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Leadership, Resources
More than 2/3rds of the leaders I’m going to be working with most closely over the next year have started their current leadership role in the last eight months; during a global pandemic.

On Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast, prominent search consultant and author William Vanderbloemen predicted that 2021 will be a year of extremely high turnover. I think its already underway. A surprising number of charities have transitioned their first chair leader (Executive Director, CEO, Lead Pastor, Czarina?) in the midst of this year of dramatic uncertainty.

What’s it like to come into the top role of an organization experiencing phenomenal stress, constant dramatic change, and with strict limitations on the ability to be together with your new team?

It’s hard.

All the well established First 90 Days strategies have to be approached in completely different ways, if they work at all.

Building trust with people who are living in fear and turmoil (in both the global sense and for the wellbeing of their immediate loved ones) when you can’t have team building events, staff retreats, or even casual time hanging out at lunch or over a coffee is difficult.

3-5 Year Strategic Plans have been largely abandoned and the sense of impending doom from the lasting economic impacts of COVID-19 has made budgeting feel like reading tea leaves.

Programming models are in constant flux and we don’t really know when anything resembling stability will return or what it will look like if it does.

So what can a new leader do to establish credibility and give direction?

Here are three very practical things newly arrived leaders can do that will help them succeed.

1. Prioritise Relationships: As obvious as this may seem, the more dependent we are becoming on digital dynamics the more essential it is that we feel connected. Invest time in getting to know the people at every level of your organization as much as you can. Risking a little vulnerability and learning to laugh together will have significant lasting impact for everything you will want to do for as long as you stay in that role. People first.

2. Push Pause: Many organizations are running way faster than a sustainable pace and have been for most of a year. People are drained. Without intentionally interrupting the way things are going you may well be grinding toward a dangerous decline. No one wants to close programs when people are in great need, but finding ways to ease off or even shut down for a bit may be crucial to lasting impact. New leaders often want to rush into things to make their mark. Don’t. Taking your time and giving space for your team to breathe a little is responsible leadership.

3. Play Your Cards: There are questions you can ask as a recent arrival that you won’t be able to after you’ve been there for a couple years. There are decisions you can make in a time of crisis that won’t fly when things are more stable. The New Kid card and the Crisis card allow you to understand and expose things that are often avoided and have people accept the changes you need to make even if they are costly. Don’t make change for change’s sake to try to prove to the staff or board that you deserve your new job; but when you are convinced that something needs to be done, do it decisively.

There is almost always some level of insecurity or imposter syndrome that comes with being the new leader. These circumstances amplify that for many of us. And yet the need for effective leadership may be higher now than ever. This is a time for leaders to demonstrate wisdom and courage regardless of how long they’ve held their role.

If you’re trying to figure out leading in a new role this year one of the best things you can do is intentionally build a small group of advisors who can help you process your situation and decisions, and explore who you are in the midst of it. If you’re not sure who to ask to support you, get in touch with me. I may be able to help.
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Leadership, Resources
My cynicism got the better of me.

A few weeks ago, when this COVID-19 pandemic was beginning I had multiple conversations in which I was asked how leaders could improve organizational culture in this time of distant work and high stress. I said there wasn’t much hope.

I was wrong.

In the time since those conversations I have seen leaders demonstrate care and compassion for their teams. I’ve seen them display sincere vulnerability in appropriate ways. I’ve seen them rally their teams around their mission and take on immense challenges, often with remarkable success. 

I’ve seen cultures strengthened significantly.

It turns out (as people wiser than myself already knew), that times of stress don’t only reveal the cracks in organizational health; they also provide a powerful opportunity to address some of those issues. There is great opportunity in crisis for those who are able to engage it well.

Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise. Some moments are high leverage, and this is certainly one of them. Physical separation from our teams doesn’t prevent us from deepening our connections and affirming our shared commitments. In some cases the change of situation becomes an excellent opportunity to make impactful adjustments.

So, how can leaders improve their culture in the midst of great challenges?

1. Be Human: Sudden adjustment to working from home and worrying about the wellbeing of our loved ones gives us a glimpse into life beyond work for our colleagues. Take time to ask more questions about how people are doing. Be compassionate about the limitations and difficulties of home schooling, cabin fever, constant stress, and loneliness. Talk about your own challenges in a way that doesn’t always set you up as the ideal. Emphasize relationship in the ways that mean the most to your people.

2. Focus on Purpose, not Productivity: We all talk about impact measures and the importance of mission. Now is a time to lean in to that aggressively. People are working odd hours, without familiar settings and resources, and with more distractions than ever. Don’t add to the pressure by having unrealistic expectations. Instead have open conversations about the challenges we face and how we can have the greatest effect for our mission under the circumstances. We need to count results, not activity; and we need to give our people the opportunity to shape their work with that in mind.

3. Celebrate!: For most of us the desperate urgency of the first days of the pandemic is over. Life is turning into a grind, with no end in sight. We are longing for normalcy that may yet be far off. We’ve abandoned most of our goals both professionally and personally, and so many of the typical highlights of our lives aren’t happening. We need celebrations! We need to have our successes recognized and our accomplishments acknowledged. We need the moments of joy to punctuate our days. We need good news stories, victories, and opportunities to cheer one another on. More than ever, we need leaders who are attuned to the power of celebration and committed to making it happen.

I’m not proud of being wrong, but I’m really glad I was. 

This is absolutely an opportunity for organizations to become healthier in ways that will long outlast the current situation. We’d love to help you do that.



Check out The REACTION Dashboard for a practical guide to understanding, assessing, and improving organizational culture in any circumstance.
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Catalyst, Resources
These are not easy days for leaders of any type.

The sudden and drastic changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few weeks have required us to make important decisions amidst great uncertainty; and in many cases have to revise those decisions repeatedly as new information and insights emerge. We have had to lead our organizations with as much calm and confidence as we can muster even while processing our professional and personal fears. Most leaders I know have risen to the occasion beautifully.

As demanding as it has been so far; I expect leadership to become more difficult in the weeks and months to come.

Most leaders respond well to crisis. We are motivated by the urgency and need for action. In many ways we like the pressure, and the rush involved in handling the unanticipated can actually be invigorating. Adrenaline is a powerful thing.

Our leadership teams, employees, and communities have also stepped up. Again, there is a remarkable ability to accept difficult circumstances when something of this magnitude is happening all around us. We can tolerate a lot for a while if we believe it is for good reason.

But that initial period of easy adaptability will come to an end and the adrenaline will fade. That is when leadership will require greater nuance and strength. As one deeply insightful article describes, we are facing an ice age, not a blizzard.

There are many great resources to help us understand how to lead through this crisis as it extends. Many come from people more experienced, studied, or insightful than me. I’d welcome you linking to the ones you find most helpful in the comments at the end of this post.

What I think I can offer are a couple particular reminders; things we probably already know but may not be acting on.

1. Your organizational Culture is far more valuable than your Strategy right now. 

The plans and priorities you had even six weeks ago have probably been completely abandoned. What remains as you try to change on the fly is the quality and strength of relationships you have built over time. Healthy cultures will find ways to shift resources and approaches with strong engagement from staff and stakeholders. Unhealthy ones will not. 

This is not the time to take Culture for granted. Continue to invest actively in people. Find ways to have both formal and informal interaction. Continue to train and treat (or school and spoil) your team even under pressure. It will pay off.

We have a quick, insightful, and highly actionable tool to help you understand, evaluate, and improve your organizational culture.

2. Your personal Character outweighs your skills and experience.

None of us have done this before. Even the most adept at remote working have never done it under these circumstances. The playbook for this situation is being written day by day, even hour by hour; you can’t find it in a library or bookshop. That means we all need to discern which of the multitude of “expert” voices we will listen to and which insights we will try to apply.

Ultimately it will be leaders who are adaptable, relational, and trusted that will find ways forward. Those who are driven by selfish motives or insecurity will find it extremely hard to maintain engagement. Make a point of checking in on your own identity and actions regularly and find some safe people to help you stay (or get) on track. People follow those they trust when all else is uncertain.

If you want a practical tool to do a personal character check up for yourself or your team please let me know.

3. Prioritize Celebration.

A quick glance through my social media feeds show that people are rapidly tiring of the latest projections and predictions. As much as we need to keep up with critical information, we are longing for good news. This is only multiplied, exponentially, by the enforced isolation of this particular crisis. Celebration is a strong counterpoint to fatigue.

Expect that your team, donors, clientele, and community need more celebration than you do. Find and flag as many examples as you can of the ways the things you are doing are helping, even if that only means reducing the degree of harm people experience. Make a point of drawing attention to what is hopeful. 

Whether you are a religious person or not there is a universal wisdom in the Bible’s advice:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
(Philippians 4:8 NIV)
Your efforts to give people reason and opportunity to celebrate in this time of turmoil may be the most important thing you do.

If I can help you work through any of these things as you lead please contact me.

It would be my pleasure to help you as you lead. You may also find some useful insights into Celebration and organizational Culture in The REACTION Dashboard.
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Leadership, Resources, Vision
One of the growth areas for Catalyst in the last few years is facilitating Strategic Planning sessions. It’s work I love but I confess I’ve had a hard time figuring out the best approach. Most of what I’ve seen and tried has left me feeling unsatisfied, like there’s something missing that keeps it from approaching the kind of impact we aim for.

The problem for me is that so much strategic planning is terrible. Whether its brainstorming sessions with no connection to reality, or droning meetings lost in detail, it seems like much of what passes for strategic planning is nearly useless if not counterproductive. 

There has to be a better way.

Pat of the problem is with our basic understanding of strategy. We treat it as something static that gives us a false sense of control. Strategy lies.

But what I’m seeing over and over in guiding charities, churches, schools, and businesses through strategy sessions is that the bigger issue is that we try to treat Strategy as a separate thing from Execution and Culture. 

It’s fine to consider each of these components of a healthy and effective organization with some distinction, but they are inextricably entwined. There is no brilliant Strategy that can work without focussed Execution and supported by a thriving Culture. Our attempts to solve Culture and Execution issues by improving or innovating Strategy are doomed to frustration.

So change the approach.

By incorporating Strategy, Execution, and Culture all into the strategic planning process we do a much better job of identifying the real issues and opportunities. We show respect for the participants who often know that strategy isn’t the problem. We recognize that our organizations are integrated systems, not simplistic machines. And, perhaps most importantly, we leverage the effects of all three components to increase engagement, improve outcomes, and align every form of energy towards a brighter future – which is what we were hoping for to begin with.

There are lots of ways to plan a strategic planning process that will draw on Strategy, Execution, and Culture. My approach is always adjusting to accommodate new insights and tools to better serve the uniqueness of each situation. What is clear is that any approach that fails to intentionally address all of these is dangerously incomplete and inadequate for the realities of leadership today.

If you’re anticipating doing some strategic planning this year I’d love to hear how you’re designing the process to get results that are useful and effective. And if Catalyst can help contact me.

For an introduction to the Strategy/Execution/Culture approach to leadership read the last chapter of The REACTION Dashboard.
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Leadership, Resources, Uncategorized

Being the new kid is difficult.

Being the new leader is too. 

For anyone starting a new leadership role or joining a new organization in a leadership capacity there are a mix of emotions:

Excitement – This is awesome! Can’t wait to get started! So amazing that I get paid to do this!
Insecurity – Can I handle everything this requires? What do I need to do to earn trust and build credibility? Will they like me?
Pride – I’ve worked hard for this. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for. Started from the bottom now we here! 🙂
Pragmatism – Where do I park? Which is my workspace? What details do I need to take care of so I can get on with the job?
– Hope – We are going to do some great things! I can imagine something beautiful from this! The future is bright!
– Doubt – What did they not tell me about what’s really going on here? Do I have the time/team/resources to succeed?

Whatever you may be feeling as you begin, this is a key time. What you do in the first few weeks and months of a new role has leverage for your entire tenure.

Here are a few things I’ve seen leaders do that set the right tone and lead to excellent results:

1. Prioritise. Find out what are the most important and most urgent things your supervisor/board expects you to accomplish. Early expectations can be unrealistic, but they are also the basis for your initial credibility as leader. Get as much clarity on these expectations as you possibly can and determine to act on them.
2. Plan. Don’t just wing it. Even if you’ve been able to rely on your instincts in previous situations that strength has the potential to undermine you now. I highly recommend the book The First 90 Days as a guide to establishing your first moves. It is deservedly the prime resource for this situation.
3. People. Building relationships is (almost) everything! Unless you have been given a definitive urgent change mandate nothing you do at the start will have greater positive long term results than getting to know your colleagues and letting them know you. Ask more questions. Commit to learning. Be relentlessly curious.
4. Patience. Leaders often think they need a couple “quick wins” to earn the confidence of the organization. That is partially true, but too often it is a reflection of insecurity more than reality. The wins you need may have more to do with connection than change; especially in a healthy organization.
5. Pray. (Or if you aren’t the praying sort: Pause). Take time regularly, more than usual, to connect with the deepest truths you believe and be reminded of what matters most to you. It’s tempting to be swept up in your new reality and lose touch with the core identity that is essential to your ultimate success.
6. Protegé. Build a list of experts and advisors who will take your calls. Even if your role has some assigned mentors you are wise to have interested outsiders who care enough about you to give honest insights. And make a point of reaching out to them sooner rather than later. It’s not a mistake to schedule a couple check-ins as soon as you can, even before what you will know what to ask them.
7. Persevere. Nearly all the leaders I advise quickly find some things in a new role that were not what they expected. Early challenges tend to be disproportionate as they are magnified by the stress of a new beginning. Dig in, trust your experience and strengths, and lean on the help that is available to you. It gets better.
8. Perspective. Take the long view whenever possible. As important as the first 90 days are, they are not everything. Your whole life and career are not likely to be determined by this season and the ultimate success of the organization probably isn’t either. Starting well is a significant advantage but there are many traps to be found by rushing to make things happen that aren’t going to matter much in a few years time.

If you are in a new leadership role I am rooting for you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

And as a bonus to those who read all the way through: I have 5 copies of my book The REACTION Dashboard to give for free to the first five leaders in new roles that ask for them. If having a healthy culture is something you care about this book can help you make that happen. Just contact me to request a copy.
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Catalyst, Leadership, Resources

Are you looking forward to getting your organization moving again after the year end festivities?

Most charities work hard right up to the final day of the calendar year to maximize fundraising as donors give for an annual tax receipt. 

For many, the first weeks of a new year are a relatively less urgent time when there may be greater potential for investing in strategic priorities beyond the daily whirlwind of tasks and deadlines. It can be a time to refocus and reinvest as well as to recover.

This may be the best opportunity all year to take a closer look at your organizational culture and see what is worthy of celebrating and what needs to change for you to achieve your ambitions for 2020. Of course you should be considering and working on culture all the time; but it rarely reaches the top of the priority list when things are busy. It’s very important but by the time it becomes urgent it may be extremely difficult to fix it without serious damage.

So here are 7 Simple Questions you can ask alone, or with your team, to check in on the health of your organizational culture:

1. Do we all understand the Reason for our work well enough to state it briefly in our own words?

2. How are we being intentional about managing the seasonal ebbs and flows of Energy and developing the habits that fill us?

3. What are 3 things we are doing currently that are not in strong Alignment with our priorities and how are we fixing or eliminating those things?

4. Where is there a communication gap that is muddying the Clarity we need to have our greatest impact and who is responsible for closing that gap?

5. What Trust damaging behaviours have we tolerated for too long for fear of losing a high performer or just because we are uncomfortable with conflict?

6. Which potential or imminent Warning Lights are indicating dangers to the health of our organization?

7. What specific things are we doing this month to Celebrate our steps toward success that we want everyone involved in our organization to understand and/or replicate?

Taking even just 15 minutes to answer these questions, and then acting on the answers, could be exactly what you need to set your organization on course for a healthier and more effective year ahead.

For more practical insight into how leaders can understand, assess, and improve organizational culture check out www.reactiondashboard.com or contact us for a free initial consultation.
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Leadership, Resources
Every leader, heck, every person, needs to handle the stress of life effectively. That takes many different forms of course.

I would risk arguing that charity leaders have a greater need to care well for themselves. Admittedly, these are the people I work with, coach, and support on a daily basis; but I think the fact that these people are giving themselves to address the urgent and deep needs of society that all too often slip through the cracks makes them more vulnerable to burn out.

A generation ago overwork was often affirmed. Being able to push yourself further and harder was the mark of leadership excellence. Unused vacation days and minimal sleep were badges of honour for too many of us.

That has changed dramatically.

Today there is a higher awareness of the cost of demanding too much from ourselves and others. Burn out is seen as a failure of the system, not a sign of personal weakness. Our growing understanding of mental health and wellness have given rise to a self-care industry that one source estimates at 3.7 Trillion US dollars globally each year. And the trend is only growing.

This is a long overdue and welcome development in HR practices, and in society as a whole. We can often notice people encouraging one another to do some self-care. In fact, it has reached the point of being pointedly satirized in some circles.

Leaders I talk to have two common concerns about self-care:
1. How do we encourage our team to care well for themselves so they are able to care for others?
2. How do we know when we’ve done enough?

I have a whole 90 minute seminar on Self-Care and Stress Strategies (contact me to book a workshop) but here are a couple basic considerations.

Self-Care is a lifestyle, not an event. It is about developing and maintaining healthy habits that provide the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational energy needed for all of life’s demands. One evening of ice cream and Netflix is no cure for weeks or months of personal neglect.

Self-Care can easily become Self-Indulgence. Particularly for those who don’t have healthy habits in place. Swinging the pendulum into gluttony, in any form, is not a remedy. Short term excess will not bring lasting relief.

Work/Life balance is a myth. The idea that we can “have it all” is damaging in the reality of having to make hard choices on spending our time and energy. There are seasons when we sacrifice one aspect of ourselves because of the demands on another aspect. Over time we hope to live in alignment with our values and priorities by making continuous course corrections.

It’s supposed to be hard. Making a meaningful difference is always costly. There are few shortcuts and no free passes. Some leaders are surprised by how difficult it is to lead, particularly at the beginning of their leadership journey. We do others a disservice when we don’t acknowledge clearly the challenges inherent in doing things that matter.

Every effective leader has to be, or become, a healthy leader. Every effective organization has to be, or become, a healthy organization. Helping that to happen is what Catalyst is all about.


One final thought: Don’t turn this into a Millennial thing. While there are excellent insights to be gained from generational patterns, each of us is much more than our demographics. Assumptions based on stereotypes are one of the things that make more self-care necessary. People are people first, statistics much later.
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Leadership, Resources
One of the most frequent challenges the leaders I help deal with is how to manage their workload and their team. Often the answer to both issues is getting better at delegating; which is much easier said than done.

Like you, I’ve been well versed in the typical delegating strategies and ideals:
-If someone can do it 80% as well as you can they should be doing it
-Focus your energy on the few things that only you can do
-More time is saved by training someone to do the task than by continuing to do it yourself indefinitely
-Start with less crucial tasks and grow as trust and competence allow
-Never delegate responsibility without the accompanying authority

All of these are often very helpful guidelines, but recently I’m noticing a corollary that I think informs why many strong leaders struggle to follow the well-worn principles.

We have to delegate the capacity to fail.

Time and time again I see leaders attempt to delegate tasks and responsibilities to their team members only to step in and take control when they aren’t handling things well enough. The result is demoralized staff, a continually overworked leader, and decreased trust for everyone.

The vigilance required to be always ready to swoop in and rescue a situation is more draining much of the time than just keeping it on your plate in the first place.

We have to learn how to let people struggle, falter, and fail.

I am deeply aware of how hard this can be. I can immediately recall multiple situation where I took back leadership from someone because I saw them struggling and couldn’t stand by while things suffered. In some of those cases I still think I did the right thing. In all of them my intent was good.

The problem was that I didn’t actually delegate. I didn’t trust them enough to let them fail.

A leader who is truly committed to the development of others has to accept the reality that failure is essential for leadership growth. If I can’t allow that to happen I can have many assistants, but no leaders on my team.

In practice this means we need to invest more in people, not less. We need to build them up to the point where they know when to ask for help, and that doing so will be received as strength rather than weakness. We need to train them to identify failure, address it, and share the learnings openly. We need to actually trust.

And we need to make a point of sharing our failures openly, honestly, and without shame. We need to make failure an expectation of the process of growth. We need to model imperfection, adaptation, and recovery.

Unfortunately for many leaders our desire for control and the insecurity that drives us to maintain a false image of perfection will undermine our potential to delegate, and we will prevent our team and our organization from reaching our potential.

One of the more popular and powerful workshops we offer is Identity and Insecurity. If you think it might be helpful to you and your team please contact us to talk about it.
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Great Stories, Leadership, Resources
October 10, 2018 is the print release day for The REACTION Dashboard.

This book has been a work in progress for about four years and making it available to the world brings feelings of excitement, relief, anticipation, and hope. I am deeply grateful to al the leaders and friends who’s experiences and insights contributed to what it is.

The REACTION Dashboard is a tool that equips leaders to understand, assess, and improve their organizational culture. The tool is practical, simple, and quick. It pushes action and results. And it emphasizes the discipline of Celebration, a largely untapped approach that brings out the best in every member of your team.

The first half of the book is The Story, a fictional account of a handful of leaders applying the REACTION principles in realistic situations. The second half is The Elements, a direct explanation of how the tool works and how to use it in your context. It’s a quick read and highly memorable.

The book is available in print and ebook formats from all major retailers. Learn more at www.reactiondashboard.com
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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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