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How John Wood Uses Proven Business Practices to Change the World


At a local event in Dallas, I was fortunate to hear John Wood, former Microsoft executive, and founder and board chair of Room to Read. Room to Read is an award-winning non-profit organization for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world.

So much of what he said was inspiring to me, and I pulled out these five leadership lessons for you.

1. Dream big

It was at Microsoft that Wood learned the concept of BHAGs – big, hairy audacious goals – as termed by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last. (Microsoft’s BHAG was “a computer on every desk and in every home.”)

His own BHAG began forming when he was on a trip to Nepal and witnessed that these kids had nothing to read at their schools – maybe three books in the entire building. So he made a BHAG to change that. Bold goals attract bold people.

How did he do? As of this quarter there have been 1,752 schools constructed, 16,060 libraries established, 885 books published, 13.3 million books distribution, 25,703 girls have participated in the girls’ education program, and 8.8 million children have benefited from Room to Read initiatives in countries like Zambia, Tanzania, India, Vietnam and Cambodia.

2. Challenge people

Rather than sweeping in and handing local communities everything they need to build schools and libraries, the Room to Read  in–country teams state that the local community must put resources into the project, then they will do the same. This demonstrates that the motivation is there to make it succeed. Sounds familiar, right? As leaders we must challenge our teams to stretch, commit and step up to meet the goal and then great things will happen. Helping others help themselves is key to empowerment.

3. Build meaningful partnership

Room to Read equips local writers and artists with the resources to create books in their native language that will have cultural relevance to children in that region.

Room to Read partners with many extraordinary organizations, in some cases using these alliances to get in front of groups of high net worth individuals who are in a position to give financial support.

4. Measure and communicate

At Room to Read they measure and evaluate everything and correct their course as needed. If a school isn’t doing well, they close it down and re-assign those resources.

They are very transparent in their reporting, and contributors appreciate that $0.83 of every $1 goes towards their programs. Positive results are communicated, bringing more support, and more growth.

5. Embrace change

John Wood’s time at Microsoft taught him much about change leadership, and he applies that in Room to Read as they try to change global literacy rates one child at a time.

Room to Read is empowering children to become leaders in their countries, all because an executive has taken all of his awesome talents and experience and has applied it to an area that is in desperate need. It is amazing how one person and his team have made such a huge difference in the lives of these children.

His resilience in the face of huge challenges, such as his expansion into Africa and the raising of money in the middle of the recession, speak to the power of his leadership.

Whether you learn more about his organization or use his achievements as a model of the basics of change leadership, you will be inspired. To learn more about Room to Read and how you can get involved, visit

Have you ever had a BHAG (big, hairy audacious goal)? Please add your comment below, or share with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or email.



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