Inside Social Impact Careers: Tom Adams - “Do Things That Are More Unusual”

An interview with Tom Adams on revolutionalising how we think about, collect and use social performance data.

November 03, 2015

Tom Adams is the Director of Impact at Acumen, a position that did not exist only two years ago. Tom and his four person team are not only revolutionizing the way Acumen thinks about and measures social impact, but also the entire impact investing sector.

Through new methods, such as Lean Data, Tom and his team are changing the conversation on how we think about, collect and use social performance data. Tom started his career pricing equity derivatives, was a diplomat and economic advisor for several UK government departments, and immediately prior to joining Acumen, led the UK Department for International Development (DFID) private sector and climate change teams in Ethiopia.

He talks to us about the best career decision he made, charisma and other qualities he looks for in the people he hires, and what it’s like to work with so many Americans.

As Director of Impact at Acumen, what do you do exactly?

I’m in charge of helping Acumen gain a richer understanding of the how and why of creating social impact through its patient capital investing model. This means I help Acumen’s portfolio team to assess potential investments for social impact, as well as support our companies to gather data to better understand their customers’ wants and needs. This data is critical to building more impactful businesses, helping our investees to both achieve their social objectives and grow their businesses. I also lead original research into individual companies and across sectors to learn what interventions are accelerating solutions to poverty most.

You’ve worked in the private, public and now nonprofit sector, what was your big career break?

I always wanted to work in international development but like many other starry-eyed college graduates, I was initially seduced by an attractive pay-check from a large bank. However I got disillusioned pretty quickly and joined the UK’s Government Economic Service in the hope of working for DFID. Instead I wound up being sent to work at the Department for Transport. Folks already in development told me I’d need country experience and/or a Masters, so I took a sabbatical to study. On return to government, I transitioned to the Government Equalities Office. This got me closer to the issues of poverty and inequality but not the international work I craved. Eventually, after considerable networking, I was offered a position in Nigeria for the UK Foreign Office and once there I moved on to DFID some seven years after first joining Government. It took a while!

How did you prepare yourself to take on the opportunities you were presented?

So many of our careers are about luck and being at the right place at the right time or having the right connections at the right time. But there's a difference between moving up versus forward. I've seen many people that have a list they're checking off - I'm going to work at this consulting house for X amount of years and then I'm going to do my MBA and then I’m going to work here. It’s a great path, but sometimes it seems like the people I meet starting their careers feel under a lot of pressure to get upward as quickly as possible.

You only get one career, it’s a marathon not a sprint, and you should make it as interesting as you can.

The best decision I ever made was to take a job that was a demotion at the time because the opportunity was interesting and it widened my horizons. That ultimately was what put me in the right place to continue moving forward because it gave me unusual experiences I couldn’t have hoped for if I’d simply targeted the next promotion. I would encourage people to take risks and do things that are more unusual because those things may eventually lead you to more fulfilling places over the longer term.

What skills do you look for in the people you hire?

I’m looking for people with entrepreneurial instincts, strong empathy skills and who are good storytellers with data. We work with social entrepreneurs who have a lot of baggage around social impact data because they’ve been told its primary use is to monitor them. They often equate social impact measurement to complicated, expensive research studies that do little to help them run their business.

What we do is work with entrepreneurs to understand what challenges they face, what questions they have about their customers, and help them figure out how to use data to answer those questions and make better decisions. That’s why charisma, business development skills and the ability to put yourself in the entrepreneur or their customers’ shoes are all key qualities for our work.


What makes a good storyteller with data?

More important than technical skills is a passion for data and making data-driven decisions.

Tell a statistic with passion and you’ll get folks to lean in especially if the statistic is an unusual one.

I think a mistake people can make is to get overly fixated about the purity of data for purity’s sake. Most of the time the quality of the conversation around how to use data is more important for influencing the things we want to change than the quality of the data itself. That’s why I think it’s critical to excite people with data and to pull the data back to real human stories as much as possible.

Who’s been an inspiration to you and why?

Working for Angela Mason was a privilege, her commitment to social justice is something I admire hugely. She has been at the forefront of any and all advances in LGBT rights across the UK. I also think her story of being accused, and acquitted, of terrorist charges whilst part of the Angry Brigade and eventually end up working for the UK government after leading Stonewall is a fascinating one.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

We’re often overwhelmed at work and respond by either setting unrealistic targets (which we miss) or slogging our guts out (which is no fun). Richard Montgomery, a Director at DFID, introduced me to the three D’s – deprioritize, delegate or drop.

Dropping something is the hardest but it’s also the most important thing to learn how to do.

What’s it like to work with so many Americans?

Well apart from the flagrant misuse of the English language - there’s no such word as “learnings”, it’s “lessons”! - it’s terrific. I love that American’s take seriously even the most audacious ideas; we Brits can be a little cynical.

What excites you the most when you look into the future of impact measurement?

I’m really excited about Lean Data – a new approach we’re pioneering at Acumen to collect, analyze and integrate social impact data into organizational decision-making. Lean data is shaking up the status quo of measurement. First, by prioritizing the experience of the person that gives the data. And second, by showing how social performance data is not only monitoring for funders, but also an essential ingredient for understanding how businesses work to tackle the world’s toughest social challenges.

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