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Passing the Torch

Over the past nearly two decades, the Skoll Foundation and its partners and community have navigated unexpected outcomes, new challenges, and major shifts in the landscape. With each upheaval, we learn, sometimes even how to anticipate the next one. But we always return to a set of core principles—find the right people; design in anticipation of adaptation; and always be mindful of what you know—and don’t—of all that others bring to the table.

Leadership changes, but those core principles remain a bedrock. The Skoll Foundation Board of Directors recently named Richard Fahey, Skoll Foundation Chief Operating Officer, to the role of Interim President. He brings impressive academic and professional qualifications including 14 years of executive leadership at the Skoll Foundation and an unparalleled knowledge of the Foundation’s strategy and operations. He has invested significant energy into directing the Foundation’s approach to measurement and evaluation, and is deeply engaged in strategic work with climate change social entrepreneurs and other innovators. Under Richard, our focus remains unchanged: to invest in, connect, and celebrate social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help them solve the world’s most pressing problems.

This audio selection exploring the next chapter of leadership features excerpts of Sally’s conversation with Richard Fahey, Skoll Foundation Chief Operating Officer.

Richard Fahey: Okay, so we’re kind of at this juncture that I don’t think either of us anticipated. I was geared up for somebody new to come in and lead the foundation. But it’s actually going to be me for some time.

And I have learned a lot about your leadership style. Usually when you make a decision or you’re anxious about something, there’s a direction you want to go. At least with me, you explain your thinking, your principles and what the end game is. So I’ve learned a lot from that and I feel a responsibility to continue that as much as I can.

Sally: We’ve worked together for 14 years, and our leadership has been a partnership. And I’ve learned as much from you as you have learned from me. And that partnership is based in fundamental values of service. It’s based in integrity, it’s based in a genuine feeling of humility in the face of just how large and complicated the problems that Jeff wants us to focus on truly are. And it’s based in tremendous respect for Jeff, for his vision and for his having—right from the beginning—put his resources and his reputation on the line to drive meaningful change in the world.

And your intellectual curiosity is a quality that I just prize. So I know that from time to time we’re reading the same book, but often we’re reading different books and we’re reflecting on, on history.

You bring your knowledge of economics and business. But that alignment between us and the complementarity of our experience sets, I think, has really forged a very, very powerful partnership.

And so I would like to share with you one of the philosophies I’ve had of leadership for a very long time. It’s very, very simple, but it’s that leaders learn to lead from their strengths. So I would encourage you to lead in your own way in acknowledgment of your strengths, and with full appreciation for everything you will bring to this role.

And I couldn’t be more honored to be passing the torch to a man who I know will lead this organization in all the right ways. So thank you for accepting that torch, which neither of us imagined. You have no idea how much comfort that brings me and how much confidence I have in your qualities, your abilities, your innate sense of what true leadership demands, and all you will bring to it.

Richard: Thank you. So a year from now, hopefully it will be sooner than that, the new CEO comes in. I have been leading the organization for a few months: What would success look like? What are the things that I should focus on?

Sally: You know, first of all, Richard, you and I both understand that the best of what comes from the foundation, comes from the people here—from their commitment, from their relationships, from their judgment and from their care. And yet, all of us need to know what the standard of excellence really is, and that “good enough” won’t cut it.

I think there’s always a risk in an organization like ours, which has a bias for inclusivity and for deep conversation and a deep ethic of mutual respect to compromise. Keeping that bar high, those standards of excellence and the space for really productive debate is absolutely critical. We are very nice people, so that is gonna be a challenge to manage that cultural bias for consensus.

I think that we get there every year with a great cohort of Skoll Awardees. But every year the stakes get higher because the problems are outstripping us, whether it’s climate change or integration, or the refugee crisis or the acidification of oceans, or feed security, or peace and security.  The problems are infinitely more complex that even 10 years ago. And that means we have to find new ways of sourcing truly excellent social entrepreneurs. I think it’s also true that some of the best opportunities, may be hybrids, maybe social business as well as not-for-profit models.

So, success for me looks like being able to point to three, four, five areas where headway is clear. And whether those are areas like girls education, the transition from a fossil fuel base to a renewables-based economy, whether it is seeing smallholder farmers gain in productivity and bootstrap themselves out of poverty. These are all areas that I think are are are making progress. And it’s up to us to be making really smart investments to help accelerate that process. Just as in the deforestation area or the sustainability of wild-caught seafood, there are real signals that that global ecosystem is shifting.

Richard: Is shifting.

Sally: And that there’s greater appreciation for the Foundation as an engine of change. That to me would be success.

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