Seeking Lean Leaders: Building an Ecosystem by Design

By: Fay Horwitt

See original article HERE.


Sometimes you have to go back to your roots to find clues for how to grow.

HUSTLE Winston-Salem, now a nonprofit organization focused on growing the local economy through promoting inclusive entrepreneurship, has its roots in the Community Innovation Lab. The lab was a collaborative effort between the national facilitator, EMC Arts, and local conveners, the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, the Winston-Salem Foundation, and Arts Council of Winston-Salem. The multi-year project brought together a cross-section of community members and leaders to explore and find new solutions to our city's challenges with race, class, and power. The goal of the cluster groups that emerged was to utilize creative thinking and strategies to prototype solutions to these systemic issues. Issues that, up until this point, have been extremely tough to successfully address using traditional means.

In other words, if something is still broken after decades and many attempts to fix it, perhaps we need a new approach, new thinking, new ideas, new minds, and new methods. It was not easy work. In fact, it was quite messy at times. Unlike traditional project management and outcome-based nonprofit processes, we didn't start with the end product/prototype in mind. We were tasked with embracing the unknown and letting the people whom we wanted to serve and partner with be our guide for the work.

So, we stopped making assumptions about what people wanted and needed. Instead, we actually started by talking to them. Imagine that. We conducted interviews and surveys. We listened, we brainstormed, we shared, and, after many interative work sessions, we landed on several prototypes. We tested them. Some were flawed; some were right-on. In the end, our work resonated with the community because it was designed by community. We also discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that the disparities and inequities in our city have much more to do with power than they do with race or gender; power responds to power. So we had to leverage the power of many diverse stories and voices. Now, as we look forward to the work that the HUSTLE, it is important that we stay true to our roots. We cannot become just like any other nonprofit out there; it is in our DNA to be creatively (and positively) disruptive.

The world is rapidly changing. So is the way it is led. The Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) describes the evolution of leadership models as going from ‘Do it my way’ (old Dictator style) to ‘Do it your way’ (1980s Empowerment style) to ‘Follow me … and let’s figure this out together’ (Lean style). Lean methodology was first established in Japanese manufacturing settings in order to improve factory productivity. Those same tenets have come to be adopted as the go-to method for developing startup ventures. Similarly, design-thinking methodology is now being adopted as a strategy to help develop creative solutions to social issues.

In both these cases, traditional leadership and strategy models are being abandoned, in lieu of more community-driven approaches. In both these models, empathy and connectedness are prioritized or titles and 'experience'. In other words, these methods are working because they are flipping the traditional power structures upside down, with the will of the people pushing stakeholder decisions, rather than the other way around.

This is the new way of things. I learned much from the largely millennial HUSTLE lab team members whose hard work and idealism gave life to our group and our work. (Magalie Yacinthe, J. Matthew Williams, Daryl Shaw, Kellie Easton, and Tonya Sheffield). The millennial generation understands the power of people and community like no generation before them.

They, and the generations that have followed, have given rise to socially-driven movements that are changing minds, actions, and laws. #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #menext? and movements like them are shaking up old systems of thinking, giving rise to new ways of viewing the world and new perspectives on what it means to be a leader. The information age is leveling the playing field for us all. Our social networks, both online and off, give us new collective impact to do things we never dreamed of before. We are solving problems at the speed of hashtags.

Being a leader is no longer about your title, how many years you've been in a role, what board you sit on, who got you in the door, or how much leverage you have over others. Gone are the days when nepotism, cronyism, sexism, racism, ageism, classism, and any other 'ism' defined our society and who has access to what. Now, we the people, have the ability to solve our own problems, to have a collective voice for change, to work together toward solutions for ourselves. We no longer have to be tied to old systems that required asking those in power for the things we needed to achieve basic equity or to beg for that one seat at the table so that we wouldn't be excluded. The closed-door, tower rooms of the homogenous 'powers that be' will soon be a bastion of a time we will be glad to see pass away. Replacing them are coffeehouse confabs, Zoom strategy sessions, and lean leaders immersing themselves wholeheartedly in the wonderful messiness of the grassroots communities where they work, live, and play. Leadership is being democratized.

I know it works. I've experienced it in action. Earlier this week, I shared on Facebook about a shared challenge many of us have faced, finding affordable office or retail space in the center city. within two days, there were over 45 likes, 12 comments, and four offers for spaces that can be leveraged for low-cost office/retail. We even got a helpful response from the top leadership of our city. The power of sharing, social media, and community engagement transformed a massive problem into a slew of creative and tangible solutions that we can now explore and act on. This is a problem that has been on the radar screen of existing leaders for years; we got traction in two days. This is just one example. This is asset-based community in action. We have to start thinking in terms of what we have, rather than what we don't.

We have everything we need. We have each other. We have our creativity, our passion, our determination, and our drive. Now, we just have to stop waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting for us. If we want a strong, inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem, let's build it together. If we don't do it together, we risk others designing it for us, without our voices. We are the boots on the ground. We know the story. No hired consultant or appointed expert will know your story the way you do. We invite you to join us as we get back to our roots, back to you, the people.

WE Launch WS is our new grassroots project to engage a true cross-section of the local Winston-Salem community in an effort to help collaboratively design an entrepreneurial ecosystem strategy that benefits the whole of the city. Boldly stepping into who we are as the City of Arts & Innovation, the initiative will utilize design thinking and lean startup strategies toward the development of a community report that will be shared with local stakeholders to inform future decision-making. Our hope: an entrepreneurial ecosystem for the people, designed by the people.

This is not about, or for, women. This is not about, or for, black people or any other people group. We are busting all silos. This is about all of us and the potential of what we can do together as a whole and collaborative community. We want you to tell us what you want in an ecosystem and then help us make it a reality.

We're going back to our lean roots and we want you to come along for the ride. What does lean leadership look like? You must be ok with uncertainty, have an entrepreneurial (problem-solving) state of mind, think of others, thrive on simple solutions, be willing to dig into community, and be authentic. We see it many of you already. We see you, John Bost, and the Saltbox, the collaborative community on 17th St. that you are building with Love Outloud, Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods. We see you, Algenon Cash, and the work you are doing to bring a new dining experience and employment to New Walkertown Rd. We see you, Carol Reeve and Jordan Lacenski, and both your effort to build new collaborative experiences for women in business. We see so many more of you and thank you for modeling a new way to lead.

Do you have what it takes to be a Lean Leader? Join the new WE Launch WS group here on LinkedIn and let's get to work! It's time to HUSTLE Winston-Salem. Hustle for me, hustle for you, hustle for all of us!

Join the group!

To learn more about HUSTLW Winston-Salem visit

Jordan Lacenski