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.

 

You Can’t Drive a Bus in the Ocean

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There are plenty of “leadership experts” out there offering advice on how to strengthen your leadership and ultimately your organization. They write books, develop trainings, record podcasts, post blogs… and yet, if these experts believe they have found the answer to all our woes, why does leadership still feel so hard? Maybe it’s because you are trying to drive a bus in the ocean.

Effective leadership requires one to use the right vehicle based on your current environment. For example, Lean Principles can be extremely effective if your goal is to increase efficiency and reduce waste in your processes. However, if your goal is to foster a culture of innovation and Blue Ocean Strategy, applying Lean Principles to the process — even if you do it very well — is not going to get you to your destination. One vehicle is designed to drive out waste, while the other succeeds by building reflective white space into an effort. Each can contribute to an organization’s success… depending on whether you are traveling a well-paved road or floating into the great unknown.

Some challenges call for transactional leadership — which deals with complexity, structure and stability. Others require transformational leadership — where the focus is innovation, strategy and change. A leader’s efforts will “sink” if he or she tries to apply a transactional solution (a bus) to a transformational challenge (an ocean). The reverse is also true. If your organization needs a leader to help it stay between the yellow lines, but you are focused on “catching the wind”, everyone will end up frustrated and discouraged.

The trick is to recognize what leadership vehicle you need to be steering at any given point in time. It’s not about one approach being better than the other. It’s about taking the time to step back, survey the landscape, and determine which makes the most sense given the current environment. If you’re focusing on structure when you need to be focusing on strategy, you may be working really hard and still feel like you’re not getting anywhere. For many people, focusing on structure may feel safer… after all, over the years you have gotten really good at driving a bus. Unfortunately, that is not going to do you a lot of good in the midst of a rising tide. Maybe you need to take a deep breath and consider changing vehicles.

You can’t drive a bus in the ocean.

Leading Through Lines in the Sand

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This is not the blog I planned to write today. I even spent part of the morning trying to talk myself out of it . . . and yet . . . in the increasingly frustrated, fractured, win/lose environments that many of us are trying to guide our organizations through — and beyond —perhaps it is worth a few minutes to consider how to lead in the midst of “lines in the sand.”

Part of the job of a leader is to model the behavior you want to see magnified in your organization. That responsibility is greatest during challenging times, when emotions can run high and the pressure is great. In such situations, which unfortunately seem all too common, what can a leader do to rise above either/or positions to chart a course forward?

  • Listen… to understand, not to find a point of leverage with which to reinforce your point. Too often, we treat listening like a defensive skill rather than an educational opportunity. Listening with an open mind can be hard, yet it also opens the door to step two…

 

  • Find common ground. Focusing on your differences, especially when viewed through the perspective of a single lens (i.e. your own), only serves to highlight barriers, rather than seeking a path to move beyond them. Ask yourself, is your goal to be right or is your goal to find a solution?

 

  • Be respectful. Whether you think someone deserves it is not the point. Treating others with respect is not about their behavior or something they have earned. It is a reflection on you as a leader.

 

You might be surprised at how often these three simple steps, and the resulting conversations, can lead to a path forward. Still there will be times that, in spite of your best efforts, you may be unable to find a solution everyone can agree to and you will have to make a hard decision. Not a threat. Not a dare. Not a competing line in the sand. A difficult but necessary choice. That’s the job of a leader. So make the decision… and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying it out. No gloating or demonizing or kicking someone when they are down.

When you do these things —listen respectfully, trying to find common ground, and when need be make the hard decisions then carry them out in a kind manner— a funny thing starts to happen. You will be faced with fewer lines in the sand. Consistently choosing to look for solutions rather than sides is contagious, but someone has to take the first step.

Are you willing to lead the way?

The Art of the Edit

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I am in the middle of an editing project. Editing can be hard… especially for leaders… especially if we are editing our own work. After all, we wouldn’t have included the information in the first place if it wasn’t important, right? We want to make sure people understand every detail of what we are trying to convey, and once we craft the message a certain way, it is hard to imagine anything less achieving our goal. If you find yourself nodding your head at that last sentence, this blog is for you.

Less is more.

Yes, your message is important. Yes, you may have spent months considering every possible option to develop a plan outlining the best path forward. That’s what leaders do. And in most cases, your people — be they employees, volunteers, board members, the general public — want to know what time it is, not how you built the watch. You need to have that information. They do not.

Edited information generates more excitement and buy-in than reams of details.

Think about it…

  • Do you think it is more likely people will read a 2-inch thick packet of information or a two-page document? They may ask questions about something in that 2-inch packet, and since you put it together, you will have no problem answering their question. But if they don’t read the information because it looks too intimidating, or like it will take too much time to sort through, you — and your message — have lost. Go with the 2 pages.
  • Do you think it is more likely that your staff will remember and get excited about your strategic goals if they are buried in a 47-page document, or if they are boiled down to 3 or 4 key themes? If they can’t remember what your strategic goals are, how in the world are your people going to make decisions that help move your organization toward accomplishing them? Focus, my friend, focus.

Editing takes time. It is hard work. As Pascal noted, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” True. And it is worth the effort… every time… not only for those who are the intended recipients of your message, but for you as a leader as well. The more you can distill your message down to it’s core essence, the more powerful it becomes.

Less really is more. If you want to maximize your impact as a leader, take the time to master the art of the edit.

Getting Off the White Horse

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Have you ever caught yourself buying into the myth that leaders are supposed to have all of the answers? It’s easy to do. A lot of people have visions — maybe even expectations — of the fearless leader riding in on a white horse armed with the wisdom and insight to resolve thorny challenges that have previously gone unsolved. Now, I’m not saying you won’t solve many a thorny issue. I am saying that the idea of a leader doing that single-handedly is not only a myth, it is a weight that can exhaust the leader and undermine the very task he or she was charged with accomplishing in the first place.

Maybe the best way to dispel the myth (and cut yourself some slack if you have bought into that myth) is by reframing the leader’s charge. What if, rather than expecting a leader to have all of answers, we instead looked to them to ask the right questions? Sure the right questions lead to solid decisions, but the distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics. When a leader believes he or she has to come up with the answers in isolation, they can only draw on their own wisdom and experience — and even if they have plenty of both, they are still only considering a single perspective… their own. If, instead, the leader posed key questions to a group of trusted team members, a variety of perspectives could be considered before deciding on a way forward, increasing the likelihood of both the acceptance of and success with the chosen strategy.

An improved strategy isn’t the only benefit that comes from a leader getting off the white horse. When a leader asks questions, he or she is also modeling for their team how they think through a challenge and what variables need to tracked or explored. This allows team members to strengthen their own critical thinking skills and furthers their professional development.

Involving your team in tackling hard problems builds a sense of we. It allows the team to share in the weight of the issue, lightening the load for the leader while at the same time increasing the understanding and commitment of the team. It maximizes the value of the unique skills and abilities of your team members, which are likely different from your own.

I appreciate that the leader is responsible for performance of the organization. It’s not the “what” I am challenging… it is the “how”. Maybe, just maybe, the first step in tackling the thorny challenges before you is to get off the white horse.