Three Ways to Step Out of Your Box

How many times have you limited your options, and your impact, because you assumed something wasn’t possible? People used to think running a 4-minute mile was impossible . . . until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Once Bannister proved it was possible, more than 1400 people have achieved that milestone. How many creative solutions, that we would have considered unrealistic three years ago, have people implemented to address the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic?

You will never accomplish something you don’t think is possible.

And here’s the really tricky part . . . the more “expertise” you have, the more you tend to put artificial limits around yourself and your organizations. When you have been recognized for doing things in a particular way, it is really difficult to discard “what works” for a totally different approach that may or may not yield the expected results. That’s why the most unique solutions rarely come from the industry leaders . . . those people who have found success based on old rules and self-imposed perspectives of how things are done. It is the upstarts, who aren’t bound by what has worked in the past, who can see totally new and different possibilities.

So how you you step our of your self-imposed box and expand your perspective of what is possible? Three suggestions:

1. Read outside your industry or typical areas of interest.

Learning about what worked in manufacturing may spur an idea for your human service organization. Are there translatable lessons in how an entrepreneur from another country overcame an “insurmountable” barrier? Have you considered the approach that someone from a younger generation or different cultural background is using and is it relevant to your work? You’ll never know, you are only consuming information from people who basically think like you do.

2. Ask questions . . .

. . . Of your customers, your front-line staff, people in a totally different line of work. And then, instead of immediately pushing back against their feedback, get curious. “Help me understand . . .” is a great way to dig deeper and get a better appreciation for where they are coming from. Even if a particular suggestion seems unrealistic, it may open the doors for you to consider a different approach than you otherwise would have.

3. Keep moving.

Change is constant. Even the most perfect solution in this moment in time may not be tomorrow. Therefore, when something changes, that does not mean the way you have approached it in the past is bad or wrong. It simply means that the variables are different. Success comes not in reaching a destination, but the on-going journey. Change is much easier to embrace when you see change as part of the process rather than an inditement of how you have done something in the past.

You will never accomplish something you don’t think is possible. How are you boxing yourself in?

What’s the Sizzle?

When I was in college, my advertising courses touted the importance of “selling the sizzle, not the steak.” More recently, Simon Sinek became famous for challenging us all to find our “why”. And in the midst of what is being dubbed “the great resignation,” the message we’re hearing is that people are looking for more meaning in their work and lives. Beyond the pithy descriptors, what does all of this really mean for you as a leader? Lots, actually.

Leadership is about influence. And influence is about having an effect . . . on thinking, on behavior, on effort, on aspirations. In spite of what command and control types in positions of leadership might think, you can’t “make” someone do something. People always have a choice. Your job as a leader is to influence individuals to choose the path you are proposing. After all, leaders without followers are simply lone nuts. This is easy to agree with in principle, but much harder to actually put into practice.

When leaders get to the point of trying to influence behavior among their people, they are usually well down the road in their thinking. While “the sizzle” may have prompted the idea in the first place, you have likely wrestled with various options, considered a range of scenarios, and charted out what you believe to be the best course of action. At this point, the sizzle seems self-evident to you. Your focus is on the steak. You have moved from aspirations to tactics. And there is a strong tendency to assume your people are where you are. They’re not.

You have to start with, and continually return to, the sizzle if you want to move people to action. Give them a reason to care. Why should they struggle through the ups and downs your well-laid plan will certainly bring? Why should they change their behavior — which they may see as successful/effective/reward-producing? Just because you said so? How’s that working for you?

Focusing on the sizzle isn’t just important for your people. It is energizing for you as well. When you are in the throes of the tedious parts of the job that just seem to slog on, focusing on why you are subjecting yourself to these challenges can be the one thing that sustains you. And yet too often, we get so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that we lose sight of why we raised our hand for this opportunity in the first place.

It’s a new year. A chance to refocus. Maybe the best place to start is to rediscover your sizzle.

Making Room

Originally Published December 20, 2017

As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.

The Rules of the Game

It would be difficult to win a soccer game (known as football to most of the world) by following the rules of football as it is known in the United States. While there are similarities, the games are different. As I have outlined in throughout this series on the Third Sector, nonprofit organizations grapple with a similar dilemma on a regular basis — they are often held accountable to a “game” whose rules are different from those they have to live by on a daily basis. Nonprofit leaders clearly see the discrepancies. In my research study, nonprofit leaders gave consistent answers whether they led a $3 million organization or one whose budget topped $100 million, whether their organizations were located in small towns or large metropolitan areas, and regardless of the tenure of the leader.

There is a reason that nonprofit entities are known as the Third Sector — because there are clear differences between nonprofits and the public or private sectors. Even I you are not a nonprofit leader, you are undoubtedly touched by the sector . . . as a patron on the arts, a recipient of supportive services, a board member, a donor, a member of a faith community . . . the list goes on. The differences within the Third Sector don’t mean that a nonprofit does not have to follow strong business principles (they do), or that they should not be held accountable for the outcomes of their efforts (they should). It simply means that the rules of the game are different.

As I have highlighted in recent weeks, the study identified five key areas in which strategic leadership in nonprofit organizations is unique when compared to the other sectors:

  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.

Understanding these “rules” can provide insight into why nonprofits may act in ways that seem inefficient or indecisive when viewed through a for-profit lens (which is the natural perspective of many board members and donors), or why it is harder to capture the true impact of their work.

I would love to hear your perspective on this study. Do the five unique aspects of strategic leadership in the nonprofit sector resonate with you? Are there other differences between the sectors that you have experienced? Your insight will add to the nuance of identifying and understanding the rules of the nonprofit game. I look forward to the conversation.

Beyond Metrics to Stories

Tommy huddled in the corner, cold and hungry, but determined to protect his little sister from whatever dangers the night might hold . . . at least until their mom came home . . . if she came home tonight… Take a moment take to consider your response to that sentence compared to the following: Child abuse and neglect in our county exceeds the statewide average but thanks to XYZ agency’s programs we have closed that gap by 10%.

How you responded likely depends if you are a donor, a funder, a board member, a service recipient, government official or a member of some other stakeholder group. Since nonprofit organizations have to respond to all of these stakeholder groups and more, communicating impact can be especially challenging. That was one of the key finding in my recent research study on Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations — nonprofit organizations need to go beyond metrics to individual stories to convey mission impact.

For years, nonprofits have been challenged to quantify their impact. In most cases, that is much more difficult than tracking a financial bottom line. Hence the development of logic models, theories of change, and a host of other frameworks designed to determine the effectiveness of a given program. I am not suggesting metrics aren’t important (just ask my staff, we track a crazy amount of data), it’s more a case of different data meaning different things to different people. For example, improvement on standardized measures may mean a great deal to a specific funder, mean nothing to a donor, and as part of a large of data set can be a bit overwhelming to board members.

Stories, however, can have a huge impact on donors and board members, limited impact on some funders and even less sway in maintaining a government contract. As a general rule, see-feel-act has a larger influence on people than think-analyze-act. In effect, unless specifically required to do otherwise, I believe people make a decision to support a nonprofit with their heart, and they justify it with their mind.

So what does that mean for a nonprofit leader? For starters, it means you have to be clear on the audience you are speaking to, and craft the information you share accordingly. At the same time, you don’t want it to appear to be sharing wildly different messaging. Like any organization, consistency adds to credibility. Thus, a nonprofit leader needs messaging that includes, but goes beyond metrics to highlight individual stories of impact.

If you responded at more of a gut level to the story at the beginning of this blog, as opposed to the statistic, you’re not alone. For maximum effectiveness, nonprofit leaders should not ignore, but rather move beyond metrics to connect people with individual stories of mission impact. See-feel-act … it’s a real thing!

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.