Willing Followers

Business Team Discussion Team Customer Service ConceptAs a leader, do you want your people to follow you because they have to, or because they want to? For those of you who just rolled their eyes as you read that first sentence, let me point out that cultivating willing followers — those who consciously choose to help the organization carry out its strategic goals — is harder, at times exasperating, and definitely takes longer than ruling by fiat. So if that is the case, why go to all the effort? Quite simply, because willing followers produce better outcomes.

What, exactly do I mean by willing followers? I am not talking about yes-people (in my book, such people fall into the “have to category” — as in they “have to” agree with you). I am talking about people who follow because they believe in the goals of the organization and how you as a leader are carrying them out. You can have people who believe in the goals of the organization, but if they think you are doing a lousy job of carrying them out, they won’t be willing followers. I’m not suggesting that every follower has to agree with every decision you make (nice fantasy, but not terribly realistic). I am suggesting that, on the whole, they trust you enough of give you the benefit of the doubt, and will help accomplish the goals you set because they believe you are working toward the organization’s, and in turn their, best interests.

How do you build that kind of trust? In a word, relationships. Without some kind of connection — depending on the size of your staff it may be direct or indirect — your relationship with your people, and thus their willingness to follow, becomes much more tenuous. Yes, I know you are in your position to get things done, not to sing Kumbya, but the simple fact is that you can’t get things done without your people. Talk to them, ask their opinion, listen to their ideas. They might not have the big picture experience that you do, but you also don’t have the “boots on the ground” perspective that they do. Make it okay for them to raise concerns. Learn from them, and then loop back to connect the dots for them. Here’s where we are . . . here’s where we’re going . . . here’s how we plan to get there . . . and here’s why . . . any questions?

Sure, you can command-and-control your way out of situations in the short term, but if you want your team to have your back for the long term — to make you aware of opportunities and/or roadblocks that you didn’t anticipate — it is going to take more than obedient staff. If you are looking for the best possible outcome for your organization, the only way to get there is with a team of willing followers.

Simple Understanding

bigstock--focus lens.jpg“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

As we begin a new year, it can feel like our lives are spinning ever faster. With seemingly unending information outlets — 24-hour news cycles, social media, abundant prognosticators, never mind the numerous print outlets whose reported demise seems premature — it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of what we think we need to stay abreast of. And yet, as we begin a new year, we as leaders need to ask ourselves . . . are we doing a better job of accomplishing our missions as a result of acquiring more knowledge?

In far too many cases, I fear the answer is no. Why? I think Malcolm Gladwell nailed it on this one. Abundant knowledge simply makes us talking heads. It is understanding — knowing what is important, which details to focus on and which are simply noise — that allows us to advance our missions. I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ concept of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s the sweet spot. That’s where understanding happens.

So how do you get to that kind of simple understanding? Focused flexibility. Let me explain. The focus part is pretty simple. Who are you (mission, vision, values) and where are you going (strategic goals)? That’s it. If you read the last few sentences and thought, “sure, that sounds nice, but she just doesn’t understand . . .” there’s a pretty good chance you are stuck on the hamster wheel of information/complexity. Trust me on this one. Step off the wheel and focus.

Once you are clear on your focus, flexibility comes into play. You see, you have to walk through the complexity on a daily basis, and some of the knowledge floating out there might provide a faster or easier path to the other side. Your focus is about the destination, the flexibility comes in the route. So be flexible enough to act on new information that directly impacts your ability to reach your destination, while also being focused enough to let the rest of it roll off your back — regardless of what “expert” says you are crazy to ignore the tidbit of information that he or she is peddling.

Still don’t believe me? Think about the most successful leaders you know. Are they bouncing around, reacting to every headline or do they have a calm focused presence — dare I even say a simple understanding of where it is their organization is headed?

That is my hope for you as a leader, and your organization, in the coming year. Simple understanding. See you on the other side!

Frame It

Colorful Paper Clip With Pile Of Paper Reports Arranged On Table

Think of the forests that would be standing today if not for weighty strategic plans — you know, those tomes that come from months of time consuming effort, the result of which is so thickly detailed that some poor soul is likely to strain a muscle lifting its numerous pages onto a shelf . . . where it will sit collecting dust until a few years down the road when the process starts all over again. Save the tree.

I absolutely believe that good strategy is critical for organizational success. I also happen to believe that most strategic plans are outdated before they ever hit said shelf (and they stay on the shelf for that very reason) because they are built around a specific set of variables that can change at the drop of a hat. So if strategy is critical, but strategic plans don’t work, what is a leader to do? Frame it.

A strategic framework identifies a few (like two or three) main areas of focus and a small number of indicators of success. That’s it. It identifies what you are working toward, and how you will know when you get there, but does not define (plan) the how. That happens along the way. Yes, I realize a number of readers who really like black and white details just started twitching. Hang with me . . .

A strategic framework applies the concept of emergent strategy, where ongoing observation, reflection and feedback enable leaders to adapt their actions as needed in response to changing variables to most effectively reach the intended goal. Re-read that sentence. You’ve got to admit, it really does make a lot of sense. Things are going to change on the way to your vision, so why would you want to put huge amounts of time into developing a plan that acts like they won’t?

In addition, the brevity of a strategic framework allows for much greater clarity of focus. How much easier is it for your staff to remember two key areas of focus than it is to remember a 47 point plan? How much more powerful is a targeted one page document than a ream of objectives, tactics and additional sub-points. Which do you think is going to excite your staff, and make them want to get on board with where you’re going?

Don’t be fooled. A boiled down, targeted framework takes effort to develop. Clarity of focus, simply stated, takes discipline, it is hard to achieve . . . It is also powerful, and motivating, and provides the direction staff need to continually adapt to a volatile environment and still reach the end goal.

The strategy is simple. Ditch the plan, save a tree, identify your destination . . . And frame it.

Motherhood and Leadership


In honor of Mother’s Day later this week, I feel compelled to let you all in on a little secret. Motherhood is great training for becoming a nimble leader. The resourcefulness, patience, and big picture perspective it takes to raise (relatively) well-adjusted children is really not all that different from leading a diverse staff toward achieving identified strategic goals. Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about . . .

  • “It’s a good thing you’re such a tough kid.” My boys heard this fairly often when they were little and would take a tumble. They would agree, sometimes while wiping away their tears, and before you knew it they were picking themselves up, dusting off their backside, and getting on about their business. The self-confidence my kids gained by knowing I believed they could handle a few scrapes is the same confidence your staff needs to step out and try something new . . . they might occasionally trip and fall, but sometimes your best move is not to jump in and rescue them, but to let them know you believe in them and know they will figure things out.
  • Fair does not mean equal. The chorus of “he got a bigger piece” does not necessarily stop when a person reaches adulthood. (I know, I really hoped that one would go by the wayside, too). Unfortunately, every organization has those who hold firm to the concept that fair means equal, and it is nearly impossible to help them see the fallacy of this concept. Most frequently these are individuals who put a great deal of stock in rules and following procedures. You absolutely need these people in your organization, but recognize that making accommodations to allow someone to come in at 8:30 when work “starts” at 8:00 will drive them crazy. Sometimes in leadership (and motherhood) the goal is simply acceptance. You might get understanding in hindsight, but don’t count on it at the time. Make flexibility a rule . . . the detail people still won’t like it, but they will likely accept it.
  • Sometimes the “octopus philosophy” is the best approach. Occasionally even the most agreeable children (staff) will dig their heels in and resist doing something you really need them to do. Did you know that a hot dog shaped like an octopus (cut the hot dog halfway up into 8 strips, spread them out like legs and the top half sits up like the body of an octopus. A couple ketchup eyes and you are good to go!) tastes much better than a plain old hotdog? Now I could get into a power struggle about the need to eat lunch, or I could just find a way to make the task more appealing and watch them gobble it up. You get the picture, right? I have much happier staff, and get to my end goal more quickly, if I can find a way to make a task appealing to them rather than try to force-feed them something they are resisting.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Find the most creative, efficient mom you know and watch how she handles one or more tired/bored/cranky/wired kids. Take notes. And at the top of the page, you can call it Leadership 101.

Photo Credit: Everyday Mom’s Meals via forumlamom.com

Picking Your Hill


As a leader, it is likely that you have “issues” brought to your attention nearly every day, and it is up to you to determine how to respond. One the one hand, if you make everything a crisis, over time your staff and board will start to respond as if nothing is a crisis (the boy who cried wolf syndrome). On the other hand, if you don’t give critical situations any more time and attention than you would standard day-to-day activities, you are likely to be blindsided when change occurs (head in the sand syndrome). So where is the balance point?

In situations like this, I believe it comes down to picking your battles . . . or as a friend of mine has been known to ask, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” Okay, maybe not literally (although some days it may feel like it), but that question does help me think through how much time and effort I choose to put into a specific situation — and how flexible I can be in accommodating various possible outcomes.

In my experience, internal and external stakeholders will regularly try to convince you that you should pick their battles . . . that you should die on their hill. And they can be pretty squeaky and persistent with their pleas. It’s their hill, but it might not be yours.

My hills are tied to our mission, vision and values and our strategic goals, not the crisis du jour. I can be sympathetic to someone else’s hill. I can try to help them to the extent that it does not distract me from my primary focus. I can offer perspectives and options they might not have considered to help them reach their goal. But there are limits to the energy I will put into someone else’s hill.

More often than not, the hills I pick aren’t necessarily the loudest or the flashiest. They usually aren’t the ones that a lot of people are congregated on, because our mission vision values and strategic goals are unique to our organization. As a result, our “non-negotiables” aren’t going to be the same as another organization’s.

One we pick a hill, two seemingly contradictory things happen. First, we can be incredibly flexible and creative in how we reach a goal. My organization has been known to go under, over, around or through an obstacle to reach intended outcome, taking the perspective that “no” really just means “not yet”. At the same time, there are usually key principles, issues, or values where we will not bend. Those things are our line in the sand, the spot from which we will not retreat. In my experience, it takes a balance of both of these variables to hold the hill.

Clarity in your mission, vision, values and strategic goals are key in navigating the terrain. Do you know where your hills are?

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.


Recipe Car SMaCs

In the fast-changing environment in which our agency works, there are some things that will stay the same and will serve to anchor the organization in chaotic times. These constitute our unique “SMaC Recipe”.  As identified in the book Great by Choice, by Jim Collins,“SMaC stands for specific, methodical and consistent. The more uncertain, fast-changing, and unforgiving your environment, the more SMaC you need to be.”

The SMaC recipe is different from goals or values. The list includes operating practices that provide guidance regarding what to do and not to do. Regardless of how our strategic goals may change over time, or how uncontrollable industry or economic variables affect our work, our SMaCs should remain largely unchanged.

Developing a SMaC recipe was initially a challenging concept for our leadership team to wrap their brain around. But after we waded through a lot of complexity, we eventually came to realize that these were simply the ground rules by which we function. I’m not sure our SMaCs exactly follow what Collins had in mind when he identified the concept through his research; but whether they are nor not, grappling with the list, and then using it along with our mission/vision/values and our strategic framework to guide our decision making, has been helpful for our team.

And the real litmus test . . . when I shared the final list with staff and asked if it sounded like us (SMaCs are real time, not aspirational), I have consistently heard a resounding “yes!” At Chaddock, we have identified the ten points below as our SMaC recipe:

  1.  The client is the family system.
  2.  Chaddock models our faith-based culture by living “the golden rule” in all our interactions.
  3.  Recognizing employees and their contributions is important.
  4.  Every new program opportunity is considered through our trauma and attachment lens.
  5.  We maintain a diversified funding stream.
  6.  We seek and integrate innovative ideas, from inside and outside the human services field, to improve our effectiveness.
  7.  We use measurable data to inform our treatment, track the outcomes of our efforts and to adapt and strengthen our programs and services.
  8.  We respectfully ask and address the hard questions, and make decisions in a transparent manner.
  9.  A culture of excellence is fostered with the infusion of new knowledge through training and reflection, and communication of and support for clear goals and expectations.
  10.  We initiate and maintain strategic partnerships with other recognized leaders to maximize knowledge generation in the field of trauma and attachment.

Maybe that list doesn’t seem that earth-shattering to you, but I have found that often times the most powerful things seem pretty basic once you distill them down. One other thing . . . this list won’t work for you. The value of a SMaC Recipe lies in the fact that it highlights those things that are unique to your organization. In the same way that your strategic goals don’t (I hope!) look just like another organization’s, your “way of doing business” should be identifiable as your own as well.

SMaCing your organization isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

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!

Standing Up in the Boat

StandingBoatIf you’ve ever been in a boat on choppy water, you know that the path from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight one. It’s a matter of cutting right or left, hitting the crest of the wave just right, and adjusting your speed based on the conditions. Likewise, if you’re trying to stand up in that boat, your best chance for staying upright is to have your eyes forward, your feet firmly planted and your knees bent so you can easily shift position without losing your balance.

 You see where I’m going here, right? If we know our organizations are like the boat, then why do we get so mired in charting a specific detailed path (disregarding that there may be a thousand variables that can impact that path) while remaining fuzzy on the final destination? And if we, as leaders in our organization, are the one trying to stand up in this boat, why do so many of us get distracted by the scenery, have our feet cock-eyed and our knees locked — and then are surprised when we lose our balance?

The solution is really quite simple . . . which is entirely different from saying it is easy.

1) Plant your feet on your mission, vision and values. No matter which way the boat rocks, if your actions are rooted in these you should be able to maintain your footing. Of course, how is your staff going to know if you’re living out the organizational values if they don’t know what they are? It is your job as the leader of the organization to make sure they do. Be a broken record. People get absorbed in the day to day and forget. I have found chocolate to be a good motivator (as in, I have chocolate for the first person who can tell me our five agency values) as are gift cards. You know, $5 is a pretty good investment to reinforce the foundation on which your organization should be functioning. You can make it fun, but when you talk about it, repeatedly, it also makes it important.

2) Keep your eyes on your strategic goals. There is more noise to distract us today than ever before (oh wow, look at that big boat . . . I wonder what they’re building over there on the shoreline . . . this looks like a nice quiet cove . . . you get the picture). And when that noise comes with grant or contract funds attached, it can be awfully tempting take your eyes off the destination and drift on over for a look. The risk is, you drift so far off course that you forget what you were navigating toward in the first place.  Be aware of your surroundings, yes; make proactive course corrections, absolutely; being distracted by that shiny thing in the water . . . if you’re easily distracted, your staff will be too.

3) Bend your knees! There’s a reason so many athletes have had this drilled into them. You are more nimble when your knees are bent. You can shift your weight and move in whatever offensive or defensive direction you need to accommodate changing variables. Back on our boat we refer to this a having your sea legs. Sea legs for the leader of an organization means being clear on the “what” but flexible on the “how” — as in here is the goal we need to reach at the end of this set time period, now, find the most efficient, effective way to get there (which may be an entirely different way than the leader was thinking . . . but heaven help us if we have all the good ideas!).   This funding source dried up, or the demands related to the funding are becoming unmanageable . . . okay . . . we still need to reach our destination, now how else can we get there. If your knees are locked on one particular way of doing things, you just got knocked over. If your knees are bent, necessity may force you to find an even better way of doing things.  Bend your knees!

That’s it. If you’re looking for smooth sailing, you’re in the wrong business. And in today’s environment, organizations are desperate for leaders to stand up, even (and especially) in the choppiest of water, and keep the focus on the destination.

Happy boating!

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