It is inspiring to see more and more social enterprises been created. Social entrepreneurs are innovating new structures to integrate business knowledge with a socio-ecological purpose, expanding what traditionally has been considered profit. At the same time, the experimentation with new structures and processes also means that social entrepreneurs have to walk a tight rope between the expectations from investors and other stakeholders and their ideals of having a positive impact in the world.
We are living in interesting times and there are signs that the old structures are dying. And yet, creating the organizations of the future require that we hold the creative tension between the old and the new, between the known and the unknown. It is a delicate balance, but much learning can be derived if we do this work in a conscious and reflective way.
For example, we know that we desperately need a new educational system that responds to the needs of the future we desire rather than continue to prepare workers for the industrial age. The educational system was created as a response to increasing worker needs. In today’s global context, even the concept of “knowledge workers” is passé because we cannot continue to think of business objectives as separate from social and environmental challenges. Our world needs knowledge citizens: fully engaged human beings, ready to learn throughout their lifetime and to connect their personal passion with the work they do.
Organizations cannot limit themselves to attract the best talent. Once they have highly intelligent and creative people, leaders need to create the conditions in their organizations to retain that talent and to engage them in new and deeper ways. New generations are not willing to split their lives: it doesn’t make sense to them to make a living in one place and make a life somewhere else. Meaning and connection are becoming as important as fair remuneration. Shared vision and even shared ownership of the organization are becoming more relevant for the success of social enterprises.
I have observed three levels of employee engagement that distinguishes “business as usual” organizations from “mission-driven” organizations:
First level: Transactional
The leaders of the organization seek to attract talent according to the technical and business skills required for the success of the enterprise. The relationship between the employer and employees is transactional since it is primarily based on an exchange of knowledge and skills for a salary. People who join an organization see this relationship as a job to support themselves and their families, a means of livelihood, but they keep their personal values and aspirations separate from their professional engagement. Employees need to seek other contexts where they can express their full selves, such as in their families, communities and volunteer organizations, but at work, they are just there to do what they are asked to do.
Second level: Alignment
The leaders of the organization seek to attract not only competent people, but also people who might care for the purpose of the organization. The organizational values are explicit and are used to create commitment and to motivate employees to contribute to the development of the organization. Employees see their work as an opportunity to express themselves, as an outlet for living their values, fulfilling their higher purpose, and creatively contribute to something they care about. At this level, the organization sets the attractor of a mission in order to seek people that resonates with it. Employees that do not align with this organizational mission can either function at the transactional level or can choose to leave the organization in search for a better match with their values.
Third level: Co-creation
The leadership of the organization attracts competent and caring talent with a strong emphasis on alignment of values since their purpose is to create a mission-driven organization. Through active inquiry and participation, the leaders, employees, and other stakeholders seek to contribute and enrich the mission of the organization and support its evolution. In other words, employees do not simply adapt themselves to the organization’s mission, but the organization is open to evolve its mission based on dialogue and active inquiry that explores the overlap and synergy with the personal mission of those who are part of it. As a result, the future development of the organization at this level emerges from the co-creation of meaning that enables the fulfillment of the individuals’ higher purpose and the accomplishment of the organizational mission. Both the individuals in the organization and the overall organization may modify their values and purpose since their relationships involve a learning that supports their mutual evolution.
In my experience, we have very few organizational experiences at the co-creative level because it requires an ability from the entrepreneurs and leaders to let go of control and allow their original vision to evolve. This is both difficult and risky and cannot occur without a true sense of shared ownership and shared responsibility for the protection of the integrity of the original mission. This, in my opinion, is one of the learning edges of the sustainability movement.