Monday, March 2, 2009

Results Leadership

"I learned a lot by trial and error. It's very inefficient and wasteful--I was constantly reinventing the wheel. So we've started to send our staff off to management classes so that they don't have to learn by trial and error."

Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children's Zone, quoted in: Richard M. Smith, "He's the Angel of Harlem," Newsweek, February 23, 2009.

I was surprised by this quotation. I had just finished Paul Tough's terrific Whatever It Takes and the relative failure of the HCZ's middle school was etched in my mind. The book ends with an even more dramatic fix from Canada.

If Canada is talking about the routine nuts and bolts work of managing a nonprofit then I'm in complete agreement. I wish I had been more on top of the fundamentals of finance, human resource management, board governance, nonprofit marketing, and data systems when I managed nonprofits.

But the ability and willingness to stick with an organization for thirty years, build a model piece by piece, hold onto ambitious hopes and expectations, change designs and people when things don't work out, and put up with a board breathing down your neck all represent a unique leader who has been willing to fail and learn.

And some of the issues Canada has grappled with are not easily resolvable -- save kids one by one or go for scale; give up on middle school and just focus on getting kids ready for school or stick with both groups; or give up on one class of middle-school kids so that you can build a better school.

Unfortunately, there are too few leaders in any sector willing to go this far on behalf of important results.

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