Conscious Leadership, “Social Washing”, and the EdTech Market

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Students and teachers are best served when actors in education can work together to achieve common goals through a collective impact approach. A challenge that lies in the face of this collaboration is the tensions that exist between two key actors – schools and vendors. We hear about issues and incidences big and small in the news, from standardized testing controversies, to the relationships between teachers and vendors, to concerns around student data privacy (see anything written by Natasha Singer at the New York Times). In each of these contexts, the public fear is that student success is a mere means to another end, that of business growth.

At SxSW Edu 2017, Dr. Christopher Emdin, spoke of education’s “friends, enemies and frenemies” – “enemies” being those who allow the drive for profit to undermine the drive for educational and social impact. Emdin’s keynote implores the “friends” of education to cast off the “enemies”, urging repeatedly “we got it from here, thank you for your service”. The “frenemies”, however, he has hope for. The “frenemies” are those who have good intentions but the contexts and structures in which they live and work cause them to further the agenda of the enemies.

For SxSW EDU 2019, we submitted a panel proposal on the topic of ‘conscious leadership’ in an effort to have an open and honest conversation about trust-building between education’s actors. But what is ‘conscious leadership’ and why is it so important? It can mean different things to different organizations but ultimately, we believe that conscious leadership is a model for trust to be built between schools and vendors – a way for “frenemies” to become “friends”.

Our five principles of conscious leadership enable EdTech organizations to do well and do good at the same time – for real, for real.

1. Equity & empathy. Do good by all and mean it.

2. Learning and personal growth. Do good by your colleagues.

3. Corporate Social Responsibility. Do good by society and the environment.

4. Values guide strategy. Build a brand that can start a movement.

5. Metricize values. Take all of the above seriously.

We advocate that EdTech companies adopt these principles (or a set of their own) to bring about a change the world needs and the market wants – how forward-thinking businesses grow. Ultimately, we believe that when leaders put their money where their values are they are not only making a “contribution to education” but also a wise investment.

If you’re reading this post, then you’re likely a part of the choir we’re preaching to. So, you may be asking yourself, why do we need to advocate for this? Is anyone today actually against equity or corporate social responsibility (CSR) or building employee-centered cultures? And the short answer is, yes.

Some oppose these values in principle (enemies). Others don’t uphold these values for more practical reasons (frenemies). Like Emdin, we too are interested in converting the frenemies.

In practice, the frenemies integrate principles like equity and CSR into their brand and their communication, but when it comes to implementing these values into their business models and operations, their old-school business logic tells them they won’t see the ROI. So, the frenemies struggle to justify the cost of being more transparent, of creating the roles necessary for accountability, of diversity in staff and leadership, and essentially, of committing to changing fundamental beliefs about how EdTech business should operate. As a result, their version conscious leadership is limited to public or external facing aspects of the business – seeing it as a mere marketing opportunity versus the holistic business opportunity that it really is.

Social washing’ is when companies think they can save in money and in effort by reaping the external brand and marketing benefits of conscious leadership. In doing so, they often neglect the operational changes needed to truly be socially responsible and this produces the exact opposite effect. Instead of building trust, social washing causes companies to build inauthentic brands, inevitably breaking it. Only authentic brands – where vision meets business model, operations and culture – are capable of building movements.

The market wants conscious leadership

We’ve all heard the social era consumer is “smarter than ever” and that’s because they care about where their products come from and what brand they give their money. So, they do their research. Millennials, the teachers and the soon-to-be decision-makers in education, (ages 22-37 in 2018 according to Pew Research Centre) are personally motivated to do their research because the things they buy are a reflection of their identity – “you are what you buy”, influencer culture has taught us. The millennial consumer is purpose-driven and cares about brands as much (and sometimes more) than products. Similarly, the millennial consumer will pay more for a product made by a company that they believe in.

A conscious leader is wise to the ways of this consumer, broadening the scope of their concern from the business to the society and from the shareholder to the stakeholder. The conscious leader thinks about impact on multiple levels – students and their families, teachers, school and district leaders, local communities, the natural environment – instead of just thinking about “shareholders”, “employees”, “purchasers”, “influencers”, and “users”.

The corporate social responsibility (CSR) reason for this widened scope of concern is well expressed by Michael Yaziji, IMD professor, in his TEDxLausanne Talk Rethinking the Structure of Corporations. Yaziji explains that traditional corporations externalize their costs to society in order to optimize shareholder value, often at the expense of society and the environment. However, when we broaden the corporation’s scope of concern to include community stakeholders and the environment, we internalize their interests, reducing harm and ideally, producing positive impacts.

The business case for this widened scope of concern is that social era communication has remodelled the linear sales pipeline. We know that companies have influencers and advocates that will never use or pay for their products who are pushing leads through the pipeline. That’s because social currency is in knowing what’s cool – “you are what you recommend”. The conscious leader understands that the way to build the stickiest products and services and the most resilient businesses is by listening to stakeholders, internalizing their interests, so that they in turn are compelled by your organization.

So, how can you get your stakeholders to do this?

Is it by throwing big conference parties? By giving aways t-shirts, stickers, and other swag at events? Is it by sponsoring edcamps or hosting webinars? Maybe. But maybe it’s not what you do but how you do it.

We recommend you lead with values not value propositions.

Understand who your stakeholders are and what they value, so you can connect with them in authentic ways. Then, hire some of them. The more representative your staff is of your stakeholders the more in tune you will be with your market.

Once you’ve attracted supporters, build resilience by keeping your promises about who you are as an organization. Avoid alienating your supporters by internalize your company values and operate according to them because you can’t build a movement on lip-service.

Ready to build conscious leadership into your brand and company culture?

Failing to adopt a conscious leadership approach ultimately leads to the development of growth strategies that alienate the contemporary consumer and your B2B decision makers to-be – millennials. Doing well and doing good are commensurate in a millennial economy.

What is your company doing to leverage these facts about the evolving EdTech market? If you’re not thinking about how your organization can do well and do good, then you’re not doing enough to stay competitive or be defensible in the market long-term. Don’t wait until you have a “brand problem” or until you’ve reached a growth plateau to tend to your company’s brand identity, culture, and leadership style.


Roxanne Desforges