Operationalizing Change with Leigh Morgan of Gates Foundation

This post is written in January 2018 by Danielle Hayman, a second year Duke MBA student, CASE Fellow, and Co-President of Fuqua’s Net Impact Club.

All lives have equal value. This belief guides the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and also the life’s work of Leigh Morgan (A.B. ’90), former Gates Foundation COO.  Leigh discussed how this belief has shaped her leadership style and career path during an engaging CASE Executive Speaker Series event. What I took away from Leigh’s talk were key strategies to operationalize change within an organization, and how we – as individuals – can use our careers to have positive social impact regardless of sector.

Importance of Talent, Organizational Systems, & Governance

Earlier in her career, Leigh transitioned from community organizing to the corporate sector to learn how to create sustainable change within an organization.  “The corporate sector is very motivated to drive change if it can improve their bottom line.  And so they tend to devote resources to build talent and capability, and I wanted to learn from that.”  She has since applied her learning across a number of organizations – most recently at the Gates Foundation where she took on improving the operational efficiency of a large and siloed organization.

Leigh also highlighted how governance, including accounting, budgeting, and human capital, is a crucial component of change.  “It’s not sexy stuff, but it’s the stuff that makes the glue to a high-performing organization.”  And for this reason, she explained that indirect costs, especially in the nonprofit sector, warrant attention and investment to improve an organization’s outcomes.

Goal Setting & Willingness to Fail

Leigh stressed the importance of both establishing a common goal for an organization and using continuous improvement to operationalize change.  A common goal brings together silos within an organization to enable adoption of new systems, and helps the organization to focus even with the “noise” of competing interests.  Yet the adoption process itself is just as important, using prototyping to design, iterate, and learn from failures to iterate once again.  This process embraces failure in a public way that builds trust within an organization, and allows for more agility even within a large organization.

Mission Within Any Sector

One thing that stood out about Leigh was the variety of sectors within which she has worked, including government/public policy, the social sector, the corporate sector, and academia. Despite the different sectors and industries within them, there has been one strong theme throughout her career: working at purpose-based organizations.  “In any organization is an opportunity to make the world better.”

Leigh’s point is that an opportunity to make a positive impact on the world can exist within any organization – but that one must be purposeful to seek out and maximize those roles. Social impact is not limited to the nonprofit or public sectors.  “Think about where your passions are: What are you good at? What do you love to do?  Then seek out organization and culture where you can thrive.”  Regardless of where you’re working, you can create impact.  This belief has allowed Leigh to be successful throughout her career and continue to work toward her personal definition of success to live her life in a way that “helps create a more prosperous, peaceful, and loving world.”

In the final lightning round of questions, Leigh shared that her catchphrase is #rockit.  This simple mantra also describes the feeling of inspiration among attendees at the talk:  prepared to lead change within their organizations and find the right roles to have impact.

This post is written by Danielle Hayman, a second year Duke MBA candidate, CASE Fellow, and Co-President of Fuqua’s Net Impact Club.  Prior to Fuqua Danielle worked in the education sector, including as a college counselor in the New York City public school system.  This past summer Danielle interned with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.