The Thing About Talents . . .

old Bible of 19 centuries. . . I’m not talking about skills here, I’m talking about the ancient monetary unit referenced in the Bible — that thing that various servants either multiplied or held on to tightly for fear of losing it. Now I will never profess to be a master theologian, however I take my responsibility as the steward of a faith-based human service organization very seriously, and do my best to ensure my organization honors the teachings of what I believe to be, hands down, the best leadership book ever written.

As I interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14 – 30), we are expected to multiply that which we are given. Many people know the portion of the scripture that says “Well done, good and faithful servant,” however they tend to leave off the remainder of that verse which says “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 24:21)

Now, I absolutely believe God will provide if we’re following his will; however, as indicated in this scripture, I also believe he expects us to do our part. What, exactly does that mean? As far as I’m concerned, that means if we are holding ourselves out as a faith-based organization, we ought to be doing it better than anyone else. We need to be tracking outcomes. We need to have a quality improvement plan (that we actually implement, not just create to check a box!). We need a corporate compliance plan. We need financial metrics. Not because some external body says we have to, but because it’s a stewardship responsibility.

Yes, I know, budgets are tight, staffing is thin, and you’d rather focus your energies on serving more people and not on doing paper work. The problem is, I just don’t buy that argument.  How do you know if you’re having the greatest possible impact if you have no measures of success? (And numbers served isn’t enough. Serving a lot of people who don’t get better really doesn’t achieve your mission, does it?) Absolutely, the scale of your quality assurance efforts should match the size of your organization. The dashboard of a $200,000 organization is going to look much different that of a $20 million organization, but there is real truth in the adage “that which gets measured gets done.”

I thought we measured a lot of things (which in fact we do), however at our most recent EAGLE Accreditation visit, we were challenged to stretch our thinking. EAGLE is the only comprehensive accreditation program for faith-based human service organizations (http://umassociation.org/programs-services/eagle/), and the team leader for our review observed that while we have a comprehensive quality improvement program, which includes lots of measures, we weren’t measuring what difference it makes that we’re a faith-based organization.  That would seem like an obvious thing to measure, huh?!?

I absolutely believe that our kids get better faster and our staff retention is higher because we are a faith-based organization, but in fact I have nothing more than anecdotal stories to validate that belief. Now it is true that the impact of being faith-based is a harder thing to measure than, say, unit costs, but I’ve also never accepted “hard” as a reason not to do something.

As we (and by we, I mean our Director of Operations) began to search for a way to measure the impact of faith, we came across the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale, (http://www.dsescale.org ) which is highly validated and we determined would be a good fit for our needs. We have done the baseline measure for our staff, and plan to roll it out for kids and families in the near future.  Given that our staff retention numbers far exceed the industry averages, as do our baseline staff scores on the DSES, I think my theory related to staff will prove to be correct, however truth be told it is really too early to know for sure.  And if the numbers don’t turn out the way I expect them to? Well then, we’ll have an opportunity to learn . . . and improve . . . and find new ways to multiply our talents to the honor of our mission and Him who calls us to be good and faithful servants.

What are you doing with your talents?

Kill the Big Hairy Beast . . .

Bigfoot. . . You know, those 47-page strategic plans that organizations spend six-months developing and then promptly place on a shelf to collect dust until a year from now when someone suggests maybe we should see if we are accomplishing any of those things we thought were so critical to our success. Kill them. They suck the energy out of those who put them together (with the exception of that one highly detailed person in Quality Assurance who is absolutely critical to your organization but certainly doesn’t represent the norm), and often times those who read them can’t remember the original goal by the time they get to the end of tactic number 53.

Let me be clear. I absolutely think a clearly communicated strategic framework is a fundamental component of good leadership, I just don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we make it so painfully complex. How can we expect our staff to think strategically about the daily opportunities that present themselves if they can’t remember the organization’s key strategic areas of focus?

Our organization’s strategic framework consists of four areas of focus with four goals under each area. That’s it. It fits on one page. And I’d be willing to bet money, or even chocolate, that every one of my senior leaders can tell you the four areas of focus without batting an eye. I’d like to be able to say that every one our staff members could too, but that might be stretching it a bit. Still, I bet you’d be amazed at how many of them could come pretty close. So what are they?

 Big Reach

Measure What Matters

Chaddock Pride

All Aboard

 For those of you who are sitting there smugly saying to yourself, “That’s just silly, I have no idea what those four things mean,” I would respond, “You don’t have to. Our staff do, our board does, and we’re the ones responsible for keeping this organization on the cutting edge.” We can look at a project and easily identify it as a Big Reach effort, or a more effective way to Measure What Matters. When it comes to organizational values or strategic direction, how are you going to know if you’re living them out if you don’t know what they are? And how are you going to remember what they are if it takes a 47-page document to explain them?

Another example. A number of years ago, we boldly claimed that we wanted our organization to be the Mayo Clinic of Trauma and Attachment. Our staff got fired up about that! They suddenly had a picture of where we were going and they wanted to help us get there. To this day, our staff knows that any new program idea needs to be presented through the lens of trauma and attachment. If they can’t do that, the answer is no. We gave them a strategic road map, rather than a strategic ball and chain, and their enthusiasm (and our success!) soared.

In today’s fast-paced environment no group of leaders, no matter how wise or prophetic, can sit in a room and determine exactly what an organization should be doing 36-months down the road. And if they try, their organization is likely to miss all the fun stuff that comes up along the way.  Our organization is making significant, exciting progress on the journey to being the Mayo Clinic of trauma and attachment; and, if we had tried to crystal ball what the path would look like when we first set that strategic destination, we would have totally missed the mark.

Kill the big hairy beast.

Less is more! But I have to warn you, (you knew there was a down side, right?!?) less is also harder. Less means saying no to things that you could do, and could probably do well. It means giving up on the dream of being all things to all people. Less means doing the hard work of distilling down to those few things that are most central to accomplishing your mission. Less can be a bit scary, because there is no flowery, fog-producing prose or 14-step process to hide behind.   Less is all those things. And it’s also energizing and inspiring and unifying and . . . (wait for it) . . . ultimately strategic.

Are you brave enough to banish the beast?

–Debbie Reed

Leadership Travel Guide

Blog Passport

Welcome to the first posting of my blog on leadership, specifically leadership in non-profit human service organizations, and — when I really get on my soap box — leadership in faith-based non-profit human service organizations.

I will be sharing my thoughts not because I see myself as an expert in the field, but rather I’ll be writing as a fellow traveler who believes this work requires us to constantly stretch ourselves and see our work with new eyes, while also remaining grounded in our mission, values and the reality of the bottom line.

A few topics that are sure to come up in the coming weeks, because they are absolutely foundational from my perspective . . .

• No money, no mission. Period. If you can’t keep the doors open, you can’t serve anyone.

•  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Even if that basket has kept you warm and cozy for a very long time.

•  To maximize YOUR mission, you can’t confine yourself to someone else’s box.

• If you are a faith-based organization, you ought to be holding yourself to a higher standard.

•  Gifts and graces. They trump a box on an org chart every single time.

• We owe it to those we serve to think bigger.

•  Listen to your gut. It’s usually smarter than your head.

•  Most of the time, we just make it too hard.

•  Talents, spiritual gifts, bushel baskets, and a really big fish . . . lessons learned from the #1 leadership book of all time.

•  Iron shorts. A critical part of your ensemble when you’re making tough decisions.

•  It’s not about you . . . really!

•  Strategic fortitude. Love that term and all it reflects.

•  And then there’s transparency, authenticity, “walking the talk”, stewardship . . .

A couple simple warnings before we get started:

1)   I have a Master’s in Leadership, so I never get tired of talking about this stuff! (Seriously, this really is my idea of fun.) You may not always agree with my observations, but I promise to do all I can to make it an enjoyable, thought-provoking ride;

2)   HOWEVER, if you take yourself too seriously, this blog may annoy you. We absolutely have a responsibility to take our role seriously, which is entirely different than taking yourself seriously. Refer back to the earlier bullet — it’s not about you . . . really.

So that’s it. I hope you’ll join me for the journey, share your thoughts, push back, and stretch my thinking.  It should be a fun ride!

–Debbie Reed