A Lesson From Good to Great: Shifting My Perspective as a Business Professional in the Social Sector

We must reject the idea –well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.”

And with those words Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors: a Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, shaped the perspective with which I started my first day at the job.

Having only worked at one company for most of my career (all two and a half years of it…), on many occasions I have caught myself incorrectly associating certain professional experiences to my particular company’s culture vs. Corporate America.  These associations, more often than not, were made because my experiences to date have not been diverse enough to give me a broad perspective to form accurate conclusions.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. I hardly realize the assumptions that I’m making until someone points them out or until another situation leads me to question a previously held belief. After all, it’s usually an unconscious process.

Making matters even more interesting, I’m now entering into an entirely different world where I’m likely to begin unconsciously making incorrect assumptions about the social sector vs. the private sector. For the most part I’m okay with this as it’s all part of the learning process to form beliefs and have them challenged.

However, the Good to Great monograph points out one particular mindset that I want to remain aware of as I transition: the assumption that the key to success for an organization is to operate like a business. In recounting a dialogue that he had with a CEO, Collins makes the point that great management practices are not solely business concepts.

That’s when it dawned on me: we need a new language. The critical distinction is not between business and social, but between great and good. We need to reject the naïve imposition of the “language of business” on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness.

I think we can all agree that the environment nonprofits operate in is different from the private sector, therefore so are the expectations (e.g. importance of measuring impact vs. profits). However certain core skills are necessary for success in any great organization, regardless of the sector. Additionally, every great organization needs a diversity of skill sets to best accomplish its objectives.

I recognize that while I have a unique combination of skills to contribute, I don’t bring any “right” answers or “right” ways of doing anything with me. My goal for myself as I transition is to remain conscious of assumptions that I make about my organization and the social sector simply because of differences from my experience in the private sector.