As a woman learning to lead and grow, I’ve often found myself on unfamiliar ground, whether at work or overseas. I’ve learned that situations will change and expectations will shift, but principles will stand. Here are the three personal principles I put at the heart of my work:
1. It’s important not to confuse influence with impact
We live in an era of the exclusive conference, the high-level meeting. We can tell ourselves that if we spoke with this important person or connected with that leader, we’ve made a difference. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Don’t confuse being in the important room with having an impact. Institutional inertia depends upon our complacency and complicity. Did you give just a well-delivered speech, or did you say the tough thing with diplomacy? Are you more focused on the speaking platform or diligently counting the real numbers?
Subscribe to the Motto newsletter for advice worth sharing.
Contrary to the prevailing winds of this time, the most important work won’t happen in a fancy room or often even in public. It will be quietly done over months or years in the face of an intractable problem. It will happen when everyone else has left the office, moved on or simply given up.
For us at the Malala Fund, the test is always if it will actually impact girls in developing countries. Can we measure it? Can we make sure it’s delivered? Girls in developing countries don’t need another high-level event or celebrity retweet, they need us to see them as equals and partner in bringing their voices and needs to those with the ability to achieve real change. We must never confuse an audience or influence with impact.
2. Know that it’s going to cost more than you think
The most worthy ideas are going to require your everything. And it’s not just funding—it’s your time, your energy, your confidence and your humility. It’s late nights and early mornings. It’s the effort to recover from a failure. You have the power to decide, in advance, right now, that you’re the kind of person willing to pay that price and do more. Being of service is rarely convenient, so we shouldn’t expect that it will be.
There’s a fantasy that significant change can happen within work-life balance. It will not. You will go right to the edge and likely over and hopefully catch yourself. You will be uncomfortable. You will regret the day you said you wanted to change and grow because now you need to change and grow. People will tell you that you look exhausted (which is just the worst, isn’t it?). Just be sure it’s only a season, with a beginning and an end. Be prepared to pay the price for the breakthrough, but don’t make a habit of living there forever.
People want to win but don’t count the cost of what it took to get there. Decide now to be the one who will stand steadfast when your work demands more of you than you thought it could.
Watch some of the world’s most successful women share the best advice they’ve ever received:
3. Understand that people are the prize
Even as we’re giving our all, we can’t ever lose sight that it is people, not achievements, reputation or accolades, that must be our pursuit. And not the opinions of people, but service to people. “What do people think of what I’m doing?” is a question that can guide so much of our behavior and choices from work to posting on social media. “What am I doing to be of service to people?” is an entirely different frame for our working lives.
At the Malala Fund, the highest use of our time is service to girls, to help them go to school so they can achieve their potential. When goals seems out of reach, I think of specific girls I’ve met in our work: Am I putting them at the center of every decision? Am I honoring that girl with how I spend my time, what I say, what I do? Her agency, freedom and potential are the prize. She is the prize.
How we serve is measured in our time and emotions. Goals and external validation will eventually come up short. A mission statement is going to leave you lacking at some point, but a personal commitment to serving people is what will guide you in difficult times. A person who is always willing to be of service will always be put to use in unexpected ways. So decide now that people will always be the most important thing, and get ready to get to work.
Meighan Stone is president of the Malala Fund. She previously served as vice president of communications and special projects at World Food Programme USA.