I consider myself a life-long learner. In fact ‘learner’ is one of my top five strengths in both the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment as well as Via values assessment. I spent some time in December looking back at the year and one of the things that I thought about my year in terms of learning.
Learning shows up in a couple different ways for me. I love to read and have shared short summaries of a few of the books I have read this year in these posts – summer book reviews – winter book reviews. I also ask myself the question, “what did I learn?” each week when I do my weekly reflection. Thus I capture the informal learning that emerges as I work.
Designing learning experiences
I design learning experiences for others as well. This year that included speaking engagements including workshops and sessions on a variety of topics:
I also created more in depth learning experiences for others. I led day-long workshops on building partnership and board development for a network of nonprofits as part of a longer series of trainings on strengthening organizational sustainability. One of the highlights of the past year was partnering with a colleague and 14 (relatively) new executive directors to facilitate a program designed to meet their specific needs. Through content and peer coaching, the group evolved over the course of eight months from a collection of individuals to a group who trusted each other with their most pressing challenges. It was so rewarding to support and help cultivate that shift.
I participated in formal learning experiences offered by others. When I do, I practice my novice sketch-noting skills. A few highlights included:
Nonprofit Quarterly’s webinar series on evaluative practice led by Jara Dean-Coffey and Jeanne Bell. The series stretched my conception of program evaluation and building learning organizations. My biggest take-away was the caution to be mindful of the purpose of any research. Part of this means making explicit the recognition that evaluation is always inherently subjective, even though it is often perceived as objective and the arbiter of worth and value. Too many evaluation and other research efforts for programs that serve marginalized communities have been designed with the organization or researcher’s needs in mind, leaving the impact on the community out of the picture. The impact of this approach may be unintended or unintentional yet is extractive nonetheless. Learning and evaluation needs to be in service of the mission and mindful of impact, not just because one is curious.
Learning with the brain in mind
A session at ASAE’s Annual Conference in August focused on the basics of neuroscience and learning. Scientists now know that as adults we have neuroplasticity. So old dogs can learn new tricks! Designing learning with the brain in mind includes connecting the new information/content emotionally to the person’s previous experience, working with the material actively and repetition. It was good to hear that keeping my brain healthy includes all the habits we all have heard are healthy generally – staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, moving regularly, eating healthy, cultivating mindfulness and stimulating our brain on a regular basis. The last few years I have managed to make all of those regular practices, especially by reminding myself – something is better than nothing.
An exciting intensive training that I participated in focused on Collaborative Innovation. It centered on how to build collaborative networks intentionally to bring together organizations and groups of people. Networks have the potential to solve wicked problems beyond the capacity of one organization. Yet collaboration can be challenging and time intensive. By incorporating aspects of human centered design with iteration, rapid prototyping and testing, the network can move to action and not get bogged down in analysis paralysis. When started with intention they include both the power brokers in a system and those impacted by the system at the grassroots level, starting with the friendlies and then spiraling out.
An important skill in facilitating is harvesting -- designing a meeting, a convening, a retreat with a set of intentions and outcomes in mind that will be harvested from the conversation. The degree of stickiness of the outcomes from a process is dependent on the level of engagement of those participating. When people talk about buy in, they need to remember that buy in is built not bought. Just telling people about a vision or a direction is not enough.
Dewey contended that there is no real learning without reflection. “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” What are you reflecting on as the new year launches?
The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
By Daniel Coyle
What creates successful group and organizational cultures? That is the question that Daniel Coyle pursues in his book. “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.” US culture tends to focus on the charismatic, visionary leader yet Coyle’s research finds that successful groups tend to do lots of small things towards success rather than large dramatic things. Three key skills emerge – build safety, share vulnerability and establish purpose. Like Jim Collin’s Good to Great, Coyle finds a lot of quiet, observational leaders who cultivate a healthy ecosystem and group around them through lots of questions at key points to help team members learn to think on their own. There are lots of useful and actionable points in the book. I wish for a future when business books highlight as many women as men in their examples without having women in the title!
Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector
By Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman & Daisy Azer
Design thinking is a problem solving approach that is human centered. It prioritizes really getting to know the people involved in your challenge and looking at the world from their perspective. It focuses on multiple options, experimentation and iteration. This method has served to democratize design and Jeanne Liedtke’s model makes it particularly accessible (What is? What if? What wows? And What works?). While the process originated in Silicon Valley, Liedtke and her team profile how design thinking has been used in the social sector. They include case studies from government, national, state and local nonprofit organizations – from the US and internationally. Each instance showcases the real experience – from the excitement at the start of the project to the dead-ends and false starts to results that in many instances could not have been envisioned from the outset. Using design thinking, the professionals highlighted get to see their organization from the perspective of whom they serve. With this, they are able to identify the ways in which the system is not made for the client. Then they are able to imagine how they might make things better. This is all in the service of having clients have a better and more humane experience while getting the help the organization is designed to deliver. If you have just heard about design thinking and have wondered how it might apply in your situation, this book is a great place to start.
An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
By Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
“In most organizations, everyone is doing a second job no one is paying them for…Most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding.” (pg1, An Everyone Culture)
What if this were not necessary? An Everyone Culture describes a few unicorn organizations that have truly put people at the center of their purpose. Developing and investing in people. Not as an afterthought or bonus for just for a few people – for everyone. Where the culture revolves around helping everyone recognize, acknowledge and learn from their mistakes, build on their strengths and stretch and grow. Lots of organizations give lip service to the idea that people are their most important asset. Yet they rarely act as if that were really true. Each of the three organizations the authors describe as deliberately developmental organizations (DDO) do this through a multitude of practices that center transparency, regular feedback across all levels, team building and professional development – at the individual, team and organizational level. While the authors went into their research assuming that being a DDO would contribute to the business success of these organizations, they concluded by the end that in fact being a DDO is the cause of the business’ success. Much has been written about how emotional intelligence and people skills will be the key differentiators as work continues to morph and shift. Learn from these leaders what that might look like.
I recently worked with a team to help them get a better sense of each team member’s strengths. They wanted to think about how they could better integrate those strengths into their work every day. Rather than focusing on trying to fix your weaknesses, building on what already comes naturally can help you move into a state of flow more frequently and do better work.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes what researchers have learned about motivation. External motivators – incentivizing behavior with rewards—can work in the short run. Yet for knowledge work, extrinsic rewards are actually demotivating over time. Instead mastery, autonomy and purpose are the keys to tapping into people’s own motivation. Learning more about your team’s strengths and giving them more opportunity to use those strengths gives them more chances to feel mastery and flow. This creates a virtuous circle of motivation!
A good place to start is to invest in the Gallup Strengthsfinder assessment. It is as easy as buying the CliftonStrengths 2.0 book or Strengths Leadership. With the book, you receive a code that enables you to take the assessment and learn about your top five strengths (out of 34). You receive reports that explain how these show up in your work and life. Both books are in the 10-$15 range so are pretty affordable. If you are looking at this for yourself, you might consider tracking which of your strengths you are using regularly in your work over a week or a month and then see what is missing. If you are not using a strength as often, how can you build it in?
Gallup organizes their 34 strength themes into four categories or domains. These include
executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. Executing is all about getting things done. Influencing is about having a wider impact on a broader audience. Relationship building is pretty self-explanatory – it is all about emotional intelligence and the people side of things. Strategic thinking is about learning and scanning with a futuristic perspective – imagining what could be and helping the team make more informed decisions.
Putting strengths to work
I have had teams each take the assessment and then we had conversations about how we might capitalize on the strengths that the team brings to the table. Some questions that we considered included:
• What are your strengths and why are they important to you?
• How are you using your strengths in your work?
• How could you better integrate your strengths into your work?
• Are there projects coming up that your strengths might make you uniquely suited to contribute to?
We then stepped up a level and looked at our strengths as a totality. We plotted everyone’s strengths against the four domains to see our strengths as a composite. A sample of what this could look like is to the left. We then discussed:
• Where is the team strong? How does that show up in our work? How you work together?
• How can we capitalize on the team’s collective strengths?
• Are there gaps that might mean the team has blind spots? What does this mean for our work?
Integrating strengths into your work
How will the group stay aware of each other’s strengths? Just having one conversation about strengths will not serve to keep these front and center as you do your work and plan for the future. Some possibilities include:
• Starting staff meetings periodically with a question about how team members have used a strength in their work recently.
• How can you incorporate considering each team member’s strengths as you plan for who will be part of future projects?
• If they can’t add a project to their workload, could they advise on the project?
• How can you build it into your processes and how might you shape each team member’s assignments to better capitalize on their strengths?
Want help identifying and tapping into the strengths of your team? Inquire about a coaching session.
Your organization is designed for a specific mission with the goal of having an impact in the world. The world is different in some way because of the work you do. Homeless people are cared for and fed who wouldn’t be otherwise. First generation college students increase their understanding of financial aid so that they can make better decisions about paying for their education. They’d make costly mistakes without you. Emerging leaders in marginalized communities are supported to strengthen their self-awareness and skills so that they can advocate for their community. You undertake the activities and programs with the aim of furthering your mission. Have you taken the time to look at how all the pieces fit together and whether it all adds up?
Creating a picture
When you create an impact map, you create a visual representation of what your organization is doing and how it creates the impact you want to have in the world. It makes clear how you leverage resources and organizational capacities to deliver your core strategies to achieve tangible results. By creating an impact map, you are able to create a model that illustrates your beliefs about the change you are trying to make.
It also can help you uncover the assumptions inherent in your programs and activities. You can also describe what short, medium and long term outcomes you believe result from each program or activity. A good question for identifying assumptions is to ask, “what has to be true for this outcome to happen?” These essentially are the hypotheses embedded in your program design.
Are there gaps in logic?
Once you have created your map and identified the assumptions inherent with each program, you can consider how you might measure whether you are having the impact you are aiming for. An impact map can also uncover gaps in your logic.
Creating shared understanding
Engaging in the process of impact mapping can be a useful exercise for staff and/or your board. Have small groups create an impact map of your organization. Then compare the maps. Do people envision the same organization? Where are the gaps in knowledge and understanding?
Once you have agreement on your organization’s impact map, take it one step further. Have a conversation about the implications of the map. Ask questions such as:
Think this might be helpful for your organization and would like some help? Inquire about a coaching session.
Board development is one of those “sharpen the saw” skills that is too easy to let slip. Yet if your organization makes it a habit and builds it into its regular practices, it will serve to keep your board vital and contributing to the organization’s health.
BoardSource describes a seven step process for building your board.
Identify – The first step is to identify what skills, characteristics and connections are important for your organization. Once you have identified what you need on your board, you can then ask what you have already and what is missing? Where can we find board members to fill identified gaps? Organizations often create a matrix to complete this assessment. Try to go beyond just your current board members networks to recruit board members for greater diversity.
Cultivate - You then need to come up with a list of potential people to cultivate that match your needs. Remember to start building a relationship and getting to know the person before you make the ask. How can you help them get to know your organization and keep them informed of your progress? How can you get to know them, their skills, talents and interests? What ways could they become involved with your organization short of board membership? Having stepping stone roles to leadership gives you greater insight into what people bring and their capacities.
Recruit - When you go to make the pitch be sure to tell them why you want and need them on your board. How can you make this personal? Be clear about your expectations of board members and their responsibilities. Too often people minimize these requirements thinking it is the only way to get people to say yes. If you minimize the expectations, you will likely get folks who then don’t show up the way you really need them to for your organization. It is also helpful to be able to articulate what benefit they will receive by being involved. This could be skills they are able to develop, relationships and networks they will be able to plug into the satisfaction of being involved in something important.
Orient – When new people come on the board, it is key to give them an orientation. This orientation should cover your organization, what it does and how it does things. It also needs to address the key elements of board service. Don’t assume that folks know what being on a board entails. Would a buddy system with a more experienced board member make sense? Beyond just an orientation session, are there ways that you can integrate education into your board meetings? Holding some time for regular education sessions for your whole board will help keep the board’s role front and center with the whole group.
Involve - Once someone has joined your board, how will you go about discovering your board members interests and availability? Do you have committees and task forces that would be supported by their skills and talents? People often volunteer to learn new skills and flex strengths that they do not get to use as much in their day job. Don’t assume because someone does something for a living such as marketing or accounting that that is the role they want to play with your organization. They may want to flex leadership muscles they are not having the opportunity to use at work. How will you solicit feedback on their experience? How will you hold people accountable for what they commit to do? What are additional ways you can express appreciation for what they contribute to your organization?
Evaluate – A well functioning board evaluates its work. A good practice is to conduct an annual assessment of its performance. Many nonprofit support centers have template assessments you can use for self-assessment, such as this one. With this regular practice, it serves to remind board members of all aspects of their responsibilities and can help you catch any problems early.
Rotate - Strong boards develop new leadership. This is facilitated by policies on term limits and enforced time off the board. Often times board members can re-up for a second term, but don’t let this become an automatic practice. Before re-electing someone for an additional term, consider your matrix of skills/needs. Does this person still fit your requirements? Do you have policies that enable you to ask a board member to resign if they have been inactive and/or missed a certain number of meetings? How are you developing new leadership? Do you have ways for people to get involved and volunteer other than board service? How are you preparing people for the chair role and other officer positions?
In addition to these seven, I would add “celebrate” and “educate” as two constants to support your board’s service.
Need help with your board, inquire about a free coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.