Be Humble, and be Curious, if you want to succeed in the Social Sector

Ravi Narayanan

It is not easy to transition from the corporate sector to the not-for-profit world and succeed. But that is precisely what Ravi Narayanan has done, and with great aplomb. In a career spanning more than three decades, Ravi split his time between the corporate and social sector, retiring as the Global CEO of Water Aid, headquartered in London. He now spends his time mentoring and advising up-and-coming organizations dedicated to water conservation helping them scale and make a real impact. And, as Chairman, Governing Council of the Asia Pacific Water Forum, he is involved in building a network that seeks to promote the sharing of knowledge across the region in all facets of water resource management, and encourage partnerships among governments, knowledge institutions, financial institutions, civil society, the corporate sector and citizens which bring real benefits on the ground. Ravi Narayanan was awarded the prestigious Order Of the British Empire (CBE) in 2009, for his contribution in taking water and sanitation to the poor in Asia and Africa.

So we sat down with Ravi to understand what it takes to make a game-changing move like this, what the challenges are, and how should one go about increasing the odds of success. Read on, below, for a first-person account from Ravi:

Ravi started off on a traditional path, studying Physics in Delhi, then going to Cambridge University for Engineering, and starting his career with General Electric in the UK. “Two things stood out in my early life” he says “One, my father had a transferable job which implied that I grew up in different parts of the country including a final stint at the Doon School (the well known boarding /residential prep school in India), and two, I went to Cambridge where I was immersed in aliberal arts milieu”. Growing up in this environment appears to have made Ravi more attuned to social issues, and exposed him to more diverse topics like development, economics and history.

The inflection point came for Ravi after he had spent a good 15 years stint in the corporate world, working with large manufacturing companies like Fenner and Alfred, and also trying his hand at working for a family-owned venture, as their General Manager.“This is when I started feeling like I needed to do something different. I recollect my father-in-law bringing to me, one day, an advertisement from Action Aid for a senior executive role, and urging me to apply”. Point to be noted — sometimes you need a bad job to goad you to change direction and discover new options! And, ofcourse, listening to your in-laws may not be a bad idea either.

Soon, Ravi landed in Action Aid as one of their first corporate transplants.

“My advice to folks who are looking to move to the Not-for-Profit sector — Choose your first job carefully”.

“I believe that choosing the right organization when you move industries, is critical”, says Ravi. “In the social sector there are two kinds of organizations. One is the Field NGO’s which are typically run by strong founders and therefore are harder to fit in. The second are the funding organizations which are far more professionally driven and therefore easier to settle in”. Action Aid, for instance, had started inducting management professionals from business schools like IRMA& the IIMs. Ravi found it easy to navigate the waters in such an organization even though this was his first exposure to an Aid organization. A founder-driven field NGO would have been very personality based, and in hindsight, Ravi feels he would have had a much harder time if he had chosen to go into one.

Even with that said, however, Ravi found the transition to the social sector to be really hard. Ravi was brought into Action Aid to put systems and processes in place and to streamline the operations, as they were growing rapidly. But he found the sector’s culture to be very different.

“The first thing that strikes you is the high sense of moral rectitude that people in this sector exhibit”, says Ravi. “There is a certain arrogance around ‘doing good’ that initially took a lot of adjusting to.”

Ravi believed that one of his charters was to first get the people in the organization to open their minds, and start thinking more like the corporate sector — have targets, monitor progress, and work towards achieving more predictability around what they did. But this was anything but easy! There was huge reluctance to measure performance, or to put any metrics in place to measure progress. The general belief was that whatever you are doing is good enough. There was also a certain disdain among the group for the for — profit sector, which made them NOT want to learn the good practices from them.

“Looking back, the couple of things that worked in my favour was that I remained humble and kept any preconceived notions to myself, I was eager to learn, and I did not succumb to the desire to move too aggressively”, says Ravi. “Eventually people came around when they saw that I meant well, and that I was interested in improving their organization”

Ravi believes the job also changed him quite a bit… and he soon started enjoying the sector. He got to work with all kinds of people — religious/spiritual folks, politicians, anthropologists, bureaucrats, scientists and learnt to think from different angles.

“I got exposed to my country and people, like never before. You see poverty, deprivation, etc., very close. It changes you forever”.

“I learnt to think very long term — not to look for quick results but have the patience to wait”, says Ravi. “The Water sector, which is where I have focused most, has many ramifications — geographical boundaries, political expediencies, economic exigencies and many more. So, any and all of these can, and do, impact the course of the work. It helps to have a more balanced approach, and not expect miracles. Working in the social sector is very grounding. You realize how small you are!”

Ravi says he struggles, even today, with the best way to communicate the problem they are trying to solve. “The magnitude of what we are trying to do is huge. So we try to simplify and tone down the issues when we talk to potential donors, decision makers and even employees”, says Ravi. “I’m afraid that we end up oversimplifying and pushing very critical issues under the carpet, which is not good. I always struggle with this even after spending so much time in this sector.”

“Domain expertise in the sector is not a must-have to succeed at a leadership level, despite what anyone might say!”

Ravi Narayanan moved into Action Aid without any experience in the social sector, or in funding. But he learnt fast, and he was able to bring in the best practices from his earlier world to Action Aid. Similarly when he went in as the Director of Water Aid, he was not a specialist in Water.

“You need to have certain personality traits to be successful, and happy, in this sector”, says Ravi. “First is Curiosity. You need to enjoy learning new things, meeting new people and visiting new places even in adverse conditions.

“Second, it is very critical to be “down-to-earth” and modest. If you have a very high opinion of yourself, this is not the place”, opines Ravi. “There is so much to do, and the change is so slow, that you will tire very quickly and feel frustrated. I was very clear that I don’t have all the answers, and I need to learn. It is easy to be condescending, especially when you come in from the corporate world. I consciously avoided that. I feel this contributed a lot to my getting accepted. And without that I could not have achieved anything!”

Ravi believes it helped that he started with big companies, and move from big to small as he progressed along in his career! Says he “I started at GE, but progressively moved to smaller organizations when I was in the corporate sector. Here, in the social sector too, I started with Action Aid, and am now spending a lot of my time advising Arghyam which is really like a start-up. I like to learn at the larger organization and then try to apply it in smaller, upcoming ones so that we can create more successful organizations”

Having achieved so much in his career, across two very different sectors, we asked Ravi what makes him continue to work as hard as he does today. His characteristic reply:

“There is still so much to learn! I’m working actively in highlighting Governance issues in Water distribution. I feel very strongly about it as this affects the poor, underprivileged, people more. Water has many claimants — industries, cities, agriculture. How do we ensure fairness in access?”

Ravi says he strives to define and frame problems that will have significant consequences if they are not addressed now. Take governance and its effect on water, for instance. Says he, “If we do not recognize and debate the threat that Government regulations pose to equitable distribution of water, it will become very difficult later on to address the social issues that this creates. Most of the health issues faced by poor people can be attributed directly to poor access to clean water. Also, we cannot look only at above-the-ground water, when we talk of water issues. Ground water depletion is an even bigger problem with long-term ramifications in countries like India.”

Reflecting on his career, Ravi says “I look at my contribution in bringing many of these critical issues to the fore with great satisfaction, as a healthy debate is the most important precursor to right actions on the ground”. He also feels very happy that he was able to provide a good work environment to the large number of people who worked with him. “In the final analysis, it is about the people whom you engaged with, and their happiness is what matters”, he signs off.

Originally published at on August 17, 2015.

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