An Interview with Misha Charles, Organizational Effectiveness and Impact, Education Sector
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Misha Charles, Organizational Effectiveness and Impact, Education Sector
Twitter I Instagram: @wildsplendidlife
Builder. Problem-solver. Learner.
Tell me about your current role?
Most recently, I was with a national network of business-led education reform advocacy organizations. We fought for policies that are good for students—pre-Kindergarten through 12th and higher education—and therefore, also good for business. My role was to help the organizations in our network do their work better. I designed and connected them to essential resources and professional services, like training and development for staff members, support with aligning policy with culture and values, board governance best practices, and strategy and operations advising. (Misha Charles pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
I’ve been in the education space—social, commercial, and public sectors—my entire career. The biggest highlights of my career have been moments of inflection in expertise and experience—periods when my professional growth has accelerated over a short span of time. Early on in my career, I worked for a 100-year-old international nonprofit organization doing education work in Africa and the Americas. I partnered with the CEO and board in envisioning the organization’s next 100 years, led implementation of the strategic plan, drove operational improvements on the governing board, and managed a full rebranding.
And, during an unexpected and extended leave of absence by the CEO, I led the organization, keeping the trains running on time, putting out a few fires, and managing its diverse 14-person staff. I was 27 years old, and the experience was heady, humbling, and career-changing. And I wanted more: to understand organizations and what makes them tick, to make them better. That was probably the most defining experience of my career.
From there, I pursued a lifelong dream to work alongside an African American woman college president (very specific, I know) who was transforming a higher education institution. I hunted all over the East Coast for “my president” and found her in Keene, New Hampshire, of all places! I joined her team as a special assistant and chief government relations officer, and was even a registered lobbyist for a hot second. Again, it was one of those experiences where I learned an awful lot: about the work I do, about organizations, and also about myself.
I still return to lessons learned, conversations had, and feedback received during those two experiences. They were foundational.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I like a challenge that can be solved! How about that? I’m a problem solver, and typically, approach my work as a consultant, identifying and understanding the problem and partnering on a solution. If it can’t be fixed and made better, I’m not much interested. I think of my past work experiences in terms of the problems I solved, relationships strengthened, systems stood up, rather than the day-to-day routines and responsibilities I upheld.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
A few years ago, I read a short story by Isaac Asimov called Profession. At the time, I was spending weekends on the beach (I was living in Miami at the time) contemplating law school and doctoral programs. I desperately wanted a profession: to call myself a lawyer, an organizational psychologist, a historian, a professor, etc. Profession is about a future society—this crazy dystopia—where people are educated from childhood by computers. Through this education, called “taping,” people receive all of the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue a profession chosen for them based on an analysis of their brain.
Once they’ve completed taping, they compete to be “bought,” or hired, by an outer world. Those individuals who are not bought are considered failures and remain behind on Earth. And a small minority of those deemed failures are determined to be creatives with the capacity for original thought—some with the will to express their originality and others without. It was eye-opening and cooled my fervor for a profession. It was a turning point for me in terms of thinking about my life and my career as a space for creativity and less a space for following the program and leading through a credential.
The second is a book that I’m currently reading: The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. As someone fascinated by how organizations work, I’m drawn to its simple roadmap for designing, testing, and refining new ideas.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I discovered mountains in New Hampshire. A French-Canadian colleague, Cheryl, introduced me to contra-dancing, whole hog roasts in the woods, and Mt. Monadnock. I hiked Mt. Monadnock as often as I could. And a couple of years later, after relocating to Miami, I visited Glacier National Park in Montana for my birthday and found my happy place. Fast forward an additional two years, and I had relocated again, to Colorado, and took a ten-month-long career sabbatical during which I hiked mountain trails and discovered a new way of caring for myself through connection with nature.
The mountains carried me through the reflective exercise that is sabbatical and have remained a driving force for me. When I returned to work, I vowed never to forget the mountains and I haven’t. Nearly every Saturday, I’m on a trail, recharging and feeding my soul. And, recently, I was named one of two Colorado co-leaders for Outdoor Afro, a national organization dedicated to strengthening black connections and leadership in the outdoors. Through Outdoor Afro, I’m able to share the restorative power of nature with others.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become better self-advocates?
Speak, leap, make a mistake. Stop overthinking, trust your judgment, stop looking for validation, go! Your education, work, and life experiences qualify you to trust your gut sometimes. Looking back on my own career, I wish that I’d trusted my gut a bit more and dispensed with the need to research this, to examine that, and to talk to seven different people before I made a decision or said something. It resulted in a lot of indecisiveness.
As aspiring leaders, we—black women—can be incredibly planful and pragmatic. This can be a strength, but it can also cause us to miss opportunities. Just go for it!
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. The single greatest thing that the social sector can do to lift up black women is to acknowledge—for the sake of the work, not for the sake of black women—that the success of mission-based organizations hinges upon the leadership of people of color, women, and marginalized communities. In other words, we will fail without their insight, guidance, and buy-in. We must be at the leadership table.
I think the social sector’s greatest shortcoming is the absence of an accountability mechanism, a means for ensuring real, measurable impact. With few exceptions, volunteer governing boards have proven themselves ill-equipped for the job; they lack knowledge, capacity, proximity to the mission, and in some cases, the will to truly exercise oversight (e.g. holding a CEO accountable). Unlike the commercial sector, which ultimately, answers to consumers who purchase their products and services (or not), the nonprofit business model has as its primary buying customer philanthropists who often have no interaction with the product. The feedback loop, the market, is broken. The end-users don’t or are unable to vote with their wallets and have little say as to whether the product is effective, needed, or wanted.
I think one way to get around this is to build into the leadership structures of social organizations greater diversity, such that they better reflect the market being served. There need to be more women, more people of color, more LGBTQ people, more people with first-hand experience of poverty, hunger, and disability in CEO and board roles. And in philanthropic roles, too. These individuals already exist as leaders; many of them are black women. Let’s find, elevate, and support them. It’s mission-critical, essential, not a matter of feel-good optics or altruism. If we’re to approach our work seriously, solve the kinds of problems we’re trying to tackle, we need to reconnect nonprofits to their true market, to the people and communities who know and use their services. And this needs to be done across the highest levels of the organization.