Lessons from Leaders: Shamil Idriss, Chief Executive Officer at Search for Common Ground
In this episode of Lessons from Leaders, Lynne Gilliland sits down with Shamil Idriss, The CEO of Search for Common Ground. Shamil opens up about how his background influences his perspective of peacebuilding, and explains how/why peacebuilding organisations should take more of a collaborative approach to social change. He also discusses the common challenge peacebuilding organisations and NGOs face when creating and upholding a high standard of internal values and solutions to this issue.
Below is an abridged excerpt from the podcast, but you can watch the full interview here!
Lynne: I thought we could start out by you telling us about your background…you previously mentioned that you grew up across diving lines?
Shamil: My mother was born in Turkey, my father in Syria and I was born here in the United States. We would go back every summer to what was then sort of rural Turkey… A pretty poor part of the country…it’s now a small city…We were growing up in New Canaan, Connecticut and my parents did everything…like a lot of immigrant parents…to get my brother and I to the best education system possible. So, you gain in Connecticut as a very privileged, wealthy part of this country. We were the only Muslim family that I knew growing up in New Canaan but we had access to wonderful public education.
All of the going back and forth to Turkey…between very liberal, very conservative entirely non -Muslim, majority Muslim populations… As I developed really close relationships and respect for people across all those supposed dividing lines…It made it difficult for me to buy when folks thought…all the good was on one side, all the bad was on the other. And that’s just how I grew up.
Lynne: Do you bring that with you consciously in your work…or is it a part of you that you don’t know is there?
Shamil: I think it’s very much imbued. To be honest…it’s really only in retrospect that I connected those dots. At the time I just realized…there’s something about Swarthmore college’s culture that made me want to go there. Later I realized as a Quaker school you get exposed to conflict resolution and I got trained as a mediator and that culture is embedded within it. A lot of these values and insights I just grew up with. Starting from a point of respect for diversity, seeking to understand those that you most disagree with. It wasn’t a rational process…looking back…I think to some extent it was sort of baked then from the experiences that I was having from a young child all the way through to adulthood.…I just turned 47 last week and I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up…I’ve always had been, very fortunate to follow what’s the most exciting or interesting to me. And that’s led me down this path.
Lynne: What dynamics do you think impact the nonprofit sector?
Shamil: One, I think effects the internal management of nonprofits…and another really speaks to the external activism, the social change agenda and how it’s pursued. So, on the first one…I think there are many excellent managers and leaders across the nonprofit sector. The sector is chronically hamstrung in terms of attracting and retaining quality management, and challenged sometimes for a couple of reasons. One, which has gotten more attention in the last several years…is the impact that the donor culture has on nonprofits. What I would call this sort of arbitrary and wrongheaded focus on low overhead rates as somehow a marker of quality nonprofits is a way to ensure that you’re always under resourcing management systems.
The second thing that affects internal management…you’ll see a lot of nonprofits and we’ve had this too where people will be frustrated internally and say, we’re not living by our values. We’re not walking the talk. That’s a very consistent critique of a lot of nonprofit organizations. That’s sometimes the case, a peacebuilding organization like ours, maybe we don’t always do the best job of dealing with conflict internally or a climate change organization maybe doesn’t always have all the policies you would expect them to have, relative to protecting the environment.
We never really make the effort to explicitly articulate the values that we want to define our work culture…I think that happens because people will presume that the external mission of the organization should provide all of the principles and values that are relevant for working there. Certain values are absolutely embedded and in the mission as a peace building organization, clearly the dignity of every perspective, the dignity of every individual and therefore inclusion is a really important principle and value for our organization.… Similarly, collaboration…You have to get people collaborating across dividing line so you can posit certain values from any nonprofits mission…but that doesn’t say anything about how you intend to work internally…
Whether it’s the low overhead rates and what that does to securing and retaining good management or it’s the inattention to the internal values and the work culture that we want to create and being explicit about it…Organizations/Companies that do that well, they do hire and fire according that so they don’t just fire or withhold promotions for poor performance…You could have an excellent performer, but someone who’s doing it in a way that’s contrary to the organization’s values and that person’s got to go or they’ve got to change, you know? So those are all on the internal.
Lynne: That seems to be very difficult for a lot of nonprofits…Many people have a hard time keeping their eye on that ball.
Shamil: I think that people in the organization should feel like we’re all accountable to one another for living by those values. And that includes anyone in the organization being able to say, hold on a second, CEO or president or VP… we have this set of values.
The other side of it is largely about good or bad management…Being able to… remain disciplined and consistent and reliable in the feedback that you’re giving people in the way that you’re managing folks. And, and I’m not going to be pretend to be really good at this. …I think that it cuts both ways. Both our, managers walking the talk themselves, we articulated these values… creating an organizational culture where anyone can hold anyone accountable. Secondly… having strong management where… you have a reliable and consistent experience…We’re not there right now as our organization. Just because we’re very disparate, we’ve grown in a very decentralized way. And I think if you came into our organization in three different spots, I think you could have three very different experiences though some things are consistent.
Lynne: What are some of the insights or the learnings that you discovered when you realized you needed to focus on values and culture?
Shamil: Well we would be having an incredible breakthrough or achieve wonderful things…and yet still come across staff, including really committed staff who were dissatisfied or felt…this very specific critique of we’re not walking the talk…I’m looking at our own case. I felt like…we haven’t done that sufficiently at Search for Common Ground. We’re going through this process now. And I think turning that kind of process into something well beyond a value statement that sits on people’s walls is really where I started looking into how some nonprofits and corporations do become quite obsessive about their values…
There are rituals of celebration that are specifically tied to the values…When decisions are made, they are a genuine justification. …I’ve been very mission driven in my life and I kind of never thought about it…to me all the values that are imbued in peacebuilding as a mission to devote your life to that seemed to me to be everything that you needed. But actually, I don’t think it is and I don’t think it is for most nonprofits. I think you could be a peacebuilding organization that runs in incredibly different ways that has very different work cultures…I am not saying the values related to the external mission are irrelevant…but what I am saying is the mission statement often times are not explicit enough about what the internal work culture is…I would rather come across an organization that was really explicit that these are the values here. You know what you’re signing up for when you come in and you can be assured that’s the way this place is going to function according to those values.
Lynne: I think that’s very important, you’ve … added to my thinking. I want to hear what you learned through this process…deciding what the values are… and then making it part of the air that you breathe?
Shamil: It’s a combination of articulating what you want them to be and enabling them to surface… every organization already has a culture. It’s just combination of…what do we want the values of this organization to be and sussing out from the global team what draws our best people and keeps them here.
The first real big thing that I’m seeing in the nonprofit sector generally… is an over-reliance on an adversarial approach to drive social change that I think too often yields temporary victories in an interconnected world, erodes relations and trust…and creates more polarization… I think there’s something incredibly powerful about a collaborative approach that really aligns your means and your end…To do whatever you can to build trust, respect, and collaboration across those stakeholder groups to tackle the issue together. To frame it in a way that everyone feels welcome… And this sounds theoretical, but I…this goes to the core of what Search for Common Ground does around the world…If you look at efforts to drive social change, it’s so often paints a whole lot of people as being beyond the pale or not worthy of the dignity and respect that I would say they are. And in a way it’s a lot easier to mobilize people that way by painting an enemy that we’re going to go after and combat…. It’s very hard to create a collaborative, just, society through adversarial means…We gave Archbishop Tutu a Common Ground award many years ago and, in his speech, he said you need to see your adversaries as friends waiting to be made…
We are 100% committed to the collaborative, Common Ground approach. I think what we do feel very strongly about and I personally feel very strongly about the notion that this approach is somehow weak or less principled or frankly even less effective than an adversarial approach, I think is exactly wrong…As the world gets more interconnected and these problems become more interdependent whether we like it or not, the more the truth of that is going to bare out for people.
Lynne: How do you think we misunderstand what peace building organizations are?
Shamil: This is not a bureaucratized field, nor should it be…I think what I find is, is that people don’t think of peace-building as a field, right? They tend to have very outdated notions that peacebuilding is about holding hands and singing songs…and that is such mis-categorization of how much peacebuilding and citizen lead peacebuilding had evolved over the last 40 years… It’s a much better and developed approach to driving social change which more and more leaders at all levels of society are looking for…
There are three elements to our approach that we would like to see mainstreamed much more:
Firstly, our analytical perspective… We look for hope… The best way to change behaviors is to identify, celebrate, incentivize every step, even the most incremental step for the desired behavior.
The second step that we’d like to see a lot more of is really support for local peace building. All of our teams, both our staff and the consultation of partners that we work with, I would call them transformative teams. A transformative team is local.
The third element is, is that all of the cooperation that those local teams are really trying to drive across dividing lines is not intended just to resolve a specific dispute or solve a specific problem, but you’re really driving systemic change in how communities deal with difference…
So those are the three elements of peacebuilding approaches that we don’t think are well understood and not universally practiced… Starting from a place of hope, identifying and supporting local peacebuilders that represent the dividing lines and working with them to drive really systemic change, not just resolve specific disputes.