By Lori Hanau
An interview with Michael Pirron, founder of Impact Makers
For conscious companies, growth is different by definition. We don’t grow only for profit; we grow for purpose. We scale not only for a greater bottom line, but also for greater impact. For today’s conscious leaders, growth is transformed from an operational imperative into an expression of organizational integrity. When we grow, our actions match our intentions and our values become the vehicles for the work. No more sacrificing well-being for wealth or selling out to scale up. This is growth from the inside out.
The key to growing consciously is committing to internal growth — through personal development and cultivating group wisdom — as much as we commit to external growth — scaling our profits, reach, and impact. When we expand our mindsets and “heartsets” alongside our bottom lines and distribution channels, we open ourselves to creative business structures and solutions that defy the rules of business as usual.
Don’t just take it from me: take it from Michael Pirron, founder of Richmond-based Impact Makers, a social-impact IT consulting firm. Pirron started his business in 2006 with just $50, a laptop, and the commitment to live his values through his work. What makes Impact Makers unique is its business model. As a B Corp owned by two public charities, Impact Makers is creating a replicable hybrid business model through which profits and services directly benefit charitable nonprofits in the communities they serve. The idea is to build a business model that benefits community, providing a means for market-priced returns for investors, but never doing so at the expense of employees. Even though Pirron owns exactly zero percent of the company, both he and Impact Makers are growing by leaps and bounds — one personally and the other financially.
Impact Makers reached $11.6 million in sales in 2014, and this year they are expected to hit the $17 million mark. With 37 new hires in 2015 alone, the company was named the eighth fastest-growing inner-city company in the country by Fortune Magazine, and has been recognized on the Inc. 5000 America’s Fastest Growing Companies List for the past four years in a row.
I was honored by the opportunity to talk with Pirron about how he is growing Impact Makers with integrity. I distilled his wisdom into these seven guideposts for leading conscious growth:
1. GO FOR PERSONAL-DEVELOPMENT BREAKTHROUGHS
“If I leave to go to work every day and can’t participate at home as much because I have to make an income,” Pirron said, “I have to be able to look my kids in the eye and say I’m going to work for something that is more than just a paycheck.”
As a husband and father, the word “work” for Pirron means making an income “in a way that lives life to the fullest and is values-aligned.” This was the impetus behind starting Impact Makers. Even though it meant risking everything he had, Pirron saw starting the company as a personal growth opportunity he simply “had to go for.
2. ENCOURAGE INDIVIDUALS TO OWN THEIR AGENCY
In the early stages, there were a lot of growth challenges to overcome. The biggest question Pirron faced was how to bring people in, take ownership, and grow the company without the option of equity ownership. Impact Makers is designed as a very flat organization, built on the concept of shared leadership. According to Pirron, it has to be, because the only thing he has to offer is the fact that every single person in the company owns as much as the founder: zero percent. That means that every employee also has the chance to own the vision, mission, and values as much as Pirron.
“It couldn’t be about me,” said Pirron. “In order to be successful, I had to let go of a lot very early on.
3. BRING SHARED LEADERSHIP INTO ACTION
The flat structure of Impact Makers meant employing atypical leadership practices from the beginning. “Even though I was the founder, we started off with three other people in equal leadership,” Pirron said. “If I was too directive in decision-making, I knew people wouldn’t have stayed very long.”
By avoiding a singular and directive leadership model, Pirron gets to see the natural drive of his employees to come to work and build the business because they believe in it.
4. UTILIZE COLLABORATIVE DECISION-MAKING
With a team of just four or five employees early on, collaborative decision-making became a cornerstone of company culture. “As we scaled, we did restructure, but we have remained very collaborative with a 13-person leadership team,” Pirron said. “This is essential to our environment.”
At Impact Makers, the key to large-scale collaboration is accountability: “We give people accountability for certain decisions, pushing down decision-making as much as possible, and in ways that lead with our values,” Pirron said.
5. CHOOSE A RENEGADE BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Entrepreneurs of fast-growing enterprises usually select their board of directors to enhance industry knowledge and access to influence. But Impact Makers insisted on something else: a team of people that could help distribute the company’s profits into the community, where they would do the most good and have the greatest impact. It is the board that determines how best to give 100 percent of the company’s equity away, and, in doing so, ensure that the mission and company remain sustainable.
6. BAKE YOUR VALUES INTO EVERYTHING YOU DO
At Impact Makers, “lead with your values” is a mantra. “We have built a reputation formed on our values,” said Pirron. “We tell our staff, ‘if you do the right thing ethically and morally, and you do the right thing for the client, the executive team has your back 100 percent of the time.’”
Pirron attributes the success of Impact Makers to the model itself attracting and retaining top talent. Compared to the industry average of around 20 percent planned turnover, Impact Makers has seen only 10 people leave in nine years.
“Mission-aligned teams for clients outperform ones that aren’t,” said Pirron. “This brings economic value to our clients and it is meaningful for our employees and our leadership team. Come and stay. That’s why we have grown.”
7. DREAM BIG FOR FUTURE SCALE AND IMPACT
Impact Makers sprang from a vision to benefit community through business, and that remains the aim. “Fast-forward 10 years from now, [and] our vision is to have a $100- to $150-million liquidity event that creates one of the largest charitable gifts to the region,” Pirron said. “The philanthropic fund created out of our sale will make impact-investments locally with its principal, rather than in Wall Street, and, with the earnings, our charitable giving legacy continues.”
Impact Makers will achieve all of this while providing market returns to its investors and ensuring that employees share in the value they have worked so hard to create. The company is committed to proving the model so others can copy it and bring it to their own communities.
Companies like Impact Makers show us what it takes for conscious companies to grow with integrity. When we replace the drive to gain individually with the dream to benefit collectively, we innovate what it means to grow. As Pirron points out, there is no individual upside for employees in that a singular person is not going to get rich from production or profit margins. In the place of the promise of individual gain, Impact Makers has scaled successfully because of its promise of shared benefit, with all profits going back to meet the needs of the community as a whole.
At the end of the day, Impact Makers is a group of middle-class professionals doing the same work they have always done, but giving it a different structure in order to cultivate collective benefit, ultimately making the same impact in the community as the large foundations in town do. As the company grows, so do the benefits, and so too does the intrinsic motivation of employees, founders, and clients alike. That, says Pirron, is a really disruptive game changer, and I couldn’t agree more.
Lori Hanau is dedicated to supporting shifts in consciousness, communication, and community in the workplace. She is the founder of Global Round Table Leadership, where she works with people and teams to build the personal and shared leadership capacities required to meet the call and needs of our times. She is also faculty at Marlboro College’s MBA in Managing for Sustainability. Lori has been supported in shared leadership by Claire Wheeler and Lainie Love Dalby in the writing of this article. Visit Global Round Table Leadership to learn and share your stories of shared leadership.
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