Finding Question Zero

Photo: Luke Terry, CEO of Toowoomba Clubhouse, in class at Harvard

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Harvard Business School Strategic Perspectives in Non Profit Leadership course. This once in a lifetime opportunity, made possible through SVA’s David Clarke scholarship program, gave myself and 150 other social entrepreneurs from across the globe the chance to take a 20,000 feet view of the work we do daily around social impact. As a young social entrepreneur in a small and growing social enterprise, professional development to this level is not something you get access to in every lifetime.

When I returned from Boston my wife asked “what was the one thing you learnt?” I replied: “Question Zero”.

Each lecture at Harvard would usually start with Question Zero. Or, put simply: “What is it we are really trying to do here?” As leaders in busy changing environments, it’s easy for us to get caught up in the current crisis, phone calls or new activity and lose track of our true mission. Since attending Harvard there hasn’t been a challenge or day that has gone by where Question Zero hasn’t come up for me.

As social enterprise leaders we have a lot to do, and sometimes that clouds our true cause.

As social enterprise leaders we have a lot to do, and sometimes that clouds our true cause. For me, I am now a lot clearer that my day job is about story telling. I must make noise every day about our transformative impact – and since my return my board has been surprised by my focus on nailing an eight word mission statement (that rolls off everyone’s tongue) – to make that job easier (and more effective)!

For me it has been refreshing to build clarity around the idea that leadership is the process of bringing a new (and sometimes unwelcome) ideas and reality to an individual, group or board and helping them to adapt to it. For example, helping them to understand the role social impact bonds, the NDIS and venture philanthropy could play for our mission at Toowoomba Clubhouse.

At Harvard, we also explored the concept of failure. A story was shared about IBM. When early Chair and CEO Tom Watson lectured one of his team for losing $10m on a project, the staff member asked if he was going to be fired. Tom’s response was; Fire you? I just spent $10m educating you. Why would I fire you?

As entrepreneurs we need the space to be able to fail.

As entrepreneurs we need the space to be able to fail. But when that happens in a space of philanthropy and public spending our accountability levels often don’t leave much space to take the risks we need to be successful. This is an important challenge for the social purpose economy to address.

Finally, in an environment focused on social impact and leadership the course was the perfect time and space to properly explore and understand the new wave of social impact bonds. This has set a new path for our future potential funding sources. In fact, I’ve just had my first meeting with a broker and investor. Without the scholarship I doubt that my eyes would have been opened to this exciting new way of working.

In a world of impact bonds, venture philanthropy, payment by outcomes and the upcoming NDIS, my transformational takeaway from the course was about claiming our impact in our specialty area, and relentlessly focusing on how we can be better and more impactful in that area.

In sum, Harvard was transformational. If you’re a social entrepreneur and you have the opportunity to do this course, I would do nothing but recommend it.

Luke Terry