519 People Who Care About Jobs and a Needed Conversation About Leadership, Innovation, and the Future

Oct 1, 2011

This post, authored by Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, was originally published on the Social Innovation Exchange Blog, September 26, 2011.

An Exploration of Leadership

There was a moment this spring, mid-way through a a project about the changing nature of leadership in the field of policy concerned with work and learning (we call it “workforce”), where we began to feel a renewed sense of excitement and promise.

The last several years have been tough for leaders working to help their communities achieve greater prosperity, especially in those parts of a Europe and the US where the rise of unemployment and corresponding social ills has been fast and severe. The housing crisis, unemployment, the escalating costs of health care and education, and a public sector in fiscal crisis—it can feel like an onslaught.

For policy and community leaders, the relentless push for efficiencies, cost-cutting strategies, and evidence-based practices—each important in its own way—can inhibit deeper thinking about the most critical contributions these leaders and their organizations make to the well being of their communities.

What We Learned

But we found leaders who were thinking deeply about their communities’ most significant challenges and what they could do about them—in partnership with government and non-profit organizations, and with businesses and citizens themselves.

The goal of our project was to explore the changing nature of workforce leadership—what leaders do, in what context, and toward what end, and how these have shifted over the past decade (a more complete explanation is here).

We engaged 519 leaders from public, private, and nonprofit sectors at the federal, state and local levels, documenting our activities on the project’s website along the way. We identified a framework and set of six practices sufficiently different from a decade ago to constitute a new model of leadership—we call it WEadership, a nod to its collaborative nature.

Three Insights Worth Thinking About

Three ideas that emerged during the project that strike us as posing fundamental challenges to the way we organize, manage, and assess investments in workforce.

1. Conversation Matters.

Repeatedly, workforce leaders told us that convening conversation with partners, stakeholders, program providers, local elected officials and citizens is the most important work they do. Not just important work, the most important work.

This will not be surprising to those experienced in the art and science of innovation as it is a social process. The source of much innovation is the blending and mixing of new ideas, technologies, and methods from one sector with those of another. Workforce leaders have long been hosting (both formally and informally) conversations about how to solve the jobs, skills, and economic development challenges in their communities. These conversations inform the actions of not just policy makers and workforce leaders, but everyone around the proverbial table that employs or develops people or supports a business. Such conversations have never been more important.

The problem is that the effects of this kind of work are difficult to evidence, especially in the short term.

As one a respondent in rural Iowa put it:
"When you use networks to move an agenda, it’s influence and momentum that matter. Changes can be small, but they are also cumulative—one day you look up and a lot of things are really different. But we don’t always have the ability to say 'A led to B.'"
This fuzziness makes some leaders uncomfortable. As a result, we do not acknowledge convening as legitimate work. This means we do not invest in our capacity to do it successfully, and we do not talk about it when we are successful for fear it will be seen as lacking in rigor.
But such convening is an essential ingredient in good policy and a necessary one for implementing better solutions to our most intractable problems.
2. Connectivity is a game changer.

The second insight has to do with social technologies. The fact that hundreds of millions of people are connected to one another using technology creates whole new possibilities for engaging in work, learning, and entrepreneurship in very different ways:

  • The explosion of peer-learning communities in the workplace and web-based platforms like Skillshare, P2PU, and Khan Academy are challenging our ideas about the very nature of educational institutions—is Skillshare school? Workforce leaders are asking themselves how these platforms can play a role in addressing skills gaps or simply engaging people in productive activity.
  • Manpower and other firms in the business of connecting people to work (even if not in traditional jobs) have been joined by firms like Taskrabbit that enable people to make a living by aggregating “gigs.” In the absence of sufficient numbers of jobs—even if there were a perfect match between the skills firms need and those job-seekers can supply—workforce leaders are asking themselves how these ‘unjobs’ can offer opportunities for those who need them, and what role policy can play in realizing them.
  • Peer-lending, microphilanthropy, and crowdfunding are helping us reimagine what it meansto launch a venture. While nearly every local workforce leader with whom we spoke indicated that job creation was a workforce issue, the linkage became more tenuous at the state level (except in the seven states that maintain self-employment programs) and almost invisible at the federal level. But social ventures of the kind typically supporting through platforms like Kickstarter are a kind of hybrid. They can enable people to make their own jobs (or ‘gigs’) by aggregating investors (“backers”) who support specific projects or initiatives. Again, workforce leaders are exploring how such platforms might connect people to opportunity in nontraditional ways.

3. Boldness wanted. Finally, across the board, workforce leaders expressed a desire for bolder experiments. Too often, the theories of change driving what are called “innovation initiatives” are determined at the top (whether by foundations or federal agencies) with little input from the field, and reflect the risk-averse culture of their organizations. As a result, local leaders often feel like they are working very hard to improve existing programs or approaches they know should be wholly reinvented. In addition, where innovation does occur, there are few mechanisms to share it with the field.

And yet, many, many leaders we spoke with persevere, seeking to maximize their impact on the economical health and social well being of their communities. Today, leaders at all levels and across sectors need to find ways to learn together, and to better support each other in solving what are absolutely critical community problems.

We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. We were thrilled at the opportunity to link our professional pursuits (public policy) with our personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months. The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.