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These are unprecedented times.

As difficult and uncertain as things are, I’ve been deeply impressed with the ways people are adapting to pandemic precautions. The creativity, dedication, and care demonstrated by charity leaders I see is truly inspiring. I am humbled by your commitment to serving others and your flexibility to handle essentials while supporting your teams. It is a time for leaders to shine.

But in truth, even the best efforts from leaders in this moment are severely limited by everything they’ve done in the past. If you have been driven more by insecurity than a rooted sense of deep identity, and you’ve neglected to build a healthy organizational culture there isn’t much you can do that in the midst of a global pandemic to turn that all around. You can admit your failings and try to improve but it’s going to be extremely difficult.

On the other hand, those leaders who have been working at their own leadership health and that of their teams are able now to see the fruits of that investment as they are able to adapt to uncertainty and rely on their people to step up to demanding circumstances. 

I put it this way on Twitter a couple days ago:

So kudos to the leaders who have done the work in relatively easier times to be able to handle this reality. That is the real work of leadership.

What is this crisis revealing about you and your organization?

During the pandemic response I am working from home to “flatten the curve” and protect my community. If you or your organization would be interested in a leadership session using any of our tools or just an encouraging conversation please Contact me.

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.

I’ve recently talked to two charity leaders I respect about their organizations entering their “3.0” phase.

People much more studied than myself can offer a fuller exploration of the stages of development organizations experience, and whether they differ in the charitable sector. What I’m pondering is how leaders approach organizational culture in each of the common (oversimplified) stages.

Organization 1.0 The Start Up

Most often driven by a charismatic founder, start up charities are typically working on the frontlines of an issue or community. They are tactical, adaptable, and highly committed. Staff and volunteers may not have begun as family or friends but they soon take on those characteristics in one another’s lives. Passion is the defining quality of the organizational culture; systems and structures are inconvenient nuisances if not openly suspect. 

These organizations are dependant on a culture that is usually a strong reflection of the personality of the founder(s). A “you and me against the world” mindset and absolute loyalty to the cause are rarely questioned. It’s exciting, demanding, fluid, and extremely engaged.

The danger here is that the culture can easily become inbred. Asking hard internal questions or challenging assumptions can be seen as betrayal. Even a desire to learn and grow may be filtered through the primary leader as the arbiter of truth and value. 

Start Up charities can leverage the energy of this phase to drive the hard work of getting established, while being deliberate about preventing one person or a small inside circle from being the only considered opinions. Fostering humility and curiosity as core practices can help overcome the tendency to overestimate their own insightfulness.

Organization 2.0 Founders vs. Settlers

When the founder leaves or otherwise becomes less authoritative and certain, the organization can begin to broaden its leadership base and increase the focus of programs and projects. Developing systems that address some of the hazards of a Start Up and taking a higher level strategic look at where you fit into the larger ecosystem of influences on your chosen area of impact become critical matters, but they often feel like a drag on the positive energy that motivated so many of the first generation staff, volunteers, and donors.

A growing awareness that “we don’t know everything” usually leads to existing team members developing some level of specialization. Networking with some relevant partners is valued, but may not easily contain the vulnerability to derive the most benefit. A move to greater professionalism is held in tension with powerful memories of how fun and urgent things were at the beginning.

This is the stage in which outsiders begin to settle into board and staff roles without the shared history of the early years. They rarely have the same degree of radical loyalty and sacrifice that was common in the Start Up, and some degree of tension is to be expected and must be resolved.

Everything is in flux, including the organizational culture. Unspoken rules and untested assumptions become a minefield everyone must navigate for the organization to mature. Clarity is the critical need. As frustrating as it may be, now is the time to invest significant time, energy, and resources in drilling down on the core mission, vision, values, and dynamics that will remain essential when so much is changing.

Organization 3.0 Best Practices

Having navigated the dangerous waters of 2.0 and found core clarity the organization is now primed to leverage their hard earned experience and insight to push for greater strategic impact. Often this involves increasing advocacy work and being an intentional example to others. Expertise becomes more valuable than seniority and some long term team members may find that their role has outgrown their capacity.

A strong focus on best practices and involvement in higher impact networks and partnerships requires a significantly different approach. The metrics change, commitment is more to the cause than the organization, and its no longer essential that we all be best friends. Naturally this will leave some nostalgic for 1.0.

The danger here is that maturing strategy and execution can eclipse giving attention to organizational culture. We return to making assumptions instead of having conversations. Unspoken expectations can quietly accumulate and begin to undermine all the good that has been developed.

Wise leaders will push against the tendency to build and maintain silos, continually casting a vision greater than the sum of the parts. Team building needs to be emphasized alongside professional development, with fun in high supply. Culture conversations must stay on the agenda and seen as at least as important as strategy and execution. Staleness and excessive turnover are very real risks.

There is something to be written about how these stages merge, decline, and repeat. But that’s not for today. The hope here is that leaders will consider what is necessary in the current stage of their organization’s development to establish, maintain, and multiply a healthy culture than enables the greatest impact.

Leadership, Uncategorized
Toronto sports coverage this week has talked a lot about leadership, specifically whether Raptors star forward Kawhi Leonard is a leader or not.

While the specifics of that situation are debatable and ultimately probably of little importance to most of us, it does raise a couple interesting questions about what qualifies as leadership. Kawhi is indisputably one of the top basketball players in the world. He is also famously reserved.

Being an outstanding performer is often associated with being a leader. Being introverted is often seen as detriment to leadership. But in fact, neither is necessarily true.

Quiet people can be phenomenal leaders. They have advantages of observation and listening that extroverts struggle to accomplish. The ability to think before speaking and acting avoids impulsive errors and stability builds trust. In fact, some of the most powerful visionaries and communicators I know are strongly introverted in most settings.

Personality characteristics and profiles can be useful tools to understand and work effectively with others but they are inappropriate for deciding whether someone is or is not capable of leading.

In a similar way, the ability to perform at a high, or even elite levels is no reliable predictor of leadership potential. While there is certainly a tendency for us to look towards achievers for their example and best practices; the skills of leadership are often quite different from those of technical or individual excellence. It is often those who have less innate ability who have the capacity to equip others to succeed.

The best players are not often the best coaches.

So I really don’t know if Kawhi Leonard is a leader on his team. But I know that his personality and performance alone don’t tell us enough to figure out the answer.

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.

I have always been an advocate for the importance of leaders demonstrating personal character worthy of being replicated. I see leaders as much more than functionary. In fact, I have argued that the symbolic aspect of the role is at least as important as the tactical aspect. This morning I posted on Twitter and Facebook: And then I saw this article. The kicker quote is this:
“Conway’s argument is that no matter what Trump might do or say that is actually wrong or objectionable, it doesn’t matter so long as people believe he meant well.”
This isn’t about politics, at least not primarily. It is the sad possibility that a large number of people in a variety of sectors of society, and not just those who support Donald Trump, are now willing to accept deplorable behaviour from a leader without concern.

Perhaps I’m a moralist or an ethics dinosaur, but I still want prominent leaders to be people I can admire. I’m well aware that nobody is perfect; but the ability to own up to a mistake and try to repair any damage done is such a core assumption for me that I am lost for an explanation for what I’m seeing.

I don’t care what entity you are leading. You become the representative, the face, the embodiment of the core beliefs and values of that organization. Even if you don’t want to.

As great as this commercial has always been; if you are a leader I do expect you to be a role model.

Leadership, Uncategorized
In an effort to improve my health and fitness I wear a watch that tracks my daily activity level. I really like it. 

It syncs data with my phone and computer, tracks my runs with GPS, alerts me to messages and calls, and pairs with my heart rate monitor when I exercise. The technology is pretty awesome.

One of my favourite features allows me to set a daily activity goal. Factoring in my mostly sedentary worklife it adds up how much I move during the day, displaying a bar on the screen that shows me how close I’m getting to my target. If I reach my goal it gives me a pleasing little chirp and displays this congratulations screen:   IMG_6950
I’m a big advocate of celebration.

I’m convinced that it represents a huge amount of untapped loyalty, energy, motivation, and optimism in people and organizations. I get kinda preachy about it in some of the leadership sessions I lead.

The thing is, some people are hesitant when I talk about promoting a culture of celebration because they think celebration is something frivolous and silly. I suppose it can be that, but that’s not at all what I’m talking about. I want your organization to be more like my watch. I want you to set specific goals that represent progress toward the biggest, most impactful and important objectives you can imagine. And I want you to learn how to strategically celebrate the events that make up the process of getting there.

How you celebrate is up to you. There are all kinds of workable options. What’s essential is that you begin celebrating relevant progress in ways that are meaningful to your team, and that you all begin to anticipate those celebrations. That’s when the beauty happens.

I’m not the only person with a fitness tracker who has done a few laps of the yard or living room before bed to make sure I reach that day’s goal. Those little bits of extra effort add up and eventually help me become the healthy person I so much want to be. The celebration on my watch changes my behaviour for the better.

What can you do to celebrate real progress more often with your team?


Shortly before Christmas I made a quick stop at local Canadian Automobile Association (AAA in the U.S.) to grab some maps and tour books for an upcoming vacation. The person who helped me was fast, courteous, and friendly. I was in and out in about 4 minutes. A few days later I received an email with a follow up customer service survey attached.

With the busyness of the holidays, and with nothing to complain about, I ignored it.

A few days later there was another email saying they noticed I hadn’t responded to the survey and would really like me to do it. The mild guilt trip worked and I opened the file on my phone and got started. The survey had an intro page, 8 pages of multiple choice or short comment questions, and a submit page.

Several of the questions didn’t apply to my visit while others seemed repetitive. By the time I clicked “submit” I’d spent more time on the survey than I did in the store. And then the link failed and wouldn’t accept my survey. All my comments were very positive, and I’m a happy member of the CAA, but I wasn’t going to start over from the beginning. Instead I posted a tweet describing the experience and included popular retail and brand commentator @UnMarketing.   Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 7.48.25 AM After his reply tweet the CAA twitter account jumped in to offer an apology and assistance. I sent them the link to my survey in a private message and, at their request, gave some feedback on what I think would have been a better survey experience.   IMG_5508
Is there a lesson here for other organizations? I think so.

Many of us have become eager to get customer feedback. But there is little evidence that automated surveys really give us the kind of data that drives impactful decisions. In fact, the survey turned my very positive experience into a frustrating one.

If you’re using surveys, be ruthless about keeping them brief and pointed. Ask only what is highly relevant and commit to doing something with what you learn.

Probably more importantly, if you really want feedback from people you need to be paying attention to where they are already talking about you.

I love that CAA responded to me on Twitter and followed up to understand my perspective. They turned the failed survey into a direct interaction that made me feel valued as a customer, and they got feedback that was more sincere, and I hope more useful about something they may not have known was affecting customers.

The quiet majority of people won’t give you feedback even if you ask for it. The most insightful feedback is always unprompted. So if you’re paying someone to produce a survey hoping people will take several minutes to respond to it but not paying attention to their free feedback happening live on social media I think you’re probably missing out.

How do you get useful feedback from your community? How could a business or charity get your most real relevant feedback?

Since my late teens I’ve imagined that maybe someday I would write a book. The themes and potential topics have changed many times, but the underlying desire has remained. I’m wondering f perhaps the time has now come. I have several friends who are published authors and I am simultaneously impressed and intimated by their achievements. The combination of inspiration and rigour required to actually complete a decent book is something I admire. And I’m not entirely certain I have it in me. Over the last two years a tool I’ve been developing and using with a variety of organizations locally, nationally, and even internationally has been gaining traction. The REACTION Dashboard keeps receiving positive feedback, and the frequent request for more supporting material and content is reaching a point I need to deliberately address. The most frequent follow up question is “Is there a book or something I can get to use this more?”. So here I am, a little hesitant about the prospect of taking on this demanding a project, and a little unsure if I can put together something strong enough to be worth the effort. And yet, with a growing conviction that I need to do something. So, I have a couple questions I’m hoping you can help me answer: 1. Is a book the most useful way for me to expand this tool and make it available to people? Or would a webinar, narrated presentation, or other format be preferable? 2. If you’ve seen the REACTION dashboard, what would be helpful to you in getting more use out of it? 3. If you’ve written a book, what was the process like for you? What advice would you give me as a novice? 4. What makes a leadership book work best for you? What differentiates a truly useful one from a disappointment? I’ll try to keep you posted as I explore this.

Craig Kielburger, along with his brother Marc and their top notch team at Free The Children/Me To We have done more than almost anybody (equaled perhaps only by Live Different) to raise up a generation of passionate humanitarians in Canada. Their model of large events and international trips coupled with strategic marketing and corporate sponsorship has made them one of the dominant charity entities in our country and beyond. Yesterday they released the line up of speakers and performers for the first We Day in California coming up this March. Every We Day is highlighted by an impressive roster of communicators. A diverse group of humanitarians, young world changers, professional athletes, and the hottest pop culture icons grace the stage to add their support to the message of potential, activism, and personal meaning. It’s always risky to tie any charity closely to celebrities. The examples of this going sideways are numerous, including Scarlett Johansson’s ambassadorship with Oxfam being damaged by her Super Bowl commercial for SodaStream. Relying on the charisma and draw of people who may not fully understand or consistently support the purpose and values of your organization is a high risk/high reward strategy. I can only imagine the behind the scenes conversations involved in these partnerships. I was surprised to read that one of the names prominently featured for We Day California is actor/comedian Seth Rogen. While clearly famous, and someone who appears to be a sincerely kind person with legitimate charitable involvement, his comedy and movies are almost all focused on vulgar/stoner humour. I’m not sure that’s a great fit with the brand image and demographic of Free The Children. Does it make sense to draw on the profile of someone who’s work is actually legally inaccessible to many of your audience because of MPAA ratings? I don’t know the answer, and I expect Seth Rogen will do an excellent job of adding his piece of inspiration to the event. My point isn’t to take a shot at either the man or the charity. I see it as an example of the kind of possible tension that comes with tying a charity brand to any famous person. Organizational values are critically important, and the temptation to compromise them for some popular press is powerful, but it must be resisted. There is far more to be lost than to be gained through being associated with someone who may not be as compatible as it first appears. Consider any endorsement roughly equivalent to hiring a senior position. Do your homework and be sure you want your logo alongside their image. If you get this wrong your organization will likely suffer more than they will. What celebrities would you trust with your reputation?