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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.

 

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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?
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Leadership
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.
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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.
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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!)
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Leadership, Vision


The larger and more complex the organization, the shallower the top leader needs to be.

(How’s that for a provocative opener?!?)

In any charity, school, business, city, or country the first chair leader (Executive Director, Principal, CEO, President, etc.) has two essential aspects to their role; internal duties and external duties. The internal duties mostly relate to the effective operation of the entity, they are strategic and often complex. They require insight, experience, and sound judgment. I think of it as the deep end of leadership. Most leadership training is focused on developing these abilities.

External duties have more to do with being the symbolic representative of the organization to the stakeholders, constituents, and general public. Being the “face and voice” that shows up at key events, says some inspiring words, shakes hands, and generally flies the flag on behalf of the entire operation. Being good at this part of the role involves a more generic skillset of relational abilities and emotional intelligence. To some it looks like shallow work, but it is essential to any impactful organization.

In small charities the first chair leader is likely to spend a lot of time and energy on deep leadership matters. They may be the issue expert, program manager, primary fundraiser, director of finance, and HR department all at once. With few others to share the load the leader has to be intimately involved in every strategic aspect of operations.

As organizations grow that changes. More people, more resources, more projects and programs; more than any one leader can effectively manage in a hands-on fashion. The internal (deep) demands eclipse the capacity of one person. Delegation becomes a crucial skill and things happen without the Executive Director’s involvement or even awareness.

And the external (shallow) duties should grow simultaneously.

More donors, more events, more media, more speeches, more photo ops.

Eventually the role of the top executive becomes more spokesperson than technician. They have a trusted team of professionals who (preferably) have greater skill and insight than the leader does in their areas of responsibility. The leader’s role comes more facilitative within the organization as they rely on others to get the right done the right way.

Of course top leaders should never abandon deep leadership entirely. They need to retain their ability to probe the operations and programs of the organization and be able to provide more than mere bullet points when questions and issues arise. Their credibility and that of the charity depend on them being more than a talking head.

It can be argued that the most recent federal elections in both Canada and the United States have seen leaders chosen for their shallow end skills. Both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump were and continue to be critiqued as being little more than media sensations with little comprehension of the deeper aspects of their roles. (Interesting that they represent somewhat opposite wings of the political spectrum). The relative validity of those assessments is not essential to this post. What is relevant is that both countries voted for leaders whom they saw as exemplifying the qualities and aspirations of the people, not leaders renowned for their policy insights.

Image does matter.

The point is this: First chair leaders are both the symbolic and the strategic point person for their organizations. They need to be both shallow and deep. Insiders (boards, employees, committed volunteers) tend to undervalue the shallow/symbolic aspects of leadership which are crucial to the growth and sustainability of the organization. Those aspects should be constantly considered in their hiring, development, performance review, and priorities but they often aren’t.

How do you approach and improve both the shallow and deep aspects of your leadership?
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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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Leadership

Effective leaders seem to have a knack for being a couple steps ahead of things.
They spend a significant amount of their time and energy in the future, anticipating and preparing for opportunities and challenges that others haven’t yet imagined. With an almost prophetic sense of what is to come, leaders are quietly working behind the scenes on strategies and decisions long before they come to light for the rest of their organization. And they’re always well underway on the next one by the time this one is announced.
It can look a little like this…  This is an important quality and one that is important for any organization that aspires to growth in scale, significance, or impact. Or really, for any organization that aspires to anything more than a decline to irrelevance and closing the doors. But it can also cause dangerous tension among people who aren’t always attuned to the future thinking of the leader (or leaders, team is a great benefit to future thinking).
The problem arises when leaders forget that they are working ahead.
They have spent their time wrestling through the options, implications, and emotions of a matter to their satisfaction before the rest of the team may have even been aware that it was a possibility.
Too often, leaders don’t allow or expect others to need the same process of time and consideration to become comfortable with a new strategy or situation. They forget that they live in the future and others remain in the present. Add in a measure of abrasiveness or insecurity and you soon find a frustrated leader wishing the others weren’t stuck in the past.
That is almost always accompanied by a demotivated team who feel excluded, disempowered, and taken for granted.
While both perceptions may have some element of truth, the driving issue is probably a leader who has simply forgotten about the leadership time lag and the need for everyone to have a chance to process what is happening for themselves.
So how do we fix it?
Awareness is essential. Leaders have to understand that those not aware of the early stages of consideration haven’t had a chance to reach and support a shared conclusion. With that awareness leaders can plan change processes that factor in time for people to understand, explore, and prepare for the impact of what is coming. They may even involve more people early in the process. Beyond that, organizations with open communication create the possibility of either leaders or followers talking about the impact of the time lag; asking the others to adapt to the pace of change they need, and addressing the differences without them becoming a further drag on momentum or morale.
When has the leadership time lag been a problem for you? How have you seen it handled well?
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Leadership

The concept of loyalty has been very receiving a lot of attention the last few days. At risk of stating the obvious, and understanding that we can all benefit from coming back to basics once in a while; here are the elementary principles of loyalty and leadership.
  1. Loyalty to the cause > Loyalty to the leader. A healthy organization understands very clearly that no one person is more important than the task, purpose, or mission they have established as their reason for being. This is essential and non-negotiable. When I have been asked by friends who lead charities if I would consider joining their Board of Directors one of the questions I have to consider is: “Am I willing to fire my friend if that is in the best interest of the organization?”. We have to know where our loyalties lie.
  2. Personal loyalty must be earned. Every organization I know recognizes the advantages of loyalty. It increases engagement, decreases turnover, protects momentum, and accelerates the pace of work. These are only true if that loyalty is based on trust, and trust is a combination of Character and Competence. Trustworthy leaders have loyal followers.
  3. Loyalty is a result, not a requirement. Loyalty is essentially the product of Trust and Time. It cannot be commanded in a healthy organizational culture. Leaders who demand loyalty are pretty much always revealing their insecurity and it doesn’t end well for them or their organization. Cults and despots make loyalty their highest value; mature leaders recognize it as a gift from their followers.
As someone who often talks about the value of long term leadership and encourages friends and leaders I coach to find organizations where they can stay for several years I am a strong advocate of loyalty. I have erred on the side of being too loyal on a few occasions, but I’ll willingly rather risk making that mistake again rather than the opposite one.

Loyalty is a very good thing. And like most good things, it can be twisted, abused, and become very dangerous. But it doesn’t have to. In fact it really shouldn’t.

Healthy leaders remember the basics of loyalty and make them a part of how they lead. Which is great, because doing so makes it a whole lot easier for people to be loyal.
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Catalyst, Leadership, Partners, Uncategorized

Catalyst’s new Partners Leadership Program is the culmination of 9+ years of actively working with charities across Canada and internationally to grow their leadership for greater impact in their fields. It brings together the very best of what we have learned in funding, coaching, consulting, and walking alongside charity leaders.

We are now actively recruiting organizations to join us in this intensive project.

The Program Overview gives the relevant information about eligibility and what the program involves. It is worth checking it out and passing it along to others who might be interested. In talking with several interested leaders one of the important aspects of the possibility of applying is the question of whether this is the right time in their organization’s story to take on something like this. The timing is definitely not right for everybody.

It is may not be a good time to apply if:
-You are in the midst of significant financial, strategic, or human resources turmoil. Crisis management is not what we are offering in this program. A certain level of stability is necessary to dig deeply into organizational culture and leadership over time.
-You are currently taking on several other major initiatives. Our partnership will require sustained attention and effort. It will demand continued focus and can’t succeed if treated as a small side project.
-The current leadership does not have the confidence of the board of directors. We understand that transitions happen unexpectedly for a wide variety of reasons, but for us to invest this much in a leader we want to anticipate them continuing in their role for 3-5 years or more.
-Your Executive Director is new to their role within the last 3 months. Possibly longer if they are entirely new to the organization. It is rare for a new first chair leader to be able to establish their own credibility enough that quickly to bring on an internal commitment of this scale.
-You aren’t sure you can work closely with either Catalyst or other potential partners. Some people just don’t click together.

On the other hand; this may be the perfect time for you to partner with us if:
-You are experiencing or anticipating greater organizational impact
-You feel plateaued as a leader or organization and want to shake things up a bit
-You want to grow the size, scope, strategy, and/or impact of your charity
-You want to lead with greater confidence -Your leadership team is ready to get significantly more effective
-The upcoming opportunities or challenges are going to be a stretch for you
-You are eager to both learn from and share with peer charity leaders
-You need some challenge and encouragement to bring out your best
-You have a sense that there is more to grow into personally, as a team, or as an organization

If you have any interest or curiosity about the opportunity let me know.
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