Neil Jeffery: Departing reflections from WSUP’s Chief Executive

Themes: WSUP governance

By Neil Jeffery

Today is my last day at WSUP after eight years as Chief Executive. I let the Board know of my decision to step down at the end of last year. The substantial notice period allowed for a stable and ordered handover to the new CEO, Ed Mitchell, a very knowledgeable and experienced individual. I am delighted to have been able to organize the transition in such a way to maximize stability for the business. Ed and I have spent the last fortnight visiting most of WSUP’s main funders and supporters to ensure an ‘in person’ handover of each relationship. This period has provided an invaluable opportunity to discuss in detail the future opportunities for WSUP.

Over the weekend I was clearing out papers from my office and came across a presentation on achieving scale that I had prepared for the WSUP Board in 2014. This set me reflecting on the journey that WSUP has been on over the last eight years, and the scale we have managed to achieve over that period.

Achieving impact at scale is the “holy grail” of social enterprises. Many talk about seeking or planning to achieve scale, but far fewer manage to reach a level of scale in their operations. WSUP recently celebrated the milestone of improving the lives of 30 million low-income residents in Africa and Asia through improved water, sanitation, and hygiene services. These women, men, and children have benefited through access to sustainable and financially viable services provided by local utilities and private sector providers working under the mandate of the utility. In 2014 WSUP had successfully worked with 4 million individuals, so achieving the target of assisting 30 million required a transformation in the organization’s ability to operate at scale.

I am extremely proud of having been able to lead WSUP through this period of sustained growth in impact. This achievement is down to many factors, not least WSUP’s remarkable, talented and experienced global staff. 80% of WSUP team members work in, and are from, Africa and Asia. This impressive pool of talent and expertise has been fundamental in building and maintaining positive relationships with governments, partners, and communities. It has allowed us to be entrepreneurial, agile, and responsive in the face of external shocks such as COVID or severe climatic events.

However, to reach scale, we needed to help these teams achieve even more. Over the last few years, we have worked to increase the autonomy and agility of our international teams in a framework of strengthened assurance, to allow them to achieve greater and faster impact. As part of this initiative, we established a three-year training and mentoring programme to strengthen the capabilities of our Africa and Asia country managers to prepare them to lead much larger multidisciplinary teams as WSUP grew. In parallel to this, we created new Africa-based senior roles to lead our international influencing strategy.

To grow, funders and investors needed to have confidence that we were able to credibly deliver on time, at scale, and in complex scenarios. I recognised early on that this belief must be underpinned by a high level of confidence from external stakeholders in our internal systems. As a result, I set about transforming our systems to prepare the business to achieve impact in a fundamentally different and more efficient manner. Over a number of years, we completely transformed WSUP’s finance, talent, risk, and IT management systems, and established new learning & development procedures. Additionally, we introduced a “cradle to grave” contract management process for all WSUP’s operational contracts. These professionalised systems, combined together, allowed us to increase support to our global teams and strengthen assurance and accountability, whilst empowering staff to deliver impact at scale.

Equally important was a clear, realistic, and inspiring vision for staff and external stakeholders of WSUP’s trajectory for growth. It was essential to ensure that all believed in the mission and stayed connected to the journey. Articulating the values of the social enterprise and those who worked in it was a critical aspect of this process. For the first time we were able to establish a set of organisational values that truly reflected the aspirations of our staff. We accomplished this through an extensive consultation process with all global teams, collating their perspective of WSUP’s unique contribution and value. This ultimately allowed us to announce six new organisational values to coincide with the 2020-2025 Business Plan.

Finally, an engaged Board was essential for achieving success. The involvement of the Board in each business plan process has increased steadily over my eight years at WSUP. The Board participated actively in defining the strategic direction of the 2020-2025 Business Plan. Based on reflections and suggestions collected through 50 detailed stakeholder interviews conducted with staff and external partners, the Board elaborated five strategic objectives as the basis of the plan. In 2019 the Board travelled as a group, for the first time, to conduct a deep dive into one of WSUP’s most successful operations and finalise the strategic goals for the plan.

Others may point to additional critical factors, but if the experience of the last eight years has taught me anything, it is that you must get the basics right before you can “soar” as a social enterprise. Impact at scale is definitely achievable, but it requires strategic focus, analytical rigour, determination, and passion.

Working with Ed over the last couple of weeks has demonstrated that he has the passion, energy, and vision to lead the organization to even greater impact at scale. I know he is enthusiastically committed to assisting more low-income residents to access sustainable water and sanitation services. I wish Ed and all the WSUP team across the globe the very best for WSUP’s next stage of growth.

Top image: Neil Jeffery and WSUP managers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2018

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