David Young is a former senior partner and managing director at The Boston Consulting Group. He worked at the firm from 1988 to 2005; his many roles and positions included serving as the managing partner of the Seoul office; the managing partner of the Boston office; a member of BCG’s global executive committee, global leader of the firm’s Industrial Goods practice; and a consultant, manager, and partner in the Chicago office. Prior to joining BCG, he worked for The Timken Company, a global manufacturer of bearings, alloy steels, and related components, where he held roles in research and development, strategic management, and North American operations.
In 2006, Young joined World Vision International, a relief, development, and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families, and communities to overcome poverty and injustice. He currently serves as its global chief operating officer.
In an interview with BCG’s Tom Lewis, Young shared his reflections on his career and the value of private-sector skills in the social sector.
You moved into the social sector after a long and successful career in the corporate sector and in the consulting industry. What motivated you to make the move from BCG into the social sector?
I think it is important to go through constant self-reflection. We should all be asking ourselves, “Are my skills and talents being applied to the best and highest use?” I think there is no better profession than consulting to constantly build skills and talents that enable us to work with organizations, to create large-scale change, to think creatively, and as importantly, to enter into organizations and into relationships that can be productive and healthy and provide good outcomes. Consulting is a constant reflection about how to add value.
In any career, you get to the point where you need to say, “What does the world around me need? Given those needs, am I using my gifts, skills, experience, and education to their highest potential?” That’s a very rational way of looking at it.
And there’s another way, one that says you need to be led by your passions. And I think one of the gifts in consulting is that it is a good place for people who have deep passion and want to effect change. Consulting allows you to position yourself—and also provides you the opportunity—to look more deeply into issues. Also, the experience and travel allow you to become more and more aware of the world. It prepares you to confront some of the real problems that are out there, outside the walls of a single corporation.
For me, it was a combination of the constant search for solutions through clients, the constant search to learn what was going on in the world, and the constant search to learn who I am and where my career was heading that led me to the recognition that I simply had to do something about the pace at which the world was engaging on issues of poverty affecting children. In my mind, the problem was not an issue of making more money available. I felt it was an issue of the kind of smart thinking and good, productive change that we have seen in commercial clients that could be brought into the NGO sector. I saw an opportunity to get a much higher multiplier on those skills and those activities in that sector than I’d had to date in the corporate sector.
I should point out that we already had windows to this in our work at BCG—we could see the huge impact we could have with the World Food Programme, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. But is achieving these outcomes possible without the “special sauce” that a BCG upbringing can deliver? Probably not.
So I said to myself, “I could have a big impact with those skills, with that experience, with that perspective in a sector that ultimately could have a big impact on the lives of many, many people.”
As with any other decision, choosing to move to the social sector is not always the perfect choice. It can be pretty painful to make these kinds of moves because you tend to love what you are doing in the corporate sector. But you also find yourself confronting the bigger reality about the condition of things and your own ability to create change. And that is what led me to do it.
I'm a person of very deep faith, and I always have been, and I do believe that I am also called to express my faith in the way I live and the choices that I make. Sometimes that choice requires you to do something that doesn't pay as well and doesn’t have as many benefits attached to it as your other options do. Ultimately, that choice delivers on the values and principles that are part of your wiring. So for me, it was a bit of a complex undertaking. It was all of those things coming together that caused me to make this decision.
Having made the move, can you tell us about your role at World Vision?
There is probably an impression from outside the social sector that it must be very different on the inside, that the challenges of organizations in the social sector can’t be as tough as those faced by a corporation. I am now the COO of an organization that has 44,000 employees worldwide and operates in a range of activities that include long-run transformational development, humanitarian emergency response—we responded to 76 large-scale emergencies last year—and advocacy, particularly around child health. We also have a large microfinance division that provides microloans to more than 600,000 clients a year and affects about 1.3 million children through the families we assist. So in total, we touch the lives of more than 100 million individuals in poverty each year. Our annual budget is $2.8 billion, and we have experienced constant growth throughout the recession.
We believe that all of our operations have multiple missions: to change the lives of the children of the poor, to make it possible for people of means to experience changing the life of a child of the poor, and to raise social awareness about the levels of injustice and inequality that exist—and our opportunities to make a difference.
Having said that, being a COO at World Vision isn’t much different than being one at a global corporation, with the exception that I’m not working with the public markets and my organization does not measure our outcomes in profit. Any large organization has the same challenges: How do you build alignment, excitement, vision, and unity across a staff from 96 different nations? How do you have a strategy that makes sense when you are dealing with complex issues?
In our case, the issues and causes of child poverty are particularly complex. We operate in a broad range of contexts including those challenged by war, those of mass migration, those of radical climate change, those of productive and exciting economic growth that is leaving some behind. Fortunately, I'm constantly amazed at the level of passion and motivation our employees mobilize against these challenges.
David Young, BCG alum and World Vision COO, meeting with leaders and families involved in World Vision India's Child Labour Programme in Gudhiyatham.
So, in summary I would say that you have all of the normal things that you would have in a business environment, except that you are not interacting with the public markets, you're not measuring the outcome in profit and the organization is generally powered by phenomenal employee engagement.
At World Vision, we use the same tools that many corporations would use in assessing our levels of employee engagement and our benchmarking against global corporate standards. For our business processes, we run global treasury activities with hedging operations and with a SWIFT banking system that create total cash transparency worldwide. In fact, many of the business processes are very similar to what corporations do, and the lessons are directly applicable.
You have 44,000 employees representing 96 different nationalities and operating in a wide range of environments. What does that mean for complexity at World Vision?
I know that everybody’s world is complicated, but I would argue that World Vision is more complicated than any corporation I have ever seen. It’s the breadth of the mission, the complexity of the problem, the world of cultures and context in which we are operating and the outcomes.
I envy those organizations that can measure their entire performance on the basis of the P&L statement and the balance sheet. At World Vision, we can’t do that. We are measuring our performance now on four specific areas of child well-being, against some very specific targets. That’s one part of our success. The other part is making sure that we are working with the highest levels of accountability, stewardship, staff care, donor engagement, and integrity. The allocation of resources is a big challenge. In the corporate world, you are allocating resources in a very rational way against clear-cut investments with associated risks that can be reasonably quantified. In this world, you are allocating resources against phenomenal human needs with uncertain outcomes.
It has taken everything I have ever learned and everything I have ever done at BCG in order to succeed in my role at World Vision. Absolutely all of it. I think that we should recognize that what we build through the consulting experience is a tremendous toolkit to go into the most challenging, undefined problems and organizational situations and actually add value by putting good thinking and care and insight into them. These skills can come only from working with good colleagues and from solid training and experience.
What advice do you have for others considering a move to the NGO sector?
First, make sure that you understand what you are doing. What you will bring as a BCG consultant to one of these organizations is the gift of thinking like a consultant and the skill set of solving problems, both of which are needed. So don’t doubt the value you could bring.
Second, make sure that the value you bring is deep enough. These organizations don’t need interested amateurs, they need really astute professionals. I think there is a right time to cross over to this space: when you’ve really mastered not just the basic skills of consulting but also how to work well with clients and in an organization. I’ve seen a lot of people from the corporate world try to come into the NGO sector and do it very badly. And I’ve seen people come from the professional services side of things—legal firms, consulting, advertising—and do it quite well.
I’ve concluded that one of the things you are taught in consulting is the art of entering an organization. We gain an ability to come in and have enough empathy, willingness to listen, and desire to get to a deep understanding of the situation first before we start acting. So before people make the move, they need to take a good healthy look in the mirror, and ask themselves what they have done that will create real, deep value in a way that delivers impact.
Third, check that you have a big dose of humility. Very bright, very talented, very capable, and very passionate people have founded, built, and sustained these organizations. You may be bringing certain gifts to the table that they might not have, but you must understand that no matter what you do, the most important thing is sustaining, respecting, and appreciating the passion of the people who actually touch the lives of those in need.
Fourth, have a holistic appreciation for the rewards you will receive. They are not going to be financial rewards—understand that from the beginning. You might need to interpret your sense of satisfaction differently and be focused on the outcome and on the mission. You are also going to be operating without the resources that were available to you in the corporate world, so you are going to have to be a bit clever and have street smarts to pull that off.
I think all of us need to appreciate that the world is a dynamic place, and that we should look at our participation in anything as “for a season.” So how do you live best in that season? Could I see myself now doing something else? Yes, I certainly could. But I would do it with a full knowledge that I made a contribution for a season that mattered.
When people are considering making this move, they shouldn’t look at it as “Gee, I am leaving the professional services world, so the door is closed.” If anything, I honestly believe that once you are in this space and have succeeded in this space, you have a whole bundle of new insights to bring back to the corporate world.
Although I’ve talked a lot about all that you can bring with a consulting background, I believe you are a fundamentally different person and a fundamentally better professional having put yourself into a situation where you have to think differently, have to integrate your skills with a host of skills that wouldn’t have been part of your training, and have been forced to confront some really difficult truths in life that we are sanitized from in the corporate world. So you will emerge from the experience a better human being, you will come out a different person, and you will come out with a bag of lessons and encounters that can be applied elsewhere.
Dave, on a very personal level, you must have seen and experienced a lot over these last six years which have both moved you and confirmed how worthwhile it has all been. Can you tell us a bit about that?
In this job, there are daily affirmations. When you see the way that people who have never before had easy access to water rejoice at a bore hole that opens up and spews into the sky because they realize that from that moment on their lives will be fundamentally different—that there is really a chance for their children to be healthy, for their animals to be sustained—it is really stunning.
When you sit next to a young adult who was formerly a child laborer but, thanks to your agency’s programs, was freed from the bondage of child labor and has been given the chance to have an education, start a business, and even employ other adults and provide care for children—that’s pretty stunning, too.
It is incredibly rewarding when you sit with a circle of women who have formed a self-help group in southern India, and they look to the wall at the list of needs in their community that they are systematically meeting one by one, and you realize that your organization has been part of that.
And it is wonderful when, in the harshest moments of disaster, you see that your organization has been able to be on the frontline distributing food or engaging in work-for-food programs that bring both dignity as well as relief at a time of huge pain.
It is hard to select one example, there are countless moments every day when you can say that lives have been changed, what could have happened has not happened, and—person by person—change is really happening. There are children who will be alive tomorrow because of what your organization does today. I think those are the kinds of things you appreciate every single day. Despite the frustrations, the lack of necessary resources, and the narrow skill base of certain professions, there are constant rewards.