Success often comes through helping others

TheStar.com – Opinion – Success often comes through helping others: It’s people who contribute to the lives of others who can be called model citizens
May 11, 2009.   Alan Broadbent, Chair of the Maytree Foundation

For more than 20 years, we’ve had an unbridled celebration of entrepreneurs, innovators and their success. We have made heroes of entrepreneurs and innovators, at least at the level of the public discourse.

We’ve portrayed them as the people who are going to shape and save our society. Think Horatio at the bridge or Mother Teresa. We attribute to them vision, courage, wisdom and general strength of character.

In the same vein, Canada has come under criticism over the years as being inhospitable to entrepreneurship – and there were some serious laments about our failures on that front, along with our failures to innovate and our lack of appetite for risk.

But at this point in the recession, our laggardly qualities seem to have served us rather well, in particular our historic insistence on public oversight of private ventures; our banking constraints that curtail cowboy capitalism; and our European-style preference for the public provision of societal staples like health care and education. It will be interesting to see, though, what effect all this will have on our fascination with entrepreneurship and innovation.

Increasingly, when I am talking with younger people (which, at my age, turns out to be most of the time), I hear them say they want to become entrepreneurs or social-entrepreneurs, and that they want to innovate. And they ask me what they should do.

What I tell them is usually the exact opposite of what they expect. In my experience, the successful entrepreneurs and innovators have been people who started out with more conventional intentions, like serving people with good products or services, and have been open to more powerful and effective ways of doing the work. It is the intense engagement in the work and perseverance that leads to success.

These people I refer to have been great achievers in their main field of activity, and they have all gone beyond that as well, by being engaged in many other ways. They sit on boards, talk at conferences or in classrooms, coach a community sports team or help mentor children and young professionals.

What they are doing in that regard is often characterized as “giving back.” You’ve heard that term, perhaps from the professional athlete who visits sick children in the hospital and says he just wants to “give back.” Or the successful business person who makes a big donation to a museum or school and explains it by saying it was a way of giving back.

I’m not fond of that term. It implies that there is a time to take away and a time to give back. Worse, it implies that the giving back is not only optional, it is dependent on achieving success in the first place, and in any case it is praiseworthy.

Some of the people I admire the most are the people who give throughout their lives; individuals who may never have much money, but who find a way to contribute to the lives of others as financial donors and community volunteers. These are the people I think of as model citizens, who work in order to earn money to look after themselves and their families, and perhaps even to make a lot of money, but who work in the community at the same time.

From an educational perspective, I am encouraged by business schools like George Brown College and its Institute of Entrepreneurship and Community Innovation, which have embraced these values and have made the well-being of the community a cornerstone of their entrepreneurship and small business management education.

In short, the institute, launched late last year, offers George Brown business students a chance to meet real-life and real-time business opportunities in the community by applying the business methods and economic skills they’ve acquired in the classroom. To date, these students have contributed more than 5,800 hours to their clients and have worked with a total of 14 community organizations.

This George Brown program and its students, and the increasing number of social entrepreneurs popping up throughout the country, are examples of enriched citizenship. They join the many Canadians who make working and contributing to their communities part of their everyday life, who are in effect “giving forward.”

Along with other Canadians from every walk of life, and from every background, members of the business community can engage every day, and look forward to that day when the giving of time, energy and love can be enhanced with money.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “If you cannot find yourself, begin your search by losing yourself in the service of others.”

My experience is that people who merely want to fill a title or a role will find long-term success in the world harder than those who keep their eyes on the work that needs to be done, and that success will breed satisfaction, if that work is done in the service of others. This is the promise of fully engaged citizenship, and this is our great opportunity in life.

Maytree is a private foundation that promotes equity and prosperity through leadership building.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *