A good example of 24/7 authenticity, which is in bleak short supply these days in America. I have several examples in the book where standing up with integrity and honesty, and particularly with personal accountability, will cost you in the short term, and it may cost you a lot career wise, [by] making some enemies, etc. But in the long term, I think it’s an enormously important leadership trait. — Paul Shoemaker, podcaster, activist, philanthropist
Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, welcome to Books Driving Change. I’m Matthew Bishop, and today we’re talking with Paul Shoemaker, who is the author of Taking Charge of Change: How Rebuilders Solve Hard Problems. Paul is a podcaster, activist, philanthropist, founder of Social Venture Partners International, which is a network of philanthropists, and has been really involved and an activist in change for many years.
Paul, our audience is really people who are feeling a calling to get involved, in trying to build back better, trying to make the world a better place. In a sentence, what’s your elevator pitch to them? Why should they read this book?
Paul Shoemaker (PS): Because I’m identifying the leaders and the leadership traits that we will need to meet the complexities and reverse the inequities in America for the decade ahead.
MB: The book was written before COVID, but clearly anticipated many of the topics that we’ve been talking about in terms of building back better. And what I really like about it is you have five leadership characteristics that you identify, and you put people to each of those characteristics, people who are actually doing change on the ground. And I like the fact that your five things are not obvious in some ways.
You do have authenticity as your first one, and I kind of inwardly cringed as everyone is in favor of authenticity at the moment. And I think it is a bit like what Groucho Marx said about sincerity — it is the key to success in public life, you can fake that you’ve got it made — and you wonder whether authenticity is the same. But then you go into the things like complexity, having a complexity mindset, and being able to deal with cross sectoral complexity, to be very data centric, things that aren’t so obvious to people who were just sort of picking the five characteristics.
And I wonder how you came to those five, what made you pick those? And the other thing you do, which I love as well, is that you have a downside to each of those five as well. So many leadership books just talk about the virtues and they don’t say well actually some people who are data obsessed are quite a pain to deal with or these cross sectoral people may not really get it in depth enough or whatever. So how did you pick those five?
The challenges we’ve got … climate, geopolitical, cybersecurity, rural urban divide … are generational kinds of challenges, and they are at real inflection points.
PS: In 2018 while working on a project about poverty in America, I was studying different aspects of inequities that affect poverty, race, health, economics, social, etc. In the middle of that project, what slapped me in the face was, while I certainly understand we have inequities in America, I did not know the pace and the downward path of economic, social, and health inequities over the last 25 years in America. And I think people think 2020 was this year of inequity, but this has been building for a generation. And so that’s what I finally recognized. And that follows 50 years in America where we were slowly, haltingly, unevenly making progress. And we’ve sort of gone back down the other direction. So that was my original sort of motivation.
Then I said, okay, how do I think about how we’re going to reverse these inequities? What kind of leaders are we going to need? So I took the next six months, and I did three things. One, I talked to nearly 100 of the best leaders I’ve worked with over the last 30 years, and several traits and characteristics started to sort of fall out of that. Number two, I was also looking for evidence of programs and organizations where there was also true social impact. The ones that were starting to reverse that 25 year trend going the wrong direction. And then number three, was understanding the complexities that are coming in the decade ahead. This is the most insanely complex, not just inequitable, but complex decade, I think America has faced in at least 75, maybe 100 years.
And so if you think of those as three overlapping circles — leaders, impact, context of complexity — the intersection of those three things, yielded those five traits for me. So it was a very well thought out, subjective, qualitative process that has a prospective point of view that I feel very passionately about, and think that these five traits are going to make a huge difference in the decade ahead — 24/7 authenticity, generosity mindset, data conviction, capacity for complexity, and cross sector fluency.
And the last thing, in terms of downsides, a good example of 24/7 authenticity, which is in bleak short supply, these days in America — I have several examples in the book where standing up with integrity and honesty, and particularly with personal accountability, will cost you in the short term, and it may cost you a lot career wise, by making some enemies, etc. But in the long term, I think it’s an enormously important leadership trait.
MB: A lot of people have been forced to confront the inequities that you’ve written about, and that you and I have both been working on to different degrees over the years to address, but have been forced by COVID to address them, and are now thinking, how do I get involved, I’d like to get involved in in some kind of public service trying to make the world better. And yet they find it a kind of intimidating world. A lot of people who have been in the business world may be thinking, it looks like unrewarding difficult terrain and so forth. What do you say to them?
PS: It is absolutely difficult terrain, as you well know. At times, it will be deeply frustrating. And it will be occasionally, hopefully, enormously rewarding. The challenges we’ve got — whether you want to think on a local or global level — climate, geopolitical, cybersecurity, rural urban divide, go on and on and on. These are generational kinds of challenges, and they are at real inflection points.
So for someone to feel daunted is honest and correct. What I hope people don’t feel is hopeless. Because you can make a difference. The book is full of 38 people who have found ways to make a difference — some of them on a local level, some of them on a national level, some of them at the top of an organization, some of them in a medium part of the organization, or on the street in a community. So part of the reason to write the book was not just to have a point of view, but also to tell 38 stories of people who are making a positive impact, and how they’re doing it, and how that positive impact reflects those five qualities that I think are so important.
If you want to make a difference, you have to pick at some point — a place, or an issue, or a cause to go deep on, and stick with it, and go hard, and go deep.
MB: And there are some great stories in there. The person that you start with is Rosanne Haggerty, who I know as well, and has this extraordinary record of actually figuring out how to get to zero homelessness in a number of cities around America. When you see what she’s done, what can we learn from that in terms of how we could achieve real, dramatic change? Because I think homelessness has been an issue that no one really ever believed you could solve.
PS: Particularly on the West Coast. I’m sure it’s true on the East Coast, but on the West Coast it’s just absorbing us.
MB: And you were quite honest that you were involved in Seattle in trying to solve homelessness and couldn’t do it.
PS: I will say my case study was of Seattle, I wasn’t directly involved in it. That’s not letting myself off the hook. I’m trying to find an entry point in Seattle about how to be involved, because we do have a new housing authority that’s trying to go after it.
So what do you learn from someone like Rosanne? I would say a couple things. One, the people in this book, every one of them, sort of exemplifies one of these particular traits. And I think all of us, we have to be multifaceted. But there’s also something about us picking a particular principle, or a particular strength, that’s going to guide our work. And it needs to represent who we are.
So in Rosanne’s case, what she exemplifies is what I call the generosity mindset. And it’s because she told me that phrase. She has to walk into so many communities and deal with some of the most complex, contentious issues there are. And I just said to her, how the hell do you have a chance? She says, I have to have a generosity mindset. And we went on to have a whole conversation about what that is and what that means. But she has a grounding in that approach and that strategy. So she doesn’t randomly walk into a community to do this. She doesn’t just say, I’m gonna do my best. Generosity mindset is a strategy. It is a hard-edged strategy.
So I say, the first thing is, as a leader, we need to have an approach. We need to have a mindset. We need to have a particular leadership strategy that we’re going to lead with that represents who we are and what our strengths are.
The second thing to learn from her story is that literally from the day she got out of college this is what she’s worked on. Now, I’m not saying everybody has to commit their whole life to it. But there’s definitely the story of when people hop around to different causes and different issues, you’re just staying shallow. If you want to make a difference, you have to pick at some point — a place, or an issue, or a cause to go deep on, and stick with it, and go hard, and go deep. That is the one where you have a chance, that’s the second thing I think you learn.
And the third thing you learn from her example, and it’s reflective in the trade of cross sector fluency, is everybody from every sector has a role to play in this. So if you’re in the private sector, and you feel like homelessness is hard to solve, believe me, we need you. If you’re in the public sector, and you feel like nobody cares about homelessness enough to really do something about it, that’s not true. What her stories exemplify also is that we need all three sectors to converge on these problems. We do not have a chance to solve these huge problems one or two sectors at a time. We need all three of them.
So have a strategy, stick with it over the long term, and understand that we need all three sectors.
MB: This is a very challenging point, though. Firstly, near the end of the book you use a quote from McKinsey, which is obviously a firm that is very much associated with public private partnerships, but also currently is in the news for not being brilliantly ethical in this respect. And yet, there is this general thing that we all kind of know in principle, that we need public private partnerships to work at scale, if we’re really going to move a lot of change fast. But yet, there are very few examples of public private partnerships that have really seemed to work. And there is this imbalance that I think is there between what you get paid if you’re working in the private sector, and what you get paid in government. And the worry that many of the people who end up in government are not the best, that many of the most talented people go into the private sector. And that actually, where you want more of the talented people to go is into the public sector. And they don’t, because it’s not an attractive career, in many ways.
How do we get beyond saying we need the public private partnerships to work to actually setting up the conditions where they can work? Obviously, there are many talented people in government, but how do we solve that problem?
PS: I would say in the last three to five years, the most hopeful part of that equation is the private sector, not because they’re the best, or whatever. I mean, all three of those sectors genuinely contribute a part of the equation. If you take one part of the equation away you do not have what you need. But in the last three to five years, you can look at the statement on stakeholder capitalism in September 2019, Larry Fink at BlackRock making the statements he’s making, the way that CEOs had to step up in 2020. I think we’ve reached a convergence point where it’s great if the CEO wants to be socially conscious, because they care about it or they have a good moral ethic. That’s nice. That’s great. It is even better if it’s truly woven into the business, and it’s truly going to affect the bottom line. Somewhere in the last three to five years, I believe we crossed over that. And in 2020, we absolutely moved past that point where it isn’t just a nice thing to do, to varying degrees for companies, it’s something they have to do. And so I think we have this place where profit and purpose are now not this incongruent, or forced together, equation. They genuinely can live together. So that’s a really hopeful part of it.
And what is also true is, there has been for a while there, this sort of a pedantic relationship between the private and the public/nonprofit sectors. And I would say in particular in 2020, a lot of private sector companies realized, man, I better have at least a nonprofit partner or a public sector partner, or both, that actually understands what’s going on the ground, because I need to navigate this for my business, for my company. And I can’t do this if I just sit over here in my private sector silo. So I would say the most hopeful thing, while it’s still complex and it will always be, but the most hopeful thing is there is more alignment of natural incentives than I have seen in a long, long time and I think that gives me hope.
MB: I agree with you, that business has definitely changed his tune. I think what remains to be seen is what the reality is underneath that. But I do find that the public sector part of it is the one that I find hardest to solve. Because there are so many aspects of working in the public sector that you really have to feel incredibly called to do. You have to be willing to put up with a lot of obstacles, and often feeling that things are moving at a very slow moving pace, that you are not well paid. And lots of risks in terms of politicians, particularly, who are very much subject of 24/7 scrutiny and in this current moment, can easily find themselves suddenly out of office for something that might have been seen as relatively minor in the past.
What do we do? I mean, you have some examples, this Chief Performance Officer that you quoted, who is very impressive. How do we make it more palatable to go into government, into the public sector?
Everybody from every sector has a role to play in this… We do not have a chance to solve these huge problems one or two sectors at a time.
PS: That’s a hard equation to solve for. What I’ll suggest is, at the national level, it can feel enormously discouraging. I don’t know that I would tell anybody to try to run for one of those 535 spots in Congress, or anything at that level. So I’m gonna sort of bag off of that. But at a local and a state level — and there’s plenty of complexity there, too — there’s a lot of local and state issues, where I do think there is a chance to make change. You know, we talk a lot about mayors. I have one example of a mayor in the book, Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia who was there a few years ago. I think mayors, sometimes governors, sometimes local city council, they absolutely can have an impact.
And what I do find inspiring is, I think that there are still enough people that care about that civic ethic, and that want to commit to their community. And I actually think that the Gen Zs have this, even more than you or my generation did, so I think there’s a little more supply coming at it.
And the last thing I would say, based on several of the examples in the book, is that cities, some states, some counties, they’re never going to be okay with the private sector coming in, that it’s just not gonna happen. But what they can do is hopefully create a working environment and a sense of purpose that is strong enough, and clear enough, that enough talented people will want to continue to want to work in the public sector. So absolutely a hard challenge. I see enough hope at the state, county, local levels, where there are enough people that have that sense of civic service, and enough of those entities that I think create a working environment where people do want to be a part of it, and that they can contribute something to public private partnerships.
MB: One of the things that your book does, that is one reason I would recommend it to people, is you tell these 38 stories of people who really are making a difference. People who in some ways should be household names, but most of them aren’t. And they could be. One of the things that we need to do better as a media is to shine light on some of these stories of people who are builders, who are taking charge of change. And, not in a naive way. And one of the things I like about the book is that you are willing to concede when people have not have not been perfect. What makes you optimistic as we come out of this pandemic?
PS: So the simple answer, which is also true, is it’s partly the people that I profile in the book and other folks that I talked to that are not in the book. So that is true. And I guess I would also sort of suggest that that’s the easy answer. So I would say the less obvious answer is in doing the research on those people, and understanding those five traits, I had to come across organizations that were doing things that I didn’t know they were doing, and I didn’t expect. I came across a lot of private sector organizations that are not just in this stuff because they think it’s a nice thing to do, because they have to do it. I see a lot more talented CEOs that are now willing to apply themselves to this wholeheartedly.
I am probably as inspired by the public sector examples. The city of Cincinnati, Nicolette [Stanton], the head of waste management, the city of Phoenix, Philippe Marino, there are genuine examples of not just good people, but good work getting done. And, like you said, we are not telling those stories well enough. And in the midst of all the noise, and the division, and the silos, and the lack of facts we can agree on, which man they could win the day, I think there’s enough good work, solid work that’s going on. And these kinds of leaders, that gives me hope.
It’s a real race, where it’s like, the good and the evil are both racing to the tipping point for America. And I know that’s a little dramatic. And I think people like to always say you’re at an inflection point. But, at least to me, America truly does feel like over the next five to ten years here, we’re gonna make up our minds about an awful lot of things. And if we get it right, I think we will be going in the right direction. Again, if we get it wrong, then it’s going to be a bitch.
MB: So just to wrap up, do you have one challenge for listeners of Books Driving Change? And do you have one piece of advice for anyone who does feel that they want to take up the opportunity to take charge of change?
PS: Sure, on the latter one, if you literally can’t find somewhere my email is: firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’ve helped people many, many times to find that point of entry. The latter part I would say to folks is: start. We can get intimidated by, overwhelmed by, the size of the challenge, the complexity of the challenge. Where do I have an entry point in the community? Pick somewhere. You can find it — there’s volunteer match, there’s your local nonprofit directory, there’s your local city, etc, etc. So find a place and start.
And then what I would say to folks about advice on a personal level — in addition to getting the book — is don’t underestimate that everybody’s got a skill or skills, a trait or traits, that actually have significant value. And I don’t know that everybody realizes it, and doesn’t necessarily sort of see where they have a pathway to: I have an expertise in finance, [but] what the hell does that have to do with this social problem or that one? Your skills and traits, they always have applicability. And it may take a little bit of a journey to find it. But part of the reason I wrote about these five traits is that every one of them can make a difference.
So find a way to start. If you can’t find a way to start, contact me. And look in your own skill set, and your own strength, and your own assets, and realize there are ways that they can be applied into a community beyond what you probably know, you’d probably expect, and beyond your checkbook and your wallet.
MB: Great. Well, that’s a great note to end on. Thank you very much. I’ve been talking with Paul Shoemaker, the author of Taking Charge of Change. It’s a great book. Read it and get started. Thank you.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.