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Three tips to stay people-centered amidst non-profit growth

Elizabeth Chikobe 27 September 2022

IDinsight’s Director of Global Operations, Beth Chikobe shares how her team remains people-focused during six years of growth from 60 to 250 team members

IDinsight All Africa call ©Hamza Zakraoui/IDinsight

I joined IDinsight in 2016 as the inaugural dedicated Global Operations team member. At that time, we were an org of 60 people. We had offices in India, Zambia, Kenya, and the US.

My first project was a big one: IDinsight was taking on its first big push towards organizational growth and the Global Operations team (now three people!) was responsible for recruiting 30 Associates. In previous years, we had hired no more than 10 Associates in one cohort. The entire organization was skeptical of whether or not it was actually possible to hire this many people at once.

My team and I took on this challenge full steam. It took a lot of hard work, but we hired 30+ incredibly passionate, intelligent, humble Associates to join IDinsight. One of those Associates is now IDinsight’s Chief of Staff; one leads our Data on Demand team in Africa; many others have gone on to the world’s most prestigious graduate schools and other high-impact organizations.

We learned a lot during this first big push towards growth, but there is one email exchange that stands out most prominently in my memory. It was after candidates had accepted our offers. We had patted ourselves on the back. We were checking off the final to-dos of the hiring drive. One of those to-dos was sending rejection emails to all the applicants who didn’t make the cut. I remember opening our Careers email account to find a striking response to one such email. It read something like this:

“Dear Faceless HR Robot,

I never want to work for an organization that addresses people as “Applicant”.

You work in the development space; be a bit more human.”

My first reaction was to write it off and assume the candidate was disappointed or frustrated they weren’t chosen for the role. But deep down my reaction was “ouch, [Applicant] is right”. I was the Faceless HR Robot. I was so intent on getting stuff done (“GSD”, for those in the know) that I missed a key moment to be human and to put other humans first. 

This email exchange became a core memory and helped inform thousands of decisions the Global Operations team would make over the next six years as IDinsight grew to 250+ team members, several more offices around the world, working with hundreds of partners to improve millions of lives. As we grew, we worked to remain focused on the key moments to be human and to put other humans first.

Here are three things we would share with you about putting people first as you scale:

1. Build systems that account for the mess and enable the best of your people

We have lofty organizational values and high expectations for the culture we want every IDinsighter to experience. But as James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits, “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” People can be messy, but with the right systems, they can be the very best thing about your organization. For example, if your goal is to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion of your team, build your talent acquisition, compensation, performance management, etc. systems to minimize the negative impact of the biases your people subconsciously but inevitably hold. When done well, systems can elevate people out of their mess and into their very best.

2. Whatever you think is implicit about your organizational values and culture, make it explicit

Early on, when IDinsight was small, it was easy for a couple sentences of theoretical principles to define our organizational values and culture. But as we grew in size, and especially as remote work increased, the room for interpretation grew; our values and culture diluted. We’re still on this journey, but it’s helped a lot to make more concrete the things that tend to be amorphous. For example, last year, our DEI Working Group led an exercise whereby we wrote down as many of IDinsight’s unwritten cultural norms as we could. At our upcoming Senior Leadership Summit, we will spend time translating our values into behaviors. Making the implicit explicit can help maintain the core traits of your organization as it grows.

3. Learn as much as you can from every growing pain

After that email exchange, we immediately set up a mail-merge system so we could send personalized emails to every person whom we don’t pursue in a given hiring drive. The more time someone spends in the hiring drive, the more feedback we share on why we decided not to move forward. We are not perfect and still learning, but we make a concerted effort to be human. Every growing pain is an opportunity to learn and improve, especially when it comes to putting people first.

For other operations professionals or senior leaders who are in the midst of, or planning for, rapid growth, we hope these strategies and lessons are valuable to you in your journey. We would also like to hear from you – what has worked to propel forward rapid growth? How do you work to maintain your culture and values? Answer below in the comments.