Squawk Your Way to Success

Red-haired Preschooler Boy With Violin, Music Concept

Think back to when you (or a child, or a sibling) were learning a new skill — say playing a musical instrument. While there are a few child prodigies out there, most of us had to squeak and squawk our way to something that sounded remotely like the tune we had in mind. Whether or not you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to become world class” rule, the fact remains that most of us aren’t proficient at a new skill the first time we try it.

We intuitively grasp that concept with kids, and encourage them through the skill development process. But somehow with adults, we have much less tolerance. You’ve been promoted to a new role . . . Great! . . . Now here are the 47 things we are backed up on so go out there and do amazing things . . . Really? And then we wonder why 1) people fall short of our expectations, and 2) staff, who are trying hard to succeed with the task at had, are hesitant to speak up to remind us they are still squeaking and squawking in their new role.

Or what about the innovation/transformation/new program development process? We can spend all the time we want perfecting the plan on paper, but rest assured there will be some “missed notes” along the way. Sure, we’ve all heard the “fail early/fail fast/fail forward” philosophies, but do we actually apply them to our endeavors or do we expect that we (and our people) will be the exception to the rule and get it right the first time? And what is our response when that doesn’t happen?

Any time we are learning a new skill, squawking is part of the process. The difference between those who succeed and those who fall short of the goal is that the first group wades through the discomfort of the learning process to the proficiency on the other side. Unfortunately in many cases the second group decides it’s too hard/they don’t have the time or patience/there is no tolerance for the errors that are bound to happen when learning something new and thus choose not to move forward. They may not squawk, but they don’t get to learn any new songs either.

Going through the squawking stage is usually not very fun. It can feel like things will never get better, like you’re never going to get it right. And then you do. All of a sudden things start to click, the path forward clears and the goal is within reach. Only then do you realize that the stumbling along the way is part of the process. So plan for it, expect it, then take a deep breath and squawk your way to success.

Making a List

Santa Claus holding a quill pen whilst checking the naughty or nice list.

This season of “making a list and checking it twice” is a good time for leaders to reflect on whether their actions in the past year would land them on the good stewards/successful/”nice” list or some other list that has less appeal. Of course no one aspires to tip the scales in the other direction, but in the dizzying pace of trying to keep up with everything on your plate, leaders can easily and unconsciously slide toward the slippery slope that leads to “that other list.”

A few suggestions for staying on the nice list:

Don’t play the victim. Yep, times are tough, money is tight, and external regulations/competition/unseen variables are impacting your work. That’s the price of admission to this leadership gig. You can take a deep breath, search out the opportunity imbedded in the challenge, and lead your team confidently in a clearly identified strategic direction; or you can oh-poor-me and wallow with like-minded people who find it easier to commiserate with their buddies while blindly moving four spaces toward the other list.

Don’t ask for others’ opinion if you have already made up your mind. Trying to create the illusion of input only damages your credibility and decreases the chance that people will speak their mind when you really want them to. You are the leader. Some situations may call for you to make a decision without input. Okay, say so. In other cases, you may be leaning in a particular direction but want to make sure you have heard all sides of the issue. Okay, say so. By being up front, you are more likely to get people’s best thinking when you really need it. Pretending to ask for input in an attempt to get support for a foregone conclusion . . . move 8 spaces toward the other list.

Make a decision already! Yes, the stakes are high, and especially in non-profit organizations we tend to be risk averse. We only want to make a decision when success is guaranteed. But if success is guaranteed, does your organization really need a leader? Be willing to fail early and often. That’s how you learn what will work and find new opportunities that you would never have seen if you hadn’t taken that first step. Or, wait for your ship to come in . . . it’s located 6 spaces father down the path to the other list.

Recognize it’s not about you . . . really! You may be charged with setting a course, making critical decisions, and getting the right people on the bus, but the real work at hand is completed by those who choose to follow you. It is only through the diligent efforts of those you lead that outcomes are achieved. For those who dare to think otherwise . . . well, when I was growing up, that was called “getting too big for your britches” and there was no quicker way to get to the head of the other list.

So there you have it. You can be sure your board, staff and other stakeholders are making a list and checking it twice. Which list are you going to be on this year?

Avoiding the Collaboration Camel

Bichon maltais blanc assis & coquin sur fond blanc

Collaboration is currently a major push among non-profit and governmental funders, and I believe working collectively with complementary organizations can be a powerful force for positive change. If that sounds like a bit of a qualified statement, it is. Notice I said “can be” not “is”, and that positive change comes in partnering with complementary organizations, not just any organization.

Collaboration is a means to an end. It is something you do to reach a clearly stated goal. It is not (or at least in my opinion should not be) the goal in and of itself. Collaboration does not mean any organization in the community that offers a certain type of service has to be included in the discussion, nor does it mean every party has an equal part to play in the effort. Lastly, collaboration does not mean that the “big fish” takes all the risk, but all parties share equally in the rewards.

Let me reiterate, I think collaboration, when done well, can be extremely effective in addressing complex, multi-layered challenges. Unfortunately, all too often, it is not done well. I have seen far too many instances when the pressure to collaborate has led organizations to spend untold hours on efforts that merely spin in circles, rather than gaining traction in moving toward the goal. And then there are the committees where participants give lip service to collaborating while also trying to grab maximum gain for their own organization rather than working for the common good, contorting the original goals in strange directions. As the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee . . . and I’ve seen a lot of camels lately.

So how do you avoid wasting your resources on a collaboration camel? First of all, pick your partners carefully. Shared values are ideal, or at the very least a shared understanding of the goal, the risks and the rewards are critical for a successful collaboration. As much as possible, it should be an “effort among equals” where each participant is aware of what they bring to the table, and how their contribution complements the other participating organizations in meeting the stated goal.

Secondly, you have to be willing to lay your cards on the table with all the collaborative partners. Resist requests for a meeting before the meeting/meeting after the meeting/side meeting. These are usually made by those looking to contort things for the benefit of their own organization (read camel makers). Open, transparent communication is critical for effective collaborations. Yes, that sometimes means having hard discussions within the committee, which builds far more trust than side conversations going on around the meeting.

Third, no matter how committed you may be to the collaborative goal, you also have to keep your organizational limits in mind. Sometimes, the answer simply has to be no . . . to continuing the collaborative effort if everyone isn’t playing by the same rule book . . . to walking down a path that may look good on paper but isn’t sustainable in practice . . . to agreeing to an effort that will divert you from more important strategic goals, just so you can look like a “team player.”

The impact that can come from a strong collaborative effort is too important for you to settle for anything else. Besides, there are enough camels out there.

Dance Their Own Dance

Dance PhotoWe strive to be an innovative organization that continually seeks new ways to meet the needs of the children and families who turn to us for care. To do that, however, we have to have a higher than normal tolerance for letting key staff “dance their own dance.” What exactly does that mean? Well, for starters, it’s sort of like when you hope your children grow up to be independent thinkers . . . and then they do. And the first time that happens, you question a bit the wisdom of encouraging such independence, because it would really be easier if they would just follow your lead. But of course, easier rarely equates with better.

Letting your staff dance their own dance means letting go of the fallacy that you alone know the best way to accomplish your organization’s goals. It means having the confidence to allow staff to try things, in their own way, to further your mission. Certainly, there have to be parameters. For us, the parameters are our mission/vision/values, our strategic framework, and our SMaC recipe (more on that next week). But beyond that, the leaders in our organization are given a good deal of latitude in searching out and testing new ways to extend our mission reach. Do all of their efforts work out? Of course not. Sometimes it’s the right project at the wrong time. Sometimes everything works out except for the funding, and sometimes a great concept falls prey to the “devil in the details.” And still, I believe you have to not only give permission, but encourage them to keep dancing.

Allowing your key leaders to dance their own dance fuels the passion, the commitment, the creativity that it takes to see a challenge with new eyes, and break through to a game-changing solution. Our leaders live in a world of gray. All the black and white parts of the job happen closer to the direct service. By the time a challenge gets to our senior leaders there usually is no one right answer . . . and, by the time someone is a senior leader they should have demonstrated that their instincts are trustworthy, so why not let them dance!

I was recently talking to someone who commented that “culture eats strategy.” So true! All the more reason that your culture should foster innovation. I have found that many non-profts, in trying to be good stewards of their resources, avoid failure at all costs. No dancing allowed! While I can’t fault these leaders for wanting to be good stewards, I haven’t found the safety/conformity/minimal risk route to be the best way to reach our strategic goals. We tend to follow the “fail faster” school of thought. Try a pilot, adapt as you go, and chart a new path. While perhaps a bit scarier than following someone else’s lead, when you’re the one forging the trail, you get to decide the direction the path will go. As caretaker of this ministry, I see determining our direction as one of my primary responsibilities . . . so as for me and my team, we’re going to dance!

It’s okay, take advantage of me . . .

Contract Surprise

In effect, that’s what many non-profit organizations do when they simply accept contracts where you could drive a semi through the gap between the cost to fulfill the expectations of the contract and the reimbursement being offered.  Somehow we get accepting an unsustainable funding model all tangled up with our sense of mission. (For more than 100 years, our mission has been to serve “the least of these” and since this is all the funder is willing to pay for this service, I don’t have a choice).

 You always have a choice.

 Now, I am not saying that you shouldn’t accept a contract unless it is fully funded. Many of the programs at our agency are underwritten in part by charitable dollars. That has been a conscious decision on our part, and our Board and staff see how that decision is carried out through an annual break-out of where our charitable dollars are going.  The choice you have is whether or not you are going to allow a single funding source to become such a dominant part of your revenue stream that they begin to dictate who you are and what you do.

 For example, a number of years ago we were in the same boat that many nonprofits remain in today, where one funder — usually a government agency — makes up such as huge percentage of your revenue (say 80 – 90%) that you don’t feel like you can push back when they start making totally unreasonable requests.  It’s easy to see how this happens . . . it is more efficient to work with one set of rules and expectations, one oversight body, one billing mechanism . . . right up to the point when you realize that your hands are tied. And when that happens, and said funding source then says, “By the way, we now have these 8 new requirements and we aren’t going to cover your costs to carry them out. In fact, times are tight so we are going to cut your reimbursement by 11%,” you really do have not options AT THE MOMENT, other than to begrudgingly say “Okay.”

 But not having options at the moment is not the same as not having options.

From my perspective, it is a stewardship responsibility to come up with viable options, and start laying the groundwork to make those options a reality. As I mentioned earlier, a number of years ago, one referral source accounted for approximately 85% of our fee-for-service revenue. Today, our largest referral source comprises less than 30% of our fee for service revenue. Our path to getting there wouldn’t be the right path for everyone. You have to consider the resources and opportunities that are unique to your organization. In this case, the how is less important that the what, with “the what” being revenue diversification.

 You and your board are the guardians of your mission, and the only way you can truly make decisions that are in the best interest of your mission is to ensure that no single funding source — government agency, donor, or otherwise —has so much control over your resources that you feel helpless to push back if necessary. Challenging those who help pay the bills takes courage, and you have to be willing to face the consequences  . . . but really, when you think about it, there are consequences for not pushing back too.

No one ever said non-profit work was for the faint of heart.  And personally, I’ve always preferred offense to defense. How about you?