Clear is Kind . . . And Effective!

Have you ever had a conversation with or heard a speech by a leader that was so full of round sounds and wafflely words that at the end of the interaction you had no idea what the person was actually trying to say? Yeah, me too. That kind of dancing around a point is not effective for any leader, but it can be especially counterproductive for a nonprofit leader. That was one of the findings in a recent research study on Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to the Nonprofit Organizations. The importance of strategic communication skills to build understanding and maintain mission alignment was one of the five key findings from the study.

What’s the difference between “regular” communication and strategic communication skills? As highlighted earlier in this series, nonprofit leaders have to respond to a multitude of stakeholders, many of whom have different or even conflicting expectations. And yet, a nonprofit leader is charged with aligning these diverse voices around its mission, and the particular path the organization is going to take to get there. This is best accomplished through clear, consistent communication across stakeholder groups, highlighting the long-term goals of the organization. In a nutshell, clear is not only kind, it is effective.

It is also hard. Board members may raise one set of concerns, or have particular priorities that may or may not align with what funders are asking of the organization. Service recipients may have an entirely different set of desires or expectations. Staff perspectives and donor priorities may also be widely divergent. And, to have maximum impact, a nonprofit leader needs all of these people moving collectively toward the same goal. That requires a clear, succinct and consistent articulation of where the organization is going and why . . .  again and again and again.

You can’t change the message from one group to another, even when their questions and their perspective may be seem contradictory. And you can’t be so vague that different people will have widely different interpretations of what you said. Either approach, usually intended to reduce conflict, will cause you to spin your wheels and slow progress toward the organization’s goals. Will you lose some donors/funders/service recipients/staff/board members when you clearly articulate where the organization is going (and hence, also where the organization is not going)? Quite possibly. But better to lose them due to a clear strategic direction than as a result of frustration from a lack of clarity or an ever-changing message.

The ability to communicate strategically, toward a consistently articulated goal, is a vital skill for nonprofit leaders. Any when it comes to communicating your message, clear is not only kind . . . it is also most effective.

Less Tension, More Impact

In my recent study on aspects of strategic leadership that are unique to nonprofit organizations, the majority of nonprofit leaders — from large organizations and small, rural and urban, with both new and seasoned execs. — highlighted the board/senior exec. relationship as one of five key areas unique in the Third Sector. Their insight and perspective may be helpful to private sector leaders who serve on nonprofit boards.

Every nonprofit has a board with missional and fiduciary responsibilities. That said, tensions can arise regarding who is “steering the ship” — the board or the exec. I have served on local, state and national nonprofit boards and I also report to a board, so I have experience on both sides of the table. I have incredible respect for those individuals who give of their time, talent and treasure to support and guide a charitable mission. I also recognize that nonprofit execs focus their full-time efforts on the nuances of the organization, giving them a depth of understanding regarding complex systems and processes that are simply not realistic for a board to fully comprehend.

One of the study participants captured the board/senior leader tension this way: “You and I both have seen lots and lots of incredible leaders have difficulty with their boards, and not because they weren’t incredible strategic leaders who were achieving amazing results . . .  I think this is one of the most challenging parts of our roles. And there are days, I’ll admit it, when I wish I didn’t have a board and other days when I think, ‘Oh my gosh, the power of all these unique people with their experiences and their voices and they get they make us broader and more robust, and so good.’ . . .” While those words may ring true, there are things that both execs and board members can do to lessen this inherent tension baked into the nonprofit sector.

For nonprofit execs . . .

Transparency and communication are key. No surprises should be a foundational component of a strong board/exec. relationship. Yes, board members will (hopefully) ask questions and occasionally push back, and they won’t necessarily understand the complexities of the systems to which you are held accountable, but it is your job to get the board and staff on the same page. Board members’ questions help you get better. They help you avoid potholes, and challenge you to more succinctly articulate the intent and potential impact of a project. And that is a good thing.

For nonprofit board members . . .

Know your role. Are you on an operational board or a governance board? Are you expected to play a hand-on role in the day-to-day operations of the organization (more common for small orgs) or is your role focused on governance and fiduciary oversight? A governance board member trying to insert themselves in the day to day operations — even with the most positive intent — can undermine both the exec. and the efforts of the organization. Yes, ask questions, hold execs accountable, just don’t try to do their job. It really is harder than it looks.

It takes both engaged boards and skilled nonprofit executives to allow our organizations to maximize their missions. And less tension means more impact. It’s worth the effort.

Play Makers

When I played sports in high school, I was a catcher in softball and a setter in volleyball. I was rarely the one who made the highlight reels, which was just fine with me . . . I got to be the “playmaker”, helping set the stage for the win. I loved “surveying the landscape” and thinking about what player needed to be where, when. Little did I know that those same skills would serve me well as the leader of a nonprofit organization.

Leadership, and the presumed power that comes with it, look at bit different if you are leading a nonprofit. As demonstrated in a national research study I recently conducted on “Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations”, five clear areas emerged as being unique to leading a nonprofit organization. This week, I would like to highlight the second unique characteristic: the diffused, influence-based power structure needed to respond to multiple stakeholders 

In a typical for-profit organizational chart, the leader usually sits at the top of the pyramid. By contrast, leadership in a nonprofit is more accurately characterized by being located at the center of a wheel, with various stakeholders spoking out in different directions, and all of which need to work in concert for the organization to make forward progress. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who can rule by edict. Sure, we can set direction, we can persuade, and encourage people to get on board, but there is actually very little that we get to independently “decide.” The need to respond to board members, staff, service recipients, a myriad of funders, regulators and oversite bodies, donors, and community stakeholders (feel free to add to the list) creates a complex and diffused “power map.” As such, we don’t have the concentrated decision-making ability that many for-profit CEOs have. That means it often takes longer to make decisions and get projects off the ground – it is not that nonprofit leaders are indecisive (which we are at times characterized as), rather it is the need to get so many players on board if a project is to be effective.

According to Jim Collins, in his monograph Good to Great for the Social Sectors, nonprofit leaders must exert legislative leadership, rather than executive leadership, which requires more “persuasion, political currency and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.” This fits with Collin’s definition of a Level 5 leader who shows personal humility and professional will, which he identifies as a key factor in creating legitimacy and influence.

Just like sports, being a nonprofit playmaker requires numerous calculated moves, and adjustments midstream based on the moves of others. Often unpredictable, and definitely worth the effort. 

What about you? How have you served as a playmaker for the nonprofit organization you lead, or supported a nonprofit leader of an organization in your community? It takes all of us to keep the wheel of our missions moving forward.  

Master Jugglers

I realize that every leader has to juggle multiple priorities. Nonprofit leaders, however, need a level of mastery in juggling that is unique and often goes unrecognized. As I shared last week, I recently conducted a national research study on “Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations.” Five clear areas emerged as being unique to leading a nonprofit organization and this week, I would like to explore one of them: The mission/margin tension of multiple bottom lines.

Nonprofit organizations exist to pursue a charitable mission. And yet the fact remains, no money no mission. If you can’t keep the doors open, you can’t serve anyone. The tension between money and mission, however, means that nonprofit leaders are likely juggling ten balls, rather than the three or four often found in the for-profit sector. For example, it may take a combination of grants, charitable gifts and program revenue to cover the cost of a single program or service offered by the nonprofit, and each of those sources of funding may have different expectations regarding what they will and will not fund. You would never presume to tell a shoe manufacturer what they can do with the money you spend on their product, and yet nonprofit leaders frequently have to respond to funder stipulations on how they can spend the dollars they receive. And so the nonprofit leader adds a couple more balls to the mix – along with a strong business acumen — to keep things moving forward.

Beyond the business side of the equation, nonprofit leaders also have to bring a host of people along with them — board members, donors, community members, and other stakeholders — as they work to fulfill the mission. These well-intentioned individuals have a variety of wants, desires and expectations, and the nonprofit leader is charged with aligning them around a common set of goals and expectations. What’s more, the metrics demonstrating accomplishment of the mission aren’t as “clean” or easily identifiable as business metrics. What one stakeholder identified as “success” may be quite different than another, making the mission juggling act ever more nuanced and complicated.

The “mission balls” and the “money balls” can look and feel different, and most leaders are more skilled with one than the other. Yet, the nonprofit leader who only tends the mission side, or only the money aspect of the role, risks dropping glass balls that play a critical role in the organization’s success. That tension — keeping different and sometimes seemingly opposed variables in play — never goes away for the nonprofit leader.

You may not be a nonprofit leader, but your life is undoubtedly impacted by one or more nonprofit organizations in your community. Too often, individuals view the success of such an organization through a single lens, either money or mission, and fail to see the complex set of moving parts and the skill required to keep them all in motion for the greater good.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the juggling acts nonprofit leaders carry out in pursuit of their missions.

It’s Called the Third Sector for a Reason

This month, a friend and colleague is stepping away from the senior-most role in a nonprofit organization after more than 30 years in the field, and he does not plan to pursue a similar role for his next chapter. I noted previously in this blog that several cohort members of a nonprofit leadership academy I facilitate indicated that they did not think leading a nonprofit organization was the right choice for them. And then, of course, we are all hearing about the “great resignation” where people are expected to step away from organizations in record numbers. Why should this matter to you, especially if you are not leading a nonprofit organization? For starters, the nonprofit sector constitutes the third largest workforce in the US. If you are not currently serving on a board or otherwise volunteering for a nonprofit, your life is undoubtedly enriched by the work of such organization — in supporting the needy in your community, engaging youth in experiential activities such as sports and scouting, participating in arts events and performances . . . the list goes on.

And here’s what I see as one of the biggest challenges nonprofits face: people often fail to recognize that nonprofit organizations function with a different set of rules and variables compared to public and private organizations (there is a reason we are called the Third Sector), and yet we are often held accountable to the expectations of the other two sectors. That makes the job of leading a nonprofit organization both harder and more nuanced than most people recognize. How, exactly, is the job harder and more nuanced that other leadership roles? I am so glad you asked!

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a national research study on “Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations.” I interviewed the senior-most nonprofit leaders of accredited nonprofit human service organizations from 10 different states throughout the US. The leaders were diverse in age, race and gender, and years of experience, and led organizations ranging in size from $3 million to $137 million. And yet, even with all of these differences, five clear areas emerged as being unique to leading a nonprofit organization:

  1. The mission/margin tension of multiple bottom lines;
  2. The diffused, influence-based power structure needed to respond to multiple stakeholders;
  3. The critical nature of the nonprofit leader/board relationship;
  4. The importance of strategic communication skills to build understanding and maintain mission alignment; and,
  5. The need to go beyond metrics to individual stories to convey mission impact.

In the coming weeks, I will dive into each of these unique variables in greater detail, not as an “oh poor us” sympathetic plea, but rather as a call to greater understanding of the unique variables and amazing work being done by nonprofit leaders throughout our country, and how you board member . . . volunteer . . . community leader . . . can better support them in their efforts.

I hope you’ll share your thoughts as we explore the nuances of leading in the Third Sector.

Listening to Your Brain

When was the last time you paused long enough to “listen to your brain think?” I’m not talking about the intentional processing that takes place when you are trying to address a specific challenge. I mean being quiet long enough for thoughts and ideas to bubble up on their own. Historically, I did this when I traveled by car, often for several hours at a time on my way to meetings. No music, no email or phone calls, just a quiet stretch where my subconscious had the time and space to reveal its wisdom.

When the pandemic prompted many of those meetings to become virtual, that processing time disappeared. Maybe some people can do deep thinking in the midst of a busy office setting, but I am not one of them. I may have gained efficiency by reducing travel time, but I also lost the built-in pause needed for the ideas that had been rolling around in my mind to come to the forefront . . . or for seemingly disconnected thoughts and ideas to emerge and blend together in a new and unique way.

I believe that kind of “simmered” thinking is part of the secret sauce of great leadership, and it doesn’t happen by accident. So how, in our ever-more over-scheduled leadership roles, can we intentionally foster the insight and wisdom that come from listening to your brain think?

1. Regularly pour in new ideas.

Articles, podcasts, books and other opportunities to learn about topics both within and outside your industry create a library of information to draw from when considering a particular challenge. Even reading fiction can provide context or insight that may transfer to a scenario with which you are faced.

2. Put your challenge on to simmer.

Obviously, this doesn’t work with a time sensitive matter, but whenever possible consider the issue before you and the seeming barriers to a successful solution, then specifically identify that you need to give it time to simmer, and move on. Spending additional time consciously thinking about it rarely brings a quicker solution. Put it in your mind to simmer and then let it go.

3. Get quiet.

How many times has a breakthrough ideas come to you first thing in the morning, or in the shower, before your brain has fully engaged with the day before you? For me, it may also happen when I am listening to the sounds of nature . . . or in the car listening to nothing at all. The tricky part is, you can’t force it. You have to have the patience to allow the ideas to bubble up on their own. It’s about listening, not telling.

The challenges before leaders today are tougher than ever before. But hey, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Maybe you should spend more time listening to your brain.

Building Your Bench

I have been hearing for years (at least in the nonprofit sector) about the impending leadership crisis . . . that there simply aren’t enough potential/emerging leaders willing to step into senior leadership roles. And it’s not just hearsay. I recently led a 9-month nonprofit leadership academy, and two of the individuals who went through the program said their biggest takeaway from the experience was that they did not think leading a non-profit was the right fit for them. (And far better that they recognize the mismatch now, rather than after they accepted an ED/CEO role).

If you are a leader of an organization lacking in leadership bench strength, maybe you need to consider if you are contributing to the hesitance of “star performers” to move into senior leadership roles.

• Are you working crazy hours that would prompt those looking for life balance to look at the way you are carrying out the role and say “No thanks?”

I have always encouraged my staff to arrange their schedules so they could go to their kids’ ballgames or recitals, take time away when they need it, stay home if they were feeling poorly . . . and I thought that was enough, until one of my team members pointed out that if people did not see me doing the same, they would not think it was okay, regardless of what I said. What are your actions telling your people about what it “really takes” to do the job? And for those of you who are thinking, well it takes long hours to get the job done, please refer to the following bullet.

• Are you delegating tasks that give people a chance to gain experience and confidence in their ability to lead?

No, they will probably not do it exactly like you would, and yes, it will likely take longer and they may make a few missteps along the way. And it is figuring out how to deal with things that don’t go as planned, or how to handle a potentially sticky situation that allows people to gain the experience to do it better the next time. If you expect their initial effort to match your current performance (after years of practice) you will be disappointed . . . and your leadership bench will remain sparsely populated.

• Do you give your people the latitude to create leadership roles that play to their strengths?

Just because you have certain responsibilities in your job description doesn’t mean that those same things have to be included in the roles of emerging leaders. Sure, everyone has parts of their job that are less enjoyable than others. However, if there are critical tasks that don’t play to one person’s strengths, but might to another, are you willing to consider a different way of getting the job done? Are you willing to give your emerging leaders a voice in what their future leadership roles might look like? That usually means you have to open the door by asking.

As a senior leader, one of your key responsibilities should be building your leadership bench strength. If that bench is looking a bit thin, the best place to change things up probably starts with you. 

The Path of Least Resistance

Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t resist change. We make changes every day . . . trying a new product . . . learning a new skill . . . eating healthier. What people resist is having change imposed on them. Change as an internally-driven choice, no problem. Change as an externally enforced expectation . . . ah, that is where the resistance lies. So how do you as a leader, who will have to make decisions that impact people’s lives, minimize the resistance you encounter when making a change? Here are three steps to consider:

Start where they are, not where you are.

When you implement a change as a leader, in most cases you have been thinking about it for some time. You have had a chance to consider options, run out scenarios, and address potential barriers. By the time you make the decision, you are well down the road from where you started, and from where your people may be when you announce the change. Too often, we expect people to immediately understand and embrace our actions, rather than taking the time to walk them through how you came to the decision. Take the time. 

Accept that See-Feel-Act is a stronger motivator than Think-Analyze-Act.

Bombarding resistant people with more and more facts, rather than addressing the underlying and often emotional source of their resistance, is likely to result in them digging their heels in even further. The sense that you don’t hear or understand their hesitation, and are instead using facts that are less important to them to reinforce your position, only widens the gap. How do you narrow that gap? A sincere “Help me understand . . .” is a good place to start. And it just might result in an even better path forward.

Recognize that resistance often comes from a source of pride.

When you implement a change, people may interpret it to mean you think the previous approach was wrong, or at least not as good as the proposed new direction. Especially if they were rewarded for or took great pride in how things were done in the past, there is a natural resistance to doing things differently. Honoring what was done previously can help build good will for the new approach. “Because of your efforts in the past, we are in a position to take this exciting next step . . .” or perhaps “a strength of our organization has always been our ability to innovate and change.” However you do it, honoring previous efforts can pave the way for a smoother transition to the future.

Change is hard. The three steps above may not make the process painless, but they could very well help you find the path of least resistance. 

Who’s in Your Tribe?

I was on a zoom call this morning with a group of execs from across the country who lead organizations similar to my own. The purpose of the meeting was simply to share ideas and discuss how each of us were tackling common industry challenges. I find such conversations a great way to connect and get out of my own bubble of possible solutions, and invariably come away with two or three new ideas or different perspectives to consider. As much as I value this group of leaders, however, they are only one facet of the tribe of people I need to surround myself with if I would hope to be a well-balanced leader.

Who else do I consider essential in the motley crew who are part of my tribe?

People who have known me forever. 

They knew me long before my title (which they really aren’t all that impressed with anyway). They keep me grounded in the values I was raised with . . . the things that helped shape the leader I am today. They remind me of the many times I didn’t have it all figured out, which somehow helps me figure out what I need to do today.

People who will call me on my stuff.

As you move up through the organizational chart, the number of people who will point out when you are getting in your own way often dwindles, or fades away entirely. You need these people in your life. I’m not talking about the perennial cynic who has a critique for every move you make. I mean those individuals who care about you and the organization enough to point out your blind spots and missteps (and yes, you will have and make both).

People who share my values.

I always want my faith and strong sense of values to shape my decisions. I need people who share those guiding principles as a litmus test against my own thinking. Sometimes we can get so busy trying to expediently make a decision that, without even realizing it, we can veer toward the slippery slope of putting our values on the back burner — just this one time — to reach an important goal. No goal is that important, and it can be helpful to have someone who will remind you of that.

People who stretch my thinking.

I also need to intentionally connect with people whose perspectives differ from my own. Leadership provides enough of an echo chamber of people ready to reinforce your thinking. I also need to consider what I might be missing. How might someone else (the “them” in most melodramas) see or experience the situation differently? Such perspectives may be challenging to consider, but usually result in a better, more well-balanced solution. 

People who make me laugh.

Oh, how we need more laughter! You can take your job seriously without taking yourself seriously, and sometimes an hour of laughing so hard your stomach hurts is just what you need. Fun is totally under-rated in our “do more with less, and I need it right now” culture. And it is amazing how often stepping away from the challenge at hand makes the solution so much clearer.

And one more thing . . . too often we think we need to find all these qualities in a single person. But that’s the great thing about a tribe — it is made up of multiple people, each of whom serves an important purpose in your leadership journey. Who’s in your tribe?

Gas or Brakes?

Are you a person who likes to always have your foot on the gas, or do you tend to ride the brakes when you drive? I would guess that many of the people reading this are “foot on the gas” kind of people. Leaders often are. And yet, have you noticed that every vehicle — even expertly designed performance models — come equipped with both gas pedals and brakes. Why?

You need both.

The same applies in our organizations. Heidi Grant Halvorson has dubbed foot on the gas people as promoters, whose goal is to make good things happen. She also notes that protectors, those ride the brakes people in your organization, work to keep bad things from happening. Both groups of people truly want what is best for your organization . . . and they can drive each other crazy.

Promoters often see protectors as glass is half empty sticks in the mud who take great delight in poking holes in every great idea. Protectors, on the other hand, tend to see promoters as unrealistic dreamers who don’t understand all the details, risks and barriers involved in their grand plan. As a result, it can feel like these groups of people are constantly at odds with each other, leaving everyone frustrated and sucking the momentum out of your efforts.

How can you get promoters and protectors to work with each other, rather than seemingly against each other? Start with intent. Both groups want what is best for the organization, they just have different ideas of what that looks like . . . and you need both perspectives! To drive to the top of the mountain, you need the gas to propel you, and also breaks to keep you from driving off a cliff. Have that conversation with the team. Discuss how the different perspectives may result in creative tension, but also lead to better and more sustainable results. Encourage the promoters big ideas . . . as well as the reality check offered by the protectors — which rather than throwing cold water on a plan can actually push the team to come up with an even better, and more sustainable, alternative.

As the leader, it is your responsibility to help your team see that promoters and protectors need to partner with each other, in a synergistic give and take, if the entire organization is going to succeed. Gas or brakes is a false choice. You need both gas AND brakes to get to the top of the mountain.