Managing upwards with proximity, candor, focus, diversity, and communication.
By David Auerbach | Co-founder at Sanergy
From the day we started Sanergy as graduate students at MIT, we’ve had many great mentors and board members. Without their advice, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Our view has always been that we must conduct the orchestra of instruments, but that we need help getting every instrument to be at its best.
This view has certainly been reinforced further during Covid-19. There’s nothing like a pandemic and economic downturn (where many organizations are shrinking their staff) to demonstrate that social ventures need a stable of external advisors.
At the same time, I’ve had the privilege of serving as an advisor to Segal Family Foundation, Mighty Ally, and several other up-and-coming entrepreneurs. In this blog post, I’ll share five lessons I’ve learned about working with boards and how I think about mentoring myself.
It comes down to five key tenets: proximity, candor, focus, diversity, and communication.
Ensure anyone making decisions with you has spent time on the ground.
With so many social enterprises working in international contexts with stakeholders thousands of miles away, you can’t often trust ideas or input from those who don’t have first-hand experience with your business. Or at least clear, relevant subject matter expertise.
When I met Bart at Pace Able Foundation in 2016 via an Echoing Green happy hour at SOCAP in San Francisco, he told me he would come to Kenya once a quarter to spend time mentoring our team. Sanergy has been around a while. So when people caught up in the excitement of SOCAP make such commitments, we peg the likelihood of such enthusiasm being realized as slim-to-none. But every quarter – like clockwork – Bart would arrive at our offices in Nairobi. And via these half-day “quarterly review” meetings, he quizzed, coached, and brainstormed with us as we rolled out three new products and services.
Bart’s visits were complemented by a 1-on-1 with senior managers to mentor us. It’s really easy to claim you’re a mentor. But as we’ve learned from Bart, unless you put in the tough hours, it’ll be a mentor in title only. We soon realized Bart knew more about our company than most any of our advisors. The frequent cadence of his visits, the effort he put in to be prepared, the time he took to get to know our team – and by extension, our culture – set the stage well for him to join our board two years after his initial visit.
Tell a mentor the situation like it is, leaving the rose-tinted glasses at the door.
You have to be able to trust mentors with the good and the bad. You want the mentor to help solve your problems after all, not be impressed with your work. They wouldn’t mentor you if they didn’t think you were worth supporting. If you can’t tell them your problems, they won’t be able to truly help. And if you don’t want help facing hard truths, you’re only putting yourself at a disadvantage.
In our early days, we entered into a restricted grant that was contingent on how many toilets we would launch. We missed our targets badly. I thought we could gloss over the results with our board because we would have only been paid out for success. In effect, it wouldn’t impact our progress. Two of our board members pounced: missing those targets could have widespread reputational risk.
First, they chastised me for being overly optimistic. This hurt my credibility with them for a couple of years and took some time to restore. Second, they were here to help. They knew the funders and were able to have conversations with them in a way that protected our reputation. And in fact, enhanced our reputation as we were credited for being upfront with our problems before others.
Give advisors a specific focus area within the business.
Instead of just scattering their focus on countless facets, if you give them a discrete project or program, they can really sink their teeth in over time.
We paired Bart with our Future Initiatives team – a division focused on developing new sanitation products and service delivery models. Each product or delivery model was a business unit in itself. And yet, we had struggled to see it that way. This match with our Future Initiatives team went very well. Bart still advises Future Initiatives today. And he’s also employing the same approach for Sanergy as a whole as we begin to expand to other countries, form strategic partnerships, and work to finance our operations at scale. These are all big, hairy questions that he’s helping us dissect and analyze in highly impactful ways.
Aim for diversity at all levels – geography, gender, socioeconomic, and skill sets.
We all have experiences that inform and often give bias to our perspective. So bringing a diverse set of experiences is vital.
A simple thing to say in social enterprise is ‘partner with government’. Achieving that is another story. And frankly, until we had advisors at the board level who had done this work before, we were lacking the conviction in our strategy.
Last year, we added Kariuki Mugo to our board. He has served as the Kenya program manager for an organization we look up to: Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). Mugo has been in the trenches and hallways working with government, but he had never been on a board. His experiences have been invaluable to us. Not only can he make high-level, credible introductions, he’s also very direct with us about how to apply pressure on government to get them to act. His advice has enabled much faster, more realistic expansion in just one year.
Communicate regularly and foster collaboration between your board.
Don’t wait until an advisor or board member visits to try and catch them up on everything going on. Stay in touch between visits. Because you want to spend the face-to-face visits getting into their ideas and advice, not just reporting.
Sanergy is in the midst of talking with some industry giants on ways we could potentially partner. It’s enormously exciting, but it’s also a time of uncertainty.
Through the Toilet Board Coalition, we’ve recruited a mentor and now board member, Pascale Guiffant, who comes from the world of multinational waste management companies. The strategic questions we face now – each of which feels like a mountain to us – are no more than a foothill for her. Instead of waiting for board meetings, we talk by WhatsApp, phone, and e-mail, consulting her as needed. It’s not burdensome for her either – it’s a moment when she feels most valuable to us.
There’s no better time than 2020 to focus on organizational strengthening. Most products and programs have slowed in the pandemic, so why not use the downtime to reassess your board and mentors? These external experts will be invaluable as you emerge from the crisis. So use the five tenets above to ensure you’re managing upwards well.