Steering The Bike

Conference Bike

Our Chaplain at Chaddock shared a picture with me that he had taken while visiting his son in Los Angeles. The picture showed a group of individuals gathered around a bike like the one above. The “conference bike” accommodates seven individuals, six of whom are positioned at slightly different angles around a central core, all with their own set of pedals, and the seventh seat is positioned facing forward and manages the steering wheel. While the bike itself grabs your attention, the best part was what our Chaplain said as he showed me the picture . . . he said, “When I saw this bike, it reminded me of our Leadership Team. Each of the Directors has their own direction they are pedaling, but their efforts all work to move the whole organization forward in a single direction with you steering their efforts.” How cool is that!

While I would not have guessed that this octopus-like contraption would make him think of work (after all, he was on vacation!), I love the symbolism of his comments. It is true, all of our Leadership Team members do focus their energies in a very specific direction . . . be it finance, specific programs, quality assurance, etc . . . yet all of their efforts are built around and contribute to our core organizational goals. And although my primary responsibility may be to keep my eyes on the horizon and steer the organization, I still like to position myself in the thick of things.

That balance between keeping your eye on the horizon while still staying in the thick of things can be tricky for leaders. If you just keep your eye on the horizon without knowing what is happening day-to-day, you are likely to set off for destinations that are so disconnected from reality that it’s likely everyone on the bike is pedaling in opposite directions and the bike (or organization) can’t move forward. On the other hand, if the leader is too involved in the details it is as if he or she doesn’t trust the team to carry out their job and so feels the need to climb into their seat and “help pedal’, which just wears everyone out more quickly, and results in no one steering the bike.

So how do you achieve that balance? Trial and error . . . team members with enough confidence and tact to gently point out when you need to get out of their seat . . . a compelling view on the horizon . . . and just like when you were a kid trying to find your balance on a bike, practice . . . lots and lots of practice!

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!