The Trouble With Experts…

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Do you know the requirements for being considered an expert? There are none!

Anyone can hang out a shingle, write an article (or blog) or two, spread their opinions far and wide, and profess to be an expert. We think of an “expert” as having mastery or comprehensive knowledge of a topic, and yet given the rate of new knowledge generation today, how many people truly have comprehensive knowledge of any single topic?

There are two primary pitfalls related to experts:

  1. Too often, we base our decisions on “what the experts are saying,” which can result in a false sense of security about a path forward. As noted above, anyone can claim to be an expert. Even if you hear the same thing quoted in multiple places, that doesn’t mean it is accurate, or necessarily takes your unique circumstances into consideration. It is your job to decide what is best for your organization, not an expert’s.
  2. We allow perceptions of our own expertise to stunt our growth, and that of our organization. A wise colleague pointed out that once you think you are an expert, you are sunk. When you see yourself as an expert — or having comprehensive knowledge or “the” answer — there is a tendency to quit growing and searching for new answers, which opens the door to someone else leap-frogging past you.

That is not to say that “experts” have no role to play in decision making. They can serve as a valuable harbinger of areas to explore . . . but as a leader it is up to you to consider their predictions/recommendations/guidance within the unique lens and context of your organization. In other words, don’t ignore what “the experts” are saying, just use it as the starting point not the ending point of your consideration and decision-making. Use “industry experts” as one variable, not the sole source, of charting your path forward.

And for yourself, why not set wisdom as the goal rather than being an expert. Wise people have a lot of experience and knowledge . . . layered with innate curiosity, insight and good judgment. Wise people don’t downplay what they know, but neither do they stop asking questions and learning from a whole host of others, both those recognized as experts and those who have yet to be acknowledged as such.

One last consideration . . . have you noticed that the greatest breakthroughs rarely come from the crowd following the experts? They come from the people who look at the world, and the challenges before them, in an entirely different way. Again, that is not to say that experts don’t have their place. They do, however . . .

The trouble with experts is . . . they don’t know your organization like you do.  Yes, they may have valuable knowledge, but the decision regarding what to do with that knowledge is all yours.

Leaving the Harbor

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“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” — John A Shedd

Building on Shedd’s wisdom, leading during the calm is nice, but that is not why we need leaders. Your people can manage the status quo. They know what to do when things go as planned. Sunny day leadership — when your people don’t need you to guide them — shouldn’t be about kicking back and enjoying the warmth. Rather, that is when a leader needs to be looking ahead and positioning the organization to thrive amidst whatever comes next. That’s what leaders are for!

Persuading a group of people to step into the unknown, especially when they are comfortable where they are at, is the job of a leader. “Sure things” don’t take leadership. They take good management, yes, but not leadership. Casting a clear vision for the future in the midst of a fog of competing predictions and expert opinions, and a myriad of challenging variables outside your control . . . building a network of people excited to walk along side you on the journey . . . outlining specific action steps to move the organization from here to there . . . that is the stuff of leadership.

Before you start puffing out your chest or cueing the dramatic music, however, leadership is also about uncertainty and course corrections and hard decisions. It is about weighing consequences and pushback and possibilities and risk. It requires far more hard work, and entails far less glamour, than it might appear on the surface. The “weight” of leadership is a real thing. And for the best of our breed, leadership is far more about who a person is, and how they approach the world, than it is about any position they might hold.

Leadership isn’t for everyone, any more than accounting or welding, or farming, and that’s okay. Yes, you can hone your skills, and learn new ways to increase your effectiveness, but just as in any profession, a bit of it has to be “in” you to persevere through the work it takes to do it really well. One of the best descriptions I’ve found to describe this inner sense of purpose comes from Parker Palmer in Let Your Life Speak, where he said, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”

If you’ve got that, you’ve got what it takes to be a leader. So take a deep breath and leave the harbor.

Leading in Life

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Originally published October 28, 2015.

Good leaders take their jobs very seriously. They work hard, and even when they’re not “at” work, their mind is often “on” work. And yet, the best leaders also recognize that their life is not defined by a professional role. They are someone’s child, perhaps they are a spouse and/or parent, a friend, a neighbor … These relationships often came before, and with luck will last long after, any particular leadership position. These are the relationships, and the memories, that will sustain a soul during challenging times, and warm a heart on the most ordinary of days. These are the relationships that add richness, not only to your life, but also your ability to lead whole people … who also have lives outside of work.

Work life balance. While the term itself might be a bit of misnomer . . . life always seems to be tilting one direction or another . . . the idea of integrating the multiple parts of life is critical for you and those you lead. Kids have ball games and doctor appointments, appliance repair people want to come during the day, and family crises rarely confine themselves to evenings and weekends. As the saying goes, life happens … to you and your staff. Embrace it. Make room for it. Of course it doesn’t happen at convenient times … bummer … carve out the time for it anyway. And make sure your staff know it’s okay for them to do the same.

While I have always been vocal in communicating my commitment to being a family friendly organization, a senior leader in our organization once pointed out that it didn’t matter what I said . . . If staff didn’t see me modeling the behavior, they wouldn’t really think it was okay. Point well taken. There will always be meetings, deadlines, and things you should be doing at work. Your son won’t always be playing t-ball. There will likely be times your parents could use an extra measure of support. Spouses have special events that you want to be a part of. You can’t get those times back. Take them.

And find a way for your staff to live a whole life as well. Yes, there will be times when you may be thinking, “So-and-so” is gone AGAIN!?! (Have you ever noticed that flu tends to travel through the entire family one person at a time . . . and sport seasons have a lot of games in a short amount of time?) Trust me, you can tell the difference between a slacker and someone who is working really hard to fit in a very full life. Even if it is at times inconvenient, those are the people I want in my organization. And the way to keep them, is to support them as they try to juggle it all.

You see, being a great leader requires more than meeting a deadline, completing a project, or meeting strategic goals. Sometimes it requires offering a measure of understanding and grace for well-rounded staff (including yourself) who provide the foundation for your organization’s long-term success.

Frying/draining/demoralizing your people by expecting 110% at all times, regardless of the situation, is a sure-fire way to limit your organization’s ultimate impact. On the flip side, being supportive of, and role modeling, creative ways to integrate both work and a full life outside the office walls is a key step in the journey from “just” being a leader at work, to being a leader in life.

Don’t Handcuff Your Strategy

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“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This Peter Drucker quote is well known, and oft repeated, because the validity of the statement resonates with so many leaders whose best-laid plans have been derailed by the seemingly illusive nature of “how we do things around here.” What’s more, often adding to the frustration, leaders can’t simply “decide” to change the culture, because edicts from on high only seem to reinforce the organization’s inherent thoughts, feelings and behaviors — sort of like a Chinese handcuff where the harder you try to pull your fingers (or your culture) away, the tighter the hold becomes.

If you can’t force a culture to change, and yet the wrong culture can handcuff your strategy, what’s a leader to do? Quit pulling! It works with Chinese handcuffs, right? When you stop trying to overpower and instead move toward what seems to be constraining your organization, its hold on you eases considerably. Fighting against a culture is draining. Conversely, working with it can be energizing and a key part of moving your strategy forward. Nice theory, right? But how exactly does one put it into practice?

First, recognize that no culture is all good or bad. That means you have the opportunity to view your organization’s culture as a source of strength. The “barrier” that seems to be derailing your best-laid plans may simply be the shadow side of the strength that can help your strategy succeed. Before you can use your culture as a source of strength however, you have to be able to get your arms around what it is — specifically — because every organization’s culture is unique.

Culture is built around the stories we tell ourselves about our organization, and the emotions we attach to those stories — we don’t give up . . . we are perfectionists . . . we speak truth to power . . . we are highly efficient . . . Notice the “we”. Culture resides in a group, not in an individual. Therefore it tends to be self-reinforcing. Organizations attract people who “fit” within their culture. So work with that. What specific behaviors from the stories your organization tells itself can help propel your strategy forward?

Jon Katzenbach refers to such traits and behaviors as “the critical few.” (See article) Focusing on the critical few (3 – 5) behaviors that — if expanded upon — can propel you forward, rather that trying to pull the organization away from those behaviors that seem to be impeding progress, generates the energy necessary for your strategy to succeed. The key is to build on behaviors rather than trying to change mindsets/cultures. We act ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than thinking ourselves into new ways of acting.

Once again, actions speak louder than words. Don’t handcuff your strategy.

How Many Bosses?

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I distinctly remember a conversation thirteen years ago with my then ten-year-old son, where I told him I had been offered the chance to serve as President/CEO of Chaddock. His (at least in my memory) wide-eyed response was, “Does that mean you’ll be the boss?” To which I responded, “No honey, now I’ll have about 25 bosses.” Come to find out, I underestimated that number by a fair amount.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of nonprofit organizations is the range of stakeholders to which a nonprofit leader must respond. By stakeholder, I mean someone who can impact a nonprofit’s attention or resources, or whom the organization impacts. The list of stakeholders influencing a nonprofit leader’s actions may include: board members, a diversity of government and external oversight bodies, contracting bodies, charitable foundations and individual donors, employees and volunteers, elected officials, service recipients, community partners, and the general public. I’m sure my nonprofit colleagues can add to that list.

The challenge comes not so much in the number of groups that impact the organization, but the fact that these various stakeholders often, with the best of intentions, have competing or even conflicting expectations. As a result, the ways in which nonprofit leaders are able to assert their influence is both more complex and more diffused. For example, some stakeholders may try to persuade nonprofit leaders to take actions to reduce risk while others encourage the leader to make strategic decisions that may increase risk. Some have stipulations tied to funding that may ultimately undermine an organization’s ability to succeed… the project that is funded isn’t really what the service recipient most needs… or the action that seems obvious to one group is not possible based on the parameters of another group… you get the picture.

Given this push-pull of expectations, how does a nonprofit leader move the dial forward?

  • Name the elephant in the room. One of the first steps to tackling competing demands is to clearly identify what they are . . . lay them out side-by-side considering both short-term and long-term implications. It is surprising how often processing through the issues out loud brings clarity regarding the best path forward.
  • Communicate — the good, the bad and the ugly. When stakeholders have competing expectations, regardless of where you land, someone may be disappointed. Your best chance of avoiding this, or at least building understanding, is to articulate the “why” clearly and repeatedly. If you don’t provide the rationale for your decisions, others will fill in the blanks. Explain why the decision was made. Repeat. Repeat again. And once more for good measure.
  • Tie it to the big picture. Often times, a strategic decision may not make sense to some stakeholders in the short-term — because strategic decisions are long-term. Connect the dots from the action to the vision. Yes this takes more time. And I assure you, it is time well spent.

Stakeholders are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. They are the means through which we can accomplish our missions… and they can make or break a nonprofit leader. Twenty-five bosses? Nope. Twenty-five ways to move the mission forward.

 

Stepping Into the Darkness

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“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”                                                                                                             Edward Teller

For those of you who think this quote is one of those “whoo whoo” notions that may look nice hanging on a wall, but isn’t practical in the rough and tumble real world . . . you might be interested to know that the author, Edward Teller, was a theoretical physicist who made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and is known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Yep, that’s right, a hard core by the book science guy acknowledging that sometimes you have to step forward without knowing how things will work out.

Sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Notice, he is not suggesting we should blindly leap toward a half-baked idea. First you have to get to the end of all the light you know… you consider the data, you run the numbers, you look at unique variables and possible scenarios and use that information to illuminate the situation as much as possible. Unfortunately, in today’s volatile environment, in many cases what we know for sure does not exactly create a well-lit path.

From there, it takes faith. I don’t know if Teller was specifically referencing religious faith or gut instinct, intuition or innate knowledge… but for me those things are so intertwined the distinction is irrelevant. I believe my religious faith, and prayerful requests for guidance, seed my gut instincts and intuition. It illuminates my path enough to find a firm place to stand, or a launching pad for flight.

It was leadership born of faith that prompted my organization to identify in our strategic framework that we would have a global reach. We didn’t know exactly how that would happen, but we believed it was an important next step. In fairly short order after setting that goal, we extended our reach not only to one additional country but actually provided training and consultation to professionals from five continents.

The same concept is currently playing out on another stretch project we are implementing. Once you make the leadership decision to move forward, to step out in faith, it is amazing how opportunities start to present themselves — opportunities you could not have known about prior to making the decision.

Nope, there are no guarantees. Yes, it does involve risk. But once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you’d be surprised how many paths forward you might find.

Come on, have faith… take that step.

 

Note: This entry was originally published on February 25, 2015.

 

 

Leading for Today AND Tomorrow

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Think of your most successful program or service — the thing that your organization is known for, and that others try to emulate. As a leader, you should concentrate your attention on continuing to refine a proven program, build on a successful effort, and expand your market share… right? It would be crazy to move in an entirely different direction, or explore a new approach that could render your current success obsolete… wouldn’t it?

Well… yes and no. Yes, it is a leader’s job to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their organization’s current offerings. AND, it is also a leader’s job to make sure the organization is exploring options that could totally disrupt business as usual, because if you don’t do it someone else will. Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael A. Tushman refer to this as being an ambidextrous organization — one that can simultaneously exploit the present and explore the future.

That sounds good in theory, but it can be really hard to implement in practice. Why?

  • We are measured on the outcomes we achieve today. Improving upon and expanding what you already know works is what provides outcomes today. And the more successful you are, the more you are rewarded for doing what you already do well, the harder it is to convince ourselves we should try to disrupt that success.

 

  • Exploring new opportunities is inefficient. Exploring involves trying, failing, adapting, trying again with no guarantees of success. It takes time and resources — presumably time and resources that you have decided to divert away from something that you know works, and on which you are being measured.

 

  • It requires an entirely different structure and mindset. It is very difficult to persuade people who are rewarded for behaving in one way (following specific processes and procedures) to shift gears and behave in an entirely different way.

 

  • The needs of today “squeak” much louder than the potential of tomorrow. Even if you have periodic discussions about emerging trends and possible future scenarios, they are often cut short by the urgency of what is right in front of you.

In spite of the challenges, there are steps that you as the leader can take to help your organization be more ambidextrous. Identify a small group of people for your exploration team that is separate from the employees focused on the here and now. Allow that team to operate outside the systems and processes that were designed for todays programs. John Kotter refers to this as a dual operating system, and it allows people to focus on either the programs of today of the potential for tomorrow. And then you, as the leader, have to hold these competing priorities and manage the inevitable tension between the two.

Sure there are days where you have to make tough choices between current needs and potential opportunities. Managing that balance is what it takes to lead… today AND tomorrow.