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For several years I’ve used running as an alternative way to meet with some of the leaders I advise. The combination of activity, nature, and being side by side brings a different quality to the conversation that can be helpful.

Today I added another sport to the arsenal: Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP).

For those who haven’t tried it, SUP is sort of a cross between canoeing and surfing. You stand on a fairly large board and use a long paddle to make your way across the water. My wife and I have been doing it for a few years and we love it!

I’ve introduced a bunch of people to the sport and I always tell them; “The first 30 seconds it will seem impossible, but then you’ll settle in a bit and it will start to work really quickly”. With the right board, and a willingness to get wet occasionally, almost anyone can learn and enjoy it.

While paddling today the leader I was with commented that he could feel the muscles in his feet and lower legs working constantly to find and maintain balance. It’s absolutely true. It takes a while to get used to the constant corrections your body needs to make to stay upright. Most of it is subconscious, and it has to happen.

I think the same is true for finding balance in life and leadership. Especially when trying something new we often find that we are constantly having to make small adjustments to stay on top of things. We do a lot of it intuitively and spontaneously, but it can be fatiguing. Over time we become more comfortable and confident and find it all comes more naturally.

We also noticed today how much easier it was to stay balanced when we were going with the wind and waves. Somehow that extra momentum had us forgetting how tricky it really was, until we turned around and had to fight against it.

There are seasons of leadership where things are going pretty well and we can forget how complex and important leading really is. But when our course or the circumstances around us change we can suddenly find ourselves struggling to not go under, let alone to make any headway.

The leadership lessons from our SUP session pretty much write themselves. The challenge will be applying them.

The good news is, the leader I paddled with today is eager to come out again, and to take what we’re learning back to his organization. I think I’ll be “SUPsulting” with a few others this summer. 

What unusual activity had taught you something that has helped your leadership?

If you want to set up a runsult, SUPsult, or just a regular conversation about healthy leaders and healthy organizations you can contact us here.

Great Stories, Leadership
Most policy manuals are useless, and many are holding back results.

I’ve had several conversations and consulting sessions in the last couple months where organizational policies featured prominently. In the midst of cultural shifts in expectations and greater diversity of demographics and opinions, the desire to establish clarity often results in voluminous binders of procedures and practices that take days to read; let alone to write, review, and implement.

And a lot of it is garbage.

I don’t mean that politically. It’s not the specific content of the policies that concerns me. It’s the sense that we need to define and monitor so much of the behaviour of our teams.

We don’t.

In fact, if your organization feels like you need policies for just about every eventuality that may occur it is more than likely that you have an unhealthy culture where the push for authority and control has replaced any form of meaningful trust and communication. 

A long term successful leader I spent time with recently said: “We create policies when we want to avoid conversations”. It rings true.

If our people can’t make even basic decisions on their own we have the wrong people. Or, more likely, if we haven’t developed that ability in employees then we are the wrong leaders.

Of course there are regulatory and legal realities that require us to enact policies. Those are unavoidable, whether they are well designed or not. Some things need explicit instructions. The danger comes when we begin establishing rules when principles or values would suffice.

I almost cheered out loud when I heard on The Unpodcast that GM’s CEO Mary Barra, in the midst of  bankruptcy and enormous pressure, focused on improving organizational culture in part by reducing the reliance on policies. She replaced a ten page workplace dress code with two words: Dress Appropriately.

I love it! If it can work in one of the largest corporations why can’t small and mid-sized organizations follow the example?

Healthy leaders build healthy cultures where control is minimized and conversations abound. Instead of detailed policies that feed autocratic supervision and motivate people to look for loopholes, they take a strong stand on values and establish principles that honour maturity and empower choice wherever possible. Trust becomes a real thing when we let people make the decisions they are capable of making.

You may be thinking, “Sure, but what happens when someone does something inappropriate and we don’t have a specific rule about it?”.

Probably something very similar to what would happen with a rule: you have a conversation with them. But in this case it is educational instead of disciplinary. Over time the few who don’t fit will either choose to leave or give every reason for termination. And the people you want to keep will appreciate being treated with respect. I’d bet they’ll start aspiring to higher standards instead of gravitating to the bare minimum.

Tell me: What’s one policy you could simplify to see how people will respond?

If you’re working on understanding, assessing, and improving your organizational culture we can help.

Catalyst, Leadership
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day.

As always, some people make a really big deal out of it, spending small fortunes on flowers, chocolates, gifts, and dinner out. Proclaiming their love as publicly as possible as an expression of romance.

As always, others point out that Valentine’s is a fabricated holiday that really doesn’t reflect the true story of St. Valentine, and serves mostly to guilt people into unnecessary stereotypical purchases. They claim that they don’t need a nudge from a consumer driven date to demonstrate their feelings.

I can’t help but wonder if those who criticize the holiday really are regularly showing their partners how much they love them. 

The simple truth is that, as artificial as it may be, many of us benefit from the reminder.

The nudge works.

Like romance in an intimate relationship, organizations are better, richer, and stronger when they celebrate their successes. And like romance, celebration is easily and often overlooked.

This is true in many areas of our lives. We are intentional about building habits and rituals that regularly remind us of the things we believe are important. So we have an annual physical, schedule date nights, set reminders on our phones, and wear accessories that nudge us to pay attention and take action.

For me, that’s a big part of going to church.

Some leaders don’t fully appreciate the significant impact skilled celebration can bring for their organization. And few consistently make it a priority. It’s easier to invest ourselves in problem solving and strategy sessions than in leading a culture that brings out the best in people. 

But every organization is better when leaders leverage the power of celebration.

I was honoured last year when a leader I respect asked me to be his “celebration coach”. He wants me to remind him to celebrate the things that matter, and to help him to do it well. He needs the nudge.

So whether you like Valentine’s Day or not, it’s a good idea to find some way to remind yourself to show your love for the people you care about.

And if you want to lead your organization to be healthy, vibrant, and as impactful as possible, you need to find a way to ensure that you don’t take celebration for granted. You might even want to find yourself a coach.

Catalyst offers workshops in Celebration for leaders, teams, and organizations. Contact us for more information.

A lot of the charity leaders I work with don’t get proper accountability from their Board of Directors. Sometimes they kinda like it that way.

But the truth is that providing a proper performance review of the lead staff person is a basic duty of the board. Failing to do so handicaps the leader and ultimately the organization. Every employee deserves to know how well they are doing and what they can do to improve.

I am occasionally asked to advise or participate in a leader’s performance review. Over the year’s I’ve seen both excellent and ineffective approaches. I recently offered the following thoughts to a board member from a familiar charity about designing a performance review for their leader:

(Edited for confidentiality)

-The first consideration is what is the purpose of the evaluation. Is the board considering whether she is still the right leader for the organization? That would lead to a different process than if you are confident in her and trying to give her some feedback to continue her growth.
-Assuming you’re happy with her, I think there are two prime aspects of evaluation:
1. Organizational Results: Is the organization achieving its purpose and hitting strategic targets (as approved by the Board) consistently under her leadership? This information should be fairly easy to gather and evaluate against the strategic plan.
2. Organizational Culture: Does she cultivate a healthy atmosphere where people are equipped to perform at their best and their achievements are celebrated? Our REACTION Dashboard has been effectively adapted and facilitated for this purpose. 
-A third aspect is her leadership health and development. Is she preparing herself to thrive in the role as the organization continues to grow? Does she know what she needs to do to be the leader the organization needs for the next 5 years? A leaders success is tied to being healthy and being intentional about development.
As for the process; there could be a range of approaches depending on the degree of detail you want. A basic survey of 10-20 key people (board, staff, donors, etc.) could be summarized for the board and leader with a few simple questions on the above topics. Something more formal or systematic would require more expertise than I can offer.
There are lots of viable options for an effective performance review. Determining which approach is most appropriate depends on the current situation of the leader, board, and organization. However, for any review to be useful it will have to address the above areas in some way.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are one of the most culturally significant realities of the last two years. It seems like every couple days another prominent male figure is accused of sexual assault and this may well be just the beginning. The local and grassroots levels of society haven’t yet felt the same degree of impact. But it almost definitely on the horizon and approaching quickly.

The relevance of this for leaders is complex, and it is urgent.

Every organization must be prepared for the possibility that there will be allegations involving one of their leaders or employees. There are any number of excellent resources available for legal guidance, and there is no longer any excuse for not having policy in place for properly handling a complaint or accusation.

But there are leadership aspects to these situations that are not only matters of law and reporting.

(I am acutely aware that I write and live in a position of privilege. My reflections on these difficult and all too common matters come from what I hope is recognized as a place of sincere compassion and concern for all who have been victimized.)

1. It can happen here. Every sector of society is affected by sexual misconduct. There is a natural tendency to magnify the offence of those we consider “other”by religion, industry, or politics; while minimizing what’s happening in our own tribe. As the reports increase we are seeing clearly that no community is immune and some of those that might appear cleanest on the surface are most damaged at the core.

2. This video of Rachel Denhollander addressing the court about the horrific crimes committed by Larry Nassar should be required viewing. Her eloquence, courage, and poise while revealing the lasting harm done to her and many others, and the way she exposes the systemic factors that enabled the abuse to continue year after year, are an important window into both the reality of victimization and the power of survivorhood. It is well worth the time for every leader, but it is graphic and disturbing.

3. False accusations can happen. The court of public opinion can be harsh and is not bound by the rule of law and that should concern us. I have had friends lose their careers and worse to allegations that were either later proven false or were never tested in a court of law. But I have had far more friends reveal past abuse that they never reported because they tragically blamed themselves or believed no one would believe them. All the research I can find is clear that the incidence of false claims is very rare and pales in comparison to the rate of unreported assaults. So yes, it is possible that someone with an axe to grind will make a malicious false report. But too many abusers have been enabled to continue their harm because we didn’t want to believe their victims.

4. Your voice matters. Meaningful change requires that these conversations happen in board rooms and locker rooms, at dinner tables and in places of worship. For survivors to come forward and for society to become safer we need to change the atmosphere that has silenced and shamed those who have been victimized. That will happen when we move these issues from the hidden corners of our communities into the light. And that requires more of us to participate. It should go without saying that this is not a women’s issue. This is a fundamental human issue and we all have something at stake.

5. Refuse paralysis. Do not let taking harassment seriously keep you from your work. The scale and frequency of stories emerging is overwhelming. Even more if we consider the ones that are happening that don’t make the news. It is tempting to turn all our attention to caring for the victims, identifying the offenders, and seeking justice for everyone. But for most organizations that is not our primary purpose. We need to see this as a critical reminder to ensure we are doing what we can to prevent and address harassment while maintaining focus on the reason for our work.

6. Hold to a higher standard. Ontario politician Patrick Brown was pushed to resign despite no charges being filed against him. However leadership does not offer the presumption of innocence that is a hallmark of our legal system. A leader who is not trusted cannot be effective. The Bible’s admonition for leaders to be “above reproach” and that those who lead “will be judged more harshly” applies to every leader. Recommit to having exemplary character and accountability, and make it a non-negotiable for your organization. Character counts. Even when there are high profile leaders who seem to be exceptions.

What we are experiencing is fundamentally a good thing. We are way past due for real conversations about sexual assault and harassment in society, and in our families and organizations. It should be uncomfortable and certainly there will be examples of it not being handled ideally. But all decent human beings should be united in wanting to shine light on the ugliness that has been hidden and enabled for far too long. This is time for leadership; but it must include real listening, grieving, and change.

If you can point to excellent resources for training organizations in preventing sexual misconduct and/or responding properly to a report please add it in the comments.

Catalyst, Leadership
Catalyst Foundation got started ten years ago; February 2, 2008 was the first official day.

It’s been an amazing ride and there has been an enormous amount of learning that continues today.

This week we are reflecting back on all that has happened and looking ahead to the next ten years and beyond. We hope there is much more to come than has been accomplished so far.

One of the themes that has emerged in our work with charity leaders is the power and importance of developing the skill of celebration. Time and time again we’ve seen that those who leverage celebration achieve more and have more fun doing it. But it doesn’t always come easily, even for us.

With that in mind, I’m asking for a little help.

If you have been impacted at all by Catalyst over the past decade would you take a couple minutes and respond to this brief survey to help us reflect, celebrate, and plan ahead.



Leadership, Resources
He refused to mentor me.

In my early twenties I asked a leader I liked and respected to mentor me on a specific skill in which we were both involved. We had a very positive relationship up until that point and I was stunned when he turned me down flat.

It turns out he had agreed to mentor someone before and it went badly. That negative experience convinced him that he wasn’t a good mentor and didn’t enjoy doing it. So he told me no.

I persisted, laying out specifically what I was asking him to do, and how the approach could work. Thankfully, the clarity persuaded him and we had a productive year of official mentoring and an ongoing friendship that has survived more than two decades. In fact, his advice to me when we began Catalyst led us to one of the most important relationships in our early years as an organization.

Being clear was the key.

I have great respect for the expertise and training attained by qualified counsellors and have personally benefitted from seasons of their help. Pastors and other spiritual leaders have provided me with formative guidance. I have developed a trusted group of advisors I can call with questions and in crisis, and I rely on their wisdom. I am genuinely humbled by the quality and variety of people who have invested in me.

I’ve also been privileged to serve others in this capacity both formally and informally for many years. It is one of my favourite things to do. Some have referred to the dynamic as mentoring, pastoring, or coaching; I’m not picky about the term.

With so many models and approaches to coaching available the need for clarity is only increasing. In trying to capture what I try to provide in this role and to get the most out of each session I’ve begun using the acronym PACE to help frame the conversations.

Perspective – Where can my role as an interested outsider be insightful for something you’re considering?
Accountability – What actions/issues do you need to be held accountable on?
Challenge – Where do you need a push or a prod to step outside your comfort zone?
Encouragement – How can I fill your tank? Where are you struggling?

PACE is simple, memorable, and it helps focus the session on what is most important and relevant. It also serves to put responsibility for the content and impact of the conversation where it should be; on the person receiving.

I often advise anyone looking for a mentor to find someone who cares about them and understands the world they want to be part of, grab that person’s sleeve, and don’t let go until you’ve learned what you wanted. Mentoring always works best when the drive comes from the one who wants to learn. (And in my experience the learning usually becomes mutual).

Bringing clarity about the purpose, content, timing, cost, and intended final date of a coaching relationship makes it easier for both people to say yes, and to get the most out of it. Agreeing on expectations up front makes a huge difference.

I am grateful for the initial rejection two decades ago. Working that through has shaped my approach to mentoring much more significantly than if he had said yes from the start.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give about mentoring/coaching?

One of my go-to questions when trying to understand any charity is to ask the Executive Director “How are things going with your board?”. The answers, or long pauses before answers, are quite illuminating.

The work of a charity’s Board of Directors is rarely the glamorous aspect of the organization. But it is absolutely essential and often misunderstood. I really enjoy opportunities to help the well-meaning volunteers who serve as Directors to know their role and lead well.

Years ago I learned and began to teach a useful concept from governance guru Bob Andringa. He explains that Directors can think of their role as a set of three hats they wear in different circumstances. It goes a little like this:

Hat #1: Governance 

This is the hat worn only during board or official committee meetings. Wearing it, the Directors carry the legal and moral authority to govern the organization. Decisions made wearing this hat are made for the best interests of the charity, regardless of the Director’s personal preferences, and all staff and volunteers are bound by them. Effective boards have plenty of serious disagreement, but they keep it behind closed doors and communicate with one voice when a decision has been made.

Hat #2: Implementer

Boards make decisions. Some of those decisions are acted upon by the Executive Director or other people, but often someone from the board is given responsibility to act on or communicate the Board’s decisions. This is the Implementer. When speaking or acting on behalf of the entire Board, designated Directors can act with the full authority of the Board, but only within the specific parameters of the decision. Delivering a performance review or offer of employment (or termination) to the Executive Director is a common example of being the Implementer.

Hat #3: Volunteer

This is where things can get tricky. It is a good sign when Directors are actively involved in the programs and events of the charity but anytime a Director is not in a Board meeting or specifically implementing a decision of the Board, they do not have the authority of the Board. They are the same as every other volunteer. In smaller organizations its not unusual for people to approach Directors with concerns and expect them to address the issues given their role. This is a recipe for trouble. Directors need to take responsibility for clarifying that they are entirely under the authority of the staff and/or other volunteers except when explicitly wearing one of the other hats.

I taught these three hats for several years with good results. But recently I’m convinced there are three other hats that need to be added to the Board’s already crowded heads. Andringa’s hats represent the roles Directors play within the organizational structure. But there are also external aspects that frequently come into play. So I propose some additional hats:

Hat #4: The Donor

Some organizations require each Director to give a certain minimum donation to the charity each year to serve on the Board. I agree with the principle that Directors should be donors, but not with designating a minimum buy in like a poker game. Donors should never be able to purchase a seat at the Board table based on the size of their donation. Directors need to give sincerely, not for leverage; and their donations should not be taken for granted. Ideally, Directors should not designate their gifts but support the general operating of the organization.

Hat #5: The Friend

Most Directors begin their connection to the charity through a personal relationship, often with the Executive Director or another senior staff member. There are advantages and disadvantages to these friendships. Before joining a Board I always have to ask myself “Am I willing to fire my friend if it would be best for the charity?”. If not, I can not become a Director in good conscience. At the same time, Boards that maintain only a “professional” relationship with their top staff are missing out on the benefits that greater trust and understanding bring. Honest communication and a shared understanding of the role of a Director helps avoid the pitfalls and embrace the advantages.

Hat #6: The Client

In many organizations (eg. churches, schools, camps, etc.) Directors or their families are also the participants and beneficiaries of the programs. This adds another complexity to the dynamic. It gives great insight to the grassroots operations that some Boards struggle to access. It also can bring a bias that makes it difficult to work for the benefit of the entire organization. Staff and volunteers may need to be reminded that Directors have no authority or privilege as participants.

This may seem complex, but actually it simplifies the reality. Directors need to take responsibility for understanding which hat they are wearing in each circumstance and to communicate that clearly to others whenever it could be in question. As with so much in life and leadership, open communication is the key.

Leadership, Vision
One of the best parts of my work is the time I get to spend with young leaders. I definitely learn more than I teach and I have come to believe strongly that the future is in much better hands than some simplistic and cynical articles would suggest.

There are some things bout Millennials that still confuse me though.

Even as an active social media user I am stunned by how thoroughly many teens and young adults curate their personal image. The effort to portray just the right reputation on Instagram is a real concern, but one I see being actively addressed by the most secure among that generation.

I’m also a little taken aback by the elaborate care involved in producing powerful moments out of life events that used to be much more simple, though no less profound.

The culture of the promposal, with the requisite involvement of a crew of romantic conspirators has reached a level where I pity any teen who simply asks someone for a date. Take a few minutes to browse the remarkable skits, stunts, and art installations that are becoming a basic expectation of going together and you’ll see what I mean.

In a similar way young parents hosting gender reveal parties for their unborn children have spawned a cottage industry of creative pink and blue cakes, balloons, confetti; and unforgettable ways to deliver them. My wife and I didn’t know the gender of our first two children until they were born and the third we knew but didn’t tell anyone. By current standards we were terribly drab.

It’s easy as a nearly 45 year old to see these trends as shallow bids for attention, but that would be lazy, demeaning and inaccurate. Instead we should be recognizing this as a deep rooted desire for celebration.

For many complex reasons, both noble and unfortunate, there is a generation coming who have a greater hunger for moments of shared joy and surprise than those of us who are older generally demonstrate. They are tapping into what I am convinced is latent human need for communal delight that too many leaders see as trivial.

For the last three years I have been fascinated by the potential for celebration to transform organizations. The REACTION Dashboard tool and training has helped leaders begin to make it an active part of their culture. Those that are giving priority to meaningful celebration are finding that it increases engagement, reinforces purpose, enhances camaraderie, improves performance, and makes work a lot more enjoyable for everyone. 

Celebration works.

It’s not a generational thing. The styles may change but the untapped leverage of skillful celebration is something that brings out the best in people. Isn’t that what leaders want?

I’d love to hear some stories of how celebration is impacting your organization. And if you’d like to chat about exploring the potential it can have for you just let me know.

Leadership, Resources
I like to challenge myself.

Setting goals that won’t be easily achieved and pursuing them motivates me and I am energized by new objectives. I do a pretty good job of accomplishing some of them too.

The challenge is when I realize that the goal is out of reach.

Last weekend some friends of mine hosted a trail running race around my favourite local lake. Each lap is a little over 5km and they offered 1 lap, 2 lap, 5 lap, and even a 10 lap race. Back in the summer I decided to commit to the 5 lap (25+ km) event. I knew that it was beyond my fitness level at that time and would be difficult to train enough to be ready. It felt good to set the bar high.

Unfortunately it was too high. I admitted to myself in early September that there was no way I would be prepared to run well for that distance; finishing was unlikely and having fun highly improbable.

It was tough to have to contact them and request a change to the 10+km distance, and to have to tell some people who knew I was targeting the longer event. Swallowing my pride, even when it was clearly the right choice, doesn’t come easily.

I’ve just started reading Jon Acuff’s latest book, Finish. In it he talks about research showing that the real reasons many people fail to complete their goals is an inability to adapt to less than perfect performance or to scale back when it becomes apparent that the objective is out of reach. It’s really good stuff and he offers very practical advice to help us experience greater success by being more realistic.

I can think of dozens of leaders who could join me in recognizing ourselves in this tendency to be overly ambitious when goal setting and not manage the process effectively when we see we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. This book can help us.

Running the shorter race turned out great! I ran the first part with my 14 year old son and enjoyed the whole event, pushing myself to do my best. To my great surprise (and mostly due to there not being very many people racing), after crossing the finish line I found out I had finished first in my age group for the 2 lap event. My first ever first place.

I still wish I’d been fit enough to take on the longer event, but changing my goal to something more realistic made for a day of success beyond my expectations. (Next year the 5 or maybe even 10 lap event is mine!)