Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel group and now Head of Global Hospitality at Airbnb, spoke at DFJ’s CEO Summit about his entrepreneurial philosophy. In a wide-ranging talk, one thing in particular stood out for me: Chip says that one of the most important things he looks for in startup leaders he’s thinking about backing is their emotional intelligence, or EQ.
Here in Philanthropy Land, that’s practically unheard of. We evaluate strategic sensibility, political savvy, experience, and organizational health, but we rarely, if ever, talk about emotional intelligence. We also rarely talk about the kinds of cultures that the organizations we partner with are creating for their employees. I think that’s a problem that hurts both our short game (achieving our programmatic and strategic goals) and our long game (getting the most talented, passionate people to stay in organizations working for social good).
The Hewlett Foundation’s new Cyber Initiative has presented us with the chance to inject a little EQ-awareness into our grantmaking. One of the things we hope to achieve with this new initiative is to develop some innovative ways to break down the silos those working on Internet issues find themselves in. There are clear divides between Silicon Valley and DC, between those with tech backgrounds and those with policy backgrounds, and between those with a human rights orientation and those with a national security orientation.
In what will not come as a shock to anyone who has tried to referee a family fight at Thanksgiving, breaking down barriers between different groups takes emotional awareness, deep listening skills, and openness to ideas other than your own. Those are some of the qualities we’re looking for in the thinkers and conveners we’re funding to try and break down these silos. We’re asking ourselves: is a potential partner able to listen well? Are they open to new ideas and new methods, and have they demonstrated that in prior work? In addition, we’re looking for people whose organizations embody those same characteristics—if you can’t innovate in your own organization, how can you do it externally? So we’re also asking if potential partners are creating a constructive culture where people will want to work.
These questions are just as important for organizations working for social good as they are for business. Both are competing for top talent that will make or break ideas that sound great on paper.
In his talk at the CEO Summit, Chip also mentions two other keys to his success as an entrepreneur that translate to the social sector. Chip has kept the vision of each of his successful hotels clear by creating five adjectives for each one. For example, he described his first hotel in San Francisco as funky, irreverent, adventurous, cool, and young at heart. Everything about the hotel—the décor, the music, and especially the people he hired had to embody those things. He says, “What we were creating was not a lodging experience but an identity refreshment.”
Identity refreshment. It may sound silly, but it’s something we struggle with in the social sector, using other labels: behavior change, building movements, public engagement. We might be better served if we cut to the chase and reframed those aims as identity issues, which they often are. Do people feel like environmentalists? Does taking a specific action to help end poverty fit with their idea of themselves? If not, how might we build something that would allow them to tackle a problem like poverty in a way that does dovetail with their identity?
And, finally, evangelism. Startups often thrive because they find evangelists to talk about their products. Word of mouth worked differently in the analog world of Chip’s first hotel opening, but fundamentally the same rules apply among the hyper-connected. We are just tapping into the idea of evangelists or cause-enthusiasts in the social sector, and there’s a lot of room for growth. For example, as we stand up the Cyber Initiative, I’ve been asking myself how we might get young people to evangelize the idea that they should have control over their data. Corporate charities have used this to good effect (take the RED campaign which uses private sector funds to fight AIDS, for example). Is there room for private philanthropy not affiliated with big business to use the idea as well?
It’s all got me thinking: What role should emotional intelligence play in the social sector? Do our organizations (and our grantees) value it (and how would we know)?
The nuclear security sector—and by that I mean all of the governmental and non-governmental organizations that work on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy issues—is not producing new ideas and dynamic leaders the way some other sectors are. While there is fantastic work being done on a variety of extremely important issues, some by Hewlett Foundation grantees, I believe all of us working on nuclear issues should ask ourselves: How might we bring new ideas and dynamic new leaders to the sector? Here is my list of some strategies that might help us do that:
Elevate energetic leaders. Funders could focus on funding dynamic individuals, rather than thinking largely about supporting organizations. This way of thinking about funding borrows a lot from technology-oriented venture capital firms that focus on backing companies with leaders who they think have the ideas, management capacity, and dynamism to develop groundbreaking new ideas and attract others to their cause.
Support a culture of innovation. Specially, encourage each other to try new approaches to old problems, look to other fields for examples of successful policy interventions, and set aside stroking egos in favor of experimentation.
Learn from failure. Many of us say we do this, but I think we can do better. Nestled, as the Hewlett Foundation is in Silicon Valley, it’s obvious that businesses that take risks are the ones producing transformative new technologies or generating entirely new ways to communicate. Businesses that are able to take those kinds of risks most often have a learning culture that accepts failure and actively learns from it. This type of approach is also happening in the social sector. An innovation starter kit for non-profits explains the basics and an article by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO offers some examples of iterative thinking being used effectively to generate new solutions to tough social problems.
The threat posed by the thousands of nuclear weapons still in existence is monumental. Accidents like the one that occurred at the Fukushima power plant in Japan remind us as well of the danger nuclear power can pose. I believe that if any problem deserves the freshest thinking and most innovative approaches out there, it is this one. Several foundations, organizations and individuals are tackling this problem head on, and they should be proud of their work to spur innovation. I hope these ideas spark even greater efforts.