As the world faces increasingly complex problems, it requires increasingly creative solutions. For years, nonprofit organizations like TechnoServe have tackled challenges like poverty, climate change, and food insecurity. But for these nonprofits to do effective work, they need effective leadership.
TechnoServe’s President and CEO Will Warshauer discussed this challenge recently on the “Lessons from Leaders” podcast. Will has led TechnoServe for nearly a decade, after a long career in international development and the private sector. In his time at TechnoServe, Will has guided the organization to achieve unprecedented impact in the fight against poverty and to develop a strategic plan to help it accomplish even more.
But the path has not been easy, and Will says he is still constantly learning. Check out highlights below from Will’s conversation with Lynne Gilliland, and listen to the full interview here.
From “Cosmic Roulette” to Nonprofit Leadership: A Journey in International Development
Will: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in West Africa. I lived in a small village in the north with no electricity, no running water. It was a very formative experience. But as a part of that, I got friendly with a kid probably 10 or eleven years old in my village, named Bolo.
He had a twinkle in his eye; he was very sharp, witty, and charming. And he and I were hanging out a lot together, and at some point it hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m 21 and Bolo is 11. At that time, life expectancy in Sierra Leone was about 40 years old. He was unlikely to ever go more than probably 10 or 20 miles away from the village where he was living. And I had been born to a doctor in Virginia and had every opportunity in my life.
His opportunities were so few. And it was just the cosmic roulette wheel that had me start my life in a particular place and him in another, which had made our circumstances so different.
It was clear as a bell to me that if he had been born in my circumstances, he would have had an Ivy League education and done everything that he wanted to do. And so that really is one of the things that has crystallized and motivated me to have a career working in international development.
To this day, I think quite often about Bolo, and feel happy to be able to provide opportunities to people like him around the world.
“Leading from Behind” During COVID
Will: COVID was probably one of the hardest leadership challenges in my career. It was so unknown. There was absolutely no playbook. And, here I am, trying to lead a global organization: 2,000 staff spread across 30 countries. So much uncertainty.
We didn’t close a single program and continued to work with these small farmers and entrepreneurs all over the world–thanks to what [the TechnoServe staff] figured out.
On the part of myself and my senior team, there was a lot of angst. We were here in Washington with our heads in our hands, trying to figure out what was going on and what we needed to do.
And what happened was, my colleagues around the world…had lived and worked through a whole bunch of hard issues: coup d’etats, earthquakes, natural disasters, and various things. So for them, they spent about 15 or 20 minutes feeling angsty. And then they got on with the problem-solving about how to make our programs work, even when we couldn’t be together because of COVID.
So a lot of my leadership during COVID was leading from behind, as it were, and really admiring and supporting our leaders around the world, who were less angst-filled and more action-oriented, and did a great job figuring out how we could continue to deliver.
We didn’t close a single program and continued to work with these small farmers and entrepreneurs all over the world–thanks to what they figured out.
Engaging Staff in Difficult Times and Beyond
Will: But the other learning for me in COVID was…that people said they wanted more inspiration from me as their global CEO. It was hard to know exactly what to do with that. I consider myself kind of a private person, but we knew we needed to talk more about COVID. There was a lot of concern, a lot of new policies we had to roll out.
And so I started having an open call, every week for 30 minutes. Everybody in the company was invited, and you could come and ask me about anything. The calls were enormously well-attended…I think on some of those phones, you had seven or eight people sitting around a speakerphone in one of our field offices listening in.
It was a great opportunity to understand what was on people’s minds; to try to be reassuring when that was appropriate; to talk about some of the new policies and new things we were doing to try to deal with COVID. And it was so popular that even as COVID has receded in importance for our business, I’ve kept up doing that.
Finding the Balance of Authentic Leadership
Will: The “leading from behind” thing is interesting because [people] do want a leader who has a vision and has a plan and is competent and knows what he’s doing. But they also want a leader to be authentic…So, it’s finding the right sweet spot and balance for you and your level of comfort with sharing personal information and all of that.
And I think part of it is finding the right organization…that aligns with your culture, your values, your culture, the way you feel comfortable…As I said earlier, we’re really into market-based solutions, and therefore lasting impact, and that’s really something I believe deeply in.
I think TechnoServe plays a nice role as being an intermediary between civil society and business. And in that sense, our work is increasingly as much about, crowding in and facilitating as it is about doing. Because we’re providing market-based solutions that help people solve problems in truly commercial ways, if we do that correctly, then the need for us goes away.
Looking Ahead: The Need for Greater Impact Measurement in International Development
Will: As someone who’s devoted his career to development for a long time, I’m frustrated at how little data we have and how little we really know about the kinds of development programs that do provide lasting impact.
Everybody wants to teach a person to fish, [and] not give fish away. That’s accepted wisdom. But we have almost no data about what produces those long-term impacts. And it’s part of my belief system that if you can get the private sector involved, and if you can get people doing commercial things that really make sense, that don’t depend on a subsidy or a free giveaway, but are truly commercial, those will last and those will scale up over time.
But whatever your theory is, there needs to be much, much more data generated about what is successfully lasting and what isn’t. And we would be better spending all the aid dollars we spend, if we had more data about that.
So my entreaty to groups like USAID and the Gates Foundation is to fund that sort of research, so we have a growing evidence base so we can direct resources to activities that result in long-term impact.
Follow Will on LinkedIn for a close-up view of what it’s like to lead a scrappy international development nonprofit as it tackles some of the world’s most complex challenges.