7 Skills of an Effective Leader in Social Impact and Sustainability

by   |  August 19, 2014

Green HandsAs befits the immersive culture of Darden, we enjoyed a thought-provoking discussion panel on sustainability on our second day of school.   Five Darden alumni shared their insights on working in social impact across many industries and functions.

Toward the end of the conversation, these leaders of social impact and sustainability shared their best insights on what qualities it takes to make a positive difference in the world.

7 Skills of an Effective Leader in Social Impact and Sustainability

1)           Interpersonal Skills ““ The importance of actively listening and collaborating with people can never be overstated.   You will never make an impact if you lack people skills.

2)           Attention to Developing the “Soft Side” of Business ““ Knowledge in finance, marketing, and forecasting are valuable, of course.   However, the “soft” skills are arguably more valuable to the longevity of your business career.   Organizational behavior, team building, communication skills; those are the things you’ll actually use more and will carry you through more than the hard skills.

3)           Working Across Boundaries ““ Developing the flexibility to work across functions and the skill of integrating projects are imperative.   Though it seems to be discussed at length in business education, a surprisingly few people in organizations actually achieve this.   Those who do are mostly found in senior positions.   Effective managers know enough about many areas to be able to lead and get stuff done.

4)           Understanding, Adapting to and Embracing Each Culture ““ You must understanding your company culture as well as the country’s culture in which you live and do business.   This is the first step.   Then you must learn how to optimally function within the framework of each given culture.   This is the very reason that “culture fit” is so important when you’re searching for jobs.   Not every culture is going to give you the flexibility you may need to achieve your objectives.   At the same time, there may be a range of possible cultures that will allow you to shine.   Self awareness as well as knowledge of your “ideal” cultures will help you find that optimal frequency at which you truly resonate.

5)           Using Twitter to Follow Thought Leaders and Companies ““ Keep yourself informed on issues that are “top of mind” in your industry.   The thought leaders and leading companies in your area of interest are likely to keep up with trends and share meaningful findings on social media sites.   These may include, but are in no way limited to: influence maps, issues people are pondering, and surprising data findings on relevant issues.

6)           In Networking: Having Targeted Conversations ““ Find ways of conversing with people who work in the spaces that most interest you.   Set aside time to have 30-minute conversations with them, asking meaningful questions and allowing them to talk about their experiences.   Be sure to ask them to put you in touch with another person to further the discussion.

7)           Reading Voraciously (and Relevantly) ““ Identify causes, companies, and careers that fascinate you and read articles on those subjects.   It has never been easier to search for such information than it is in this Google age, but don’t overlook libraries and book stores either.   Pick through periodicals for fresh insights into the causes you are passionate about.

Mimi’s Personal Takeaways

The skills needed to be an effective sustainability and / or social impact leader are transferable to many careers.   On this occasion, it was appropriate to discuss them in the context of making a positive difference in the world.

I’m glad to see tremendous growth in the space of impact careers.   The sustainability and social impact mindset is expanding rapidly.   Even in more “traditional” business roles and firms, an emphasis on altruism is increasingly important.   I wish I had a sense of this during my undergrad years when I naively assumed that business careers were only for the greedy and power-hungry.   On the contrary.   Business training can be the most valuable way for a person to develop the skills necessary to change the world.

I have merely begun my MBA program, and yet I have already enjoyed many conversations with collegues who are interested in making a positive difference in the world.   Many of these are joining the Net Impact Club at UVA.   Several are hoping to use their influence in traditional firms to inspire positive action.   Others are thinking of starting their own businesses with specific causes in mind.   The beautiful thing is that impact careers take on as many forms as there are creative people.

As I have explored my own interest of sustainability and social impact careers, I’m pleased to have deliberately shifted the focus of this blog from marketing and branding for the sake of itself to more of a “changing the world” emphasis.   I’m excited to see how my consciousness and involvement continue to evolve over the years.

So . . . What’s Next?

The next time someone asks me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I will be honest in explaining that I expect to be in a place that I would never believe to be right now.   Of course I have some ideas, but I realistically expect to have grown in ways I can hardly imagine at this moment.   This is quite reasonable, seeing how quickly most people’s careers change these days and how subject the business world is to dramatic change.   It goes without saying that am in a completely different place now than I was as an undergraduate music student five years ago.

I do hope, however, that what I’m doing in five years has something to do with leadership, sustainability, social impact and using my skills to make a positive difference in the world.   That would be a truly successful career in my mind.

More on: Business, Career Paths, Changing the World, MBA, Optimism
About the Author:

Mimi West is a consummate entrepreneur, brand and marketing expert. This retired opera singer and Founder of My Dream Teacher is now pursuing her MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Administration. You can follower her on Twitter: @MimiGuynnWest.
Publshed: August 19, 2014  | 
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