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I’m just back from an excellent trip to Columbia and Nicaragua with some of our partner organizations (more on that in future posts). At dinner one night in Cartagena one of the others on the trip, who is a successful CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, commented on being at a meeting with some of the inside circle of a large charity and not being able to get a clear answer about who was ultimately responsible for the outcomes of the work. He stated his frustration with typical eloquence: “I just want to know, when something goes wrong, who do I choke?” keep reading
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“The careful telling of the story creates ripples for everybody; including me” – Brian Stiller, Tyndale Seminary (from a FreeFORM interview). Defining, redefining, revealing, and sharing our vision is one of the difficult challenges of leadership. There are endless resources on how to do this, but lately I’ve found the best and most intuitive way of doing it is through storytelling. In recent meetings with two groups where we worked on mission/vision/values matters we experimented with beginning the process by telling the stories of those moments where we felt our organization was performing at our best. Out of that comes not only an easily emerging picture of what we most want to be, but also an energizing reminder of what we’re all about. We end up with statements and stories that become central reflections for us and which we believe in at a deep level. And it’s wicked fun. As the appreciation for the value of narrative continues to move from the world of academic criticism and artistic expression into the realm of leadership and strategy the potential for better engagement of all levels of stakeholders is exciting. One simple process: -Ask your board/team/committee/etc. to spend a little in advance thinking about the very best moments and memories they have of your organization. these could include not only the work with your clientele; but fundraisers, staff interactions, resources embraced, board meetings, and more. the point is to uncover the times when you experienced the best of what you can be. -Begin the session with someone telling the broad story of your organization’s history. As they do; everyone is encouraged to note and post ideas from the story that might relate to Mission/Vision/Values. (We’ve handed out post it notes and put flip chart pages on the wall to capture these thoughts). -Invite all to add their own stories of highlight moments; and continue noting the themes. -When the stories began to run out, review everything posted to ensure understanding and adjust the location of notes where needed. -Synthesize these notes to expose the strongest themes and try to turn these into shared statements or even a simple image or narrative. Does it work? So far, so good. This is the revised Vision Statement for Catalyst: Catalyst is committed to developing leadership in compelling nonprofit organizations as their dreams become action to transform lives.
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In the last two weeks I’ve talked with two leaders who listened to me talk about some of my experiences and offered their perspectives. In both cases it really seemed like they were looking past my words and eyes and into my soul. That’s what the best mentors do. What’s most interesting is that these two are rather different. One is the leader of one of the most prominent leadership development organizations in the world. The other invests himself primarily with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people. One challenges me to explore the outer limits of my potential, the other urges me to embrace my weakness as a means of becoming deeper. One’s books quote alcoholic natives and now dead AIDS victims, the other refers to globally known corporate and ministry figures. I am grateful for both of these men and their willingness to set aside time from their lives to speak into mine. I need to be drawn into a fuller understanding of both my range of influence and my own core inadequacies. And in truth, both of the conversations included aspects of both. Neither leader is limited to a single theme. In their own lives and in their professional roles they help others to become more complete, from whatever the starting point. Every leader needs people in their life that can see beyond the surface and challenge them to develop fuller; both in their identity and their influence. Who’s shaping you?
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Yesterday I had lunch with David Sweet, Member of Parliament for the riding of Ancaster/Dundas/Flamborough/Westdale (where I live). He is a Conservative backbencher and the former CEO of Promisekeepers Canada. In the interest of honesty I should say that I have never attended a Promisekeepers event and I did not vote for Mr. Sweet in the last federal election, I voted Green. I wanted to talk to Mr. Sweet not primarily about policy issues, though we did cover a few over the 90 minutes we spent together, but mostly about being a leader in two organizations that are well known for having contentious perspectives and more than a few controversially outspoken adherents. Beyond that, my riding is one of the most complex in the country with agricultural, academic, industrial, and suburban residential all co-mingling in a sometimes tense balance. To my pleasure, Mr. Sweet was very sincere in our conversation. He spoke openly about the tensions of competing priorities between constituents, party loyalty, and personal conviction. He described the difficulty of becoming effectively knowledgeable on an enormous range of topics in very limited time. And he admitted to the difficulty involved in making decisions that have enormous impact on the lives of Canadians, particularly in military matters. There are a number of issues (though fewer than I thought) on which David Sweet and I hold significantly different views. That said, I believe the thing that makes him able to navigate the challenges and complexities of his role is relatively simple: he has some fundamental convictions about which he strives to be very consistent. He admits to being an incrementalist, change takes time and compromise is often the way forward. But at a core level he demonstrates a strength of character that I find admirable. At Catalyst we talk about leadership having three key aspects: Competence, Character, and Context. Based on my observations of David Sweet in his campaigns since 2004 and as an MP since 2006 I have to say that there is much to commend about him in all three aspects. His background (personal and professional) gives him a diverse and valuable skill set, he has integrity and has largely earned trust, and he is in a role which seems to bring out the best in him with deep passion. Two closing thoughts: 1. I am still surprised that Mr. Sweet hasn’t been given a cabinet post. He and Hamilton deserve better. 2. I know some people who have a significant disdain for David Sweet for a variety of reasons. I don’t know how legitimate or spurious their complaints are, and I am not advocating for him politically (or for his party for that matter). I am simply saying that as a leader David Sweet is someone worth listening to.
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Building on a recent post… Being intentional about your own leadership development is important. That doesn’t mean responding to every networking opportunity, reading every book in your field, and participating in every course and conference. Eventually the breadth of opportunities that is helpful in expanding your understanding in the beginning must give way to more focused, in depth attention on those areas and resources which will yield the best advancement. I’m at that stage in my role with Catalyst. Having grazed in a somewhat haphazard fashion all around non profit leadership and poverty reduction strategies for a year I know enough to start being more specific and discerning about how I spend my time, energy, and budget. In the next few weeks I’ll be working on an annual plan for my own development that will include a reading list, courses/conferences I want to partake of, relationships I want to build, and topics I need to explore. I can’t afford to be so reactive anymore; it is time to plan ahead. With so many resources available (I just googled “leadership conference 2009” and got 893,000 hits in 0.28 seconds!) deciding what is worth the investment is extremely difficult. Here are a few strategies to streamline your planning: -Choose one person in your field that you deeply respect and ask them what are the most useful resources they’ve found (thanks always Mark and Bridgeway) -Choose one author or organization and only use their materials (hello Malcolm Gladwell in 2009) -Start a small network/book club/lunch bunch/whatever and take turns bringing a resource and summary to share and discuss (anyone want to do one of these in Halton/Hamilton this year?) -look for packaged sets of materials like these from John Maxwell -make sure you occasionally do some intentional learning from way outside your field (I still think about the quantum physics book I read on a camping trip three years ago) Above all, do something on purpose and with purpose. The dreams you want to follow are too important for you to passively wait for leadership to happen to you.
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I tend toward the optimistic side of most issues, occasionally to my detriment. The state of the economy is undeniably bad the world over, but I’m reluctant to spend much time lamenting the situation. Doing so serves mostly to distract us from mission and probably contributes to the self-fulfilling prophecy of doom that is simultaneously increasing demand on charities and reducing their support. I want to resist that by pointing toward some of the strategic moves that can be (and I’d argue must be) made in this time. Esteemed author Patrick Lencioni’s current POV article argues that now is the time for leaders to focus on strengthening the core of their teams, developing core capabilities in order to be ready to thrive when things turn around. One aspect of this (which our mentoring cohort will be discussing with Arrow’s Carson Pue later this month) is preparing a deliberate Leadership Development Plan. Alan Nelson wrote an excellent primer on how to do this early this month. The tendency is to batten down the hatches and hide in the hopes that all of this will soon blow over, but we know that’s not going to work. However long this turmoil lasts, it is likely to result in some lasting shifts in how charities function, both in fundraising and in programs. Those that want to be ready to make a significant difference for years to come will take advantage of the immediate need to focus intensely and prepare through uncertainty by developing their most valuable resource, their people.
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Nonprofits sometimes struggle to justify leadership development. It may be a lack of funds, time, or inclination; though the reason given is almost always budget. One of the things that motivates us is to challenge those excuses by lessening the costs to access high quality training. In our current economic uncertainty many charities are facing declining donations. This week I heard of a number of layoffs in the sector, particularly in the US. The temptation is to cut things deemed nonessential, with staff development among the first to go. Nonprofit guru Peter Brinckerhoff offered his take on these tough times on his blog. For the most part I agree with him, though the rawness with which he addresses staffing cuts grinds against my heart; but I suspect he’s right. What are your favourite nonprofits doing to manage these days? What are you encouraging them to do?
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In the last year I’ve spent more time in a variety of leadership workshops and training seminars than ever before, including the last two days. I like learning and leadership is a topic for which I have a large appetite. So why is it that in the vast majority of cases I am checking email and facebook frequently after about 2:30pm? Maybe I’m lazy, but from looking around the rooms I’m far from alone. Having bored more than a few audiences myself I have a few respectful suggestions: – “A=C” (Attention equals Contrast) I’ll never forget arriving for the first lecture of one of my university courses to find a message on the board inviting us outside to meet under a large apple tree. The buzz among the students was remarkable and the professor worked hard to maintain that variety throughout the term. He also taught this principle. If you want people to be alert, do something they aren’t expecting. Sitting in the same seat all day, looking in the same direction at the same person, doing the same basic talk and powerpoint presentation pretty much guarantees we’re going to tune out. The time I spent with Eagle’s Flight gave an excellent example of how to do this right. – “Passion + Perspective” I expect that if you’ve been given responsibility for presenting you are not only knowledgeable about the subject, but that it is important to you. Show me that what we’re talking about matters. However, please remember that while you may make a living speaking and writing about a specific topic, the rest of us don’t. It a rare expert who understands that what they offer is a single piece of our lives, not a universal panacea for all the ills in the world. Gary Collins brought refreshing notes of reality to his presentation. – “Include, don’t Quiz” It has become standard practice to invite people to give input or offer insights during the course of a session. Two way communication is a very good thing. But if you really don’t want my opinion don’t request it. I still see professional trainers who are expert in their field and full of relevant material who ask for participation but are really playing “Guess what I’m thinking”, basically just waiting for us to say the magic words that lead into their next point. Frankly, it’s a little insulting. In most of the seminars I’ve been to this year there are people in the seats who have significant experience and expertise to offer. If you aren’t going to sincerely draw on that insight, don’t pretend. A couple closing bits: -In 2009 Catalyst will be hosting our first seminar. It’s going to be invitation only so we can focus on what we want to accomplish; and after this post I guess I’m committed to making it a worthwhile day. -For the most part I prefer seminars to conferences, but I’d much rather grab lunch with the presenter than listen to her for six hours. What makes a seminar worth recommending to others for you?
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I am coming to really like Patrick Lencioni‘s work. I recently read his latest book and am eager to try applying the principles and strategies to my own family. Now, he has again written something quite stimulating in his POV newsletter. (sign up here) This time he argues that no Executive/leadership team/board, whoever really makes the decisions for the organization should have more than 8 members. Here’s why: Because groups larger than this almost always struggle to effectively use the two kinds of communication that are required of any organization. Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard, came up with the idea years ago that people need to engage in both ‘advocacy’ and ‘inquiry’ in order to communicate effectively. Advocacy amounts to stating an opinion or an idea, while inquiry is the act of asking questions or seeking clarity about someone else’s opinion or idea. Frankly, one part advocacy and two parts inquiry is a mix I like to see on teams. However, when there are too many people at the table, inquiry drops off dramatically, mostly because people realize that they’re not going to get many opportunities to speak so they weigh in with their opinion while they have the chance. Like a member of congress or the United Nations, they aren’t going to waste their precious time at the pulpit exploring the merits of a colleague’s proposal. Where is the glory in that? But when the team is smaller, two things happen. First, trust can be exponentially stronger. That is simply a matter of physics. Second, team members know that they’ll have plenty of time to make their ideas heard, even if they do more inquiry than advocacy. This leads to significantly better and faster decisions. That’s worth repeating. Better AND faster. Those large teams I referred to before often take three times longer to arrive at decisions that prove to be much poorer, often the result of a grope for consensus. The full article should be posted here soon. One church in which I was involved approached this challenge by assigning from among their team of elders an Action Team of three members who had full authority and trust from the rest of the team to act when urgency required. This allowed them to be both rapidly responsive and carefully strategic as necessary. I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a highly effective leadership team, but the times when I’ve seen teams bog down convince me that what Pat is saying here is probably very accurate.
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Is your organization redundant? If you were being totally honest and no one else had to hear what you said, could you convince yourself that what you are currently doing couldn’t be done as well or better by someone else? The way you answer this question is pretty revealing. If you can’t quickly point to some strategic niche or unique approach there is a good chance that you aren’t fulfilling your needed role in the big picture of nonprofit/ministry work. That’s not to say you should delete the website and shut down the office, but you should invest some effort in figuring out what it is that you are uniquely ready, willing, or able to do. Within ten minutes of my home there are at least fifteen Protestant churches, and to my knowledge none of them are full. In Canada there are at least 3 organizations working to provide specific leadership training to the particular market of Christian women. At any given university there are multiple campus organizations committed to expressing the truth and grace of Jesus. Ontario has dozens of Christian summer camps. There are multiple emerging leader programs, church planting groups, intensive ministry leadership programs, microfinance providers, and granting foundations. Someone has to ask if all of them are truly needed. Repetition is expensive. When it adds no value it is also wasteful. Organizations and individuals would serve all of us well by having a very raw consideration of what they uniquely bring to the community and whether they are meeting real needs or just sustaining the incomes or egos of their staff and leaders. I suspect that in reality there is need for more, not less, in most areas. The needs in our society and around the world are enormous and varied. What is not needed is mindless mimickry and pointless sameness. One of the values we hold highly at Catalyst is synergy. On a weekly basis we review how we have been able to bring together separate entities for the betterment of all. It’s hard to do that if the separate entities are essentially identical. A challenge: Ask your organization’s leaders to (in five minutes or less) articulate clearly what it is about you that is distinct from other similar organizations and why things would truly be worse if you ceased operations. The responses to that exercise will tell you more about where you should invest time, money, and energy than almost any strategic consultant.
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