Blog: Amplify

Lessons from the C-Suite: Looking Ahead & Leading in the 21st Century

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Recently, I saw the power of what happens when you put a few dozen foundation CEOs in a room together to discuss the future. They generate as many questions for each other as answers, and, as the head of the Council on Foundations, I’d say that’s a great thing for the communities philanthropy serves. After all, learning and leading together is how lasting solutions are made.

We brought together new and veteran CEOs for an invitation-only retreat on leadership in transition, and it was clear the heads of philanthropic organizations aren’t that different than C-suite executives anywhere else. They see an increasingly interconnected, complex world and wonder how to lead their organizations in adapting to respond to it.

They face a graying senior workforce. Among the respondents of our Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Survey, for example, a full 17 percent of CEO/CGOs are of retirement age, and this percentage is even higher for larger organizations. They know their future success is rooted in cultivating the next generation of leaders that reflects the broader society whose needs they seek to meet. They know they’ll need more and better ways to partner across sectors if they are to create solutions that work for the world we live in today, and the one we envision for tomorrow. They also have so much left to contribute in ‘encore’ careers long after they transition from their current positions.

A few weeks ago, IBM released its survey of more than 5,200 C-suite executives. Reading the report’s findings and the quotes from senior executives across the world, I heard echoes of the same questions philanthropy’s leaders are asking. But just as importantly, I saw lessons the two fields can—and must—share.

IBM’s survey sorts its respondents into two tracks: the torch-bearers and the market followers.

Torch-bearers ride the leading wave of innovation, with the instincts it takes to think, work, and lead in a landscape of change. The trick to this, according to the survey, is that “Torchbearers are better able to discern future trends because they look sideways as well as outward. They adopt an ecocentric – not an egocentric – perspective, drawing on the insights of their customers and ecosystem partners to monitor the landscape from multiple vantage points.”

Philanthropy has been moving in this direction more than ever before even within our own field as new donors are embracing the range of giving options now available to them via impact investing vehicles as well as more traditional forms of giving. Rather than confining problem-solving efforts to a single organization or a single giving vehicle, foundation leaders are increasingly linking up—not just with one another, but with partners in business, advocacy, grassroots groups, and government.

The challenges philanthropy seeks to meet are so multifaceted, there’s simply no other way to be optimally effective. If we are to tackle issues like climate change and social justice, health and educational opportunity, no single entity—no single sector—and no single idea—will do.

“Share to shine,” the IBM researchers urge C-suite executives across the globe. “Ratchet up your plans to form new partnerships, and be ready to ‘reciprocate’ by sharing key resources with your allies so you can grow together.” This life cycle of reciprocity is just what drove the Council to bring together foundation CEOs to learn from one another, because we believe our best future lies in, as we call it, leading—and learning—together. After two days, I couldn’t have been more inspired by what I saw: CEOs learning from one another and asking questions of each other—because they know their strength lies in the relationships they build and what they learn from one another.

Philanthropy’s raison d'être may not be traditional competition for customers and the bottom line. But like business, philanthropy thrives on finding and forging solutions, and we know the best strategies come from understanding and meeting human needs. In a world where societies and their challenges are ever more connected, leadership must be consistently and creatively collaborative; we must not only lean in, but lean together if we want the innovations of today to be the lasting results of tomorrow.

Whether you are a business executive or president of an NGO, whether you are coming up in the ranks or on the front lines, we can find ways to work together that will move us toward our common goals. The examples are legion, but we need more. Because when we lead together to solve our common problems, we don’t need to wrestle to be out in front. The beauty of adding more torchbearers is that we end up with more light.

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