Understanding The Role of a COO in an Organization

One of the most basic necessities of life is water. 

There are many places in the world where clean water is a rarity. Fortunately, there are agencies that have made providing clean water for people in such places their mission. Charity: water is one of such agencies.

On today’s episode of the Process Breakdown Podcast, Dr. Jeremy Weisz speaks with guest Lauren Letta, the former COO of charity: water.

They discuss the inner workings of charity: water during Lauren’s time there as COO, how she transformed the company’s SOPs, and her reason for moving on from the company.

Listen to the audio interview

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Show Notes:

0:06 – Intro

0:26 – Dr. Jeremy Weisz shares the best solution that makes documenting standard operating procedures drop-dead easy, highlighting a 14-day free trial. No credit card required.

1:48 – Dr. Weisz introduces this episode’s guest, Lauren Letta, COO at the innovative non-profit charity: water.

2:51 – Ms. Letta talks about the concept of the rise of the COO, explaining how many companies/start-ups these days are looking for a COO.

5:31 – Ms. Letta gives some examples of different types of COOs and different roles COOs can take on, depending on the company they’re integrated into.

7:41 – Ms. Letta talks about her transition and the things she did during her time at charity: water, and she expands more about the company’s vision.

11:56 – Ms. Letta explains the differences between chief of staff and COO, and the different roles.

14:06 – Ms. Letta explains how she handled the chief of staff and COO roles by taking on some of the founders’ roles to make things easier and understanding what is needed in the business ecosystem.

19:14 – Ms. Letta talks about some of the things she did to redesign charity: water and take it to the next level, and the pivot the business made from a one-time donation machine to a subscription-based donation model.

23:41 – Ms. Letta talks about the transparency of charity: water, and how charity: water builds public trust.

26:41 – Ms. Letta walks us through the steps she took when she was accessing problems in charity: water.

29:39 – Ms. Letta explains how she creates pathways to eliminate redundancies or inefficiencies.

33:07 – Ms. Letta talks about a trip she and a group took with Will and Jada Smith to Ethiopia.

34:48 – Ms. Letta talks about what’s next for her on her career journey.

35:59 – Outro

Guest Profile:

Lauren Letta - former COO of charity: water

Lauren Letta is a strategic advisor and former COO at charity: water, a non-profit organization with a mission of providing clean water to people who need it around the world.

She’s a creative leader who is passionate about designing and scaling organizations into global brands with exceptional impact. Along with her team, she helped to reinvent the non-profit sector.

She has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Dayton. Some of her skill sets include strategic communications, strategic planning, operations, and marketing.

Transcript of the Interview

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Process Breakdown Podcast, where we talk about streamlining and scaling operations of your company, getting rid of bottlenecks and giving your employees all the information they need to be successful at their jobs. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Dr. Jeremy Weisz here, host of the Process Breakdown Podcast, where we talk about streamlining and scaling operations of your company, getting rid of bottlenecks and giving your staff everything they need to be successful at their job. Lauren, I always like to mention past episodes. There’s so many good past episodes because when we’re talking about operations in COO, it’s like the sexy or non-sexy stuff that actually makes things run smoothly. So past episodes, we had David Allen of Getting Things Done, Michael Gerber of The E-Myth and there’s been many more. So check them out, including today’s. And I’m going to introduce today’s guests in a second, but this episode is brought to you by SweetProcess. So, if you’ve had team members ask you the same questions over and over, and you may be may have spent 10 times explaining it. Well, there’s probably a better way.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: SweetProcess is actually a software that makes it drop dead easy to train and onboard new staff and save time with existing staff. And when I was talking with Owen, who’s one of the founders, not only do universities, banks and hospitals use them, but, and software companies, but also first responder government agencies use them in life or death situations to run their operations. So you can use SweetProcess to document all the repetitive tasks that eat up your precious time and your team’s time so you can grow. And you can sign up for a free 14-day trial, there’s no credit card required, sweetprocess.com, it’s sweet like candy, S-W-E-E-T, process.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: I’m excited about today’s guest. She’s literally helped change the world I think, Lauren Letta, is COO, she’s pivot her career from fashion to philanthropy and decide to pivot again. She spent the past decade growing the innovative nonprofit Charity Water. I don’t know, I feel like, Lauren, everyone’s heard of Charity Water at this point, maybe not, but they grew from $10 million to $100 million reaching more than 12 million people with clean water during her tenure. And at the end of 2020, Lauren decided to give up her dream job as a COO of Charity Water, and forge a new path. So Lauren, thanks for joining me.

Lauren Letta: Yeah, of course. Thanks for that. Excited to be here.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Maybe we’ll talk about the new path. I mean, we’re going to get into kind of how you got there in the first place, the what you did as COO and how you put a lot of these systems and operations in place so it helped run much smoother. And maybe at the end, we’ll have time to talk about the next journey. I hope we do. I want you to start with, we were chatting before we hit record about the rise of the COO. So what did you mean by that?

Lauren Letta: Yeah, that’s a great, it’s a fun topic right now I think. And I can’t offer it as my own. I heard a really proven COO who has grown some unicorn companies talk about it, her name’s Allison Pickens, and she’s written about it. So you should look it up, but it was this concept of, and I see it now too, the rise of the COO in that every company of all different sizes are hiring a COO. And I even as I’ve come up through my time of being a COO, it was like, “What is a COO? And where does it fit in the organization? And what does a COO do?” And I found out pretty quickly with my own experience and from the people in my network, that there are very many different types of COOs. And Alison talks about two of those topics, one being, what is the COO and how do you become one, and what are the different types of COOs? Which is an interesting one.

Lauren Letta: And the other one is why are there so many companies with so many different stages and sizes and especially I think in the startup world, starting to look for a COO, and if you go out there and search right now and you are a COO, you’ll see… I mean, every company I’ve ever heard of, I just feel like I look out and every day is like another cool company is thinking about this position. And oftentimes for the first time, and I think it’s for a couple of reasons.

Lauren Letta: One, I think that at the end… A mentor of mine ultimately said, “COOs and operators are problem solvers and a business as a series of problems.” And at the end of the day, most of the best COOs I know are some form of a generalist, and especially in the startup world that we, so many of us are kind of in right now, and if you’re not in, it’s a good mentality to bring back, because it helps you kind of provoke, what does it look like if you’re working in a lean operating system or if you’re not kind of bound by the structure of a larger company, how can you innovate within that? And this operating generalist mentality I think is a master of all trades, and it helps to kind of bring the pieces together and solve whatever dynamic problem might be thrown at the business’ way. Ultimately like every day is there something new with a business?

Lauren Letta: But the other thing I think is that there’s a lot more founder-led businesses now. And Alison speaks about this as well. The idea of what used to be the CEO, which was this person who’s come out of a business school, has a proven track record of running companies. You look around right now, and you have a lot of companies led by people that maybe have never run a company before. Maybe they went to business school. Maybe they have some experience working in a company, but a lot of times they’re visionaries and creatives and that doesn’t necessarily apply to being the best person to run a business. So I think a lot of folks at this stage are starting to say, “What’s my backend and how do I solve for that? What is the side of me that’s not my strongest?” And I think in a lot of places, the CEO, especially if a founder or a visionary, is looking for the person to do the day-to-day to run the business.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: So, you mentioned the different types. What are some examples when you say different types of COOs?

Lauren Letta: Yeah. Well, I think there’s different stages of companies and depending on what a COO looks like there, and I think there’s also different makeups of what a COO can take on. So for example, like in my position and in the position that I’m really excited about, is when the COO is really looking at the collective organism, that is the company and kind of all the interlocking pieces. So for me, what that meant is, I sat over revenue and brand and I sat over the internal operating functions like finance and, or not like finance, like production and operations and people and culture. And there was this kind of relationship that are between, how does the business run on the inside for the people inside, and how does the business present itself outside to its customers? I love the interconnectivity of that.

Lauren Letta: And I think that makeup of that type of a COO is what maybe traditionally would be more of a president, because that’s a role that you assume kind of has the domain of the entire organism of the ecosystem of this business, right? All of the functions working together. I really love that type of a role because I think it is efficient. And I think it also adds for a lot of continuity as opposed to a structure, let’s say there’s another thing where like maybe the COO is really sitting over just the internal operating functions, but then of course working in bounds with revenue leaders. And that’s another great way to work on it, especially depending the type of COO or the type of skillset that that person has, but then it requires much more of an alignment between the revenue leaders and making sure that you don’t create silos between the different ways that the teams are working. And I think no matter what it’s all about, really what is, the COO, whatever type they are is really aligning the pieces of the organization or the company so that they run together.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: I want to get granular in a little bit, Lauren about kind of what you did and things you put in place. But I love for you to give me an overview of the evolution of the different positions you had, because you came in doing one thing at Charity Water, and then you spit out the other, and not doing the same thing you came in with. So walk me through just high level, what were the things that you, through your tenure at Charity Water, what you did?

Lauren Letta: Yeah, for sure. So my background is in fashion, as you mentioned at the beginning, and that was really kind of on the PR branding and marketing side, but an output of that was doing big global events. And that is how I fell kind of into the Charity Water landscape. I met the founder and attended a gala. And then a few years later, the organization was, in 2010, it had about 15 people. They were raising, like you said, maybe 10 million or less a year. And their big kind of moment of the year was their fundraising gala. And so I came in back then to produce that gala for them. And it was at a time where the organization was really growing, really succeeding, but they didn’t have an org structure really in place. They didn’t have ownership really in place.

Lauren Letta: So when I came in, it was like, “Hey, can you take this gala that we all used to work on, and can you just produce it now so we can do our jobs, so we can run Charity Water and continue to help people get clean water?” And I guess we should say that, you said at the beginning, lots of people know what Charity Water is, but perhaps not everybody does. So I’ll give a little plug to Charity Water before I go back into my roles. But Charity Water is a nonprofit organization based in New York city. It’ll turn 15 years old this year. And since the organization was founded by Scott Harrison, we’ve reached, as you said, more than 12 million people with access to clean water. So Charity Water exists to serve people who are living without any access to clean water in developing countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, also throughout Asia with their first access to water.

Lauren Letta: So oftentimes that looks like a well for a community who used to be walking hours to collect dirty water. And so Charity Water exists as an organization really to solve this water crisis. There’s now almost 800 million people on the planet that live without access to clean water. And so Charity Water, that’s really what we’re here to do. That’s the mission. But underlining Charity Water’s mission is a really profound vision, which is to reinvent charity. So the reason that many people know about us is because we’ve worked really hard since the beginning to kind of disrupt the sector through proof and transparency and beautiful brand and hopeful and inspiring content. And so that is Charity Water, which is where I was lucky enough to be for these 10 years. And so when I came in, I came in as a consultant to produce that gala.

Lauren Letta: And then, and pretty quickly after that consultancy, I was still in my full-time job, but really kind of just felt the power of this organization and of the founder’s vision for what was possible in the world, and had previously never thought about working at a charity ever. I barely had a favorite charity at the time. Now Charity Water quickly became mine. And so, and it just clicked together. And I joined pretty shortly after that, I left my fashion position and I joined as executive producer, which was the title we made up and it basically meant get stuff done. And that stuff was, we defined it as anything that had a beginning and an end, which if you look back at is a little bit arbitrary, but, and it was whether that be external facing like marketing campaigns or events, or internal facing like developing systems and processes, which is why it goes back to kind of speaking to that original point of both kind of having an eye on the inside and an eye on the outside and the brand and the revenue, which I really loved the connection of those.

Lauren Letta: So I came on as executive producer and really the first thing I did was just start asking questions, just start figuring out what was working and what wasn’t working. So of the 15 people that worked there on the time, I interviewed each of them and just kind of put together a report and did a red light, yellow light, green light, what should we work on? What should we pause? What’s going okay right now? And then for the next 10 years, I just continued to work on that list more or less, evolving that list of what needs to happen. And so I was executive producer for a few years working kind of both on internal processes and external campaigns and essentially in the capacity of a project manager, built up a production team within the organization, which is a really kind of unique muscle that we have, which is, what I always consider the kind of connective tissue and translation of the org. And then I moved on to chief of staff. I was in that role for a few years, and then I moved on to COO after that.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: What is the difference between chief of staff and COO? What were you doing?

Lauren Letta: Well, for me, and again, I think these are titles, especially executive producer, which we kind of made up at the time and chief of staff, which was the first for our organization. And when I assumed the title, it wasn’t as popular as it is in the kind of startup world now, it was a more of a political title that you would typically hear of. And so we were kind of defining it, which I think is it often a good strategy based on what are the needs of the business today and how do my skills relate to them? And when the chief of staff title came up, there was essentially the conversation that said, “Okay, our internal muscles and machines are running pretty well. The projects that we’ve managed, they now can kind of run themselves. But what would it look like now for Lauren to turn her attention from working on the organization and the processes there, to working on making the founder as successful as possible.”

Lauren Letta: And so the chief of staff was transitioning from the day-to-days of the business aspects of kind of the production aspects of the business, to applying that same skill of how do we create more efficiency and maximize the return of the business, applying that then to the founder, Scott. And that itself then kind of resulted in saying, after some exploration saying, “How do we get the best out of Scott? How do we set Scott up to be doing the most unique things that he’s uniquely qualified to do and take away from him the things that he’s not qualified to do?” And I think oftentimes that’s how the COO fits into the company, and that’s the difference.

Lauren Letta: For me, it was a difference between the chief of staff and the COO. So the chief of staff is supporting the CEO to be in this case as effective as possible with his time, taking off some of his responsibilities, which then turned me into the COO, as I took off the responsibilities from our founder, which related more to the day-to-day running of the business and managing of the team. And, so that he could be out of evangelizing the mission, promoting, thinking about the future of the brand, and really kind of doing the things that he was born to do.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: So it’s basically a transition of, okay, making the founder or CEO and taking that and then taking on the role in running the operations or anything that needs to be done from that point.

Lauren Letta: Well, yeah, I think somewhat in my case, but in general, my kind of philosophy to an organization’s design is really about looking at that living, breathing ecosystem and understanding what is needed at any given time, right? Business has changed so much because the world changed so quickly. And so my role is only ever really a reflection of what is my skillset? What are the needs today of the organization? How does that match and balance with what else is already in the organization? So I believe in a really fluid, agile organizational structure in my, I’m less about my linear path and step up path to my title structure, though this one ended up making a fair amount of sense when you look back on it. It was more so how do I continue to reinvent myself within this business so that I am serving at the highest potential capacity?

Lauren Letta: That means that the business is performing really well, but also that I am challenged. And what happened for me, time and time again is, I would hire people that were better at the job than I was, and I would hand that chunk off, and then I would look to the other direction and find the next thing to focus on. So I think the executive producer to the chief of staff to the COO and the difference between those roles had to do with the domain and the size of the domain that I was taking on, it had to do with the size of the organization and the intensity of the role that was required, but it was really a reflection of the business as a whole and how we as a team were performing, because I’m kind of just one part of a larger connective force here.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Yeah. Because I think at one point Lauren, you get an email from Scott Harrison, the founder, and you basically help smooth a lot of things over and he’s like, “Okay, now it’s your turn to do that for me.” Or something of that sort.

Lauren Letta: That happened at one point. Yeah. I think that was really the transition. Yep. It did. That was the kind of transition from executive producer to chief of staff, was, “Hey, things are running pretty well here. You want to come focus on me now and make my office run a little bit better, make me more efficient?” Which was like a fun kind of transition. And then the next transition also kind of in an email, which is also just speak to like these trajectories don’t have to be grandiose. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, now I’ve been promoted to this.” Although it was, it was more matter of fact, and it was more a natural progression of my role within the organization and also within the company and what was needed for it at that stage, but the transition from chief of staff to COO was kind of like, we had had our first down year that had ever happened in the organization’s history, which in some ways is a great blessing.

Lauren Letta: We had been growing and growing and growing, but we didn’t know the opposite side of that. And we learned what that looked like and it hurt. And we understood why. And we kind of picked apart that problem and understood what was underlining the foundation that made it so that we needed to pivot some business decisions. In that case, it was about repeatable revenue. But as we did that, we were tired because we had just been going at it for nearly 10 years. And so at that time, Scott was like, “Hey, I’m going to go take a break for a month and just take a mini breather, cleanup this, figure it out, and when you come back, maybe you can be COO. Or when I come back maybe we’ll promote you.”

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Like a trial by fire. Like I’m going to leave for a month, here good luck.

Lauren Letta: Yeah. Don’t light it up. And I think what we ended up happening, and I think it goes back to this original concept of every organization is different and it’s a reflection of the people in it, and the people are a mixture of roles and skills that need to match together, and what I think we found out happening is that there was a chunk of the business that Scott at the time of CEO, was feeling responsible for doing that maybe he could do a fine job at, but it wasn’t what he wanted to be doing and it wasn’t the best application of his skills. And if he could step away and see how I could fill into that gap, it allowed him to step back the founder side of the role, still a CEO as well, but allowed him to redefine what we call redefine your role mix, meaning where do I focus my time? What are the roles that I hold? I’m I holding the right roles?

Lauren Letta: And so we kind of did this shuffle within the organization at that time, and specifically the exec team of like, what are the roles of the executive team and who should hold which ones based on the makeup of this exact team? Right? Because I’m a big believer that it kind of doesn’t matter what your title is. It goes back to COOs, we can all look very differently. Some come from finance, some could come up from a product background. I came from fashion with a PR background. That’s not your typical COO. But it’s how do you think, how do you solve problems and what skills are you bringing to pull together the pieces of the business so that they operate the way they need to?

Lauren Letta: And it’s a, I think it’s a mindset as much as a skillset and as much as experience. And so it goes back to when you’re thinking about your type of COO, whether it be you’re looking for a COO in your company, or you think you want to be a COO, you’re ultimately figuring out, what is the unique skillset that you’re bringing in? How does it match the needs of the environment you’re in? And that looks different. I’d be a terrible COO in some institutions. And I’d probably be a great one in others.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: There was a point in the down year, which, you’re a really good writer. I read the article, and you call it the redesign. So what were some of the things you did to reinvent, to redesign Charity Water to get it to the next level?

Lauren Letta: Yeah. So I wrote this kind of Medium piece that you’re referring to, I think, which is when I was transitioning out of Charity Water, which I guess is the highlight of this story here. I guess you mentioned that I’ve kind of made my pivot, but I spent 10 years at Charity Water. It was an amazing 10 years. And then I made this decision last year in 2020, not because of COVID actually despite it, to transition out of this organization and this role that I love and team and mission that is incredibly a huge part of my life. But I did it because I felt the need to search for my next challenge and adventure. And I wrote this Medium piece that you’re referring to kind of as my love letter to Charity Water. And in it, I was talking about this pivot that the business made from a kind of one time donation machine that was performing really, really well for the first several years of the organization, to a subscription business model.

Lauren Letta: And that was really the pivot, and the redesign, and it speaks to that first down year. We had our first down year in 2015 and we kind of looked around and said, “What happened?” And we realized that the revenue had fell off a cliff because of three donations, right? That were non-repeatable for a variety of factors that were unrelated to our business and related to the market. And so we looked at the foundation and said, “If we want to keep scaling, if we really want to solve the water crisis in our lifetime, which is what we’re set out to do, we need to go faster and we need to make sure that we’re not starting over at zero every single year, reraising all of this money and then having to top ourselves on top of that.” And so we pivoted back in 20, that was in 2015, we started to redesign the organization around a subscription model.

Lauren Letta: So a monthly giving model, which is not new to the nonprofit space. It’s actually quite old, there’s a sponsor child model, but we wanted to reinvent what that looked like for a kind of future set of donors and a future community of givers. And at the same time, this concept of signing up for a subscription is all around us, right? You’ve got Netflix and Amazon. I mean, everybody’s signed up. I mean, everything is a subscription this day. I think I signed up for two subscriptions today on accident. So we, in 2015 heading into 2016, saw there was this way of reinventing what had been the traditional nonprofit model of a monthly or recurring giving model, to a new aged way of thinking about subscription for good. And we wanted to do that so that we could start to raise money that would raise money on top of itself, as opposed to starting over and reraising those funds.

Lauren Letta: We wanted to get people to sign up forever to join the mission as opposed to one-off donations. And the first thing we needed to do is figure out how would our organization need to be designed to pivot towards that new strategy. We hadn’t had a subscription program before 2016. So the first thing we did was really starting to understand what kind of monthly giving program are we going to build and how are we going to build it, and so as we develop the strategy for what we thought that looked like with the existing team members that we had, then we started to identify what were the holes in our org structure that we didn’t have to fill that. At the time, we kind of thought about that through the lens of product and marketing, and then it took us several years to figure out what should the, kind of, what should the structure of the business look like? And ultimately the big pivot we made after having two years of the subscription program, which is called The Spring, the monthly giving program we launched in 2016 is called The Spring.

Lauren Letta: We had two years of that program running kind of with our existing team in place. And then we started to pivot the organization essentially towards a structure that said, we’re going to prioritize The Spring, and we’re going to show that we’re prioritizing our monthly giving program by hiring one person to own that entire product. And by kind of stacking the team and the resources needed to make that product successful underneath of it, as opposed to having just centralized functions. So we were previously pretty centralized, almost like an agency, where we had a creative team and an engineering team and a product team and they service all of our audiences, and we started to slowly kind of push that forward and put them under essentially one PNL with one owner, really responsible for just one thing, which was driving the annual recurring revenue and owning the community of The Spring members so that it was both an innovative and impactful program, and also one that we could count on to really scale up our mission.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Yeah. I love that because I remember, I mean, just chatter in nonprofit and for-profit on how you just created this subscription, and then on top of that, with the other pieces, the transparency of Charity Water is unique too, right?

Lauren Letta: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Though Charity Water, as we said from the beginning, has this amazing mission to reinvent or to solve the water crisis. But that underpinning vision of reinventing charity, there was a couple of really sound principles that came along with that vision from the very beginning. And it came from this idea that we wanted people to believe and trust in Charity. And we wanted Charity to feel hopeful and joyful. And so that meant first on the trust side, Scott started the organization with 100% model. It was a really bold promise that said, every single dollar that is given to Charity Water will go straight to the field. 100% of every gift given from the public goes straight to the field, implements a water project and make sure somebody new is drinking clean water. Even the credit card fees are paid back.

Lauren Letta: What that meant is that we needed to raise separate funds to fund our operations, but it promised the donor that… And the millions of donors that have now given to Charity Water, that they knew that the dollar they gave wasn’t going to go to pay our salaries, and it wasn’t going to go to pay the rent, which by the way, are important expenses that should be supported in a nonprofit, and R&Rs just as they are in others. But we said, “If you want to know for a fact where your money is going, you can give to Charity Water. And we promise you 100% of your donation is going to go to the field and it’s going to have an impact in clean water.” And then we inspired a bunch of other people in a small private group of about 150 families that joined a program called The Well to support our operations. And we treat them as our stakeholders, our investors, and we showed them how important it was to fund the people that run the organization. And they just understood that.

Lauren Letta: And so that promise of transparency was really rooted into Charity Water from the beginning, and one of the differentiators that really helped us grow in scale. Another part of the proof was that we promised from the beginning, we would prove every single project. And before I worked there, when Scott started Charity Water, he threw a party. He raised money. He took the names and emails of everybody that came to that party. He took the money they gave him, he brought it to Liberia. I think drilled the first well. Went to Walmart or something, got a GPS unit. Went to Liberia, put it on the well, in Liberia, and then sent to everybody who came to that party, some of which probably didn’t even remember they went to the party and certainly didn’t remember it was for a charity, a picture of their well with the GPS coordinates and that it was pumping water.

Lauren Letta: And so this idea that you could prove a water project, that it existed, that a community had dirty water before and now they have clean water that everybody can understand clean water is better than dirty water, that was really built into this concept from the beginning of trust and transparency.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: I love it. I want to hear a little bit about your methodology too, Lauren is when you start off with a project, right? Because you were mentioning red, yellow, green light. Talk to me about, okay, I come and you have these, whether you realize it or not, maybe you do, you kind of went to all the teams, the people, you kind of gathered the information you did, the red, yellow. Walk me through when you come in to assess the problems, what did you do for a second, third?

Lauren Letta: Yeah, sure. But I mean, it’s funny because like that red light, green light, yellow light, audit thing I did, now almost probably 11 or 12 years ago is still similar mentality that I take to when I’m working with the business or a company now. And now in this stage of my career where I’m kind of have moved on from Charity Water and I’m exploring what’s next, I’m working with a bunch of different companies and clients on a bunch of different types of projects. And in each of them, there’s a same, that same, kind of similar concept, which is asking questions and understanding what exists and why. I’m a really big believer in every business is unique, and no matter how good you were or are in a certain environment, to be good in another one, you have to shed your assumptions about the way that things work, understand the environment, and then bring back slowly your experience to help inform that versus bringing in your experience and then smooshing in what exists there into your experience. If that makes sense.

Lauren Letta: I think a lot of people think like, okay, operating looks like this, or problem solving looks like this or marketing looks like this. And if I go into an environment where it doesn’t look like that, then it’s wrong. My thought is things must exist here like this for a reason, and because I believe the makeup of a business, is it a reflection of the people in it and or around it, I start there. So the first thing I do is ask a lot of questions and essentially audit the business. And because I like to look at the connection and the connective tissue between the way the business runs and the way the business raises money, what I think about is ultimately, let’s narrow it down. The first thing I want to do is narrow it down on why do we exist, right?

Lauren Letta: So, I have this great case study of Charity Water having this really clear vision and mission, and then knowing that the way we make decisions and the way that we organize and the way that we hire is going to be based around understanding those two purposes. So what I do when I go in is ask a lot of questions about, why do we exist? What are we here to do? Figure out where there’s alignment or misalignment, and then figure out where there’s efficiencies or inefficiencies, right? A lot of times you find out that if there are silos in an organization, you’ve got multiple teams or multiple people doing some part of the same job.

Lauren Letta: So I like to kind of listen and translate. And ultimately what my brain does is it’s a systems thinker. So what my kind of superpower is, is getting all the individual pieces that might be making up a business, and then figuring out what are the lines that need to connect them to make us more efficient, more set up to grow or scale if that happens to be what’s next for the organization and how do you make every single moving part in that business as effective as possible, whether it be a system, a process or a person. But it really starts by asking questions.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Yeah. And you probably… Through asking questions and seeing prioritizing what’s most important, you probably create this more linear path and probably eliminate certain things that’s creating inefficiencies along the way as you’re creating this pathway that, why are these… There’s maybe, you find redundancies or things like that.

Lauren Letta: Yeah, absolutely. And oftentimes, look, I consider myself a magnifying glass. I’m not discovering this thing, I’m just putting the light on it because the people there already know. But oftentimes, I think you find that people in their own business, especially if they’ve been doing it for more than a week, it just becomes a routine. And I think COVID was a great shakeup of that concept, because all of a sudden, everybody had to work in this entirely different way. And you started to question things about your life, about your job, about your team, about your efficiency, about your family, because all of a sudden, you weren’t just doing the same thing. And so I think that same concept of what very dramatically happened within COVID, it happens within businesses where you just get into a routine. And even though you know it’s a highly inefficient way to do your job, you don’t either feel empowered to, or you don’t feel like it, or you don’t think it’s worth it, because nobody’s going to listen to you or you think it’s going to be too much work, and it’s a hassle and it’s not worth it.

Lauren Letta: There’s all these reasons where people create this box and then work within it. And I think my job is to just show how you break out of that box, because oftentimes the answers are there. It’s very rare that you’re coming in and telling people something they haven’t thought of before, right? It’s just, you’re telling them it’s more about the how. What’s the step process forward to make that more efficient.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Yeah. It takes shaking things up with someone basically coming in and asking questions and seeing what else could be done or how else could be done. And that makes perfect sense. Lauren, I have two last questions for you. And before I ask them, I want to point people towards, wherever you think we should point people towards, obviously they could check out Charity Water on the internet. Where else should we point people towards online?

Lauren Letta: Yeah, for sure. Well, if you’re feeling like joining an amazing cause and solving the world’s water crisis, which is probably never a bad idea, you should definitely check out charitywater.org. It’s amazing organization, and you can join The Spring there, which would be a great way to help the mission kind of continue this fight. If you’re interested in learning about pivoting your career or kind of what taking some of those steps look like, you can check out my Medium posts online, which, my name is Lauren Letta, and if you search that and Medium, it’ll come right up, and you can learn a little bit more about my trajectory at Charity Water and also kind of what I went through to make a decision to leave a job I love in search of something else to just challenge myself and kind of break out of the mold and push myself into a new environment.

Lauren Letta: So I found a lot of people that I talked to right now, whether it be COVID related or not, have made a decision to kind of change some version of their life or their career, and I find a lot of us go through very similar phases of fear and excitement about that. So in case it’s motivation for a change in your life, you can check that out.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Thanks, Lauren. Check it out. She’s a fantastic writer. So I suggest everyone check it out on Medium and check out charitywater.org. So Lauren, two last questions and you don’t have to go, I know you have a child that needs your attention at some point, so you don’t have to go too long with these two questions. But one I wanted to ask about what I thought was fascinating too, is the Will and Jada Smith trip that you, to Ethiopia. And then I want to hear just what’s next for you. So I thought it was fascinating. I watched the video of Will and Jada Smith. Just briefly tell me a little bit about what happened there.

Lauren Letta: Yeah, sure. Will and Jada Smith, gosh, when was it? 2011, 2012. They gave up their birthdays, which was a kind of founding idea of Charity Water, the idea of give up your birthday. And instead of asking for gifts, ask for money for clean water, then they did that jointly together for their birthdays. And they did that through a fundraising campaign where they told the world that if you give to our campaign, we will kind of do a random selection and pick a couple of people who get to go to Ethiopia with Will and Jada Smith, pretty full park, and we’ll go see the work firsthand. I remember us being just amazed at every step of the way when it actually happened for like, it’s Will and Jada Smith, the biggest celebrities. We couldn’t imagine, are they really going to release the video, and then are they really going to fundraise, and are they going to really go to Ethiopia?

Lauren Letta: And all of those things really did happen. And we took a small group to Ethiopia of folks who had fund-raised on behalf of Will and Jada Smith’s birthday. I think they raised several hundred thousand dollars. We implemented water projects in the [northern of Tigray 00:34:07] and Ethiopia and their names, and then we went to see them together. And it was… I remember we were like on a dirt road in the middle of a very rural Tigray, Ethiopia, and I was standing there with Scott and the rest of the guests and all of the crew from our implementing partner there in Ethiopia, and we were like, “There’s just no way they’re going to show up.” We’re on the end of a dirt road and in the middle of nowhere, they’re definitely not going to come. And here you see the dust in the cars and they showed up and they spent two days dancing with the people and visiting the water projects and really getting to see the impact that they made. So it was an incredible experience.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Amazing. That’s amazing.

Lauren Letta: Yeah. Yeah. And then next for me, it’s probably no more trips to Ethiopia with Will and Jada Smith. So.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: You’re Ethiopian?

Lauren Letta: Yeah. I mean, well, hopefully Ethiopian one day, maybe. I don’t think I’ll ever be out of Ethiopia. I doubt it. Ethiopia is an amazing, amazing place, and the people are wonderful and the country now I was actually going through a pretty significant war and it’s definitely worth checking out how he could support Ethiopia right now in many different ways. And it’s dear to my heart. But what’s next to me is, as I said, I’m kind of exploring this new flexibility of my life in a little bit more agility of my career. So after spending 10 years focused on one huge mission, now I’m kind of trying to diversify myself and work on a couple of different types of problems in the for-profit and the impact space both, and working with a couple of different brands and companies at a variety of stages, solve a variety of problems, which is a really exciting new kind of version of myself.

Dr. Jeremy Weisz: Lauren, I want to be the first one to thank you. Thank you so much for what you have done. Thank you for what you will do, and everyone check out more episodes. Thanks Lauren.

Lauren Letta: Great. Thank you.

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