Jacqueline Novogratz (Acumen Fund) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Jacqueline Novogratz is C.E.O. of the Acumen Fund, which invests in businesses aiding the world’s poor. She advocates initiatives when humility and audacity go hand in hand.

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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Bryant:Tell me about your approach to leadership.Novogratz:I think we so often equate leadership with being experts — the leader is supposed to come in and fix things. But in this interconnected world we live in now, it’s almost impossible for just one person to do that.So if we could only have more leaders who would start by just listening, just trying to understand what’s going wrong from the perspective of the people you’re supposed to serve — whether it’s your customers or people for whom you want the world to change.Leaders can get stuck in groupthink because they’re really not listening, or they’re listening only to what they want to listen to, or they actually think they’re so right that they’re not interested in listening. And that leads to a lot of suboptimal solutions in the world.The kind of leaders we need — and certainly that I aspire to be — reject ideology, reject trite assumptions, reject the status quo, and are really open to listening to solutions from people who are most impacted by the problems.

I’ll often say at Acumen that you’ve got to learn to listen with your whole body. Lean in and pay attention not only to what someone is saying, but also to their body language and their level of comfort or discomfort. You have to learn to ask questions in a way that will elicit more nuanced answers, rather than the answers you would like to get.

Bryant: What kind of culture are you trying to foster at Acumen?

Novogratz: At Acumen we try to wear our values on our sleeves. We are building companies, and so we have to be really accountable. We’ve got to be tough, and yet we have to be very generous, since we’re working in communities where people make a dollar or two dollars a day. We talk about the power of listening and we juxtapose it with leadership, because sometimes you’ve listened enough, and now it’s time to make a decision.

We think about our values in pairs, and there is a tension or a balance between them. We talk about listening and leadership; accountability and generosity; humility and audacity. You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is — and in our world, working with poor communities, that’s not easy to do — but have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it be different, to imagine the way it could be. And then the immutable values are respect and integrity.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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