12 habits of successful change-makers: mission-led

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders, and invite you to do the same. 

Habit #1: mission first, not model or money

All of the successful change-makers we looked at – whether led by organisations or individuals – were relentlessly mission-led. Nothing diverts them. The best are those who are literally ‘on a mission’.

When you are personally affected, such as a parent fighting in your child’s interests, staying focused on your mission may be one aspect of campaigning that actually comes easily. Think of Doreen Lawrence or the parents struggling to get support for their children with special educational needs.

But what does being mission-led mean if you are a chief executive? In an organisation, mission connects people to their passion, to their values and allows them to come together around a common cause.

As organisational leaders, we are holders of that mission. It must permeate every decision, every challenge, every statement we make. In theory, this should be the easiest aspect of our work (why, after all, did we want the job in the first place?) but in reality, there is not always an obvious, mission-led answer to every challenge. And it’s very easy to get blown off course in the face of pressure to secure income, to grow, or even just to survive. What advances your mission in one area might undermine it in another – which do you choose?

The frequent and mutual incomprehension between campaigners and fundraisers is a classic case. Campaigners strongly believe that it is damaging to represent the people you exist to help as either victims or angels. Fundraisers know that an urgent crisis or heart-warming story will raise money more effectively than a well-rounded ‘warts and all’ picture. You owe a duty of care to your beneficiaries, but need donations in order to help them.

Perhaps the answer is that, if one part of your work can so easily undermine the other, there’s something wrong with your model. It takes brave leadership to be willing to completely change organisational strategy in order to pursue your mission in a different way.

The example set by others can gird our loins. We need more CEOs like Sheila McKechnie, who was willing to publicly champion her cause and challenge the status quo precisely because it was her mission and values that drove her.

One such is Mark Atkinson. As chief executive at Scope, he determined that they could be more effective in achieving their mission if they shifted their strategy away from direct services to become an enabling organisation instead. Their campaigning is now very clearly led by and for people with disabilities. And because disabled people are telling their own stories, the victim/angel dilemma largely disappears.

No doubt, the bigger and more established you are, the harder it can be to change. It might require a different approach to governance and risk, or a completely different skills profile among your team, and you might lose some of your most loyal supporters. Yet, the risk of not changing is becoming less effective or relevant, even eventually being overtaken and rendered obsolete.

So my January challenge is: shine a light on those mission-related dilemmas that just won’t go away. Challenge yourself and your team to take the first step by identifying and articulating them. Only then will you be on your way to realigning your daily work with your mission.

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash


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