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“You have one “job” in this life: To be you.” with Howell J. Malham Jr. and Chaya Weiner

You have one “job” in this life: To be you. The trick is figuring out how “you” expresses himself/herself in this world, engages with the world, AND pays the light bill. Unless of course, one prefers to work in the dark. The sooner you understand and believe it, the sooner the path appears. I had the […]


You have one “job” in this life: To be you. The trick is figuring out how “you” expresses himself/herself in this world, engages with the world, AND pays the light bill. Unless of course, one prefers to work in the dark. The sooner you understand and believe it, the sooner the path appears.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Howell J. Malham Jr., Founder, GreenHouse::Innovation. Howell is an innovation strategist who helps organizations disrupt rigid, constrictive norms in order to design positive change. He co-founded Insight Labs in 2010, the world’s first philanthropic think tank, to design and develop radical new frameworks for change in partnership with organizations in the public, private, social academic sectors. He was a founding director of UX for Good. He founded GreenHouse::Innovation in 2014. Howell was the first innovator in residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in Los Angeles. He developed the GreenHouse Theory of Social Innovation, and is co-author of the first practicing PhD in social innovation, leadership and advanced management. Howell is the chief architect of Strategic Imagination™; and the creator of Innovation Dynamics, ™ a unique collection of lenses used to identify norms that hold problems — and conventional thinking — in place. A recovering brand strategist, he has worked with Walgreens, Allstate, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, LEGO, Quaker Oats, and HarperCollins. He has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Fast Company. He pens the column, On Norms. He is the author of I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t): The Illustrated Guide To Strategy (Wiley Jossey-Bass), and is currently working on his second book.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
 

 For most of my adult life, I wondered:: What makes a social problem a “social problem”? What keeps those problems — and the thinking of the people trying to solve those problems — in place? And might there be new ways to see those problems, model those problems, in order to design new ways to think about how we tackle those problems to effect meaningful, measurable change? It took a while but eventually I discovered how to design a career that would, in fact, allow me to tackle to those questions; and share the answers and insights with organizations that are working to do the most good for a world in desperate need of radical models for change.
 
 Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
 

 The most interesting event is the one that had the greatest impact on my work: Being named the first Innovator in Residence at the USC/ Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in Los Angeles, California. The opportunity afforded GreenHouse an opportunity to partner with a tier-1 research university to help us get smarter — much smarter — about the mechanics of social change. During this residency, we were able to further develop the GreenHouse Theory of Social Innovation, which drives all the work we do for organizations in the public, private, social and academic sectors; and is at the center of our methodology: Innovation Dynamics.™
 
 Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
 

 In my days as a brand strategist at a digital agency, I asked a client why he thought he needed to pay us all that money — and it was a lot of money — to rebrand his firm. He said, “Because my existing brand keeps me up all night.” I told him, “Your brand is fine. Maybe what you need is a new mattress.” I was, of course, being wry, but only to make a larger point: That it didn’t make any sense (to me) to pay us for a solution — a solution that we sold for a profit — when that solution might be solving the wrong problem. My boss didn’t like it, but as it turned out, I was right: his brand was perfectly fine. The fact that we were willing to work against our financial interest in that particular case endeared that client — and his team — to our agency on the spot. We didn’t do a rebrand but we did solve other, more important problems for the firm. And we even threw in a free mattress.

This wasn’t a lesson so much as an important reminder: Always speak truth, especially to money.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

In addition to teaching our approach to rapid social innovation — Innovation Dynamics™ — to thousands of students and professionals around the world; and authoring the first practicing PhD in social innovation, leadership and change, GreenHouse helps organizations design radical new models to effect social change.

Our findings and insights from a recent research and innovation project informed the design and launch of Steps Through OC, a new national pilot program that addresses the psycho-social dimensions of ovarian cancer; and provides pro bono care, counseling and education to all members of the ovarian cancer community: patients, spouses, children, relatives, friends. Basically, anyone who is impacted by a diagnosis.
 
 Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?
 

 Steps Through OC launched in December of 2018. Results at this early phase of the program are quite promising: as of May 2019, Steps Through OC enrolled 193 new participant — a big jump from the 11 participants who were enrolled during the program’s field testing phase in September, 2018.
 
 Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
 

 Yes. It begins with an open-minded willingness to believe that there are invisible, social pressures — what we call social norms — that are contributing mightily to the conditions that are keeping a problem “The Problem”; and that have the power to thwart the best laid plans to solve it. 
 
 Once the conversation has moved to this point, we are happy, indeed honored, to partner with a group or org to take it from there…

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
 

 Leadership, to me, is venturous: a willingness to give material force to an idea; to act, in other words, even in the face of great risk.

It’s curiosity: being able to listen and learn a lesson, any lesson, regardless of who is teaching it, and being thankful for it.

It’s humility: listening as eagerly as others want to speak, even when someone is telling you something you already know.

It’s vulnerability: recognizing and admitting when you’re dead wrong.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
 
 There’s only one thing I wish someone told me, but it’s something one must discover on one’s own, in one’s own time:
 
 You have one “job” in this life: To be you. The trick is figuring out how “you” expresses himself/herself in this world, engages with the world, AND pays the light bill. Unless of course, one prefers to work in the dark. The sooner you understand and believe it, the sooner the path appears.

Thank you so much for these great insights!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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