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Fostering Positive Social Change: An Interview with Craig Bowman

We talk to Craig Bowman about his work as a consultant, creating positive social change in the world, and the fundamental attributes of being a successful change agent.

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8 minutes

    By Tiffany

    Tiffany studied Language and Economics, and now likes to write about business topics and conduct interviews with interesting people. She spends her free time looking after her plants and with her dog.

    After learning valuable lessons in his previous jobs, Craig Bowman realized those unique and practical insights could make him a great consultant. That’s why he founded Common Ground Consulting, whose main goal is to support those who are creating positive social change in the world. For him, passion, change[ability], trust, and gratitude are fundamental attributes to be successful change agents. Today, he explains to Mailbutler how to achieve it!

    Hi, Craig! Thank you for giving us the chance to learn more about you and your job. As the president of Common Ground Consulting, could you tell us what its main services are?

    Well, we are a strategic, small business, consulting firm working globally to create spaces for people from diverse backgrounds and experiences to come together, build trust, define areas of shared interests, and achieve transformational outcomes.

    For almost 30 years, we have been providing market-proven consulting services to governments, foundations, private sector and community-based organizations, school districts, entrepreneurial start-ups, and universities.

    We think of our work in the context of transformation—communities, organizations, networks, governments, etc. We work extra hard at the start of a new engagement to really try to understand the values of our clients, so as to better understand what it is they are working to achieve; and then we can really help them make the necessary—often difficult—decisions to achieve that change with efficiency and an eye towards those values.

    Sounds interesting! Then, it is a strategic consulting firm working globally to change the world, as your website says. What is this change about?

    As a company, we believe very much in positive social change. Change that brings greater fairness and equity into the world.

    It is always our intention to work with entities that are committed to social justice, whether they are a sustainable transportation NGO working to improve public transportation and eliminate the negative impacts of poverty; or a rule of law project that is working hard to change country-level legal frameworks in an effort to eliminate corruption; or a group of youth development professionals who need help in defining more effective advocacy strategies so as to increase the resources available to serve young people.

    When new clients engage us, they aren’t so concerned with our expertise in a particular thematic area. They come to us to help ensure that their efforts are strategic, their goals and objectives and metrics are clear, and that they can achieve those outcomes in a way that is as efficient possible … without losing their uniqueness, or their core values.

    And how do you achieve that positive social change? Do you have any strategy or technique?

    Absolutely. We believe that this sort of change work requires a high degree of trust, so our S.T.A.R.T. Process (Strategy, Action, and Results) is all about building the relationship on the front end.

    We ask a lot of questions at the beginning so that our learning curve doesn’t get in the way of an effective process. We spend a great deal of time reviewing past performance and decision-making protocols and then we jump into the work asking tougher questions, pointing out inconsistencies, and working to help organizational leadership see clearly when actions and values may be out of alignment. Then we help those leaders define the best course of action and make the decisions that will move the organization into alignment and lead to real and lasting change.

    It is a useful process! And when did you realize that the world needs a company like yours?

    I’ve been lucky in my career to have some amazing jobs and terrific mentors. I’ve worked as part of the Clinton White House in the early 1990s to help launch a national service program called AmeriCorps and then was fortunate to lead three youth-serving NGOs here in the States for about 15 years. At that point, I realized that I had made enough mistakes as a director that I could likely be a pretty good consultant.

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    That transition led to some international work in Eastern Europe and our practice exploded since then, allowing us to work in 40+ countries around the world. In each of those engagements, we found people and communities who had a desire to make the world better and they inspired us everyday. That passion is what continues to drive us to achieve more and deeper and lasting change.

    It is really great to see people with that passion. In fact, your focus on creating spaces for people from diverse backgrounds to come together is something that makes the world a better place. What would you say are the most important things every organization should do to achieve a sustainable impact?

    When I speak to groups—clients and others—I usually talk about four core attributes that are necessary to be successful change agents—passion, change[ability], trust, and gratitude.

    It is important to begin with your passion; what gets you up in the morning? What keeps you working late into the night? This is the relentless drive you need to work through the hard moments. This is your passion.

    Change[ability] is the idea that as human beings our status quo bias is strong. We prefer when things stay the same, even when they aren’t working so well anymore. Successful leaders (and leading organizations) understand that the world needs change—it is inevitable, exciting, scary, and essential. An openness to the possibility of change, a willingness to explore new ideas and new approaches is an essential characteristic of strong and effective leaders.

    Trust is the enabling power of leadership influence. When we trust each other, we can really dig into the hard stuff, the tough issues, the circumstances that prevent people, organizations, communities, even governments from solving the world’s most pressing problems. Taking the time to build high-trust relationships with our clients is a hallmark of our approach and the reason that 90% of our business comes from repeat clients and word of mouth.

    And then finally, gratitude. Leaders understand that none of us have been successful without a lot of help, support, love (and tough love) from many amazing people along the way. We need to stop and take time to lift them up, celebrate them, and say thank you. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” goes a long way when it comes to navigating difficult times and enlisting help in solving pressing problems; it ensures that an organization’s stakeholders will want to step up and help.

    There are all sorts of other important things organizations need to do to foster social justice and social change, of course, but these four ideas will take them pretty far down that path.

    They are really good tips!

    On the other hand, the majority of your work has focused on assisting organizations in developing and implementing mission-critical goals and the systems for high productivity and efficiency. How did you carry it out?

    Absolutely! But that work cannot be successful in a vacuum. If we are really going to help organizations achieve greater levels of success, we have to be able to get into extremely tough issues—and this requires that the leaders of those organizations trust us.

    We are not a firm that is at all interested in small changes around the edges. We are about transformation. That requires a careful analysis of the problem, an understanding of organizational culture, experience when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, and the ability to help “stuck” leaders imagine a new and even more exciting future—one that achieves lasting change for their constituencies. That process demands passion, change, trust, and gratitude to get it done. 

    Which tips could you give to companies to improve their productivity and efficiency?

    I think that many organizations struggle because they fail to see how their decisions and their values need to be aligned.

    More and more, people inside and outside of an organization are paying attention to how decisions are being made and how those decisions reflect values.

    Take this summer’s global conversation about race, fomented by the murder of George Floyd here in the United States. All of the sudden companies are falling all over themselves to take stands and demand change in ways we haven’t seen before. It is as if we reached a collective tipping point and those businesses understood that they could no longer remain on the sidelines. People wanted them to act in accordance with the values they espoused. Nike, Pepsi, FedEx, for example, all suddenly demanded that the NFL football team in my hometown of Washington, DC change its racist name.

    This is not a new demand, but at this moment, those companies understand the public expects them to act according to their values. The tolerance for organizations and companies and government agencies that say one thing and do another is no longer acceptable.

    So, a “tip” … be clear about your values and then act accordingly. If your walk and your talk as an organization (or as a leader) are not aligned, start there. Fix that. Accept responsibility for past mistakes and do better in the future. If you need help, ask for it. This is where companies like Common Ground can be useful.

    You are absolutely right! And how has Mailbutler helped you stay productive?

    I’ve been using Mailbutler since at least 2017 and it has become a critical part of my workflow. I am one of those people who really hates seeing messages linger in my email inbox. Mailbutler helps me manage those messages on a schedule that works for me. 

    The ability to file and store messages that can come back to me at a specific time or on a specific day is essential in helping me manage work across multiple time zones and with clients whose needs vary greatly from day to day and week to week. I appreciate how easy it was to set-up and that the features are constantly improving. 

    As someone who loves tech, I am often a beta user, and I have found Mailbutler’s support team to be really helpful when I install the latest Mac beta, for example, and everything breaks. Your team has been super quick to help me get back up and running. Your support feels personal. It’s what sets you apart from so many other products on the market.

    I am so happy to hear that! I am glad that you enjoy Mailbutler and hope that you continue doing so. Thank you so much for this interesting interview! All the best, Craig.

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