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Building, Brick by Brick

Since early 2000s, I have spent a long weekend on the Jersey Shore every six months. Part of my ritual during those visits is to jog north starting in South Belmar (now Lake Como), NJ for several days in a row.  My path is along the ocean, which makes it pleasant (if sometimes rather windy).  The end of my five mile outbound path is the first section of the Asbury Park boardwalk.

Asbur Park, NJ Boardwalk, in the late 1990s

Asbur Park, NJ Boardwalk, in the late 1990s

When I began these runs, Asbury Park was far removed its glory days in the 1940s.  Most of the storefronts and former event halls were boarded up.  Almost pathetically, people had painted images of thriving restaurants and stores on the walls of the closed stores that faced the boardwalk.

But by the mid-2000s, I noticed that little by little, there were improvements and upgrades noticeable with each passing semi-annual visit.  At first they were almost imperceptible.  I remember thinking – perhaps heresy for a liberal – that these were evidence of some half-baked urban redevelopment scheme that had already bogged down and would ultimately amount to nothing.

From the late 2000s onwards, it was clear that my pessimism was off base.  Asbury Park was coming back.  Some said it was because the gay community flocked there and built up quality housing and the ecosystem of stores, restaurants and nightclubs that usually follow.  In any case, by the time I jogged on the boardwalk yesterday and earlier today, it was obvious that Asbury Park was booming.

The Boardwalk today

The Boardwalk today

I have noticed that the step-by-step incremental gains that turned Asbury Park from an urban wasteland to a trendy hotspot mirror the arc of building great humanitarian institutions and social enterprises.  There are few if any short cuts.

Organizations like Grameen Bank and Fonkoze are built over years, even decades – solid product by solid product, good hire by good hire.  Certainly when great products and great talent come along it accelerates things, but those quantum leaps often create problems even as they solve others.  (Jealousy in its various forms is often one of them.)

When I look at Fonkoze’s many accomplishments, solid foundation, industry-changing innovations, and resilient nature  — particularly in light of my insight about Asbury Park’s revival — I think not so much about any single person, reorganization, value, product, partner or financing, but about the relentless commitment of key leaders to build a better organization, brick by brick.

The gutsy and tireless response to the 2010 earthquake was in many ways Fonkoze’s finest hour.  But perhaps that focus shifted the organization’s orientation a bit, from building a great institution to surviving, one quarter to the next.  When it was able to break out of this survival mentality for short periods in the post-earthquake period, the focus was on taking big risks – perhaps with the idea that if they paid off, they could make up for lost time in that maddeningly slow process of incrementally building a great institution.  While some of those risks worked out, they were essentially negated by those that did not.

The leadership transition in 2013 was probably an inevitable, and healthy, part of moving the organization back to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” process of making Fonkoze at least a little bit better, month by month by month.  That shift is paying increasingly visible results, while much remains to be done.

One risk that I have noticed in organizations that are in that relentless slog to build a great institution is that the focus on the next great innovation or recruit can create a sense of alienation among people who have been involved since the early days.  Without a conscious effort by leadership, these long-serving loyalists can feel taken for granted.  As a result, they can become defensive, hostile to change (and change agents), and even complacent.

Managing this dynamic is, I believe, one of the great challenges leaders face.

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