Large companies have an insatiable appetite for innovation. In the more than 20 years I spent living and working in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen companies across all vertical sectors come to the area to understand how they can drive innovation in their own organizations. They ask questions like, “How do we set up the right culture, make the right hires, or create the right incentives? Should we create an accelerator, or start a innovation lab?” Many were willing to try anything to boost their innovation capability.

One technique gaining in popularity is that of large enterprises leveraging social entrepreneurship to drive innovation. It’s important to note that while every large company wants to ramp up its innovation, a small percentage of leaders in such companies are concerned about the level of corporate social impact they deliver. Innovation tends to be a company-wide issue—especially in the senior ranks—whereas corporate responsibility tends to be confined to a small number of people within an organization. That is simply today’s reality.

Still, a small but growing cross-section of business leaders are genuinely interested to learn how they can drive more impact via their work. Yet they frequently don’t know how, or they have the mistaken assumption that it’s only achieved through corporate philanthropy or at the expense of profits and business goals.

Enter social enterprise startups

The flavor of social entrepreneurship I am referring to is that of “for profit” social entrepreneurship: for-profit startups with less than 100 employees that are equally focused on two goals—a social (or environmental) mission and making money to continue to fulfill that mission. There are hundreds upon hundreds of such companies—and they embody a special kind of innovation. They have all the DNA that traditional startup companies possess, but they apply that innovation toward social or environmental challenges. This is why there are unique lessons to be learned from them.

Interestingly, what startup social enterprises often need is the ability to scale their businesses—which is what the larger enterprises understand in spades, with their vast institutional and market knowledge, resources (both financial and human capital), and connections.

On the other hand, larger enterprises need innovative approaches to attract talent (especially millennial talent), creative ways of developing products, and insights into new trends surrounding how technology is leveraged in the workplace.

The large enterprises need innovation and are long on scalability, while the startups need scalability and are long on innovation. But what if the two could be combined?

The leader exchange as a “win-win”

That is what my company, One World Training and Investments, as well as others such as Village Cap Communities and Unchartered, realized. At One World, we created a customized training experience called a Leader Exchange. The basis of the idea is that both large company leaders as well as startup CEOs have something important to learn from each other. The program typically lasts for one or two days and provides practical knowledge-sharing between the host company and a cadre of leaders, as well as one or more social entrepreneurs who are invited into the program. Participants have the ability to share what they are doing, receive feedback, and provide practical suggestions to the other company leaders.

We design the exchange with the following in mind:

Leaders learn best from other leaders: There is instant credibility when a GM or senior leader is connecting with another leader. They share the challenge of hitting their numbers or crafting and implementing strategy. Often consultants and academics, who can bring helpful frameworks to a discussion, lack that relevant experience. For deep learning to occur, participants must feel they are among peers and have something practical to gain from the experience. Additionally, they must understand they are there to give as well, and help others with the knowledge they bring to the table.

Real business challenges present opportunities for knowledge-sharing: It is important that all participants in the Leader Exchange discuss real, current business challenges—not theoretical case studies. This shouldn’t be an opportunity to brainstorm on potential projects that don’t have funding or priority status. Is the concern of these leaders to drive innovation, grow revenues, or cut costs? Based on which business challenges the enterprise leaders are facing, social entrepreneurs with the relevant background are curated to join the Leader Exchange.

Hands-on learning breeds success: We enable the participants to get their hands dirty and immediately jump into an advisor role. This is achieved with intelligent preparation through finding the right entrepreneurs to join and preparing them to answer the challenges of the enterprise leaders.

Leader exchanges in action: A case study

Working with a group of senior leaders in a large pharmaceutical company keen to ramp up their innovative approaches to work, One World designed a Leader Exchange that brought in three social entrepreneurs working in the same industry. Each of the entrepreneurs were carefully chosen based on their focus and well prepared to speak to the mutual challenges of the broader set of attendees. We allowed them to work in smaller groups comprised of enterprise leaders and social entrepreneurs and receive one-on-one coaching and advising in some cases.

The knowledge flowed both ways: The enterprise leaders experienced firsthand the approach that the entrepreneurs leverage in their work to drive innovation, while the entrepreneurs gained a ton of wisdom from later-stage professionals sharing how they scale businesses.

What was the impact? “The executives obtained a new sense of perspective in interactions with the social entrepreneurs,” said Maarten Asser, our program facilitator, who works with executive leadership teams in many global organizations. “[This] sets them up for clearer guidance on principles of authenticity, adaptability, and resilience—all crucial in tomorrow’s leadership toolset.”

Scaling leader exchanges

In our experience, there are four key elements to making these programs a success:

Executive sponsorship: The host company needs to appoint a senior leader—ideally in a line of business or executive function—as a sponsor. Even if a supporting function such as HR or leadership development is designing the leader exchange, it is critical to have an executive who will ensure the exchange is properly designed, attended, and resourced.

Professional Design: There are many design elements that go into making the leader exchange a success, such as the overall agenda, the length, the size of attendees, and the type of social entrepreneurs to include. This is a good place to bring in a professional who has worked in program design.

Preparation: In particular, it is critical to prepare the attendees on the objectives of the session, provide them with pre-read materials, and have one-on-one conversations with them to ensure they are bringing their best to the program.

Flexibility: You never know exactly what will unfold when you get a bunch of eager business leaders together. It is quite possible they’ll “hack” the program and find a higher value set of conversations. This can be good, which is why you shouldn’t stick to the agenda just for the sake of it. In one example, leaders from different companies started to map out ways of creating new business opportunities and, after huddling, we determined this was still in service of the learning goals and let it unfold.

These type of creative interactions between large companies and social entrepreneurs will also be showcased at One World’s Innovations in Corporate Social Impact Program on Nov. 29 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In summary

Large enterprises have a tremendous opportunity to increase their social impact—and do so in a way that is in concert with their pursuit of financial goals. Given the urgency with which the world needs to act and find solutions to pressing problems, and the fact that there are highly innovative ways for organizations large and small to do something different, the time is now for these ideas and solutions to reach larger companies, across all industries. Creating a space for leaders to learn from one another is a small but powerful way to make it happen.

Scott Saslow

Scott Saslow is the Founder and CEO of ONE WORLD Training & Investments, a for-profit public benefit corporation based in Palo Alto, CA that provides training and investment capital to social impact companies in The San Francisco Bay Area. Since its founding, ONE WORLD has provided training programs to over 1,000 professionals including company CEOs, impact investors, and leaders in large enterprises across all industries.

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