Anu Prasad starts on a contrasting note. Some of the certainties that you take for granted in the corporate sector, the founder-director at Gurugram-based non-profit organisation India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) underlines, simply don’t exist currently: Generous budgets, large support teams, predictable results on investment. But what compensates for this is what one can’t find anywhere: Immense satisfaction and a sense of purpose.
“We can’t come into the social problems sector with a rescue or saviour mentality,” says Prasad, a founding member of Ashoka University, India’s first liberal arts university.
ILSS focuses on enabling senior corporate executives to make a transition to the social sector in order to enhance the diversity of talent and skills in it. Incubated by the Ashish Dhawan-founded Central Square Foundation in September 2017, ILSS offers a nine-day programme for leaders from various backgrounds, particularly from corporates who are looking for careers with a social purpose. ILSS recently received an undisclosed amount as funding from ATE Chandra Foundation (ATECF), the philanthropic foundation of Archana and Amit Chandra.
“What we need is a sustainable, conscious and responsible model of doing business,” she says, adding that profit must no longer be the sole motive, in an interview with Forbes India
. Edited excerpts: Q. Conventional wisdom says leaders are born. They can’t be trained. How do you reckon that people can be trained to become leaders?
All of us have leadership traits. We just need to hone these traits we are born with. Besides, I believe that a leader is not one moment in time—it's about leadership moments. At times, one is a leader; at other times one is a follower. Depending on what a certain context demands, one can either play the leader or the follower. As for learning, unlearning and relearning, it’s an ongoing, life-long process. Q. Most of the candidates coming to ILSS are in their 40s. Despite that they are proven leaders in their said verticals, why does it take so long for them to realise their potential on the social side?
Over the year-and-a-half of conducting the ILSS Leadership Programme, we are noticing that a lot of mid-career and senior corporate executives in their 40s and early 50s, having achieved professional success and financial security, are now exploring ways to do meaningful work. Not that the thought of working for a social cause was not there in their 30s, but it’s just a lot of factors—financial stability, fulfilment of major family responsibilities, etc. These factors now allow them to pursue this sector with more seriousness. Moving into the social sector is a family decision. It can't be an individual’s choice.
A lot of mid-career corporate executives want to be more involved in creating social change, but don't know where to begin. So, ILSS acts as an enabler. We give them a holistic understanding of what is happening in the development space and what it is like to work here.
The idea is to help them make an informed decision to transition to the social sector. It’s not that all our participants end up transitioning. Some go back, and that’s okay. Some might take a bit longer to make the transition. That’s okay too. Even if they don’t switch, they become more responsible and empathetic residents. The encouraging thing, though, is that nearly 40 of our 85 alumni are already closely involved in the social sector in various roles.
After all, where else but in the social sector can you find the kind of work that challenges you, tests your skills, determination and character to this extent? Q. So empathy is more important than sympathy?
Absolutely! Empathy is the key. We can’t come in with a rescue or saviour mentality. We need to be able to genuinely treat all constituents in the development process as partners in a shared mission.
One of the things that I constantly remind participants in our nine-day leadership programme, is to listen deeply and be open to learning from people around you because there is so much lived experience and wisdom to tap into and enrich yourself. Q. You have maintained that there are far more leadership challenges in the social sector. Can you please explain?
The obvious difference, of course, is the nature of the problems that the social sector is trying to solve for: Complex, hard to define, interconnected, deeply entrenched and persistent. Then there is the sheer scale of the problems.
Working in the social sector also challenges your leadership skills. You have to build and nurture teams; you have to learn to practise consensus-based decision making; bring together multiple stakeholders; be empathetic, inspiring, innovative and humble; and you have to have a great deal of patience because change is a slow process. Some of the certainties that you take for granted in the corporate sector are simply not there in the social sector: Generous budgets, large support teams, predictable results on investment, etc.
The sector challenges your leadership skills in many ways—and rewards your hard work and perseverance with immense satisfaction and a sense of purpose that you won’t find anywhere else. Q. What’s the most pressing problem for the social sector? Is it leadership vacuum?
Diversity of talent and skills is something that would certainly be useful to the sector. As organisations look to scale, there are skillsets and competencies from other sectors that can play a meaningful role in the social sector. Our conversations with NGO heads and philanthropists reveal a requirement for people with specific skills such as fundraising, talent management, communications, operations, among others. Within the sector itself, one of the areas that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves is organisation capacity building.
The social sector, unfortunately, is still not the employer of choice, owing to a lot of notions and myths about working in the sector. There is an urgent need to address that. Q. Is social capitalism the need of the hour?
What we need is a sustainable, conscious and responsible model of doing business. Profit must no longer be the sole motive.