September 30, 2020

By Robin Mendelson

James Honan is Senior Lecturer on Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and is also on faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School, an affiliate faculty member with the Center for Public Leadership, and a member of the Faculty Executive Committee of Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. Honan's teaching and research interests include financial management of nonprofit organizations, organizational performance measurement and management, and higher-education administration. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Marist College and the National Association of Independent Schools and holds a B.A. from Marist College, an M.A. and Ed.S. in Higher Education from George Washington University, and an Ed.M. and Ed.D. in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard University.

We caught up with Honan for this installment of the Social Impact Review Spotlight, a regular Social Impact Review feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questions.

Social Impact Review: You are a trustee of many universities and nonprofits and an Executive Faculty Committee member for Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, the recipient of a Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Learning Incubator Faculty Fellowship, and for nearly 4 decades, you’ve been both student and faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Is this social impact work your calling?

James Honan: 39 years sneaks up on you. All of a sudden, I turn around and have backed into my life's work and purpose. Much of that is guided by my teachers. A chain of teachers one to the next who pushed me forward and encouraged me to go the next step. I am part of this chain now, as my former teachers are my colleagues and so are my former students. I don't come from a family of educators. I’m the first in my family to complete college, and I feel fortunate to be in that role. I actually hold five degrees. I had no clue that I was going to finish high school and then do undergrad and then a masters, an education specialist degree, and then another masters and a doctorate all in a row. Teachers have helped me all the way, and I just have to pay it back with this work that I'm honored and privileged to do. It's incredibly rewarding and enjoyable to get up every day and look forward to doing more. Now, my goal is to give that back to my students with equal passion and focus.

Review: Tell us about your current social impact work and how you are leading in innovation and scale.

Honan: We are in an incredibly complex time six or seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the same time, there is tremendous focus on the important issue of racial and social justice in the United States. We have some economic pressures that are new, and not just the social impact and nonprofit sectors but writ large in the corporate sector. And in addition to natural disasters we continue to see with fires and hurricanes, I should also mention we have a presidential election coming up here in the United States.

When I step back and look at how this backdrop informs my work, it becomes obvious that there is important leadership and social impact work that needs to take place. In my view, to ensure impact, first, the work has to be innovative and cannot just be a status quo approach. Second, it has to scale.

The projects I have been working on and will continue to work on will necessarily have an innovation vector to them. The status quo won’t work due to the difficulty of problems and complexity with COVID. I am incredibly fortunate to have received a Faculty Learning Incubator Fellowship from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I believe I'm the first person from the School of Education to receive one of those, and I am innovating with the redesign of a course on nonprofit financial management from a content and pedagogical approach and meeting the moment to innovate in the multimodal delivery so this course will have increased impact moving forward.

Another aspect of social impact work follows your effort to tackle big problems. Once you find something that works, you need to scale it. For the past three years I have worked with the Gates Foundation on a research project focusing on leadership for student success in higher education with my colleagues at the School of Education. Moving forward, my work is to leverage our research and operationalize it to achieve scale. We have redesigned courses built from our research, Leading for Student Success, and are about to deliver a brand-new online course called Ensuring Equitable Success in Higher Education to address issues of racial and social justice. We knew we had to get right back to market rapidly and our team moved forward quickly from both a design and execution perspective. There’s a tight integration between our research and then putting those research ideas into practice with our Gates colleagues who are engaged in course delivery. We’ve also developed a new course called Strategic Finance in Higher Education that also leverages the Gates research and will be launched and online in a few months.

Review: How does learning play a role in leadership?

Honan: I think the relationship between leadership and learning is really important. In my work, we call that having a learning stance and the ability to stay curious. My observation is if you stop listening and learning, you're going to be in big trouble as a leader especially if you've been in the work for quite some time. I see a tight connection between leadership and learning, and that's where the innovation comes. I'm getting this innovation and continued learning in very good doses in my course redesigns where despite teaching for a long time, I need to be in a learning position to see that there are a lots of ways to present this material and consider how my learning and curiosity can help me produce something with even more impact. This has been my focus in my Learning Incubator Faculty Fellowship this year.

Staying close to the classroom keeps this connection between leadership and learning active. Being a teacher in a classroom makes me a better leader because I'm always close to the work and close to people who are learning something about it. Whether it's degree programs or executive education, my leadership and learning loop is strengthened by leaders who are trying to think differently about their work or aspiring leaders connecting leadership and learning.

Review: As a teacher, you have had tremendous direct impact on many students over the years. And in your trustee, consulting, and advisory roles, you impact organizations, educational institutions, and nonprofits. How do you measure social impact work, and what is your advice for others?

Honan: As a teacher, I have a platform for direct social impact and the potential to reach groups of students. There are other leadership roles in that sector. For example, I'm a faculty chair of a number of executive education programs where I lead work teams to deliver results. I’ve had the good fortune of serving on the Faculty Executive Committee of the Advanced Leadership Initiative where I’ve also been able to directly work on projects and deliver results. As a trustee of a number of nonprofit organizations, I see the impact as governing and advising, not doing the direct work you might do as a teacher, but you have a very fundamental responsibility for the long term sustainability of the organization whose mission drives impact. Here are my thoughts about how I try to approach social impact work and my advice for others:

· Honor and understand the complexity of the problem. I worry that we jump right to action without fully understanding the problem. Social impact work usually is complicated, and often the problems are not new, and I think it requires us to honor the problem and its complexity.

· Pick your spots. Hard problems require hard work, but you can't go at it in a very random unfocused way. Leaders in the social impact space need to select carefully and deliberately.

· Stick with it. To have impact, you have to maintain the work. I think it's very rare that there are short term wins in this space. The most important social impact work is long term. And I always tell my students that I admire leaders who stick with it and deliver the strongest impact. Sometimes you can do your best work later in your leadership service if you stick with it long enough, but it requires time.

· Collaborate. Increasingly complex social problems require people and organizations to work together. As one friend says, we need more ensembles and fewer soloists. I think the best of social impact leadership involves ensembles, partnerships, and collaborations of people and organizations working together on a complex social problem.

Review: As a leader in your field, what does leadership mean to you?

Honan: When I was given opportunities to lead, even way back in high school sports teams where I was the captain of my school’s track and cross-country teams, the switch flipped. You're given an opportunity to lead, you ask yourself, leading for what? - and then you take it. If I am asked to lead or asked to serve, the answer should be yes and 99.9% of the time it is.

I continue to learn about my own approach to leadership from teachers, other leaders, and from each experience. I am a long-term trustee of many organizations and this has created a spiral where assignments and projects evolve to leadership roles. In my field of education or nonprofits, which is where I spend most of my time, I see myself as serving in a role, along with others, to try to do this work. Some concepts that inform my leadership style whether it's a team of people or an organization or a collaborative partnership are the following:

· Best ideas rule. I want everyone on the team--whatever our task is--to share their ideas and perspectives. We just need the best ideas and want to hear all voices.

· Be there with and for each other. I am a terrific supporter of music and the arts, and while watching ensembles up close, I have been inspired by how musicians all help each other out so that their music together is bigger than the sum of its parts.

· Enjoy the work and the opportunity to work together.

Review: What does success look like to you and how do you know if you’re successful?

Honan: I always ask myself how I’ll know if I’m successful on every project I ever take on. I know that the job of leaders, among other things, is to make things better and improve their organizations. While working on a set of problems that are complex and important, it's crucial to keep people focused on what we're trying to do. And I have had the good fortune of mentors pushing me to think more broadly and in bigger ways about impact. Sometimes there are metrics of success or even intermediate measures to say we're on the right track, but in lot of the spaces I work in, it's hard to tell. Then you wonder, what do we do next? It can help keep you on track to ask how you know if you're successful. The opposite corollary is also true, and I always think of this, too, if you're not making things better, and you're not improving the performance of your organization then you're probably not doing a good job leading. And I just don't want to be that person.

Review: What would be the title of your memoir if you ever chose to write one?

Honan: I would title my memoir, A Wonderful and Unlikely Journey. I am really fortunate over the past 39 years at Harvard to have had a tremendous platform and place to work and it is an honor and privilege to work in the field of education and social impact and with nonprofit organizations. At our best we make the world better. And what could be more important than that? So, if there's some small way to contribute to that particular agenda or outcome. Sign me up!


About the Author:


Robin Mendelson is a 2020 ALI Fellow. Her professional background is in retail technology where she led the US Books and Entertainment Media Division at and served in other leadership positions in general management and finance in the US and internationally during her twenty-year tenure. Robin serves on various non-profit boards supporting arts, libraries, and education.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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