Guest Articles

September 17

Kimberly Bardy Langsam

‘You Hired me as a Ballerina and Now Want Me to be a Basketball Player’: Hard Truths About Evolving Talent at Scale

Does your talent strategy look the same as it did a few years ago – or even one year ago? (Hint: It shouldn’t!) As organizations strive to achieve impact at scale, their talent strategies and infrastructure to support that talent must evolve to enable and drive that effort.

The Scaling Pathways series takes an in-depth look at best practices for addressing challenges and leveraging opportunities as social ventures seek to drive impact at scale. And talent is one of these key areas that presents unique challenges and opportunities during scale. As an enterprise grows the pace of change can be intense, so its talent strategy must also evolve rapidly to fuel the journey. Scaling Pathways recently released a report, People Matter: Evolving Talent to Drive Impact at Scale, that explores how different social enterprises are addressing these challenges. The examples below highlight some of the top insights these entrepreneurs shared.


Move from Intuition to Rigor

“Organizations tend not to think rigorously enough about talent. You think you know it, but you don’t; you often do things by feel rather than by a process of rigor. This can be OK in early stages, but as you’re growing you need to put in more discipline—and that usually happens too late.”

-Ken Himmelman, formerly of Health Leads and Partners in Health


In the early stages of an organization’s development, leaders often rely on their own networks and intuition to make hiring decisions. They “hire fast” — and are often rewarded by funders for moving quickly. But fast hiring can also lead to lack of investment in identifying and developing local staff, overlooking diversity and equity, and enduring expensive mis-hires. The social enterprise leaders we interviewed encouraged others to avoid these mistakes — which only become exacerbated at scale — by formalizing recruitment and hiring processes as early as possible, and “hiring slow” for key positions.


Actively Navigate Talent through Strategic Shifts

“During one of our strategic shifts, a staff member said, ‘You hired me as a ballerina and now want me to become a basketball player.’”

 –Alexandra Quinn, CEO of Health Leads


If social ventures are staying true to mission and embracing what they are learning along the way, they will no doubt make a series of strategic shifts and pivots throughout their journeys. But what happens when your staff is well-positioned for one strategy, but not the next? Health Leads shared its experience navigating these changes, where some staff are able to make the shift — but others cannot because they lack the new skills and experience required, and/or struggle with the emotional toll of shifting away from a model in which they are deeply invested. To address these challenges, Health Leads works hard to ensure that staff are actively managed through transitions, offering them many conversations, clear communications and mentoring. For those who are not able to make the transition, the organization endeavors to create a positive and dignified exit.


Rethink Your ‘People Function’

“Is your ‘people function’ — some call it HR — a side function where managers dump performance problems? If so, then it becomes about compliance. You need to ensure that your people function is also embedded in the priorities of your leadership team, so that senior managers feel as accountable for people as they do for strategy and execution.”

-Maryana Iskander, CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator


Recognizing the importance of talent, and the many dimensions you must manage to keep your people motivated and performing at a high level, many organizations are rethinking the way they’ve traditionally run HR. Organizations are recognizing that people considerations do not belong in a silo, but should be integrated throughout every part of the organization. Iskander shared her belief that senior leadership should be spending approximately 80% of its time on defining culture and developing and supporting staff, because it ultimately drives every other performance metric in the organization (from strategy and partnerships to operational success and delivery). Sharmi Surianarain, Solutions Design Lead for Harambee, attested to the importance of integrating a focus on people throughout all aspects of the organization, noting, “The minute HR is seen as a separate function, it loses its dialogue with business.”


Reframe the Role of Volunteers

“Within CAMFED we are challenged with the term ‘volunteer.’ The individuals we work with are stakeholders within the process and impact they want to see in their own communities. They are shareholders within that process.”

-Lucy Lake, CEO, CAMFED


Many social enterprises rely upon individuals who are not compensated monetarily by the organization—often called volunteers—to contribute regularly to a particular program or initiative. Sometimes, achieving impact at scale is contingent upon expanding the number and/or scope of these individuals. For CAMFED, alumni of its program fill key programmatic roles without salary compensation; as alumni, they are motivated to give back to their communities and are effective in driving programs, given their own experiences. CAMFED provides ongoing learning, networking and professional development opportunities for these women — which not only aligns with CAMFED’s mission, but also helps to empower and retain these shareholders, as CAMFED calls them. People Matter provides examples of how organizations like CAMFED and Crisis Text Line identify these individuals, empower them, and maintain high levels of engagement.


Leverage Partners to Drive Scale

“We see our role as creating the tent, setting the table, and empowering others as a way to leverage skills and talent that we ourselves do not need to pay for.”

-Gary Cohen, President and Founder of Health Care Without Harm


In addition to engaging volunteers, some organizations find that they can achieve impact at scale most efficiently (and sustainably) if they engage organizational partners to share in the work. These partners must have an aligned agenda, and the tasks they perform must fall within the defined scope of their usual work — but they are often the ones who can really institutionalize a solution. Health Care Without Harm, which works with hospital and health care system partners to implement environmental sustainability changes, created a formal network, Practice Greenhealth, to best leverage this resource.  The organization continues to find ways to engage other partners whose interests align with its agenda, such as manufacturers and suppliers, while keeping its own staffing footprint small.


Evolve and Cultivate Culture at Every Stage

“Don’t compromise culture in pursuit of technical expertise. It can create short-term productivity wins but at too high a price of loss of trust and collaboration. We learned that it is better to hire slowly — to take the time to get to know candidates and make sure they bring a servant leader mindset with the needed skills.”

Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International


What are the values of your organization, and how are those woven into your hiring, onboarding and day-to-day work? Several organizations shared with us the challenge of maintaining a strong organizational culture as they scale, since scale often means bringing in new skillsets, enabling others to do something you once did yourself, and no longer being able to get everyone together in the same room. At Habitat for Humanity International, Reckford realized that the technical expertise of a candidate was only one of many important dimensions in building a strong team, and that alignment on organizational values was critical to success.

For more in-depth strategies, tactics and advice on evolving your talent to drive impact at scale, see People Matter from Scaling Pathways.


People Matter is part of the Scaling Pathways series, a partnership between the Skoll Foundation, USAID, Mercy Corps Ventures and CASE at Duke to curate and share scaling insights from the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.


Kimberly Langsam is Senior Program Director at the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University.

Photo courtesy of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator.




Social Enterprise
business development, research, scale, social enterprise