WEadership Practice #5: Add Unique Value

This post is the fifth in a series that began here summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership. Through that process, we identified six practices next-generation leaders use to be effective; a new model of leadership we call WEadership, in a nod to its collaborative nature.


What business are you in?

It's rarely as simple a question as it seems. Remember the vendors who thought they were in the ice business but were eclipsed by Frigidaire?

Workforce leaders in government agencies, nonprofit organizations or private-sector firms struggle with this question every day as they seek to grow jobs and build prosperity in their communities.

What does it mean to work on "jobs?"

Part of the reason the jobs agenda is so difficult to solve is that it’s not one problem. Most communities face some combination of the following:

  • Too few jobs (especially those offering health insurance and family-sustaining wages)
  • Skills gaps among applicants competing for good jobs that do exist and those in emerging industries
  • Young workers having difficulty making the leap from job to career (or from school to job)
  • Older experienced workers who cannot afford to retire or simply want to remain engaged but in different roles than they play today
  • Labor markets that lack transparency (e.g., applicants submit hundreds of resumes into "black holes")
  • Persistent poverty, especially among communities of color, which limits access to job opportunities and to the social networks that help people advance
  • Overcrowded and underfunded public schools and institutions of higher education struggle to cultivate the talents of all of their students
  • Ongoing economic shocks—not just unanticipated layoffs, but also natural and weather-related disasters of which there have been 83 in 2011 (a record high in any calendar year)

These challenges are not for the faint of heart, and cannot be solved by a single leader, organization or sector. But they are among the defining challenges of our day. And courageous leaders in public, private, non-profit, and civic sectors all over the country are quietly stepping forward to tackle them—increasingly, in partnership with one another.

How do effective leaders insure they are making a difference?

The 519 leaders who participated in our study—ranging from mayors and state legislators to nonprofit and corporate executives—offered the following lessons:

  1. Do work that matters. There are a plethora of strategies and approaches for cultivating prosperous families, firms, and communities. And yet, many struggle. If the status quo is not working, effective workforce leaders champion change. They actively seek to understand which problems matter most in their communities and focus on solutions that hold the greatest promise.
  2. Do work you do well or could learn to do well. There is much work to do, but effective workforce leaders are choosy. They resist the temptation to "do it all" and find ways to apply their individual and organizational strengths while leveraging the contributions of others.
  3. Measure what matters most (and share credit for success). Measuring the impact of community change efforts in complex and difficult, but effective leaders invest measurement systems that tell them something about impact, even if imperfectly and even if funders don't require it.

These leaders we engaged assess their assets relative to community needs not once, but over and over again. The specific value they bring changes with time and circumstances but their contributions remain special and significant.

Are you doing work that really matters? How do you know?

Photo © jjayo - Fotolia.com


Last Week: WEadership Practice #4: Encourage Experimentation

Next Week: WEadership Practice #6: Cultivate Next Generation Leaders

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. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their 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 (and them) at @WFLeadership, @kristinwolff, @kollerv.

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