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Help Wanted: Dynamic Backbone Leader

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with two separate collective impact efforts to think through a critical question: what human capital is needed to lead backbone structures to drive collective impact forward? Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization with staff and a specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations and agencies (for more thinking on backbone structures, see: Searching for the Right Backbone Structure, Funders & Backbones: A messy, yet powerful relationship, and Collective Impact 2.0).

In the education space, these human capital conversations are nothing new—we’re used to talking about attracting and retaining pipelines of talent for teachers, leaders, and superintendents. But in the collective impact arena, this conversation is less common, and a number of efforts are grappling with how to find that right dynamic leader and how to structure their role appropriately. Based on some recent client work, I’d point to three key success factors for backbone leaders:

Skills over Content. More than knowing the nuanced insides and outs of an issue area, a successful backbone leader must possess existing relationships with, or an ability to build relationships with, a cross-sectoral range of system players who themselves are issue area experts. More than having a specific solution in mind for how to address Social Issue X, a successful backbone leader must have the ability to thrive in a fluid, unstructured, and often entrepreneurial environment. For example, for one effort we’re currently advising, the individual identified to lead the backbone structure has no background in the issue area at hand, but is respected by a broad number of stakeholders, brings past experience with high-level strategic thinking, and the ability to inspire confidence and passion in both internal and external audiences—a killer skillset for leading a collective impact initiative.

Orchestra Conductor. Maren Stewart, Executive Director of LiveWell Colorado, talks about the need to be the “orchestra conductor,” and not a “top-down boss telling people what to do.” As Maren has said to our FSG team before, “It’s not about the conductor coming in and throwing all the musicians out and starting from scratch. It’s about exploring the great talents that can be built upon, and identifying some gaps where we need other musicians to fill in.” This resonates in an effort we’re currently advising, where the backbone’s Project Director is charged with maintaining strategic coherence of the effort, but not with developing and implementing strategies herself.

Sufficient Authority. In another effort we’re advising, it’s been hugely important for the backbone lead staff to have enough authority to drive collective impact forward. Where does this authority come from? It can be formalized and institutional in nature (e.g., they are part of a very important organization or agency), or more informal and rooted around the relationships that have been developed, or both. Regardless, the effective backbone leader must feel comfortable pushing the thinking of senior-level folks at a range of partnering agencies and organizations, facilitating difficult conversations, and communicating with a range of stakeholders more broadly.

We’d love to hear from you—what are the critical success factors you’ve seen for a backbone leader to effectively drive a collective impact effort forward? Who are the most effective backbone leaders you’ve seen, and what is it about their work that makes them so effective?

Emily Malenfant

Former Chief Administrative Officer, FSG