Although there are certain abilities that senior leaders across all industries must possess, navigating the complex terrain of social impact calls for a unique set of skills that blend traditional management with a deep commitment to social impact. If you’re a leader in the social impact space, you’re likely familiar with the tension between championing growth while maintaining social change as your ultimate goal. We explored this in our recent Careers4Change blog piece, Balancing Finance and Social Change: A Guide for Identifying Senior Leaders.
Building on this below, we explore some essential skills and strategies senior decision-makers can develop and employ to drive meaningful change.
Skill #1 – Future planning and visionary leadership
To be a leader that drives genuine social change, the ability to envision a future that surpasses current limitations is crucial. Visionary leaders can anticipate and convey a picture of what the future could look like, and this future-focused foresight allows leaders to guide teams, stakeholders, and communities towards shared goals. To develop this skill, leaders can engage in forward-thinking practices, remain open to diverse perspectives, and continuously scan the horizon for emerging trends and opportunities.
- Attend strategic foresight workshops to enhance future-oriented thinking.
- Use practical tools like SWOT and PEST analysis to help chart where your organisation currently is (including its strengths and weaknesses) and where it needs to be to drive the most change.
- Schedule regular brainstorming sessions with diverse teams for innovative ideas.
Skill #2 – Ethical decision-making
When working in social impact, the implications of your decisions are profound. Leaders must traverse complex issues and make decisions that align with their organisation’s values and mission. This requires a comprehensive framework, a deep understanding of the social context, and the resolve to make tough decisions. Developing this skill involves self-reflection, the input of diverse voices, and a commitment to accountability.
- Enroll in ethics training programs tailored for senior leaders. Organisations like GoodCorporation, the Institute of Business Ethics, and CFA Society UK offer ethics and compliance training programmes that can help inform your decision-making processes.
- Implement a transparent decision-making process that includes stakeholder feedback. You can integrate mechanisms like surveys, interviews, workshops, feedback forms and one-on-one conversations. When making decisions within the context of your team, it can help to reframe your position from “manager” or “boss” to “facilitator”, “negotiator”, “mediator”, “communicator” or “collaborator”.
- Regularly review and update your organisation’s ethical guidelines.
Skill #3 – Strategic Expertise
Effective senior leaders have the skills to navigate the complexities of organisational and societal change. This involves setting clear, actionable goals, developing robust strategies, and adapting to evolving circumstances. A good leader can analyse systems, identify leverage points for change, and prepare for the long-term results of their decisions.
- Use strategic planning tools like the Balanced Scorecard and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for goal setting.
- Engage in scenario planning exercises to anticipate future trends.
- Attend leadership development programs focused on strategic thinking (see here and here for examples). You can research courses online to see if they specifically focus on strategy – refer to participant reviews when possible.
Skill #4 – Identifying, Hiring and Nurturing Talent
The ability to identify individuals with the right mindset and passion for social impact is something that can be honed over time. Finding candidates who align with your organisation’s mission and values involves interpersonal skills such as empathy and open communication, as well as analytical and deductive attributes. Developing the capability to discern who is suitable for a position takes time and experience.
- Refer to guides, checklists and frameworks for hiring to develop your skills in this area. We included some in this blog piece.
- Adept leaders know how to implement rigorous and inclusive hiring processes to attract diverse talent. Develop your hiring skills by interrogating your own biases through self-guided research and cultural competency training. Engaging with external consultants to assist this process and advance your abilities in this area can be helpful. Some inclusion organisations include Other Box, We Create Space and Evenbreak.
- Once you’ve hired talent, invest in their growth and development and work closely with them as they ease into their new role. By engaging with those you’ve hired and being perceptive of the gaps in their knowledge and abilities as well as their strengths, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what skills to look for the next time you employ a new team member.
- Partner with specialist recruiters or talent acquisition agencies that specialise in the social impact sector. Experts in this field have a deep understanding of the unique skills and values needed for success. They can help you identify top talent more efficiently and ensure a better fit for your organisation’s mission and culture. Collaborating with specialists like Careers4Change can streamline your hiring process, lead to more impactful hires and strengthen your expertise in this area.
Skill #5 – Empowering Your Team
As the saying goes, a leader is only as good as their team; that’s why your ability to empower and mobilise your team is crucial. Creating an environment where every team member feels valued, heard, and compelled to contribute to the collective vision is essential. Leaders should focus on building diverse and inclusive teams, encouraging collaboration, and providing opportunities for professional growth and development.
- Conduct team-building activities that promote inclusivity and collaboration. These could be collaborative problem-solving challenges, skill-sharing sessions and group reflection sessions where you can learn from each other.
- Implement mentorship programs within your organisation. This article provides some helpful advice for implementing a workplace mentorship program.
- Regularly provide constructive feedback and career development opportunities to your team where they feel comfortable offering feedback as well.
Skill #6 – Stakeholder Engagement
Social impact leadership requires the ability to engage and align a wide range of stakeholders, from community members to policy-makers. This involves active listening, empathy, effective communication, and the capacity to find common ground. Leaders should strive to build strong relationships, understand stakeholder needs, and collaboratively develop solutions that address those needs.
- Participate in networking events and forums to build relationships with key stakeholders. Pioneers Post regularly updates this page with upcoming social enterprise and impact investing events. Hosting regular meetups, online or in-person networking sessions or other events to engage stakeholders can also be beneficial.
- Utilise customer relationship management (CRM) tools to manage stakeholder information. Many platforms are available, including HubSpot, Salesforce, Monday and Zoho.
- Conduct regular stakeholder surveys to understand their needs and expectations. It can be helpful to search online for survey structures and best practices, but here is a basic outline for creating stakeholder surveys:
1. Define objectives and scope: Clarify your goals, target audience, sample size, frequency, and format. Ensure objectives are SMART and aligned with your strategy.
2. Design questions and format: Create relevant, transparent, concise, unbiased, and actionable questions. Avoid leading, vague, complex questions. Choose the proper format for your audience and objectives.
3. Conduct surveys and interviews: Ensure quality and validity by testing, piloting, and professional communication. Follow up with reminders, thank-you notes, and incentives as needed.
4. Analyse and interpret data: Use suitable methods to clean, organise, and visualise data. Identify patterns, trends, and gaps. Cross-reference with other sources for validation.
5. Report and act on findings: Create a concise report summarising objectives, methods, data, findings, and recommendations. Tailor it to the audience. Present to key stakeholders and monitor impact.
Skill #7 – Innovation and Adaptability
Leaders must be innovative and adaptable in the face of constantly evolving social challenges. This means being open to new ideas, willing to experiment, and able to pivot strategies when necessary. Leaders should foster a culture of innovation within their organisations, encouraging risk-taking and learning from both successes and failures. Working within a culture of reciprocity and open-mindedness can allow you to develop skills in this area.
- Foster a culture of creativity through internal innovation labs or hackathons. If you have never conducted an online or in-person innovation session before, this article outlines some useful tips. Regular brainstorming sessions can promote resourceful work environments from which everyone benefits.
- Allocate time and resources for pilot projects and experimentation in which you can actively participate.
Skill #8 – Ability to Build for Sustainability and Scalability
Finally, leaders must develop the proficiency to implement and measure the sustainability and scalability of their impact. This involves thinking beyond short-term gains to how initiatives can be sustained and scaled over time. Leaders should develop strategies that ensure the financial viability of their initiatives, build strong partnerships for scale, and continuously measure and learn from their impact.
- Work on developing a sustainability plan that aligns with your organisation’s long-term goals. You can find resources online that offer insight into this, including:
- Seek partnerships with other established organisations to enhance scalability and offer mentorship. This comes back to the importance of networking and stakeholder engagement, as building strong relationships with external organisations can lead to fruitful partnerships in the future while enhancing your skillset. For more context on strategic partnerships, see this article.
- Regularly monitor and evaluate the impact of your initiatives using impact measurement tools. Some of these tools include the Impact Measurement Framework, Net Promoter Score, and Social Return on Investment. For measuring impact specific to social finance, you can find more information here.
Regardless of the industry, leaders are increasingly recognising the responsibility they have in supporting the community and the environment. For senior executives in social impact, in particular, developing a skill set that promotes transformation within an organisation as well as in a broader social context creates more opportunities for meaningful and sustainable change. Leadership is a journey of continuous learning and growth, and the world needs a shift towards greater accountability from decision-makers who are not only strategic but also deeply committed to creating a more equitable future.
At Careers4Change, we have worked with senior leaders in social impact for over 15 years. We are always keen to connect with those interested in developing their own skills in this space and those who are building impactful teams and nurturing changemakers. Contact us on Twitter, LinkedIn or at email@example.com