A New Kind of Worker for the Impact Economy

By: Jess Sand | December 3, 2012

Some call them competencies. MBAs call them skill sets. Fast Company named an entire generation after those who've reinvented them (Generation Flux). But it boils down to this: our economy is shifting dramatically, and the modern worker must adapt.

The growing impact sector is no small contributor to these economic changes. According to R. Paul Herman of HIP Investor, from 2002 to 2011, the impact economy (which includes private sector jobs in certain areas of health care, education, social assistance services, environmental waste remediation, and other industries) have grown by 21% while total private industry jobs...have fallen by -3.7%.

To succeed in this impact economy, we'll need to rethink how we as workers approach the business of work. Based on recent trends and conversations with our own members who are adapting to this world, here are three critical competencies you may need:

Multilingualism

Are you as comfortable diving into the financial ROI of a new sustainability effort with your company's CFO as you are describing its mass appeal to the blogger who just found your cell phone number? How easy is it for you to distill your social venture start-up's Fair Trade supply chain strategy into a 30-second elevator pitch to a potential investor - or a 140 character tweet, for that matter?

And how confident are you that the new software-as-a-service product you just spend nine months developing will resonate with the emerging markets you're targeting in multiple countries, and even continents?

Those who are comfortable communicating with people not only from different cultures but also different functional roles, and across different platforms, will find themselves in high demand, as organizations seek out multilingual leaders.

Cultivating multilingualism often requires stepping outside your comfort zone. One of my most helpful courses was a financial statement analysis class, explains Mitsubishi's Joe Reganato in Corporate Careers That Make a Difference, because it gave me a way of communicating with business units that other communications professionals do not typically have.

Elasticity

In his series on Generation Flux, Robert Safian describes the new world this talent must work within: The business climate, it turns out, is a lot like the weather. And we've entered a next-two-hours era. The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating - fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies - and our visibility about the future is declining. Yet many organizations cling to old models, creating friction. The vast bulk of our institutions - educational, corporate, political - are not built for flux, writes Safian. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.

Elasticity is not, however, the ability to change course every time the business environment shifts. Mastering elasticity is about nurturing the ability to respond and react to new situations while consistently returning to one's central vision. In Net Impact's Corporate Careers That Make a Difference, profilees describe the challenge of creating change against a background of organizational inertia. It's hard for any company that's been around for a while, that has existing philosophies and cultures, to change overnight, says Rob Kaplan of Walmart.

But it's critical, regardless of what field one is in. One import skill I look for when recruiting new talent is flexibility, Fast Company Social Media Editor Anjali Mullany wrote in a recent online exchange, the ability to apply their existing skill set toward different approaches in strategy and toward different goals without losing their sense of purpose or vision.

Empathy

The impact economy is being shaped by nontraditional business models, from the profitable health care company that gives away 70% of its services to the rise of the B Corp structure. Within these new models, the shareholder's mindset alone can't ensure the sustained longevity of a company, nor can public sector organizations get by on holdover assumptions about how best to serve constituents. Instead, organizations are quickly recognizing the need for a more inclusive and explorative stakeholder approach. A stakeholder approach acknowledges the intertwined nature of economic, political, social, and ethical issues, writes R. Edward Freeman, S. Ramakrishna Velamuri, and Brian Moriarty in Company Stakeholder Responsibility: A New Approach to CSR.

This expanded framework of stakeholders means that individuals - managers, executives, entrepreneurs, employees - must learn to approach social, environmental, and business problems from perspectives not one's own. People discover unseen opportunities when they have a personal and empathic connection with the world around them, writes Dev Patnaik in Wired to Care. For individuals, that means developing the ability to walk in other people's shoes. For companies and other large institutions, that means finding a way to bring the rest of the world inside their walls.

This doesn't always come easy, particularly for those who may have been trained that business problems have logical, linear, or otherwise rational solutions. It requires willing exposure to new (and sometimes challenging) worldviews, experiences, and limitations. But those who do their work with empathy discover new solutions - for their organizations, and even for themselves.

It was empathy that led former Wall Street analyst Haydee Moreno onto a new career path while enrolled at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. I was helping execute this idea around health and financial services, she says. The audience was largely Latino immigrant families. These were people who were struggling, who looked and sounded like my own family. And I had this crazy epiphany - that everything I'd done so far had positioned me to serve Latino families through financial services. After earning her MBA, she helped launch Micro Branch, a credit union division dedicated to the immigrant community, where she continues to develop new products and services based on her customers' unique needs and concerns.

Elasticity, multilingualism, and empathy aren't silver bullets that guarantee effective impact. Inextricably linked to each other, they require practice. And with practice comes failure: we're not likely to always be empathetic, particularly when we're pressured to conform to traditional ways of being and thinking. But the more we integrate these approaches into our day jobs, the more effective we'll be as the impact economy continues to drive change across industries and sectors.

Jess Sand