear the same rhetoric again, and found it refreshing that rather than painting business as the cure all, the conference theme this year was around “Purposeful Collaboration.” It brought together players from major corporations and the third sector, and emphasized a systems approach to problem solving, where business wasn’t the solution, but it was part of the system of solutions necessary to address the complex global challenges we face.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice the irony of what I saw compared to the expectations I had encountered in government. I was always told that we needed to adopt more rigorous “private sector” methods to understand the ROI of the resources the government spent on social impact. But the conference showed me that the private sector is being far more lackadaisical about their impact efforts than government ever was.

The need to move from defining a corporate purpose, to creating structures, processes and culture that actually facilitate that purpose were repeated in nearly every session, yet the examples cited and celebrated at the conference seemed tokenistic and only superficially impactful. The keynote speaker for the day from Unilever gave a presentation that seemed to equate socially inclusive and progressive marketing with Unilever’s social impact. In a corporate intrapreneurship workshop, speakers from major companies told us about their social innovation initiatives to surface ideas and potential ventures from within their employees. And while I’m sure there might be positive social outcomes that come from these efforts, they sounded more like employee engagement than social innovation.

I’m not sure that celebrating these efforts is helping move companies towards more ambitious and rigorous social impact efforts. At the same time, I’m aware that being overly critical of companies’ incremental efforts could be counter-productive. Incremental progress is better than none at all, and who’s to say that companies won’t throw up their hands and figure that if they’ll be criticized, either way, they might as well go back to a pure profit-maximizing focus?

So rather than a critique, I left the Business Fights Poverty conference with questions. How do we encourage companies to be more ambitious and rigorous about their social impact efforts? Celebration and commendation like we did at the conference felt disingenuous, and like they wouldn’t catalyse the urgency and scale of transformation needed to address the challenges we face. Critique has the potential to scare companies off, or put them on the defensive, stopping them from engaging with the academics, public servants, and third-sector players that might be able to help them in their transformation. Is there a middle ground between these that might put companies under an optimal level of pressure, and provide the optimal support that will spur them forward in their impact journeys?

Puja Balachander, 2018-19 Oxford MBA

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Finding Common Ground Between the Financing Fault Lines

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Ashley Thomas, draws on this year’s Skoll World Forum theme in relation to social impact business models.

There is a fault line between models of international development financing. On one side, there is the traditional donor and philanthropic capital that utilises grant money to support projects. On the other side is the social enterprise space that seeks to create sustainable impact through revenue generation.  There has been a lot of excitement in utilising grant funding for social enterprises to build and tweak their business model, but to date there has been little appetite for true hybrid models of ongoing subsidies for social enterprises.

This is a conversation that I had in numerous sessions and coffees throughout Skoll World Forum. It was also one of the key themes from the session hosted by Mercy Corps and USAID on sharing the learnings from their investments in the Innovation Investment Alliance. There is a common ground emerging; these conversations are hinting at the start of innovative new business models that allow for hybrid grant and revenue streams.

The Problem:

Social enterprises are addressing market failures. They bring products or services to underserved markets, often at low margins, and often at high costs. However, market failures exist for a reason; many companies are realising that even at scale, high volume low margin products are not able to generate the revenues that are necessary to be sustainable. However, social enterprises often sell themselves on this vision- that with initial capital to pilot and build systems, they will be financially sustainable at scale.

The Solution:

Philanthropic capital- which does not require financial returns, can help bridge this fault line, and maximise the potential impact of social enterprises. This does not mean we should revert to the large scale unsustainable development models of the 1990’s, but use philanthropic capital as way of targeting the market failure and allowing social enterprises to maintain their focus on their mission and outcomes. This hybrid model is being utilised in the FundiFix hand pump repair service designed by Dr. Rob Hope out of the University of Oxford. The model uses monthly user subscription payments to pool capital to finance prompt hand pump repairs. However, the willingness to pay only accounts for 2/3 of the cost of the service, and the remaining cost is subsidised through grant funding. This is also used in much larger social enterprises.  Ella Gudwin from Vision Spring spoke about how their model has shifted from seeking to maintain cost recovery- and retailing glasses at increasingly higher prices, to minimising the “philanthropy per pair” and serving their target customer.  They were able to do this under a scaling innovation grant from USAID and Mercy Corps, demonstrating that donors are also recognising the need for the pivot into these hybrid models.

It is increasingly clear that there is not one single model for social enterprise, and a single-minded focus on achieving commercial sustainability may limit the impact. Innovative hybrid models that use the social enterprise ethos of cost effectiveness in combination with smart grant funding that can subsidise the product can address the market failures preventing social enterprises achieving impact at scale. There is immense opportunity to achieve scale and impact through creating this common ground.

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Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Allegra Day, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School gives her perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation”.

In the Opening Plenary of this year’s Forum, Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International revealed the fault lines in the capitalist model that have enabled 8 men to own as much wealth as half of humanity. Winnie was unequivocal that the system is rigged against the majority and a new economic model is needed that is fairer and more sustainable for all. This echoes a theme that has reverberated across the Forum: business is central to poverty alleviation, but the current legal structure and incentives underpinning big business need to change.

Throughout the week, we have heard from organisations championing this change through investments in staff, suppliers and innovation. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, spoke of providing a living wage for his employees, one fifth of whom are refugees. During the Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation Panel, Charlotte Oades of Coca-Cola outlined the company’s aim of supporting 5 million women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and eventually enter the supply chain of Coca-Cola and other companies through the 5by20 initiative. Fellow Panellist Cherie Blair CBE, QC spoke of her Foundation’s work with financial institutions in markets where women are viewed as “risky” customers training local staff to understand that women are generally good borrowers and should be considered for loans.

But is all this enough? Those spearheading the B Corp movement would probably say no. Panellist and Co-Founder of B Lab Company Bart Houlahan reminded us that in many places, directors are liable under company law for not returning maximum profit. The B Corp model offers a solution: a new legal structure enabling directors to incorporate community engagement, worker involvement and environmental footprint objectives alongside profit maximisation. We now need greater adoption of the B Corp model and adaption of the model to suit multi-national corporations. Alongside this, Ms Blair and Mr Houlahan called for greater education of bankers, investors and lawyers to understand the changing role of business.

Beyond legal reform, the Panellists described two key ways in which businesses can play their role in tackling poverty. The first is more support for women-led businesses in addition to women-owned businesses, given the challenges associated with ownership of assets for many women. Panellist C D Glin of the US African Development Foundation described this as a critical tool for economic growth that dovetails with the safety and security aims of the US Government. The second is support with scaling up enterprises. Ms Oades spoke of the role Coca-Cola can play in scaling enterprises through identifying and sharing learnings across its network that can be adapted to a local context.

During the Forum’s Skoll Awards Night, Bono said that capitalism is “not immoral but amoral: we have to tell it what to do.” Conversations at the Forum have made clear that we as leaders, consumers and human beings must challenge businesses to modernise and innovate in line with moral and ethical standards to create more common ground for us all to share.

Follow Allegra: @legshd

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Building Bridges: Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Macarena Hernandez, Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Building Bridges: Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains”.

The task to build bridges to trigger the development of responsible supply chains is not only a task for “bridges builders”, it is a common task. We need to forge common bridges together.

The session kicked off with a “pop-quiz” leading by the session’s moderator, Daniel Viederman, Managing Director at Humanity United. “How many cocoa farmers are around the world?” After guesses and approximations, the right answer was 5 million.

Could you imagine the investment that is needed to audit all of these cocoa farmers have the responsible practices? How many more products a single food industry company have? As Viederman mention, we are not talking about a lineal supply chain, we are talking about a supply web.

The complexity of this supply web has meant that no one takes the responsibility to ensure fair labour conditions within the web. The private sector thought that labour issues needed to be solved by the public sector. Governments have been establishing regulations that encourage big industry players to start solving these issues.

Despite this complexity, companies such as Target and Mars Inc. are taking responsibility and action. In 2015, Target started a partnership with GoodWeave in support of their mission to end child labour in the rug industry. Mars Inc. is partnering with Verité to design simple solution for their suppliers to meet their responsible sourcing standards.

Building Bridges - Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains panel

Building Bridges – Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains panel

These leading efforts are transforming the unfair labour practices across industries. However, these partnerships and projects are not easily scalable for the various products across different industries. As Marika McCauley Sine, Mars’ Human Rights Director, said, ‘the situation is complex; we need to make it easy. We need to be specific and clear. Make it as simple as possible.’

For me, this simple and scalable solution is called: trust. If enterprises trust in other stakeholders, especially suppliers and suppliers of suppliers, there would be no need for huge investments to develop detailed audits or localised projects throughout the supply chain.

Although, building trust is not easy. How can we trust in others? Transparency, openness, collaboration, accountability, and information flow is needed. Who is creating trust through stakeholders? Talking and listening during the forum, two potential solutions came into my mind. After the panel, I had the opportunity to talk with Charmian Love, Co-Chair and Co-founder of B Lab UK. I realised that the B-Corporation Certification is identifying responsible players around the world. Listening to the session “Data-Driven Models for Change”, I discovered that Provenance is developing digital tools to trace products’ journeys.

Both trust’s mechanisms, mentioned above, include characteristics such as collaboration, data sharing, and transparency. This openness creates and distributes value along all stakeholders. Which make me reflect: Are the main industry players and competitors ready to collaborate between them? Are the innovators ready to share best practices? Are businesses ready to share value, despite the fact that these actions will reduce barriers to entry, increase the number of competitors, and increase consumer power?

I hope they are! In the long term, collaboration will be the key for value creation. My favourite value at Prospera, the Mexican social enterprise where I was working before coming to Oxford, states: “El que comparte, prospera. Siempre.” Translated to English: “The one who shares, thrives. Always.”

Follow Macarena: @macarenahdeo