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A little over a dozen years ago I was diagnosed with a significant hearing loss.

It appears I have always had difficulty hearing certain tones within the typical vocal range and have adapted to distinguish some sounds without even realizing I was missing them. Wearing hearing aids makes a difference.

I don’t talk about it a lot because I rarely need help from others to manage, and I don’t see hearing issues as a core part of what my life and work are about.

Just this morning I learned that the term “tone deaf” is offensive to some people with hearing disabilities. It had never occurred to me that this might be true. In fact I have used that term fairly often in conversation, training sessions, and in some  blog posts. It is an effective way to express the dynamic when people are unable to recognize how their actions or communication are being perceived differently than their intent. And I was demonstrating the behaviour by using the term.

I am sorry for using a phrase that is hurtful to people. I try to be sensitive to these things and I will avoid using that term in the future.

I know some would push back at least a little here. It’s a common phrase that is rooted more in music than in disability, and the typical usage is pretty harmless. There’s certainly no intent to hurt or offend and (from what I can tell) many hearing impaired people don’t object to it. 

So why should I use a less familiar term?

It’s not about political correctness. It’s about compassion and priorities.

It’s also not just about this particular phrase, but every example when well intended language gets in the way.

There are things I want to say, messages I want to deliver, and ideas I want to share that matter quite a lot to me. I believe in them and I think a lot of people, especially leaders, should consider my words and apply the ideas to their lives and leadership.

If my tone, terminology, or timing is off-putting to some people they won’t do that. They will either refuse or simply be unable to take in my messages because I’ve turned them off with something that is far less important to me. What I want to communicate is lost to some people I’d like to understand it.

That’s bad communication.

And blaming your audience for not receiving your message because they are sensitive to something you did that got in the way is arrogant and ineffective. It means you are protecting an insecure ego instead of accomplishing your purpose.

Sometimes we needs to get over ourselves and out of our own way.

Too many leaders allow their intended impact to get sidetracked (or sabotaged) by fighting for the wrong things. We allow ourselves to be distracted defending things that aren’t that important to us, but are meaningful to others. We dig in our heels and think we are showing strength when we are really just throwing the acceptable grown up version of a toddlers tantrum until we get our way.

Take notice of the things that you react strongly to, or that get a strong reaction from others. Challenging people, even offending them, about something that is truly core to your mission and beliefs can be excellent leadership. 

Losing your audience over something unnecessary is bad leadership.


“Never let a good crisis go to waste” – Winston Churchill 

As plans to begin relaxing public health measures and re-open parts of the economic sector are being announced many of us are  asking what will be different post-COVID. In many of these conversations people seem to be operating from a passive posture. We are trying to anticipate broad societal changes over which we have little or no direct influence.

As valuable as it is to do scenario planning to respond well to outside forces, there is a better exercise for leaders right now.

What are the changes this season makes possible for your organization?

Here are a few possibilities you might consider:

1. Establish an Innovation Incubator: We’ve been adapting so rapidly in the last two months that we now understand that it is possible to make significant changes quickly, and to launch them incomplete and improve them on the fly. Start up organizations do this intuitively. More mature organizations may need to set aside an allocation of time, energy, people, and resources to operate a “skunk works” unit who are expected and empowered to experiment with ideas, approaches, and programs that are higher risk than most. Our generation of continuous change will favour those leaders who devote some portion of their support to entrepreneurial innovation.

2. Seek and Destroy: Most leaders have something in their organizations that they would love to eliminate, but haven’t had the courage, political clout, or justification to do so. Some of these are sacred cows and invisible elephants, others are systems, events, or projects that are just slightly too far out of alignment with the strategic direction or of too little impact to continue. You are unlikely to ever again have such an opportunity to clean up your organization according to your priorities. Now is the time.

3. Transform Governance: Board directors have been exposed by this crisis. Some have risen to the challenge to offer greater insight and support to the organization. Others have revealed their lack of awareness or commitment. When we were making urgent and difficult decisions in the early days and weeks of the pandemic impacting our work we saw what our boards are truly providing. As we anticipate emerging in the months to come we may be able to clarify the roles and expectations of the board in new ways. Start with understanding the 6 Hats each board member wears, then have a discussion about what kind of board you really need for the next stage of your work. Adjust accordingly.

4. Buff Your Brand: This crisis has forced us to examine our priorities in profound ways. Some things about how we function have been affirmed, others found wanting. These odd months before a new normal is truly in place are a chance for reviewing the way you represent your organization to your constituents or the public at large. Many marketing consultants are offering online workshops at discounted rates or for free. Whether it’s a new website, strategic social media, a deep cleaning of all your old blog posts, or any other aspect of your brand; your image and reputation can be shaped to best represent where you want to be in the future.

5. Stimulate Celebration: When I first developed the tool that became The REACTION Dashboard the idea that celebration was a major strategic and cultural point of leverage wasn’t on my radar. It has become the aspect that most leaders tell me has had the greatest impact on their lives and leadership. Exploring creative ways to involve your team, donors, beneficiaries, and community in celebrating in these days when we long for good news is a powerful opportunity. The culture of your organization is being shaped by everything that is happening. Wise leaders aren’t just letting that happen. Are you intentionally making yours a culture that celebrates meaningfully?

Catalyst is happy to provide a free consultation with charity leaders who are working to be healthy leaders leading healthy organizations. Contact us to set up a session.

Once upon a time…

There were two leaders, May and Jay, who found themselves trying to guide their organizations through a time that was called “unprecedented” so often that the word lost all meaning. They had risen to the challenge of the initial crisis with energy, decisive action, and great compassion; and their teams and organizations had handled the changes very well. The leaders were grateful for the people they worked with and beginning to think beyond the immediate issues into a longer season of change.

Quite predictably, both May and Jay as motivated leaders were thriving in the demands of the challenges. They told a few trusted friends that although the global situation was truly tragic, they were feeling enthused as leaders by stepping up to what needed to be done. They were tired, but it was the good kind of tired that comes after a solid workout or an invigorating project.

Equally predictably, some of May’s and Jay’s team members were tired, but in a different way. They had also risen to the challenge in selfless and committed ways, but their initial wave of enthusiasm had worn off and it was becoming more difficult to keep up with the needs of the day while also managing family, friends, loved ones, and life in something like lock down. The team were still doing everything they could and May and Jay could not have been more proud to lead them, but the strain was starting to show.

May loves her team. She wanted to help them handle the challenges of the time. So she shared with them what worked for her.

She sent every employee a copy of Getting Things Done and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and offered an online book club on how to apply the ideas to get the best results. She shared her personal priority practices and set up a weekly webinar where everyone could share goals and outcomes for their personal lives as well as work. She also arranged for an outside consultant to provide a session on how to manage time and energy while working from home. She wanted everyone to have the tools they needed to thrive.

Jay loves his team. He wanted to help them handle the challenges of the time. So he shared with them what worked for him.

He sent every employee a box of cookies from a local bakery and a copy of You Are Awesome! He shared his personal peace practices and set up a weekly happy hour where staff gathered online with a beverage of their choice to chat and laugh together. He also arranged for an online concert and scavenger hunt for employees and their families to enjoy together. He wanted everyone to have the treats they needed to thrive.

Some of May’s team felt overwhelmed. They felt like all these tools were really assignments that added to their obligations.

Some of Jay’s team felt overwhelmed. They felt like all these treats were really distractions from the important work they need to do.

May and Jay were confused. They had given their very best to their teams and it wasn’t working. Instead of appreciated they felt deflated and misunderstood; and even a little annoyed if they were totally honest.

May and Jay had a conversation and shared what was going on.

“May, you’re too intense! You need to lighten up a little and help people find some freedom so they can do their best under demanding circumstances.” Jay said.

“Jay, you’re too casual! You need to be more focussed and help people find some structure so they can do their best under demanding circumstances.” May said.

Of course they were both right.

We all need both structure and freedom in our lives at all times. Wise leaders know to provide both treats and tools. Some of us are drawn to one more than the other, though very few are as extreme as May and Jay. The challenge is when we innocently assume that others have the same needs that we do. As you lead and care for your team in demanding or unprecedented situations be sure to check whether you are giving them what they need, or just projecting your own needs onto them. If you need some help sorting this out contact us for a free coaching session.

Photo by   Zahabiyah Quresh  on  Scopio

Leadership, Uncategorized
How do we prepare our organizations for what comes after the pandemic?

Every organization has some things that are untouchable. A time of sudden instability may be exactly the opportunity to take a closer look at whether those things are still serving your mission well. As Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.

My last post raised three critical things leaders need to do to handle the harder decisions that are coming very soon. But now I want to suggest two unusual activities that may be valuable in preparing you for the longer term: Elephant Hunting and Shooting Sacred Cows.

(It may be unnecessary but I want to be clear that I am not in favour of trophy hunting and I mean no disrespect to those who do consider cows sacred. I’m just using the vernacular.)

Elephant Hunting: The elephant in the room in such a common trope it seems absurd; but that’s because it really is. The reality that mature, professional, decent people can have unspoken solidarity to never mention or deal with a looming issue doesn’t make sense. But it is all too often true.

Several years ago I took the picture on this post in the offices of Muskoka Woods. I absolutely loved coming across an eight foot high stuffed animal in their lobby. It perfectly captures the mindset that inhabits teams that will not risk rocking the boat by calling out what is known by all but never addressed. We carefully step around the obstacle, pretending it isn’t there, until it basically becomes invisible even as it remains in the way.

In this time when so much is uncertain and we are continually adapting to reality we didn’t anticipate it may be just the chance to point at the elephant and say “Let’s do something about this!”

Of course there is a chance it will backfire, but leaders with integrity are more likely to appreciate someone having the nerve, or accumulated frustration, to state the obvious. At a time when things are so difficult we need to get these long overdue issues out of the way. All it takes is one moment of boldness to expose the elephant. What happens next will reveal a great deal about the culture of your organization.

Shooting Sacred Cows: While we actively avoid acknowledging elephants, we sometimes spend way too much time, energy, and resource on sacred cows. These are the things (programs, facilities, traditions, people, etc.) that have been a part of what we do for so long that we can’t imagine getting on without them, even if we suspect or know they are no longer effective.

You can usually recognize a sacred cow by the way they are treasured in unassailable esteem and never held up to scrutiny. 

Times of transition, whether its new leaders coming on board, relocation, financial turmoil, or something like a pandemic, often expose the way these things have become undeservingly unquestioned. The new person or situation may cause us to ask, “Is this really helping us to accomplish our purpose?”

As so many organizations try to make changes to adapt to the financial difficulties ahead and the impossibility of business as usual it is no longer an option for wise leaders to protect what no longer serves. It is time to put the nonproductive cows out to pasture, if not throw them on the barbecue. As with elephants, it takes one person with the courage to ask the direct question to free up the group for needed consideration.

There are no guarantees in leadership. That is more clear than ever these days. Being the one who points out the elephant or challenges the value of the cow may be a career limiting move. Some leaders and organizations aren’t willing or able to even consider that these things are actually problems that drag against the good you are trying to do. That sucks, but it is occasionally the case.

But I have a strong suspicion that those leaders who step into that risk and respectfully yet directly challenge the status quo are the ones who will help their organizations have the greatest chance of emerging from COVID-19 intact and better positioned to increase their impact. 

Are you one of those leaders?

Catalyst can help you engage in dealing with obstructive elephants and outdated cows.
Contact us so we can take them on together.

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.