Insights from “The Female Vision” for Fonkoze and Microfinance
Despite my busy fall schedule working as CEO for Grameen Foundation, the book on Fonkoze is advancing in exciting ways. I’ve written a draft of the first chapter and gotten helpful feedback from my writing guru Mark Levy. I’ve talked to Jessica Papin, the woman who is likely to be my agent, and she had some great feedback on the overall project.
One of Jessica’s recommendations is that for the book to have the best chance of success, Fonkoze needs to become better known prior to publication. So, she suggested that I first write a 10-15,000 word “long form article” for publication in something like Harpers or the New York Times magazine. (This could push back publication of the book by a year while giving me more time to do research next summer.) On first blush, I think this sequenced approach is a great idea and most of all, I like the energy and ideas she brings to the project. It’s exciting to see the team of people who believe in this book and are helping it succeed grow each and every month!
One of the most important and enjoyable parts of writing a book is reading other books whose content and/or approach is helpful. I recently finished The Female Vision by Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson after someone who read my earlier blog on Fonkoze as matriarchy. It helped clarify and sharpen my thinking on this dimension of the organization’s story. The basic theme of the book is that historically, organizations have evolved to emphasize and reward masculine workstyles and perspectives – not surprising since having women in the workforce in large numbers is a fairly recent phenomenon. The authors don’t say that male approaches are wrong, just that they are incomplete. The feminine style/perspective can complement it – but only if it is allowed to. Companies that leverage both, they argue, are going to succeed.
As relates to Fonkoze, and its culture rooted in strong female leadership, a couple of passages in the book stick out. In one, a woman who climbs the leadership ladder in the corporate world slowly loses her ability to use “female intuition” (i.e., the ability to focus broadly rather than narrowly and to digest verbal and non-verbal cues – especially about emotional states – alongside other stimuli much better than men typically do). The woman reflected on her time in the company and said, “After a couple of years on the job, my noticing capacity got stripped out of me. My ability to read verbal cues and discern context just seemed to dry up…. It took me years to get it back.”
I sense that part of what feels liberating to work as a woman in Fonkoze is not getting ones strengths “stripped out” and seeing one’s ability to contribute “dry up” as often happens in patriarchal (i.e., “normal”) organizations. (At the same time, I have been wondering how my own organization, Grameen Foundation, and others that I am associated with score on this spectrum, and on the experiences of women staff at all levels.)
Other portions of The Female Vision focus on the masculine tendency to emphasize (a) financial incentives for employees and (b) institutional growth. In one case, senior women resisted an executive’s frenetic drive to grow their company through painful acquisitions (which, in microfinance, is roughly the equivalent of adding the branches needed to double every year, year after year). “The women knew their company had to keep growing … but they viewed growth as a means to an end rather than an end in itself,” Helgesen and Johnson write. “Hearing growth itself described as a vision, a purpose, a dream, and a commitment raised for them the inevitable question: Growth in the service of what?”
I think that microfinance institutions in India and Morocco, almost all of which are led by men, would have been well served by asking these kinds of questions before they embarked on unsustainable and/or unplanned growth in recent years. (I am seeing a paper I wrote in 2006 urging MFIs to grow rapidly in a new light these days!) Anyway, Fonkoze has had its own debates about how fast it should grow. Adding clients to boost numbers and market share never took precedence over quality of service and impact considerations. (Though, in the eyes of some, it briefly did at the urging of an otherwise well-respected interim CFO who was, as it happens, a man.) If anything, the concern for doing right by its existing clients has led the organization to become somewhat overextended in terms of numerous pilots and a few large-scale programs that made it through the testing stage. (By the way, CFI‘s Beth Rhyne has written several excellent commentaries on this subject, including this one in the Huffington Post.)
Other books I am reading, mostly on the suggestion of Mark Levy, are The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff, Writing to Change the World by Mary Pipher, two books about liberation theology (which is critical to understanding certain aspects of Fonkoze and Father Joseph’s enduring fingerprints on it), a book about creative non-fiction technique, and Mark’s own Accidental Genius. The Courageous Follower is relevant because of the unique – and to me, still rather mysterious – way that the senior staff (again, mostly all women) relate to the de facto leader of the Fonkoze family, Anne Hastings. (They are dynamic and effective relationships, but for a non-Haitian man they are not easy to comprehend.)
By the way, there has been a late-breaking development in the careers of one of those followers with potentially major consequences for Fonkoze and Haiti. Stay tuned…