About Debbie Reed, Ph.D.

Debbie Reed has more than three decades of nonprofit marketing, strategic planning, and organizational leadership experience. She has been with Chaddock since 1994, having served as Director of Marketing, Director of Planning and Special Projects, Chief Operating Officer, and starting in 2006, President/CEO of the agency. Debbie is the author of two books, Attachment Theory in Action and Raising the Challenging Child, both written in collaboration with colleague Karen Doyle Buckwalter. In addition, she writes a weekly leadership blog, Reed About Leadership ​Debbie is passionate about developing and supporting nonprofit leaders and helping nonprofit organizations maximize their mission impact. In addition to offering executive coaching for nonprofit leaders, Debbie leads a nine-month Nonprofit Leadership Academy and offers training and consultation for nonprofit organizations and boards. She has conducted a national study on Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations and is a frequent conference speaker on topics related to nonprofit and organizational leadership.

Are You The Reason Someone is Thankful?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US, and many of us will pause to reflect on our blessings . . . the people, places and things for which we are most thankful. That is a good thing. At least for one day, and hopefully far beyond, we are encouraged to put our petty grievances and frustrations in context as we consider the abundance we enjoy in our lives.

If you are a leader whose role it is to influence others, I challenge you to extend that reflection a bit further and ask yourself whether you give your people a reason to be thankful? Granted, this question really isn’t about you per se, but rather about whether you help create an environment where your people can thrive. How can you influence such an environment? There are an endless number of ways, but here are a few good places to start:

Recognize your people’s gifts and graces.

Do you know what makes each individual a valuable member of your team? What unique experiences, perspectives and talents they bring to the table that contribute to your organization’s overall success? Tell them. Specifically. Doing so helps them feel seen and people who are seen are more likely to feel valued.

Challenge your people to stretch and accomplish more.

Set ambitious goals for people, which play to their strengths, and let them know you have confidence in their ability to figure it out . . . then let them! Sure, give them “guard rails” and offer input if they ask, but let them grapple with the discomfort of growth. The confidence and experience that comes from letting someone find a way forward — even if it is different from the path you would have chosen — benefits both the individual and the organization.

Ask and listen.

When you seek the input of others, and truly listen to their thoughts, they become more engaged and invested in the overall success of the initiative. Even better, when your people see their feedback incorporated into the considerations going forward, the project moves from “yours” to “ours” . . . and “our” projects build an energy and excitement that “yours” rarely will.

Appreciate their contribution.

Thank you. It’s really not that hard, but how often do we neglect to offer our thanks because “it’s part of their job,” or we have already moved on to the next task on our to-do list? Letting someone know how much you appreciate their specific contribution toward the success of an effort helps them recognize and take pride in role they play in your organization’s success.

For better or worse, a leader influences the environment in which their people work to accomplish worthy goals. Are you the reason someone is thankful?

Whispers or Screams?

If you listen to the whispers, you won’t have to hear the screams.

Regardless of who first expressed this thought (I’ve seen it attributed as a Cherokee proverb, a Sioux Indian saying and credited to Plato – take your pick), it is a good reminder in our “screaming age” that we have options other than out-shouting someone in response to different perspectives. What, exactly, do those options look like? Here are a few you might consider:

Walk into the FOG.

It is easy to ignore the FOG — Frequently Overheard Grumblings — because it is dispersed, here and there. When we try to grab ahold of it, to pin someone down about the grumbling, it often seems to fade away . . . until we pop over a hill and there it is again, lurking in the valley. The best way to deal with the FOG is to walk into it and publicly acknowledge its presence. “I’ve heard some people are . . . struggling to understand X . . . frustrated about Y . . . If you have more details about the concerns, I would appreciate you sharing them with me.” No one gets individually called out, but you get the information you need to respond appropriately . . . while it’s still a fine enough mist for you to move through.

First time is the best time.

Anyone who has raised a child knows that when a toddler makes a request, regardless of the inconvenience of the timing, if you choose to ignore them or brush off their plea they can quickly escalate from whispers to screams, tears and tantrums. All of us still have a bit of toddler impatience inside us, regardless of how grown up we may look on the outside. When someone makes a request/shares a concern and feels like they have been ignored, depending on the day and how their patience has already been tested, things can escalate pretty quickly. Even when you don’t think you have time to respond, addressing feedback the first time is the best time. Each time a plea has to be repeated, it gets louder and harder to find a satisfactory resolution.

Don’t join the screaming.

It is human nature to respond to intensity with intensity, but trying to out-scream someone is futile in terms of finding a solution. No one wins in a game of tit for tat. Instead, try diffusing the situation by lowering the volume, calmly acknowledging you heard them, and asking what they would see as a workable path forward. Don’t offer your opinion. Ask for theirs. Inviting someone to join you in problem-solving shifts their energy from working against you to walking alongside you.

It is a safe bet that if you are making leadership decisions, there is going to be someone who views the situation differently than you. Will you listen and respond to their whispers today, or prepare to deal with their screams tomorrow? The choice is yours.

When Things Don’t Go As Planned . . .

No matter how confident you are, there will be times when things don’t go as you planned — even if the solution felt like a “no brainer” to you. The real test of leadership is not whether you get things right every time (you won’t), but how you respond when you don’t achieve the intended outcome. Do you make excuses, point fingers, and get defensive, or do you ask yourself and others, “What can we learn from this?” and shift your approach accordingly.

The answer may seem easy from a distance, when you are not emotionally attached to the unsuccessful path. However, when you believed in and invested leadership capital — either financial or reputational — into a particular strategy, it can take some soul searching to determine if you need to adapt to the response of others or stand firm and stick with your original plan. Here are three questions to ponder as you consider your next steps.

1. What can you control?

As much as we might like to place responsibility for a disappointing outcome on “them,” the behavior of others is outside your control. The blame game . . . it’s their fault . . . they just didn’t listen . . . if only they had . . . is a sieve that drains your power away. The way to regain your forward momentum is to identify specific steps you can control (i.e. what you will do) to change the current situation.

2. Will adapting your approach help you reach your intended end goal?

If it is just about taking a different path to get to the same destination, adaptability is probably the best strategy. Afterall, it should not be “your” plan (i.e. don’t invest your ego in the how) and nor should it be carved in stone. No matter how much time you spend crafting an approach on the front end, chances are that you will have to make changes along the way. Be as clear and specific as possible on the end goal, and abundantly flexible on the most effective path to get there.

3. Does changing your strategy violate your values or fundamental beliefs?

Not everyone will share your values or top priorities. If the pushback on your effort comes as a result of different priorities or beliefs, consider if there is a way to honor or incorporate the feedback without compromising your core values. Looking for common ground can help diffuse resistance to your efforts and allow people with different perspectives to be heard as you seek a path forward. Even if you don’t feel you can incorporate a full range of perspectives, the respect you show in considering possibilities can help you succeed in the long run.

It is not a matter of if something won’t go as planned, but when. The good news? Whether the unexpected derails your efforts or simply serves as a detour on the way to your destination is up to you. How will you respond?

The Power of Joy

Joy isn’t something that happens to you. Joy is a choice. In some challenging situations, joy may even be an act of rebellion, a power move, that lets those around you know that YOU will decide how you are going to respond to even the most difficult circumstances.

Why am I talking about joy in a leadership blog? Because I believe leading from a place of joy sets the tone for your organization, and those with whom you interact. And in today’s impatient, assume-the-worst, pick-a-side culture, we certainly need more people thinking, speaking and acting from a place of positive intent. Joy connects people.

Joyful leadership is not a head-in-the-sand, naïve, unrealistic perspective. Leadership is full of hard stuff, and we need to name and claim the difficulty of the challenges before us. No sugar coating, no denial, no assuming things will take care of themselves. Once you have reality clearly in focus, however, how you respond is fully within your control. And the best leaders choose . . . call it predictive joy. They focus their energy on the support around them, the creativity of their people, the confidence that the organization has what it takes to weather the current storm and come out stronger on the other side. Absolutely acknowledge that walking through the situation won’t be fun, it may be harder than you imagined . . . and yet, there is an energizing joy in knowing that you and your people will figure it out. It prompts you to be more creative, consider more options, and challenge conventional wisdom a bit more than you otherwise might. When you expect something to happen, you are more attuned to ways to make it so and ultimately find the “proof” of your joyful convictions.

We can’t always control what happens to us or our organizations. If that is your focus, however . . . the things you can’t control . . . you give away all your power and often get caught in a negative spiral of oh-poor-me and life-isn’t-fair. Instead, I challenge you to focus on what you CAN control. To draw energy — and joy —from the people, the perspectives, and the possibilities that move you toward your goal. Joy is contagious. It is energizing. It is effective. And it is a choice.

What will you choose?

Addressing Engagement and Burnout in Two Easy Steps

Those phrases are fast joining the legions of leadership buzzwords (like “pivot” during the pandemic) that prompt staff to roll their eyes, wondering what those words really even mean. While the concepts certainly reflect real leadership concerns, the words have become such an abstract catchall for employee-related challenges that they have been diluted to . . . well . . . overused buzzwords.

Thankfully leading leadership thinkers have supplied us with a more targeted approach to addressing employee engagement and reducing burnout.

Marcus Buckingham, in Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do; And Do It for the Rest of your Life, challenges individuals to identify what they love about their job — activities that energize them, that they can get lost in — and find ways to incorporate more of that into their day. Now for those who are thinking, “I can’t let my employees only do what they love and expect the work to get done,” Buckingham has good news. His research indicates employees only need a 20% threshold of activities they love to build engagement. 20%! Yes, that 20% will look different for different people . . . and therein lies the key for leaders. While you should absolutely have outcome expectations for teams, the most engaged teams are allowed flexibility in how they get there.

Patrick Lencioni, in The Six Types of Working Genius: A Better Way to Understand Your Gifts, Your Frustrations and Your Team, also looks at why some aspects of our jobs energize us while others deplete us of energy. As the title suggests, he has identified six types of “working genius.” Sorry, but none of us excel at all six. For most people two of the six are energizing, two are draining, and the other two typically lie somewhere in the middle. What if you consciously built a team where all six types of genius are represented, and then distributed responsibilities based largely on a team member’s area of genius? What do you think would happen to the team’s energy and engagement, and ultimately the outcomes they achieve?

Stated another way, both Buckingham and Lencioni are challenging us to find ways for those who work with us to maximize their unique gifts and graces. Unique . . . as in it doesn’t look the same for everyone. As long as you have all the bases covered on your team, why force someone to carry out tasks that suck the life out of them if someone else finds those same tasks energizing? In Let Your Life Speak, Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer noted, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess— the ultimate in giving too little!And as Buckingham and Lencioni identify, what one team member does not possess may be the ultimate sweet spot for another.

Struggling with engagement and burnout? Give your people more of what excites them and less of what drains them. It really might be just that simple.

Calling All Elephants

Originally Published November 4, 2014

In virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”

I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.

If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.

One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to  feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.

Reclaiming The Island

Sanibel Island, Florida. Until two weeks ago, you may not have heard of this tropical paradise that I have often referred to as “my happy place.” Then on September 28, this little slice of heaven was ravaged by hurricane Ian, which hit with an intensity just 5 mph short of being considered a Cat 5. Major pieces of the three-mile causeway that connected Sanibel and Captiva islands to the mainland were swept away. Total gut punch. And yet I heard yesterday, just shy of two weeks after the devastation, trucks were traveling across the temporarily reconstructed causeway. (Think about it . . . how long do bridge projects usually take in your area?) That takes a whole lot of people committed to reclaiming the island.

Your organization could be hit by a “hurricane” just as easily as Sanibel Island. You could be devastated by variables totally outside your control that could irrevocably change the landscape over which you and your team have toiled. You followed all the rules. Everything was going so well. Just a few days before, it looked like you would escape the brunt of the storm. And then the winds and currents changed, and all you could do was prepare as best you could for the storm to make landfall. Pandemic. Loss of a major customer. Illness. Some other unpredictable catastrophy. There are a myriad of external circumstances that even the best leaders simply can’t control. But here’s the good news. There are also a host of internal steps you can take to help your organization weather the unforeseen storms and, if necessary, reclaim the island.

Start with culture.

While many see culture as the soft stuff that is difficult to measure (true), it is also the glue that will hold your organization together in difficult times. Do your people feel supported and cared about? Do they take pride in being part of your organization . . . do they want to wear the shirt? While leaders don’t get to determine the culture (your people do) you can take steps to positively influence it. Not sure how? Ask your people. They have lots of ideas.

Reinforce with trust.

Do you give your people enough autonomy to make decisions, to test a strategy and refine as needed? Are staff rewarded for trying something new, even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, or are they criticized for “failing”. People who feel trusted to make decisions in the best interest of the organization will do just that, in good times and in bad. They become your calvary ready to respond to unexpected developments as they unfold.

Succeed with teams.

Do you truly have teams in your organization, or merely groups of people who meet and call themselves that? Teams include people with different skills sets and perspectives, who don’t always agree, but who are committed to the greater good. It is teams that do the heavy lifting, collectively working toward the identified target. The stronger the team, the greater the impact. What are you doing now, while the sun is shining, to strengthen your teams?

And that’s the trick of it . . . if you wait until the crisis hits to start worrying about culture, trust and teams, it is too late. What if you took one specific action each day, in each of these areas? You’d be prepared if you ever have to reclaim the island.

A Method to the Mess

Originally Published April 22, 2015

My desk is a mess. I don’t mean at this moment in time, I’m making a general statement. My desk is a mess 90+% of the time. I have quit apologizing for the way it looks because frankly, after all these years, it seems unlikely that I’m going to change my way of functioning. While many areas of my life are neat and tidy, I think my desk is probably a reflection of how my brain works best — nestled between fluid piles of information that I can adapt and respond to at a moment’s notice. You’d be amazed at the opportunities for innovation that surround me every day as I sit at my desk . . .

Because here’s the thing . . . innovation is messy . . . and I happen to believe that fostering a culture of innovation is part of a leader’s job. Think about it. No matter how many detailed, well-thought-out plans you may put together related to a new opportunity (and we put together a lot!), it’s never going to go exactly as you planned. Even the military — which I consider to be very planful and orderly — has something known as “commander’s intent” to let personnel know what success looks like, so when things don’t go as planned they can find alternate routes to achieve the end goal. Commander’s intent is a clear acknowledgement that things get messy, and leaders need to have a comfort level maneuvering through unexpected detours and roadblocks if they hope to have a successful outcome.

Admittedly, every organization beyond a small start-up also needs individuals who ensure that systems and processes are implemented . . . there a many people in our organization with desktops that don’t have a paper clip out of place. I value and admire these people, I just don’t happen to be one of them. My assistant is, bless her soul, which frees me to build a culture of innovation with the confidence that our infrastructure remains solid.

Maybe you can be a role model for the messiness of exploring unique possibilities and still have a pristine desktop. Good for you! (You were probably one of those kids who could pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time, too.) My point is, the nice neat rules and processes that got us to this point are not likely to spur the breakthrough thinking that will be needed to prepare for and respond to a totally new set of variables. And as a leader, part of your job is to create an environment where it is safe to try new things, change course, and if necessary start again to reach the desired end goal.

One final point for the tidy types out there . . . a messy desk is not necessarily the same as a disorganized one. You would be amazed at how quickly I can find a specific document buried in one of my piles. I can often get my hands on it more quickly than if it was neatly filed away. In the same way, while you’re in the midst of it, innovation may sometimes look like a bunch of disconnected piles of activity. It’s only when you take the long view that you realize, there really was a method to the mess.

Winging It

In the intro to the book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, author Charlie Mackesy notes, “When I was making the book I often wondered, who on earth am I to be doing this? But as the horse says, ‘the truth is, everyone is winging it.’”

As leaders we may think, or at the very least want others to think, that we have it all figured out. How many times, however, are we called on to make choices where there are no rules, no precedent, to guide our decision-making? Sure, we have experience to inform our decisions. We have gut instinct. We can extrapolate from other leaders or industries. Yet, in many a case, when we make a decision we are well and truly winging it.

If you are an emerging leader and I have just burst your bubble about the calm assurance you are striving for, perhaps the best I can offer is that, over time, you will become calmer and more assured in how you go about winging it. You will come to recognize that stepping into a decision, with no guarantee it is the right one, is part of being a leader. As a leader, you get to take a chance on . . .

. . . A job candidate who doesn’t have the experience that others do, but something about them is compelling . . .

. . . A strategic initiative that a host of people you respect have tried to talk you out of, and yet you believe will position your agency for long-term success . . .

. . . Speaking out on a cause or issue you believe needs to be highlighted, even at risk of losing supporters who see things differently . . .

Truth be told, much of leadership is made of such decisions. Management is about creating stability — following proven processes and approaches. Leadership is about creating change. Change is hard, and the outcome is not assured. Even when we have considered a range of scenarios and variables, change still involves the unknown and the unexpected. It often takes longer, costs more, and presents twists and turns not anticipated by even the most experienced leader.

Of course, that’s why we need leaders in the first place — to make a decision, pivot when necessary, and motivate followers to embrace the vision and bring it to life . . . even when there are no guarantees. Gather data? Yes. Get input from others? Absolutely. But in the end, it’s your call. Do you have the courage to step out and wing it?

Unintended Messages

Originally Published February 8, 2017

As a leader, you are sending messages all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes the message you think you’re sending is not the message that people are receiving. How does that happen? It all comes down to intent and context – your intent and their context.

You know what you are trying to accomplish — your intent. But unless those you hope to lead are mind readers, they may see your “what” but not your “why.” For example, you may have some team members you have not been spending as much face time with as others (the what). Your intent (the why) may be that you know they are doing a great job, and frankly they just don’t need that much guidance from you (in other words, you think you are sending a positive message) or maybe there is another “hot spot” that requires more of your attention (a neutral message), or it just doesn’t occur to you that your actions are sending a message at all (hint, you are always sending a message).

Depending on their context — their past experiences, perception of the current environment, personality, what they have going on outside of work — your people may interpret the “what” (in this example, not spending as much face time) as a negative rather than the positive or neutral message you intended. They might interpret your “what” as meaning that you see their role as less important, you are not as excited about what they are contributing to the mix, or something else entirely.

How can you make sure that the message you think you’re sending is, in fact, the one your people are receiving? Tell them your intent. Such an easy way to avoid an unintended message, but one we leaders often overlook. We tell ourselves that, “they know you  . . . (trust them . . . need to focus your energies on a unique opportunity . . . fill in the blank that applies to you). I’m here to tell you, that whole expectation of mind-reading staff really doesn’t work out so well. Tell them your intent.

And how are you supposed to know the myriad of factors (the context) that may impact how someone interprets your actions? Well for starters, once people understand your why, many of what you would consider to be “misinterpretations” are easily cleared up. When you tell people your intent, one of three things can happen 1) something that made no sense to them now does; 2) they have the opportunity to ask questions, share their perspective or offer an alternate suggestion; or 3) they still have a different interpretation of your message, but at least you are aware of it and have a chance to respond.  Simple step . . .  big impact. 

What unintended messages are you sending to those you hope to lead?