Q & A with Tai Sunnanon: The Innovative Leader Driving the June 27 Workshop for Nonprofit Leaders

On Wednesday, June 27, SurfMedia Communications will present Adaptive Leadership in a Changing Landscape, our first workshop for local nonprofit leaders. The event will be hosted by Marybeth Carty and facilitated by international speaker, trainer and author Tai Sunnanon.

Tai Sunnanon is CEO of the strategic insights group and acclaimed expert in social responsibility, entrepreneurship and adaptive leadership. He is the founder of three nonprofits in the education and health sectors. Tai holds a BA from UCLA, and completed his doctoral coursework at Harvard University, where he also earned his MPP and EdM degrees. He speaks seven languages, served in the Peace Corps and received the Presidential Award for his community leadership.

We asked Tai a few questions to help introduce him to the local community, provide some actionable tips on nonprofit leadership, and give attendees an idea of what to expect at the June 27 workshop.

 

What inspired you to pursue this career path of leadership training?

I started my first nonprofit 22 years ago and had many challenges at that time. From there, I ended up launching another five companies, both for-profit and nonprofit. What I learned from that was that many of the challenges and failures (and there were plenty!) I faced as a practitioner in nonprofit leadership, a lot of other organizations were facing. Coupled with five years as instructor at Harvard University, teaching leadership and social entrepreneurship programs, I got additional tools to help name some of the challenges that nonprofit leaders – and CEOs in general – were facing. When I left Harvard in 2012 I married the two, being a practitioner and an academic; that’s when I realized I could create a strategy firm in Los Angeles and have something much more robust to offer because the research backs the practice, and vice versa.

 

Of the nonprofits you founded and other initiatives, what has been the most meaningful to you?

They all have been meaningful because while each one was in a different sector, each one with a different team, and each in a different geographic location, across the board we’re all trying to reach the same conclusion, which is measurable, social impact. One was in education, one was in health, and another was in literacy. And the great thing about that is at the end of the day, we were able to measure and show the public the impact that we were making on behalf of either the youth, or the community that we were serving.

 

What can you tell us about your company the strategic insights group?

We are the premier mission-driven strategy firm in Los Angeles. We are also a nonprofit consulting firm, which puts us in a unique place to be able to deliver high quality, high-impact resources, consulting, and leadership development to our clientele. the strategic insights group wants to have large-scale impact. The way we’re doing that is working with Executive Directors, Boards, and leaders within the industry to be able to impact both their thinking and their behaviors, and as a result, the entire social sector, so that we can have that ripple effect that we believe is part of our logic model for social change.

 

Who has been your most influential role model?

One of my mentors is Mohammed Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Bangladesh. I understand he has spoken in Santa Barbara before. He started the Grameen Bank over 30 years ago with the intent of providing microloans to women in rural villages in Bangladesh. And the concept of the microloan is that an impoverished female villager would be able to start her own enterprise and work her way out of poverty. Mohammed Yunus has been a huge influence on my thinking and, in particular, when we think about the work that we do as social entrepreneurs: number one, we’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘are we really making an impact?’; number two, ‘what does that impact look like?’ And number three, ‘are there any unintended consequences of the work that we’re doing?’ This is particularly key for organizations and nonprofits doing international development work, because there are unintended consequences working in a culture that is outside the United States that has their own different rules and regulations and cultural norms.

 

What major trends or shifts have you seen in nonprofit leadership over the last year or two?

Normally, when we talk about major shifts, we look to the recession of 2007 when the housing market crashed and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley. Both events had a huge ripple effect across our nation – where once we were confident as nonprofit leaders that the money was there, we weren’t so confident after 2007. That made us understand one thing very clearly: foundations wanted their own exit strategy with nonprofits. And they weren’t moving that way because they wanted you to fend for yourselves or to pull back as a collaborator, they were doing that as a means to help nonprofits become sustainable on their own footing. They were teaching nonprofits how to fish.

In Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties – I think natural disasters change the ethos of how nonprofits and philanthropy operate in a number of ways. What happens when a natural disaster becomes the focus and the attention of an entire community or region?  Now the nonprofits that are getting attention are the ones on the front lines of responding and addressing these natural disasters. Already, we’re seeing, even on the east coast, academics and practitioners alike very much interested in the nonprofit landscape in Santa Barbara County with respects to how natural disasters are changing behaviors of leaders, elected officials, nonprofit executives, Board members. They are seeing how foundations and philanthropic donors are now putting a lot of their weight, energy and effort into disaster relief, disaster prevention, disaster mitigation.

 

What is one tip you would give to nonprofit leaders that they can use to improve their organizations today?

It depends where you are in your growth stage. Before knowing where you want to go, you first have to assess and diagnose where you are now. That is why I developed a chart of the 5 Stages of Organizational Growth vs. Crisis. I’ll give you an example: Stage 3 of my 5 stages of organizational growth is “plateau.” Every organization and leader hits several plateaus in life. Plateau is a great stage to be in. Why? It gives you the opportunity to reflect, assess and recalibrate. And in doing so, I would highly recommend that organizational leaders, Board leaders and philanthropic leaders ask themselves the question of ‘What is our default setting?’

Every person, every organization, every culture has a default setting which means the standard day-to day-practice of how you operate, how you think, how you behave, how you talk, the tone of your voice, your affect – we all have a default setting. We all have a dominant way of communicating and a particular approach to thinking and analysis. And in plateau, when you reflect, assess and recalibrate, you have to start with the Self. What is my default setting doing to contribute to a positive workplace culture, for instance? What is my default setting doing to elevate the outcomes of this organization? What is my default setting doing to ensure positive relationships and collaborations with our Board? And in that reflection, assessment and recalibration, you first start with the self. What I encourage leaders to do is ask yourself – what part of your default setting may be contributing to unhealthy practices? Most people in the organization get a sense of that through their annual performance review, but I encourage leaders to do consistent and continual feedback loops within the organization.

 

How will the Adaptive Leadership Workshop in Santa Barbara be different than other your typical training sessions?

It’s different in three ways:

One is that I’m just the facilitator, which means the real learning comes from the attendees. It’s a very organic process. From the moment attendees walk through the door, they must have both their thinking cap on and their receiving cap on, meaning they’re going to have to come up with ideas and solutions, collectively and individually, but they also have to be ready to receive.

Which leads to number two – I’m really good at creating and sustaining difficult conversations. And what I mean by that is, we go there in our dialogue. We have conversations about the struggles that organizations are facing, about some of the lack of resources that they’re facing, which leads to point number three.

We actually provide tangible resources, tools and insights. And it applies to your organization based on your growth and size, based on where you are in the 5 stages of growth, your own leadership development, and it leads to an action plan toolkit. Realistically, in three hours we’re not going to resolve the problem your organization is facing. What we are going to do is guide you through how to be strategic in your thinking about how to overcome some of the challenges while giving you an educational update on what’s happening, what’s working, in the social sector.

And point number four, we have a brilliant set of facilitators—who can lead these workshops on their own merits—who will serve as small group coaches. They will help draw out the best conversations and lead to a 3-point action plan.

It’s our hope that we can continue these types of workshops and offer real, critical, practical tools for leaders. We’re looking at ways to include individual follow-up with these organizations. So, when a nonprofit leader attends a workshop, they usually get what they’re looking for and then that’s it. That workshop ends, you go back to your life, and you’re back to your old way of doing things, which is your default setting. But in the future with these workshops, we want to make sure everyone gets a coach to follow up with them either by phone or in person.

 

What has been some of the most significant feedback you’ve received from past workshops or presentations?

That we go there in unpacking the challenges and root causes that are systemic in many organizations. This isn’t a lighthearted type of workshop. This is one where we’re asking leaders to join us as we help them get to the next stage of their own growth and learning. Also, that it’s very applicable to their understanding, because sometimes you just need an educational session to help you understand what’s happening, and that the tools we offer really help guide them as they pursue the next level of learning and growth.

Oftentimes, it’s hard to be able to take a step back as a leader and say, ‘What’s my next level of development?’ ‘What’s my next stage of growth?’ ‘What does that look like, really?’ Do we even, as leaders, take the time? And no matter what industry or sector you’re in, do we actually take the time to ask ourselves, ‘Where are we in our leadership development?’ And, ‘What does the growth curve look like for us?’ That’s what we help them understand, and then get to the next stage. And it takes time, and that’s why people also have to come to these workshops with their receiving caps on.

 

What is the biggest thing attendees should expect to take away from the workshop?

I would say that attendees should expect to be empowered by the resources, tools and insights. Coupled with empowerment is ready to reengage as thought leaders with likeminded individuals. That means that you’re getting a high-impact workshop where you’re going to be with other thought leaders, and in so doing you get a really good education, because in my role as facilitator, I draw it out from you. It puts attendees in a very different context than what they’re accustomed to on a day-to-day basis.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

This is a different workshop. Be prepared for this to be a very different experience, that’s dynamic – not static. It’s highly organic, highly engaging, with several moving parts, both physically and mentally. Part of what we offer at the strategic insights group is an experience that’s very different for a lot of people. It puts them both in the driver seat and the passenger seat in various times during the three-hour workshop. I get to be here today because of the many, many failures I had as a start-up leader two decades ago. My hope is to mitigate as many of those as possible for today’s leaders.

 

Info and registration for June 27 Adaptive Leadership in a Changing Landscape: www.surfmedia.com/workshop or call (805) 687-3322. Early registration deadline is May 15.

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