Teach for America vaulted to the 10th spot in BusinessWeek's second annual best places to launch a career rankings (BusinessWeek, 9/13/07), up from the 43rd spot last year. Teach for America (TFA) recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income areas for two-year commitments. The nonprofit organization is so popular among college graduates at some of the nation's most prestigious schools that companies including General Electric (GE), Deloitte, and Google (GOOG) have decided to partner with TFA instead of fighting it for the same pool of candidates.
Over the past 12 months I have spent hours in conversation with some of the most inspiring individuals in business and education to pinpoint the exact techniques and strategies these men and women use to inspire others to follow their vision. TFA Founder Wendy Kopp was one of them. Her story is amazing. Kopp developed the idea based on a Princeton thesis she wrote in 1989. In its first year, TFA placed 500 students. Today, 14,000 young men and women have completed their commitment to TFA and the nonprofit is one of the largest employers of college seniors in the country.
According to Kopp, leadership skills rank highest on the list of what she looks for in candidates. Specifically, "the ability to influence and motivate others." But those same skills are largely responsible for the growth of TFA itself. Here are some concepts I learned from Kopp that apply to anyone who wants to succeed as a leader.
Set a "Crazy" Vision
Inspiring leaders think big. As a senior at Princeton, Kopp had a dream to "build a movement to eliminate educational inequities." That vision has remained consistent for 18 years. Sticking to the vision allowed Kopp to overcome some significant funding hurdles that at one point could have meant the end of her dream. She kept at it, knocked on door after door, and persuaded corporate titans to share—and fund—her vision.
Kopp told me she articulated a vision that most people thought was impossible. She encourages TFA members to bring that same approach to the classroom. Kopp explains: "Let's say you're a fourth-grade teacher and your kids are operating at a first-grade level. The teacher who sets a vision that most people think is crazy, like saying every one of those kids will pass the fourth-grade test before entering the fifth grade, will have a greater chance of success and ultimately make a huge difference in the lives of those kids."
Don't shrink from articulating a big vision, but don't confuse goals with vision. Goals are short-term benchmarks to achieving a vision. Kopp's "goal" is to double the size of TFA by 2010, but it's clear that her vision—to eliminate educational inequities—will remain firmly in place by 2010 and beyond.
Do What You Love
Inspiring leaders love what they do. For a recent BusinessWeek column, I interviewed the man behind the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner (BusinessWeek.com, 7/23/07). I asked him what drove him to complete an internship as a stockbroker despite a lack of money that forced him to spend nights in the bathroom of a subway station. "Passion is everything," he said. "Find something that you love to do so much you can't wait for the sun to rise so you can do it all over again."
If that's the secret of success, Wendy Kopp has found it. Kopp is so passionate about educational reform, it drives her to attain more than anyone thought possible. "I'm more passionate than I've ever been because every day I see more evidence that this has potential to have a fundamental impact on kids' lives," Kopp told me.
Kopp's passion is behind her boundless energy, an energy that keeps her on the road three days a week to recruit college students and to meet with potential donors. For 18 years, Kopp has maintained a grueling travel schedule. Without passion, she would never have found the persistence to keep at it and her vision would have slipped away long ago, as nothing more than the idealistic musings of a student.
Search for Allies
The most persuasive entrepreneurs don't succeed all the time, but they are committed to a constant and never-ending search for people who can help them fulfill their vision. Their vision is so clear that they cannot accept failure. Kopp calls her fund-raising efforts "a search for allies." She acknowledges that TFA is not a fit for everyone but believes it "has the potential to be a fundamental force in ensuring that all kids in our country have the chance to attain an excellent education. I try to bring people around to the same conviction. If not, I move on to the next ally."
Once you set a vision, it must be so energizing that you are committed to do everything in your power to turn it into a reality. Vision creates energy and energy creates charisma—an essential ingredient to successful leadership communications.