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Leadership, Resources
I am wrong about a great many things. That is one of the most fundamental things I believe to be true. It serves as a much needed reminder to me that my assumptions, educated guesses, hunches, and intuition are all vulnerable to error and I had better be humble and cautious about my views. That said, a couple recent episodes of the Freakonomics podcast challenged me significantly. They feature interviews with Charles Koch, an American billionaire and (along with his brother) one of the most reviled figures among many people for his involvement in politics and his efforts to reframe the world according to his own vision. Host Stephen Dubner has a knack for being insightful and challenging his listeners more than his guests. He didn’t treat Koch with kid gloves, but he did give him ample opportunity to express himself without interruption. I was expecting either spin or bravado from Koch; that would seem to fit the image of him I’ve seen in much of the media. Instead, what I heard was a thoughtful, sincere, and historically astute perspective that admitted to failures and didn’t claim to have all the answers. That’s not to say that I agree with or support all his views or that I don’t think there is an aspect of intentional image construction happening. Just that I was surprised by the humanity and humility conveyed. The leadership lessons here are important reminders for me:
  1. Everyone has a story. I can easily judge and categorize people into convenient stereotypes and forget their fundamental humanity. I can disagree with Charles Koch without demonizing him.
  2. Learning is better than assuming. I was going to skip these episodes, confident that nothing Charles Koch could say would be of value to me. I was wrong about that. His business philosophy and some of his policy perspectives are well worth my consideration.
  3. Break the Echo Chamber. I have a tendency to only listen to those who’s views I already know and agree with. While reinforcing my convictions is a good habit, I need to be intentional about exploring ideas, possibilities, and people who differ from me so that my approach remains pliable and open to truth.
  4. Discussion is always better than debate. Taking the time to genuinely listen to these podcasts with curiosity rather than just to support my assumptions was worthwhile. The same is true in other differences of opinion. Most perspectives have some sincerity behind them, and starting from a combative posture prevents learning on both sides.
Leaders with a short term approach can achieve quick results by dismissing and ridiculing those with opposing positions. Being radical and polarizing makes for compelling takes and can bring an influx of passionate support. But it’s a fool’s game in the long run. The greatest impact comes from those who do the harder work of seeking to understand the reasons behind the views and find ways to connect rather than attack. Common ground isn’t always possible, but failing to diligently look for it limits the potential for winning people over or finding a higher possibility. The cynic in me wants to dismiss Charles Koch’s interviews as some kind of strategic manipulation with dark ulterior motives. That may yet be the case. But I continue to believe that the risks of optimism are better than the losses of suspicion. When have you had to change your opinion of someone?
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Catalyst, Leadership, Resources

As part of the application to our new Catalyst Partners Leadership Program interested charities submit a 3-5 year Organizational Leadership Plan.

For some this is a document they have at the ready and can simply convert to pdf and add to their application. But for the majority a leadership plan is little more structured than a couple lines in a strategic plan or a few vague ideas.

In the past I tried to create a universal template that charities could use to create a leadership plan, but I soon abandoned the idea as unwise.

The diversity of news and opportunities facing charities would require either a template far too detailed to be reasonable to far too vague to be complete. On top of that, nothing I designed could reflect the culture and style of each organization. In the end it was better to offer a broad overview of different people within or connected to the charity with some questions relevant to each group and include some resources we have seen as valuable. Setting that in a worksheet that provides space for identifying specific needs and interventions, budget, and room to lay out the plan proved more useful than anything else I could develop.

It is far from comprehensive and always in need of updating as we learn more, but it serves well to initiate good conversation and raise possibilities that may not have been considered. It also includes some focus on donors and fundraising that is not strictly leadership development but seems relevant.

Leaders have used the overview to discuss what should happen and then transferred the results to a format and style that fits their unique operating culture. Check out the latest version for yourself and let me know how we can improve it to better serve charity leaders. 

Organizational Leadership Plan Worksheet
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Leadership, Resources
There is always more good stuff to do than time, energy, capacity or resource to do it all.

This is as true for individual leaders as for organizations. We spend a lot of time managing information and opportunities that may never come to fruition, and often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what we must (let alone could, or should) deal with day by day.

There are lots of advanced systems for effectively managing both time and information, but many of them fail to provide a fundamental perspective to figure out the relative importance of various possibilities, or the need to give some attention to less fruitful options as part of the ongoing process of identifying future areas of focus.

The simple approach I use to filter out what is unhelpful or irrelevant looks like this: Searchlight: I feel a strong responsibility to be aware of what is happening in the various fields in which we’re involved. I continually scan the horizons to see what sparkles back. Social media, especially Twitter, conferences, journals, and recommendations from people I respect get my attention. When something reflects our interest or values I pause to take a closer look.

Spotlight: Like a Broadway show, when I come across something that warrants greater attention I shine a spotlight on it. This not only allows me to see it better, but also exposes it for others. Insightful books, articles, and videos deserve a deliberate look and quite often to be shared. I use social media (Twitter: @catalystfndtn) to promote things I think you might want to see, as well as passing them on directly or speaking about them when I have the opportunity. Organizations we partner with always spend time in our spotlight before we engage.

Laser: Highly focused light has the power to shape, ignite, or even perform surgery. Our interactions with individuals and organizations are dedicated almost entirely to attempting to assist and influence leadership. This means we don’t spend time, energy, or funding on a lot of very important things. We have determined through pretty intense evaluation over nearly a decade that leadership is our focus and we strive to not be distracted from it, especially by other worthy possibilities.

There is a constant ebb and flow between these three lights. At some points in a given year or project it is  critical to do nothing but laser focused leadership development. At other times it is just as necessary to be searching broadly for new ideas, information, and potential relationships. No formula or balance is correct for every season. The challenge is to properly identify what kind of light we need to be using most and then apply it effectively, perhaps by using any of the efficiency strategies that are available.

Several years ago I used the Searchlight, Spotlight, Laser imagery in a talk explaining Catalyst’s strategy at the time. A leader for whom I have enormous respect came to me afterwards and said ” I get it: Searchlight, Spotlight, Laser. That’s what you do!” That is what we do.

A final thought: None of these lights function without a solid Generator providing the energy.

Learning what provides the power to do all of this has been an essential part of growing as a leader and an organization for Catalyst.
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Catalyst, Leadership, Resources

Follow though is my nemesis.

My whole life I’ve been able to generate ideas that have excited me and engaged others. I’m a great starter. Of course, a great start does not make a great result. Actually delivering on the potential of my initiatives has haunted me for far too long.

I have a severely limited capacity for detail and my administration abilities are lacking. I can never stay motivated and engaged enough to bring most of what I dream to fruition. It bugs me. More than that it means I don’t accomplish what I really want to, and I end up disappointing or frustrating other people as well.

I’ve tried any number of popular productivity programs and time management hacks. I can start them with my usual enthusiasm, but they never last long. The ongoing maintenance of the system grinds me down far too quickly and I find myself again free styling from idea to idea and rushing deadline after deadline. I’m actually pretty good at that.

Last summer I saw Chris McChesney speak at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. His topic: the 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) didn’t really inspire me. I was expecting to feel inadequate and guilty while he expounded on another brilliant platform to drive results that I could never sustain.

Instead, it felt like I had finally found someone who understood how I think and work.

I bought (and even actually read) the book, and have become mildly obsessed with understanding the relatively simple, but surely not easy approach he and his team have developed over the last 14 years. You can see a brief explanation of 4DX for yourself: https://youtu.be/YLZwgc-sH34

At the heart of the disciplines is the understanding that we all live and work in the midst of a whirlwind that demands our attention and energy. Much of what goes on in the whirlwind is good, much is necessary, but it prevents us from getting to the important but not urgent things that propel organizations and people forward. And if we are able to identify those Wildly Important Goals, the whirlwind constantly conspires to prevent us from giving them the attention and effort they need to succeed.

There’s really nothing new or magical in 4DX. Having reviewed and discussed it a bunch of times it’s such common sense I’m a little embarrassed I haven’t been doing it all along. Which is exactly the point.

As I’m preparing for our next major Strategy Sessions I’m more and more convinced that applying the 4 Disciplines can be a powerful and sustainable way for Catalyst to move forward to greater impact as we approach the end of our first decade of trying to help leaders and organizations be healthy and achieve their dreams.

If you’ve used 4DX I’d really love to hear your thoughts. And if it intrigues you let me know, maybe we can walk it through together and see if it’s actually as good as I expect.
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Leadership, Resources
Last week I set aside two days to take in a simulcast of the Global Leadership Summit from Willow Creek. The is a highly respected international event; I enjoy it and appreciate what Willow Canada is doing to maximize the rich inspiration and solid content. At an event like this I’m expecting to go away with 3-4 specific action steps to begin applying within the week, and a few resources I want to explore more deeply in the coming months.

The 2016 Summit definitely came though with both. I love being introduced to ideas and presenters I didn’t know previously and the most useful presentation for me was Chris McChesney from Franklin Covey who managed to make The Discipline of Execution fun and fascinating. I look forward to getting into his book later this week.

I was also particularly impressed with the sessions from Erin Meyer and Danielle Strickland. Both brought insights I need to use to improve both at work and in the rest of my life.

I would encourage anyone to look for a site to take in the rebroadcast in October to hear both of them and the other great presenters. The founder of the Summit, Bill Hybels, always brings passionate and practical teaching in his sessions. (I still think he should find someone else to take over the interview slots, but that’s a minor critique).

One of Bill’s sessions was more a workshop than a lecture. He opened with a warning that what he was about to ask us to do would be difficult for most of the leaders watching. Then he began to talk about all that he has learned by developing a habit of reflection in his life. The raw emotion as he spoke of the importance of taking time to stop and consider his own life was compelling. Then he invited us to do something he emphasized would be tough: to take 2 minutes to reflect on a particular question he set up with a few minutes of teaching.

There were actually 3 two minute moments of reflection, each prepped with 5-10 minutes of expert teaching and a specific question. Our Summit workbook had several pages ready to record our thoughts.

I am sincerely stunned and quite discouraged that one of the most prominent Christian leaders in the world believes most of us would struggle to spend a total of six minutes in reflection. I am convinced that being able to explore and understand  our own actions, emotions, and motives has to be a fundamental expectation of leaders, and that it is essential to the character growth that should be every leaders priority. I can only hope that a majority of us saw this session as a springboard to deeper and more extensive reflection at another time.

Leadership is unrelenting. It takes discipline to step away from the daily churn to learn and develop. That is why events like the Global Leadership Summit are so valuable, and also why reflection should be more familiar and regular than a two minute challenge.
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In 2005 prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs released his book The End of Poverty. It articulated his conviction that a massive short term increase in foreign aid and philanthropic giving could eliminate the deepest poverty in the African continent forever. A network of Millennium Villages were launched to pioneer his model with fanfare and great confidence. I just finished reading The Idealist by journalist Nina Munk in which she tracks the progress of the project and its founder as the effort surged, struggled, and seems to be on the verge of wrapping up with no definitive measurable success. It’s a very well written book that should be widely read by those working in development, and particularly by those supporting the work. My copy was a gift from Stuart Taylor who works with IDE and has been my friend, my example, and my guide into many of the most important areas of my life. To oversimplify the message of the book, don’t oversimplify the work of changing lives. I have to confess to my own vulnerability on this, and that of Catalyst. While I hope we are characterized by sincere humility in our work, we are people of ideas and theories who have the luxury of sitting at a distance and offering opinions (often tied to funding) on the strategies and performance of those who are really doing the work. I can easily become the backseat driver, Monday morning quarterback, and talk radio commentator in my field. That’s not to deny the significant value of what I commonly call “the interested outsider”, but even in my limited experience it is abundantly clear that real, lasting impact depends on a myriad of factors beyond the control of even the most diligent strategist. Culture, nature, politics, and human selfishness and irrationality defy grand optimism. Progress over time is fickle and scaling success is unpredictable. Good, smart, well-funded projects like the Millennium Villages are just as vulnerable, and possibly even more vulnerable, to unanticipated factors undermining their outcomes as local grass-roots efforts. So what should we do? At Catalyst we try to be as raw and real about what we do as we can. I try to temper my enthusiasm with a deliberate dose of doubt. And I acknowledge that none of us are doing any of this stuff right. We are all struggling in a complex environment to make the best of what we have in the determined hope that there will be ground gained as we commit ourselves to constant learning and continued effort. As a long established idealist myself I find this rather unsatisfactory in so many ways, but I am discovering that there is profound beauty and meaning in even imperfect progress. How do you manage the tension between theoretical idealism and practical challenge in your life and work?
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What’s the optimum emotional mindset for a leader today? Something like this: IMG_2494 That’s me (left) and my brother in law Marc last spring at the start of my first ever bike race. I could post a finish line picture, but it was a little uglier. When I look back at the picture today I notice a few things that I think are relevant to leaders today. 1. I was uncertain. They keep part of the course a secret right up until race day so I didn’t know exactly what to expect except that it would include fast stretches, deep mud, steep hills, and a brutal climb to the finish. I had done some biking and running but wasn’t prepared enough to be fully confident of my ability. 2. I was excited. The atmosphere of the morning was full of anticipation and fun, even with some intensity. I love that feel. I knew it would be a tough ride but I was eager to get going and see what would happen. I figured even if I had to walk some sections, I was going to enjoy the adventure. 3. I was wearing my helmet. Not just because it’s required. Serious crashes are rare, even in challenging terrain like this, but they do happen and I wanted to be ready for that possibility. I grew up in a time when bike helmets weren’t cool, but I don’t get on my bike without one at all anymore. It’s a simple way to manage some of the risk. Leadership today requires this same attitude. We can never anticipate every eventuality, there’s so much we just don’t know, and no one is fully prepared. There are always surprises, good and bad, around the next corner and the best leaders understand that they will always need to be learning to handle them well. Change is constant and no strategic plan will ever stay entirely on course. We need to expect success. Knowing that things will be tough doesn’t mean we’re in trouble, it just means that the eventual celebration will be all the more meaningful. We may need to frequently adjust our targets in response to changing circumstances, but good leaders remain optimistic about the potential of a healthy organization to have real impact. Only those who are able to maintain positive vision for themselves and their team can thrive. We need to prepare for problems. Continuous evaluation of risk/reward scenarios and planning for negative outcomes is a critical skill and strategy. Astronaut Chris Hadfield addresses this extremely well in his book: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Being intentional about planning for trouble is basic survival. Today’s leader needs to be an optimist with a helmet on.
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Every organization is trying to stretch dollars, and with the pressure to keep “overhead” rates as low as possible (don’t get me started), finding ways to get more value from every investment in your people is both strategically and politically important. As a funder who supports leadership development, I’ve noticed a few simple ways that training can be extended with a little effort and nearly no cost. 1. Book it. There are an endless supply of new leadership books being released all the time, and no one can keep up. In fact, the large majority of the books don’t have anything particularly new to say. At best you can glean a couple applicable ideas and some new angles on the basics we all know we should be doing. Instead of adding to your already towering stack of unread best sellers, go back and re-read the three most useful books you’ve already got. I try to keep a couple increasingly worn favourites on a preferred and accessible shelf near my desk. 2. Story Time. One of the greatest needs in almost every organization is to keep the entire team aligned with the vision and values at the heart of all that they do. It is so easy to lose track of the big idea in the midst of the day to day tasks and occasional crises. Leaders hesitate to overdo repeating the message for fear of annoying people. Stories of impact are gathered and circulated for donors, and the assumption is that our people know what we’re about. At the beginning of every regular meeting take just a few minutes to share one specific story of the impact your organization, or better yet, have different people share how the organization is impacting their own lives. This is even more impactful with office staff who rarely get into the field. 3. Do Lunch. You are sending your people to all kinds of courses, sessions, conferences, and events with the expectation that they’ll learn something relevant. Too often whatever knowledge they gain never gets beyond their own use. Make it a solid expectation that everyone who receives training will, at least informally, present the key content of the experience and how it can be applied here to the rest of their team. Start scheduling lunch and learn sessions at least monthly. Even optional brown bag sessions will begin to gain traction and people will process their learning more deeply. What have you been doing that has helped get more impact out of your leadership investments?
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One of my favourite fiction writers is Douglas Adams, best known for his five part Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy trilogy. (Yes it is a five part trilogy, that’s the most logical thing about it actually). Among the most memorable ideas in that series is something called the “Somebody Else’s Problem Field”. It’s described this way:
An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.
The narration then explains:
The technology involved in making something properly invisible is so mind-bogglingly complex that 999,999,999 times out of a billion it’s simpler just to take the thing away and do without it……. The “Somebody Else’s Problem field” is much simpler, more effective, and “can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery.”
This is because it relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somebody_Else%27s_Problem)
Most decent leaders have a hard time seeing things as Somebody Else’s Problem. Instead, they are the people who step up, step in, and step on the gas to find a solution. I enjoy people who don’t experience life as bystanders and encourage my children to follow the example we are trying to set of being activists rather than observers in most areas of life. I believe it’s true that every strength contains its own weakness, and as I reflect on the end of another year in my own life and many leaders I’m spoiled to interact with this seems particularly true. I am learning, and now becoming more deliberate about it, that most problems actually are somebody else’s. In some cases I can play a part by advising or assisting, but I need to be careful to not take onto myself the emotional or practical responsibility of things that are properly not mine to deal with. This is as true in personal relationships as professional situations. One of the many useful resources that help me figure out whether a problem is mine or somebody else’s is the book The One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey. It’s quick, pointed, memorable, and practical. Which is what those of us who take on too many problems usually need. What are your strategies and tricks for determining if something is your problem or somebody else’s?
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Although I’ve never attended the Catalyst Conference events I’ve certainly been aware of their growing impact on a generation of leaders in various fields. Catalyst Foundation has no association with that movement, though we have many similar values and dreams. When I saw that Brad Lomenick, co-founder of the conferences was releasing a book entitled The Catalyst Leader: 8 Essentials for Becoming a Change Maker I was both intrigued and somewhat skeptical. I glance at a ton of leadership books, skim many, purchase several, but only ultimately closely read a handful. Most of them don’t have much new to say, and often they are too prescriptive and formulaic for real world use it seems to me. That said, The Catalyst Leader is holding my attention. It is easy to follow, practical, and challenging. There are plenty of stories, including stories of failure, and Brad writes in a way that I think demonstrates that he knows his audience of young, Christian leaders. In fact, I’m enjoying the book enough that I picked up a bunch of extra copies that I want to give out in exchange for a simple 1-2 page shareable book review.

If you’d like a copy of the book, are involved with a Canadian charity as staff, volunteer, active donor, or board member, and are able to read the book and send me your thoughts on it (I’ll provide a simple optional guideline) by July 15th I’d like to get one in your hands. Just reply to this post with a comment letting me know your name, the charity you serve, your role, and why you’d like to participate. I’ll pick 8 replies by May 31st and get the books out to you asap.
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