The Pursuit of Being Awesome
29 August 2016 at 10:16 am
Iain de Jong is a Canadian based academic and social change advocate who has been described as a leader of an international movement to end homelessness. He is this week’s Changemaker.
De Jong is president and CEO of OrgCode Consulting, an organisation that does extensive work on how the right leadership and planning can work to quickly end rough sleeping and homelessness.
He is the developer of an evidence-informed approach to assessing the acuity of individuals or families experiencing homelessness (the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool), he has won numerous international awards and accolades and he is a passionate advocate for social change as an educator, researcher, strategist, entertainer, policy wonk, blogger and motivational speaker.
Throughout his career, De Jong, who was giving a series of seminars in Melbourne last week as a guest of Launch Housing, has led the transformation of large cities, counties, states, provinces and individual organisations in ending homelessness.
In this week’s Changemaker, he talks about spending 300 days a year on the road, the drive to make a difference, and why the solution to homelessness is actually a very simple one.
Tell me about OrgCode Consulting and the work it does around ending rough sleeping and homelessness?
OrgCode does work predominantly throughout Canada and the United States, we focus on complex social issues, homelessness is probably the one that we spend most of our time with. We also do work on justice policy and drug policy and health policy. We are driven by making a difference, not by making money. And we do that by trying to help communities really focus on better outcomes.
You are described as a leader of an international movement to end homelessness, is this an issue that needs to be tackled globally?
It is. While there will always be regional nuances or national nuances, I think that we need to look at the changes that we have made structurally to our social welfare system and the impacts of globalisation to truly understand its relationship with homelessness.
You have won numerous international awards and accolades for a solution based approach to ending homelessness, why is this approach important?
Too often we focus on the symptoms of homelessness and not on the solutions to homelessness, and too often we want to moralise people’s homelessness, rather than taking morality out of the equation. The solution to homelessness is actually a very simple one. It is housing. And people quite often want to pretend, or put too much emphasis on things that it’s not, like mental health, substance use disorders, addiction, dependence, involvement in criminal justice etc. I think that if we focus on the simplicity then we get better outcomes, if we get better outcomes then we have more housing stability, if we have more housing stability then we have better human potential.
Why do governments not focus on the simplicity of the problem?
Well, I think for government, part of it is protecting, competing factions. So there is no shortage of organisations that want to maintain what they’ve always done and don’t want to focus on solutions, I think that’s part of it. I think the other reluctance on the part of government sometimes is you’d have to admit you that had been investing in some of the wrong things for a period of time and that’s a hard political pill to swallow. I would also say for governments, I think we’re coming to see that the retrenchment of the welfare state over the past two or three decades is having considerable impact on social issues like homelessness and it doesn’t jive well with the narrative of economic competitiveness. What I think governments would like to do is talk about charity and do-gooders but they don’t want to talk about solutions.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
I would like to see that homelessness when it does happen for any individual or family is short term in its duration and is not a repeating occurrence. That would be my dream. As I see progress in certain cities around the world, I am of the belief that the dream is turning into a reality, what we need is continued leadership and strong dedication to make sure we achieve the ultimate goals.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
I love that we are driven by mission, I love that we embrace innovation and I love that we get to work with so many communities that are early adopters that realise that the status quo isn’t working and to be exposed to bravery at that scale is really rewarding.
What is your typical day as CEO?
A typical day for me? Well, I will be some place in the world other than my home. So I spend about 300 days a year on the road. I will likely be engaged with a larger Not for Profit or a government organisation, and I will likely be taking a group of leaders, which could be program implementers, thought leaders, researchers, through a discussion of the mythologies of homelessness to the solutions of homelessness. I would say a typical day for me is six to eight hours of face time and six to eight hours of research time, and would likely include 400 to 500 emails from people around the world as well.
What is your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge, on a personal level, is work life balance. On a professional level it is getting people to move from embracing an idea to actually implementing an idea, and I would say overcoming the challenges of a risk averse culture that seems hesitant to make mistakes in the pursuit of being awesome.
What motivates you?
There’s a bit of my own personal narrative, but I won’t go into too much detail of that, but I think that’s a driving motivation. I think the support and acceptance of my wife to do this work is pretty extraordinary. And I think that I have worked with leaders that have embraced innovation and have really allowed me to make mistakes and fail forward and not see that as a hindrance but rather see that as a natural part of innovation and so having worked with mentors and leaders who have challenged me to excel, I now want to challenge and motivate others to excel.
Do you have a favourite saying?
Probably, be awesome. It’s in a lot of our stuff. The word awesome means a lot to me, I do think that we need to inspire awe in others and we need to do it as effectively or as many times as possible.