The Unconventional CEO – Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People

christinegatuiruia Issue 01 - Sept/Oct 2012, Operations Leave a Comment

Water for People leader Ned Breslin is all about results.

By Christine Gatuiria

A CEO whose mission is to be irrelevant? That’s Ned Breslin: CEO of Water For People, a global nonprofit organization that supports long-lasting access to water and sanitation through innovative and creative solutions.

With a presence in 10 developing countries, Water For People believes everyone should have improved water… forever. Failed solutions such as broken water pumps and filled latrines are anathema. And unlike other groups that measure success based on how many people they reach, Water For People does not do “beneficiaries.” Instead, the organization focuses on program results, with its overall goal being not to have a permanent role in society.

Breslin worked for 16 years in Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique before joining Water For People as Director of International Programming in 2006. Three years later he assumed the role of CEO. With a touch of managerial savvy, Breslin redefined the leadership position to emphasize his practical knowledge of field operations, thus revamping the organizational strategy.

“People respond to big ideas,” Breslin said. As such, he sets “challenging and audacious goals” to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and game-changing ideas.

Relationships Trump Money

Breslin embodies these ideals in the way he does business. For example, whereas many nonprofit executives focus largely on fundraising, Water For People’s leading man prefers to build relationships.

“I don’t go to corporations or foundations thinking, ‘I have to raise ‘X’ amount of money.’”

“I don’t go to corporations or foundations thinking I have to raise ‘X’ amount of money,” Breslin said. Instead he talks, listens and learns from other organizations in his sector and finds ways to form partnerships and coalitions in the industry sector. It appears his methods are working: In 2010, Water For People received a $5.6-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The following year, Breslin received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

Fundraising and relationship building aside, like any other business the continued success of Water For People depends on the bottom line. In this case, the bottom line is not a magic number that beats analysts’ estimates; Breslin’s performance is measured on how well the organization adheres to its stated mission. Is there a strategic coherence to the diverse projects in the different countries? Are water system breakdowns quickly identified and resolved? Do employees create workable solutions that lead to real change? If the answers are yes, then mission accomplished.

Ned Breslin visits the field to meet with local community members and learn about new program innovations

Motivation vs. Micromanagement

One might expect a CEO who thrives on programmatic results to have his hand in the pot at all times, but Breslin is quite the opposite. “I’m a hands-off manager. I try to be more of a mentoring coach, and I trust the staff I work with,” he said.

“Build around what’s working, and pivot around what’s not working.”

People enjoy working with Breslin because he creates an environment in which risk-taking is encouraged and ‘failure’ is not a bad word. “Ned is a visionary, and will constantly inspire you,” said Water For People CFO Sue Dorsey. “[He] is extremely approachable, and the first to sit down and brainstorm ideas. The best idea in the room wins, and it doesn’t matter whose idea it was.”

Breslin is a bold and unconventional CEO. His management philosophy is to “build around what’s working, and pivot around what’s not working. That is when real momentum happens,” he said, “and that is how work is successful and powerful.”

Ultimately, if Water For People achieves its goals and everyone in the world has consistent access to water and sanitation, Breslin will have successfully engineered himself out of a job. How unique.

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