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'We See A Trend Of Corporate Talent Moving To The Social Sector'

Anu Prasad, Founder, ILSS, explains why she sees a growing trend of corporate executives following their hearts into the development space and how the time is right for the sector itself to bring in diverse skills and leadership

Earlier this year, India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS), a Delhi-based NGO, started offering a leadership course designed to help senior corporate talent participate in the process of social change. In this interview with Clifford Alvares of BW Businessworld, Anu Prasad, founder of ILSS and herself a ‘corporate crossover’ into the social sector, explains why she sees a growing trend of corporate executives following their hearts into the development space and how the time is right for the sector itself to bring in diverse skills and leadership.

What was the intent in setting up India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS)? 

If we look around we will see that a good number of people in their 40s and early 50s--mid-career and senior executives who have achieved professional success and financial security quite early on in their careers—are asking themselves questions around the purpose of their work and the meaning of their lives; many of them have a deep desire to be involved in creating social change, but don't know where to begin or where their skills and experience can be best put to use.

ILSS aims to support the journeys of such individuals into the social sector by providing a learning and leadership development platform where they can learn from the best minds in the sector, get a nuanced understanding of the complex issues in the development sector, and find their own role in this scheme of things. Our  program gives participants a closer view of social issues and immersive grassroots experiences to help them decide their own response to the situation,  including making considered transitions to the social sector. Even if some of them decide not to switch to the social sector, we see them becoming more responsible and empathetic residents, citizens business leaders who take ownership for social change. 

By helping committed and experienced professionals move to the social sector, we hope to strengthen the leadership talent pool for the social sector. ILSS will also contribute to the overall effort of building the capacity of the sector itself, by offering learning opportunities to NGO leaders and decision makers.    

How is the ILSS leadership program different from other leadership programs?

The most distinctive feature, perhaps, is the fact that our program involves a substantial amount of unlearning and relearning! While a lot of the functional skills from the corporate sector might be easily transferable to the social sector, working in the social sector requires a different kind of thinking and approach – we are talking empathy, inclusive leadership, consensus-based decision making, a great deal of patience and perseverance. 

Our program helps participants get a better understanding of what to expect when they decide to switch to the social sector. We place a lot of emphasis on values-based leadership and create the space for participants to connect their inner values with their work, its purpose and outcomes. 


How do you see social sector organisations benefiting from the talent that comes out of ILSS?

As I said before, with their diverse skill sets and  immense leadership experience, ILSS alumni will form a rich talent pool that social sector organisations can tap into to meet their own need for talent  in various leadership roles. The ILSS learning, combined with their passion for change and experience in problem solving, project execution, financial management, etc,  puts our participants in good stead to take up critical roles in the sector – a fact corroborated by early findings from a survey we are conducting with heads of NGOs. Most NGO heads we’ve spoken to believe that the sector needs diverse skills and  professional expertise to help them scale, manage complex programmes and achieve larger impact.

Is there a trend of mid and senior level executives moving to the social sector? Why? 

Yes, this trend is certainly happening – and we expect it to grow steadily. The Bridgespan report mentions  that NGOs are already hiring from corporates for almost 25 percent of their senior talent requirement. Our own experience after three editions of our leadership program is that more than 30 percent have already moved into senior roles with leading organisations in the sector. And if the number of applicants to our fourth edition is any indication, there are certainly a lot more people out there wanting to undertake this journey!  

Are there other ways in which corporate talent can contribute to the development sector?

Of course. Moving full time into the social sector might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But they can participate in the process of change in multiple ways: they can volunteer their time and skills to causes they feel passionately about,  they can become more responsible citizens who take a keen interest in civic issues, they can influence socially-responsible  decisions in their workplaces. There are meaningful  ways to contribute that don’t stop at writing a cheque at the end of the financial year. 

What would it take for a corporate leader to succeed in the social sector?

Patience, commitment, empathy, deep listening, hard work, leadership and self-awareness. Unlike in the RoI-driven business environment, where one is used to predicting a certain kind of outcome based on a certain input within a given timeframe, outcomes in the social sector are seldom as predictable. Patience is  a huge virtue for those aspiring to be successful leaders, as is the ability to doggedly pursue a goal. One has to be humble enough to learn every day and accept that the  problems they address could take generations to solve. There are important cultural and attitudinal shifts that a corporate leader needs to make to succeed in the sector. The ability to work in an inclusive manner, taking different stakeholders along; the ability to create consensus-based decisions and practising an intuitive, empathetic leadership that doesn’t derive its power from hierarchies.


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