New Eyes for a New Year — Part Three

2683_5078_largeIn the past two weeks, we have looked at the “what” and “where” of your leadership vision. In this final installment of “New Eyes for a New Year” it’s time to do a quick screening of the “how” of your vision. Consider it your depth-perception test . . . you know, that part of your eye exam where you look through 3-D glasses and identify which part of the picture stands out the most . . .


Your “depth perception” as a leader determines how you see what lies before you. Our biases, experiences and predispositions can make some aspects of the landscape stand out more than others. That is why two people can look at the same situation/challenge/opportunity and see very different things. Do you focus on definitive black and white observations, or shades of gray? Are you looking for similarities to build on or differences to distinguish? Do you expect to see a specific outcome, or are you open to being surprised?

Perhaps most importantly, do you believe/consider valid/judge as reasonable only what you “see” through your own unique perspective, or are you open to considering someone else’s point of view . . . to see the landscape before you with new eyes? Yes, as the leader, it is ultimately your responsibility to cast the vision and set the direction. The question is, do you want to make that decision based only on your own depth perception, or would your organization be better served by you viewing the situation based on the input from a range of people who might see things a bit differently? People who see the big picture and those who focus on the small details. People who strive to make good things happen and those committed to keeping bad things from happening. And yes, even that “disrupter” who can always be counted on see the world a bit differently than everyone else on your staff. In effect . . . would you rather make a decision based on a single piece of information (your own personal depth perception), or on a full range of data that a variety of perspectives can provide?

What you see as “real” in any particular situation may be based, at least in part, on your own depth perception. If you want to see the opportunities before you with new eyes in the New Year, how you go about doing that can make all the difference. Maybe it’s time to take out the 3-D glasses and check your focus.


Photo credit: Bernell Corporation


RefuelHow are you feeling . . . right now? Are you energized and ready to take on the world? If so, wouldn’t it be nice to know how to maintain that full tank of motivation over the long term? And if you are not feeling so great about your own energy level, or that of your team, perhaps a few tips on how to refuel and get your passion back on track are in order.

Tony Schwartz has written extensively on fueling an organization’s potential, and has identified four basic energy needs that, when met, lead to higher performance: renewal (physical); value (emotional); focus (mental); and purpose (spiritual). That seems pretty self-evident, right? When we are well rested, appreciated, and can focus on things that we are passionate about, both our energy level and our performance are likely to improve. You might be surprised, however, at how much of an impact these factors actually have on fueling performance.

Schwartz, together with Christine Porath, conducted a survey with the Harvard Business Review which demonstrated that when even one of an employee’s basic energy needs has been met (that is, their tank is ¼ full), there is a 30% increase in their ability to focus and a nearly 50% increase in their level of engagement. If all four needs are met — when their tank is full — the engagement levels increase to 125%! In addition, the study indicated that when all four energy needs are met, there is a 72% drop in employees’ stress levels.

Addressing your employees’ basic energy needs isn’t costly. It doesn’t require implementing a complex new program or require a huge allocation of time.

  • Encourage your staff (and model the behavior yourself!) to take 10 – 15-minute breaks at regular intervals where they physically step away from their desk or other work environments.
  • Express your appreciation to others — in detailed, specific ways. Get creative in letting others know you value their efforts.
  • Take steps to reduce interruptions when working on a project. Encourage your staff to put the phone down and ignore the ping of email to increase their focus.
  • Find ways for staff to spend time doing the things that they do best, or find enjoyable, or that make a positive difference.

Renew. Value. Focus. Purpose.

Physical. Emotional. Mental. Spiritual.

Where is your energy level running? How about that of your staff? If the tank is running a bit low, maybe it’s time to step away from the computer and take a few minutes to refuel.

Stop Chasing Rabbits

HareAs a leader, sometimes your “stop doing” list is just as important, if not more so than your “to do” list. And one of the things that should be on your stop doing list is chasing rabbits.

If you have ever seen a rabbit being chased, they dart to and fro, first heading one way and then pivoting and moving in a totally different direction. The likelihood that one will catch the rabbit is pretty slim, however, the likelihood that the chase will take you totally off course from where you were headed is almost guaranteed. Stop chasing rabbits.

I get it. Rabbits grab your attention. There will often be well-intended individuals encouraging you to chase after them. And once you’ve started down the rabbit trail, turning around is hard . . . after all, you’ve gone this far, maybe what you’re seeking lies just around the next bend, right?!? Stop chasing rabbits.

For nonprofit leaders, rabbits may come disguised as “funding opportunities” that pull you first one way and then another. When the rabbit first caught your eye, you didn’t think it would lead you too far from your intended path — your stated mission. But, once you start chasing the money, each step may take you farther and farther from the trail you set out to follow.

Other times, “experts” may urge you to veer from your course to follow a “trend” rabbit. According to these unnamed experts, everyone is going to have to be doing it. (At which point I hear echoes of my mother asking something about “if everyone jumped off a bridge . . .”) This rabbit is especially adept at changing directions depending on which way the wind is blowing.

And then there are the “quick and easy” rabbits that seem to promise an easier path than the one that you are currently treading. Maybe quick and easy if you’re built like a rabbit, but few organizations are as agile or designed to adapt to the terrain the way a rabbit is (ever take the “quickest” route recommended by GPS only to end up stranded on a dirt road in the middle on no where?).

I am not saying you should not pursue funding opportunities, listen to experts’ predictions or look for an easier path. I am simply saying you should do all those things within the context of your path . . . your mission. Rabbits aren’t thinking about where you want to go. They are following their own trail. If your paths intersect, great! Just don’t forget to look at each new trail based on the likelihood that it will ultimately lead to where you want to go.

It takes discipline and focus to resist the temptation, but sometimes the best way to reach your destination is to stop chasing rabbits.

It’s an Inside Job

Job interview

I recently came across two statistics, from separate studies/publications, that gave me pause. For years I have been hearing concerns raised about an impending leadership crisis in the nonprofit industry, so I took great interest in an article that appeared in the Sanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit.”  The article highlighted findings from research conducted by The Bridgespan Group which indicated, “Only 30%of C–suite roles in the nonprofit sector were filled by internal promotion in the past two years — about half the rate of for-profits.” Shortly after reading that article, I read a Harvard Business Review article on The Best Performing CEOs in the world.  It indicated that 86% of the 100 best CEOs were promoted to the position from within their companies.

Okay, so let me get this straight . . . 30% of senior leaders in nonprofits are hired from within, approximately 60% of for-profits selected their key leaders from within, and 86% of the best CEOs in the world were promoted from within. I’m no rocket scientist, but it seems like maybe non-profit leaders should be focusing more of their energies on growing their own leaders.

According to the Nonprofit Leadership Deficit article, corporate CEOs dedicate 30 – 50% of their time and focus on cultivating talent within their organizations. Yes, I can already hear the litany of reasons as to why that just isn’t feasible for a non-profit executive . . . to which I humbly reply . . . really?!?

I know you have far too many things on your plate already. If you take the long view, however, the only way to get some of those things off your plate is to have someone with the skills to take them on . . . someone who already knows your culture, the quirks of your industry, the strategic direction of your organization . . . yep, that’s right . . . it’s an inside job. I’m guessing you have more than enough potential, right under your nose, to accomplish your strategic goals. Yes it will take time, coaching, and a willingness to allow people to stub their toes now and then. Internal leadership development does require an investment, but in reality, that investment is far less than what it will take to bring an “experienced” leader on board and up to speed.

I realize many non-profits have a relatively flat organizational structure. Luckily the way to develop leadership capacity is through projects, not positions. I’m guessing you have a few projects on the drawing board that you know would benefit your organization, but you just haven’t had the chance to pursue. Why not ask one of your promising young leaders to take it on? I’m not suggesting you throw them to the wolves, but with just a bit of guidance and support, you might be amazed at what they can accomplish, and how energizing such opportunities can be . . . for the emerging leader, and for you!

One of the key responsibilities of a non-profit leader is planning for the future of the organization. And when it comes to talent, maybe more of us need to realize . . . it’s an inside job!

Boiling It Down

A simmering pan of marinara sauce with fresh, colorful peppers c

I like to cook. And one of the skills I learned early on was that for the best results you need to allow time for things to reduce down, to simmer a bit so the extra moisture boils away and you are left with a more concentrated, robust flavor.

The same concept applies to your core organizational documents . . . your mission, vision, values, guiding principles, strategic framework, etc. Too often, organizations try to cram everything but the kitchen sink into these foundational “sauces”, and as a result everything comes out watered down, with no real flavor to distinguish it from another organization’s recipe. Granted, this approach is quicker and easier . . . just keep dumping ingredients in to make sure you don’t miss anything, give it a quick stir and call it good. Sure it’s rather bland . . . it’s not going to stand out in anyone’s memory as an amazing meal . . . but it covers the plate and fills people up.

I don’t know about you, but I think my organization and those it serves deserve more than something that covers the plate and fills people up. I want people to be able to look at our foundational documents and have a clear sense of who we are and what we’re about. How do you do that? Well, if I want to become a good cook, I am going to look to the best chef I can find for a few tips. So look around for an organization that you think has a powerful impact, and then take a look at their guiding purpose. Not that yours should look like theirs — it shouldn’t — but I’m guessing it might spark an awareness that sometimes less is more.

In an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (, Kevin Starr challenged organizations to “The Eight Word Mission Statement,” indicating that is “long enough to be specific and short enough to force clarity.” Top Nonprofits, in partnership with Third Sector Today, identified 30 top nonprofit vision statements ( The statements averaged 14.56 words, with the top 15 averaging 10.5 words. And in reading through the list, you know exactly what these organizations are about. If you’re going to be this concise, there is no room for what I call the “fuzzy foo foo” . . . you know those words that sound nice but nobody really knows what they mean.

Boiling your core organizational statements down to a clear but powerful focus means saying no be being all things to all people, which frankly is hard for many non-profits. What if a great opportunity comes along that doesn’t fit in that focus? . . . What if it does? If it isn’t related to the fundamental purpose of your organization, should you really be investing time and resources into it anyway?

One last thing about boiling your organizational recipe down to the essential ingredients . . . there is an energy and excitement that comes clearly communicating who you are and what you’re about. All of a sudden, your organization is bursting with the kind of flavor that keeps people coming back for more.

So how are things cooking in your organization? Bon appetite!

Have you noticed . . .

3D Pen Writing Thank You

No leader succeeds alone — after all, you can’t really lead if no one is following you — and yet, it is primarily the leader who gets the credit for a project well done. (Okay, yes, you will also get the blame when things go awry, but that’s another post.) The best leaders naturally share the accolades with those who have made success possible, in big ways and small. I’m not talking about the rote, mindless drive-by thank you — although those are important too —but rather the heart-felt recognition of the unique contribution made by individuals on your team.

It is amazing to see the impact of taking a few minutes to express your gratitude for a specific action, and yet somehow this seems hard for people. Believe it or not, you can actually go to Hallmark’s website and find sample wording to include in a thank-you note, with examples covering numerous occasions. And while there are many ways to say thank you beyond a written note, I find that taking a few minutes to put pen to paper (you do remember what those are, right?!?) has a much more powerful impact than and a quickly typed email. And the more specific, the better.

“Thanks for all you did to make this project a success” is great, but not nearly as powerful as “I know you came in early three days in a row to proof this project, and I really appreciate your attention to detail. Your diligence helped insure our success. Thank you.” When you as a leader take the time to notice the specific contributions of a staff member, chances are they will bring those same gifts and graces — in even greater quantities — to the next big project.

Noticing . . . paying attention . . . makes people stand up a little straighter, feel a little more important, and most importantly, feel appreciated. When you “catch” someone going above or beyond, or remember that Dove chocolate is their favorite antidote to stress, or know their unique quirks, your staff recognizes that you see and value them as a person. For example, noticing a staff member’s brightly colored socks, if that is a distinguishing characteristic for them, can do more to make a person feel valued that a dozen standard-issue thank yous.

But hey, you’re busy and don’t have time for noticing the little things, right? Baloney. It’s all about prioritizing. Seeing . . . appreciating . . . thanking . . . take attention, but very little actual time. And when you as the leader take a few moments to share your appreciation, the sentiment becomes contagious, good things start to happen, and before you know it you are being patted on the back for your great success. Genius.

Have you noticed?

We’re Never Too Old to Need Recess!

businessman slide cropIn our annual employee engagement survey, one of the “red flag” results was the large percentage of staff indicating they go home emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. While this response is consistent with previous surveys — there is no doubt we work in an emotionally exhausting field — we wanted to drill deeper into this response to gain additional insight into how we can support staff as they work to support our struggling youth. We are using three methods to drill deeper: discussions in team meetings, surveys, and a series of focus groups. I lead the focus groups, which are an hour-long discussion with up to eight staff members who voluntarily participate. We have frequently used focus groups as a way for staff to provide input into a decision, or to gain additional information on a specific topic, as was the purpose in this case.

Focus groups provide a wealth of unfiltered feedback — even more so now that staff have experienced that positive things can happen, and negative things don’t happen, as a result of sharing their thoughts. In terms of emotional exhaustion, there were two big take-aways from the focus groups: 1) It’s the little things that make a big difference, and 2) in the words of one of our participants, “We need a recess!”

I love that! We’re never too old to need recess. Maybe it’s not 20 minutes on the playground (although I’m a big proponent of getting up and moving around), but we all benefit from occasionally stepping away from the computer or meeting or problem du jour. Maybe it’s taking a few minutes to chat with some – about something other than work. Maybe it’s taking five minutes for a walk outside or allowing enough time to actually taste your lunch, rather than simply re-fueling.

“Recess” may mean different things to different people, but in my experience as leaders take on more and more responsibility; anything remotely resembling recess seems to get pushed out of their day. And yet, I’m guessing you’ve had the experience of being in the midst of a situation/project/meeting that was sucking the life out of you, and then you receive an unexpected call from a friend or family member that might only take a few minutes but when you returned to the project your entire frame of mind had changed. That’s the power of recess.

What would happen if you announced that at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, everyone in your organization would stop whatever they were doing and do 10 jumping jacks. I timed it . . . it takes less than 15 seconds. Okay, admittedly not much of a recess, but I’m guessing it might be just enough of a distraction bring a smile to staff members faces, and at least for a few minutes provide an antidote for the emotional exhaustion lurking somewhere in those piles on your desk.

It’s time for recess!

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?