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I am increasingly convinced that a key to crafting direction, for organizations as well as individuals, is to look into the past. With few (if any) exceptions what we will become at our best is rooted in things that have been true since our beginning. When I work with individuals on figuring out their best context it is invaluable to spend 45 minutes hearing stories from earlier in their life of things they enjoyed doing and felt they did well. Reflection on those things makes figuring out next steps much easier. The same is true for organizations. Dr. Carson Pue of Arrow Leadership International shares his thoughts in his latest To The Point e-newsletter:
…the board of directors and I devoted a year to listening to God and seeking His guidance as to the future vision for our organization. We had seasons during this pursuit that drained us, so we asked a friend and strategic partner to come and facilitate a board vision meeting. It was during this day that I heard from him one of the most profound statements I have ever heard on vision. Here it is… “The seeds of your future are found in what you have already been doing.” Futurist John Scharr affirms this as well reminding us that, “The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.” We have already been creating our future! So we spent a half day reviewing what we have been doing over the past 18 years – made a list of these and our ‘vision’ popped out at us. It is a grounded vision – and has lots of traction. As a result our team is energized, committed and filled with meaning. Maybe it is time to ground your vision?
The visioning process is draining and unpleasant when we get bogged down in concepts and semantics, but it is quite invigorating when we turn our attention to the best of our past to see the best of our future. Try it.
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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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Yesterday I spent time talking with Regan Heffernan, principal of Abbey Park High School in Oakville. I had heard from some of his staff that he was a great person to work for, Abbey Park is a new school with an impressive reputation. Half and hour with Mr. Heffernan explains a big part of why. When interviewing potential new staff, he sends them the school’s Mission, Vision, and Values 12 hours before the interview; then gives them a few minutes to explain why they can advance that agenda. The response is very revealing and they consistently have many times more applicants than opportunities. Most organizations have taken the time to develop a written expression of their reason for being; but few make the ongoing efforts required to ensure those statements become truly their ethos.
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My father worked for over 30 years in a steel factory. He worked hard, took courses at night, and eventually moved into a management role. But I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a day that he drove to work thinking “Now this is what I truly love to do!” On the other hand I am part of a generation that often believes we should be able to do something that inspires us, be paid very well to do it, and have no interference from our bosses. It must make previous generations gag. I have been spoiled (or blessed if you prefer) in that I have been able to have work I believed in and loved for the most part. I haven’t maximized my earning potential but I’ve done fine financially. And my supervisors have been positive (in some cases excellent). But I haven’t forgotten how unusual that it and how grateful I ought to be. Seth Godin’s blog includes a great post about the risks and realities of trying to get paid for doing what you love. I have a lot of respect for those who have found a way to combine their passion and profession successfully; but no less for those who have deliberately chosen to work to allow them to do what they love in other hours. The key to the whole thing is realistic reflection and deliberate decisions.
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When is leadership development not worthwhile? I spent some time recently with my old friends at Medeba Adventure Learning Centre. I’ll confess that I’m biased in their favour. Several years ago I was part of their second class in the leadership internship program they’ve developed. It was great to catch up with some old friends and see how things have changed on the site as well as in the lives of people I respect and care about. One of the things that stood out most to me was how they are now seeing the results of decisions they made nearly 15 years ago to focus their efforts on developing leaders. Seeing the maturity and quality of summer staff they have now compared to the team of relative inexperienced (but committed and sincere) teenagers I worked with in 1996, showed that it has been worthwhile. The program I participated in is hardly recognizable. It is 2 months shorter, includes more exotic excursions, involves three times the number of participants, and regularly attracts candidates from other parts of the world. It has evolved from being constantly innovative to more grounded and structured. The same can be said for many other aspects of Medeba. This development is predictable and crucial to seeing the program mature, but it is costly. Not only have 14 years of effort been invested by dozens of people, but the founding director of the program has found the increased formality difficult and ultimately has determined that his abilities are no longer suited to staying in the role. Next year’s class will be the first under new leadership. Leadership transitions are hard, they often involve deep emotion, and relationships are almost always strained. All of that is multiplied in smaller organizations, especially if the leaders have remained for a significant period of time. Leadership development is demanding and it takes a serious commitment to do it well. The results may take years to become fully apparent. It is not a quick fix in desperate times, but Medeba can attest to the value for those willing to pay the price.
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On The Hour tonight one of the guests is Paul Polak, founder of IDE. He is leading advocate of what some people call Market Driven Development. The basic idea is that traditional charity efforts are doomed in part simply because they are based around giving things to needy people for free. Polak and others argue that this creates dependency, devalues what is provided, and treats the poor as inherently inferior. On the other hand, charging people for goods and services invites them into an exchange with some degree of mutuality, draws on their own intelligence and ingenuity, and increases the overall quality of both the provision and application of relief. Obviously this is somewhat controversial. The immediate reaction is something like: “How can you expect people who have nothing to pay for things they need to survive?”. What we may not realize is that our reaction itself betrays an attitude and assumption about poverty that may not be fully true. People in the field are discovering that the poor often have great resources in many ways. Effective strategies are being developed that draw on the innovative capacity, diligence, and sense of community that have commonly been ignored or merely romanticized. IDE, our partners at Medical Ministry International, and some others are finding that there are remarkable benefits to be found in these kinds of innovations. I am fascinated by this. It has enormous appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit that the Catalyst founders share.
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Today our mentoring program is really underway. I had initial goal setting sessions with two of our participants. Goal setting is really the heart of the individual mentoring sessions. It’s a pretty simple process, but extremely valuable. The value comes in setting not only annual goals, but monthly targets toward those goals; and meeting monthly to review progress. Lots of people set personal and/or professional goals, but most of us don’t track with them deliberately. The result is that the best of intentions show minimal results. As Louis Gerstner (the leader who turned around IBM) writes repeatedly in his excellent 2002 book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?; people will do what you inspect not what you expect. After some time spent on the goal setting worksheet we talked about the theology of goal setting that is rarely mentioned. I believe there is a sincere but inaccurate belief that when followers of God are given dreams they are certain to be realized. It’s a slight variation from the health and wealth prosperity gospel. On the surface it seems right to think that God would ensure that these things work out, but ultimately it isn’t true, Biblical, or properly helpful. It feeds into some of our desires for self-satisfaction and pulls us away from the kind of faith and relationship with God we’re meant to have. To understand this further it helps to look at a popular chapter in the New Testament, Hebrews 11. Church people like this passage because it gives quick summaries of the lives of some major Old Testament heroes, and allows us to imagine ourselves demonstrating similar faith and obedience. That is helpful; but it may be misleading. A more deliberate look at the passage, (particularly verse 13 if you like shortcuts) shows that these heroes didn’t get to accomplish the dreams they were given. Looking further down the text, we read of people who’s crowning achievement seems to be being sawed in two because of their faith. I’ve never heard anyone aspire to that kind of spiritual experience. To wrap this up, it is a good thing for us to set goals and passionately pursue them. What is problematic is when we start to be more committed to the dreams and goals than we are to the one who we believe gives us those dreams. There is no promise that we will complete the things we aspire to. Often it is when things don’t work out that our character, faith, and authentic connection to Jesus become most real.
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I recently told someone that if they want to understand the mind of Catalyst they should read our website; but if they want to understand our heart they should read this blog. This is where the less fully considered and critiqued ideas are expressed. It gives insight that the more refined text of the website might miss. I am spending the start of this week at a conference in Ft. Lauderdale with Professionals In Granting Society (PIGS), a gathering of representatives from several foundations. It is an inspiring group in many ways. I’m going to have a lot to think about from this event. One of the most significant thoughts of the day today is the way that other foundations have identified what they are most passionate about and endeavoured to make that the focus of all their efforts. They are connecting their hearts and mind. This is accomplished in various ways. Some have defined several separate categories of funding within their portfolio to reflect a diverse interest and strategy; others have become very narrowly focused and demonstrate great depth of wisdom and advocacy regarding the fields with which they are concerned. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that this year at Catalyst is primarily about defining our interests. If we are able to effectively discern these things during our first year we will be able to bring about much greater influence in the years to come. There is a spirituality to this. Not in any way to suggest that we should only support explicitly Christian projects, but that as we seek to express our sense of purpose we will be praying that God shows us how we can participate in those things that are part of his great story for all the world.
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As I mentioned recently, I spent a couple days last week with representatives from the Salvation Army (Canada and Bermuda) who were brought together by the Territorial Youth Secretary David Ivany, who is a compulsive dreamer and committed champion to the youth and youth workers he serves. Our agenda was to develop a “manifesto” for youth work across the territory. It was a bold target, if we were to come up with anything more significant than just another evocative t-shirt slogan. Thankfully, this group was not only willing to enter into the process, they were also unwilling to take the easy way out. I was both impressed and inspired. A couple highlights: -one of the youngest people in the group standing up to me when one of my suggestions would have led us to an earlier conclusion that would have been far inferior than what emerged. There was a reason this was one of the people the group selected to put their shared heart cry into words. -Dave Ivany saying to me in a quiet that he has the best job in the world because all he has to do is champion the work of amazing people while they willingly go out and do it. -seeing people work to set aside their personal biases for the sake of discerning a God-given direction. -seeing a very high degree of thoughtful reflection and theology that supports some remarkably innovative work among the many desperate communities both in urban centres and rural areas. -being welcome in the presence of people who show courage to stand up for what they believe they are called to. The product of this process can be seen at the Salvation Army youth website. It is worth your time to have a look, and add your responses to the discussion.
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