Rooted Against the Wind

Old branchy evergreen beech forest.It’s Spring in the Midwest, which means the winds have been howling. As I look at the trees in my back yard, I am glad they have roots that run deep to withstand the gusts, which seem to come from every direction. A lot of organizations could learn a thing or two from those thriving old maples. I see far too many organizations that only root their programs . . . their focus . . . their energy, about an inch deep — planting a little bit here, a little bit there, based on the way the wind is blowing today. The problem with that philosophy? The wind changes direction on a fairly regular basis and so these organizations are always scrambling to adapt.

Perhaps a better plan is to scout out a location . . . a philosophy . . . an approach that you believe in enough to stick with for the long haul, regardless of which way the wind blows, and then take the time to develop a root system that can weather the inevitable storms. Unfortunately many leaders, with the best of intentions, jump on board an “industry trend,” provide introductory level training to a wide cross-section of staff, and then wonder why they are not seeing dramatic change within 60 days. Oh, and they are also “planting” three other best practice approaches, just to hedge their bets.

It may feel like that is the “safer” approach, like you are responding to the changing winds. What you are really doing, however, is confusing and wearing out your people. As a leader, you need to look past next weeks’ weather forecast . . . past the next quarter, the next year . . . and ask yourself, who are you as an organization? What are you really about, specifically? Focus your energy and resources there. How?

When you are building for the long term, start small. Identify a core group of individuals and immerse them in your area of focus. Allow them to explore, to ask questions, adjust and start again. All the while, they will be developing a root system that grows stronger each day because of their targeted focus. Why do this rather than take everyone down the path at the same time? A small group can experiment, adapt and respond with a nimbleness that an entire organization cannot. Also, when everyone has questions and there is no clear answer, people get nervous and start to pull back, reverting to what they know. There’s a reason most trees spend the first year setting out roots before there is visible growth — that’s what allows them to thrive for the long term.

Your organization can thrive, too. Find your spot, support a small group of people as they build a deep network of supportive anchors, and then grow from there . . . with the confidence that your organization will be rooted against the wind.

Passing the Torch

Passing The TorchAs we draw to the end of one year, and begin to plan for the next, I have a leadership question for you. Are you actively working to pass the torch? I don’t necessarily mean yours (although you shouldn’t rule that out either) . . . I mean your organization’s torch. Let me explain.

We have a concept in our organization that we have dubbed “second generation leadership.” For starters, we shift people’s roles more frequently than many organizations, which offers a range of benefits. We work with a gifts and graces mindset. That is, when you recognize the unique skills and perspectives of your staff members, you can then identify people to take on a project or new initiative based on those things rather than by tenure or title. This kind of flexibility allows the organization to be nimble in the face of emerging opportunities. It also enables people to grow and develop in ways that would not happen in a more traditional hierarchical structure. We, in effect, have what Kotter  identifies as a dual-operating system.

And then we take the concept one step further. Once a program or concept is developed, we also look at opening up spots for others to sharpen their skills by again shifting leadership roles. This allows the original leaders to grow and expand in new areas and also encourages emerging leaders to stretch themselves, and yes occasionally stub their toes, as they further build their capacity. A side benefit of this is that the focus stays on the program, the mission, rather than on one particular person’s way of doing things. It becomes “our program” rather than “their program,” not to downplay anyone’s contribution (of which there are many) but to shine a light on the larger mission. We pass the torch, and in so doing keep the organization’s flame burning bright.

I give this example not to say that the way we go about passing the torch is the right way, or the only way, but merely as an example that this isn’t some theoretical whoo-whoo. Passing the torch allows people to continually stretch and grow, it invigorates your organization, and keeps your programs from getting stagnant because new ideas get infused on a regular basis. Yes, you have to watch for mission drift, and yes, it can be hard for people to let go of “their baby” that they have worked so hard to build. But they aren’t really letting go. They become more like grandparents who can take great pride in the “parenting” of the next generation.

Passing the torch is not always easy, but it is important if you want your organization to be a place of new ideas that continually strives to extend its mission reach. As you look toward a new year, what steps will you take to expand the flame of engagement and excitement throughout your organization? Maybe it’s time to pass the torch.

The Time to Buy an Umbrella . . .

. . . is before it rains.

Sure, it’s easy to put off investing in rain gear when the skies are blue, and there are so many sunny day things vying for your attention. As a leader, however, it is your job to prepare your organization, and those you lead, for every kind of weather. In the Midwest, we appreciate great weather precisely because we know it could change at a moment’s notice. Is that really so different from the current business environment?

The state I live in is six days away from a new fiscal year with no state budget in sight. That means anyone who has a contract with the state is less than a week away from not being paid. The skies are looking pretty threatening right about now, especially for those who don’t have an organizational umbrella (in the form of cash flow/reserve funds/line of credit/etc.). Sure, the rain will eventually stop — presumably at some point we will have a state budget — but there will likely be organizations who are not able to weather the storm, or whose umbrella isn’t big enough to keep them from being soaked.

Or what about the “storm” you may be faced with when a key staff member leaves the organization . . . do you have an umbrella of organizational bench strength to see you through until a replacement can be found, or a current staff member is prepared to step into the role? It’s easy to put off staff development when your lead supervisors aren’t yet approaching retirement age, and appear to be happy in their roles. After all, you have so much on your plate right now and helping employees gain leadership skills takes a lot of time and effort. You’ll have plenty of time to pick up that umbrella before you need it . . . right?!?

Granted, it may not be realistic to have an umbrella specifically designed for every type of storm, but as the leader you should have a pretty good idea of a) which storms are most likely to hit in your area, and b) what storms would have the most damaging impact on your organization. Get an umbrella for those.

Lastly, and I know this is not what you want to hear if you’re looking at storm clouds moving your way, you can’t just run down to the corner market to pick up an organizational umbrella at the last minute. (I once received a call from an executive asking for suggestions on how to diversify their funding right now . . . um, sorry, it doesn’t work that way.) Part of a leader’s responsibility is to consider the most critical “what ifs” and plan accordingly.

Once you have a few organizational umbrellas at the ready, those storm clouds aren’t quite so threatening. Sure they’re still there, but with the right rain gear you can press through the storm to the rainbow on the other side.

How’s your supply of umbrellas?