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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 or contact us for a free initial consultation.

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.

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?

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.

One of the e-newsletters I subscribe to if from Patrick Lencioni. As with his best selling books, these shorter pieces are always insightful. Here’s a quote from the latest: Whenever I hear someone encourage all young people to become leaders, or better yet, when I hear a young person say glibly that he or she wants to be a leader someday, I feel compelled to ask the question “why?” If the answer is “because I want to make a difference” or “I want to change the world,” I get a little skeptical and have to ask a follow-up question: “Why and in what way do you want to change the world?” If they struggle to answer that question, I discourage them from becoming a leader. It’s almost sacrilegious in many circles to even suggest that everyone is not a leader. But I totally agree with Lencioni. Selfish leadership is damaging and it is all too common, especially among those who are gifted with enormous talent and charisma but limited wisdom or perspective. I trust the remainder of the article will soon be posted here. If not, email me and I’ll copy the whole text to you.

This morning we began our first program of leadership development for high school students. We are with a class of 24 through the business department of Abbey Park High School in Oakville, ON. It was a good start as we explored the ways in which those things we did as children that we really enjoyed and thought we did well can often lead us to themes or patterns for the rest of our lives. It was encouraging to see many of the class appear to be engaging with the ideas and process. We’ll be together for a total of 7 sessions over the next 8 weeks and each student will ultimately have the opportunity to produce a personal action plan to take steps toward turning their life dreams into reality. Already a few took the risk of sharing some areas in which they want to do something meaningful; from being in a position to care for their own families as well as they’ve been cared for, to educating poor children around the world beyond a basic level, to improving recreational facilities in the local community. There was a tangible energy shift in the room when a few people talked about their lives accomplishing something they identified as meaningful. As part of the session I recommended the book “What’s Your Red Rubber Ball” by Kevin Carroll, who also wrote “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball“. It was great to be able to leave a copy of the book for the students to dig into. A couple other highlight moments: -the look on their faces when instead of saying good morning I opened with a game of Simon Says -watching some faces light up as they started telling each other their own childhood stories -seeing an enthusiastic teacher and being able to quickly affirm in front of the class that she has had a lifelong preparation for what she is doing right now -having one of the students join the accompanying facebook group for the program before I even made it to the parking lot I’ll post more on this as the weeks go by

call-and-responseLast May, in a hotel room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Fort Lauderdale I was strongly impacted by a pre-release trailer for a movie called “Call and Response“. There is a growing awareness of the ugly reality of human trafficking in our time, particularly the sexual exploitation of children slaves. Please see and circulate this trailer.

We are partway through the process of evaluating our applicants from this funding cycle. It has been a large learning experience. In a few weeks I will post some of what we’ve learned in the hope of becoming better at it next time around. One of the challenges at times in our discussions has been in explaining what it is about certain applications that appeals to us. There are obvious factors: people we know, those who have clearly done their homework on us, ones that presented their request effectively, those that are intuitively a fit for our strategy and direction… But there’s also something else, something that I couldn’t easily explain around our table but that is more clear to me after reading an excellent article by Andy Crouch this afternoon. I am enthused about supporting and partnering with people who are engaging with our culture in ways that involve creating and cultivating. I’ve had Andy’s book on my shelf for a couple months at the urging of Mark Petersen, but haven’t taken the time to read it yet. That will have to change. In trying to be strategic about the use of the finances at our disposal we need to be thinking about the issues raised here.

The word Catalyst gets used in several nonprofits and ministries. One that I can recommend is the Catalyst conference and all the ancillary elements they’ve added. I’ve enjoyed their podcasts for a couple years and am disappointed that I won’t be available to accompany a group from our area to Atlanta next month to see it all live. It’s definitely on my hit list for 2009. One of the founders of our foundation sent me this article from the Catalyst website that explains with clear and simple illustrations why we’re becoming involved with microfinance in our efforts to support relief and development for the world’s poor, rather than traditional charitable efforts. We realize there are times and situations where immediate needs require free donations, but by and large we are more and more convinced that there are better ways to help in the long run. we also hope that the time we spend researching and understanding options and strategies can help others to begin to explore some of the organizations we’re enthusiastic about.

I am learning quite a lot about the roles and responsibilities of board members. I’m realizing how very important an effective board can be to the long term work of an organization, and conversely, how crippling a poor board can be. In evaluating grant applications one of the factors we consider is the effectiveness of the board of directors. In conversations with nonprofit leaders, board issues are often near the top of their frustration lists. This blog post from the good people at Strive reminds me of the legal responsibly board members hold, that is rarely discussed it seems. And by the way, why would any nonprofit not have someone designated to regularly blog on their behalf? It’s an amazing way to keep your organization and your mission/vision in the minds of your constituency. Not doing so, when it costs only a little time and creativity, seems almost negligent.