Episode 10: This week we’re talking to Heather Yandow.
We talked about:
• What gets in the way of nonprofits hiring consultants successfully.
• Why an RFP process is often not the best approach to having a great experience with a consultant.
• The trends we are observing in this time of disruption.
Scenario Planning: An article describing the process from MIT Sloan management school
Heather Yandow brings more than 20 years of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio. She helps organizations with strategic planning, board development, change management, leadership development, and going from good to great. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Democracy NC, ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals, and the Beehive Collective (a giving circle). She is also the founder of Nonprofit.ist, an online platform for nonprofits to find the consulting expertise they need.
Carol: Welcome Heather. Welcome to the podcast.
Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.
Carol: So just to give people some context. Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to this work and describe your journey?
Heather: Yeah, so I started this work when I, when I kind of dig back into what really prompted it, I think about my parents always engaged in the community and that's just what I knew to do. So when I went to college I was really engaged in lots of different social activism there. I was part of the environmental group on campus. I helped to start a feminist group on campus and really loved that and thought I was going to be a math teacher.
I studied mathematics and thought that was my path. And then really started thinking about what if I could do all of this fun activism stuff as a career, and got really lucky and found that the statewide environment, because C group was hiring what they called it at the time an outreach coordinator, which was basically doing a lot of the same stuff I had kind of trained myself to do while I was in school.
And I did that work for a couple of years. And then they offered me to be the director of development and communications. So I got to move into that position and got a lot of great training and support and learned really how to do the fundraising. After seven years of doing fundraising, I still do it in my volunteer work, but decided I didn't want to do it full time.
And that's when I transitioned into being a consultant. And so I've done that work for about 10 years now. And I do strategic planning, leadership development, meeting design and facilitation work.
Carol: So funny that you said your original idea was to be a math teacher. Cause my first notion was that I was going to be a history professor and then did my senior thesis in college and discovered as I was in the archives of the library, reading these, I did a thesis on women, kind of the parenting things that were told to women in Germany, in the late 1800’s. And so reading these old magazines and discovered that I had a wicked allergy to mold. And so spending my life in archives was not going to be my future. So then I had to figure out what's next.
Heather: I love that. Yeah. It's one of my favorite questions. When I meet people who were in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, what did you major in? Because most of the time, people are not doing the work that they studied to do, particularly folks like us who were in nonprofits or as consultants.
Carol: I did discover anthropology in the last year and I feel like what I do now is essentially applied anthropology. All the, you know, Interviews that we do with people and the discovery and kind of seeing how groups work and seeing how culture shows up in organizations. So that's the connection that I have.
Heather: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Carol: So one of the things that you have started recently is an online platform to help nonprofits find consultants. And I feel like nonprofits often struggle when they think about hiring consultants. What do you think gets in the way?
Heather: I think a couple of things get in the way.
One is just not knowing where to find people. So I actually started nonprofits just in part, because I get a lot of requests from past clients and friends asking who do you know that does X, Y, and Z. Who do you know that has a background in mergers that also knows a lot about land trusts. Well, that's a very specific subset of people.
Yeah. So if you're a nonprofit leader, you may have a few connections, but you might not have a broad enough network. So you can find the right person who can really help you. Of course cost is often a barrier for organizations. And sometimes organizations that are new to hiring consultants are a little bit surprised by what our fees are that we are a lot of times covering all of our costs and those fees.
So you're paying not just what you might pay somebody for a salary, but you're also paying for our benefits and our office space. And all of those overhead costs are included. And then the third piece is that I think organizations often aren't really clear about what they need and why before they get into a first conversation with a consultant.
And sometimes I’m wondering whether I find that in those first conversations if the group feels like they've already decided what the solution is going to be.
Carol: They think that they know exactly what the challenge is and they think they know what they want. That also can be a challenge and, and having those first conversations gives you an opportunity to essentially kind of find the answer together, if you will.
Heather: Yes. Yes. I find that too. If I am sent a request for proposal and there is an 18 month timeline already sketched out with all of the different pieces that they want to include and they've really already mapped it all out. In some ways you're voiding my expertise.
I come to this as somebody who understands how to design processes, how to lead groups through difficult decision making, how to set up action plans. So I like you really to partner on that and to co-design. And part of that is really asking questions to get underneath. What, what is the real issue here?
So sometimes what we find with organizations, what I find is that. They ask for what they know they can pay for. Right. So we know that right. You can hire somebody to do a one day board retreat. And when you actually, when I get into conversation with somebody about that work, what I discover is they're having significant problems around accountability.
Or they've got some folks on their board who they just need to say goodbye to, or they've got some other really big culture problems and they aren't necessarily dealing with those head-on. They want to bring in an outsider, which is me to talk to them about what their roles and responsibilities are.
Maybe I do a little bit of assessment and to hope that that magically solves the problem. So, I see that with strategic planning. I see that with fundraising planning, all of that, these things that people know they can search for and find people. And so I often want to ask, want people to ask and consider before they come with those kinds of requests.
What's the real challenge you're trying to solve? What's the question behind this fundraising that, that clarity that you're talking about, but even if they don't have it going through the process of you know. We would be asking questions there and that helps a thinking process and helps kind of uncover what else is going on.
Carol: And I think even with those simple requests, can you just come facilitate our board retreat? I think there's often a lot of misunderstanding of, you know, just kind of thinking they're hiring a person to just show up on the day and make some magic happen. And of course, in order for that day to be a productive one, you know, you have to spend some time with the group talking to people, doing some upfront discovery so that you are designing a retreat that meets their needs, not just a generic retreat that's not helpful and not a good use of people's time.
Heather: Yeah. I have a great relation with an organization I've worked with over a number of years, four or five years ago. I did a board fundraising training. It was really well received. Folks had a great time. We did a little bit of role play about how to do a major donor ask, right everything. When I left that day, I thought that was a great retreat.
Well, they called back three years later and asked me to come do another training for their board around fundraising. And as we got into the questions I realized but they were still having the same issue as they were before I did the training. And so, because I had a good relationship, I finally had to say, I don't think the problem is that your board doesn't know how to do that.
I don't think they want to do this. And that's a different kind of challenge and a training doesn't always solve that challenge. It's like a board retreat doesn't always solve a challenge or a strategic plan isn't going to suddenly make your founding executive director share power. It can help. Certainly they can be designed in ways that help, but sometimes it's really scratching and getting into the what's the real issue here? What's going on.
Carol: Although I do think some of those processes help open the door and give us a safe kind of a safe place to start. So I was working with a group recently that, that did have that founder challenge and, and we were working on a strategic plan and ended up with one and I think, you know, going to give them a good one framework to move some things forward.
But the biggest thing that I think it did was create a space where an outsider could compile all the information, talk to everyone back what they said to, to me around these are the things that aren't working. These are the things that are getting in our way and help them have a tough time conversation about what are the roles?
What roles do we need to have on staff? What roles do we need to have with the board? Not to say that it's actually, as you said necessarily going to solve that problem, but I think it at least opened the door to where, before that all those conversations were probably happening, you know, pre COVID in the parking lot after a meeting or, you know, when somebody bumps into each other, you know, downtown or whatnot.
So it at least gets, yeah, it gets it started up what needs to be probably a much more drawn out intentional process that it's not, you're going to do a strategic plan and it's going to have solved all of these other challenges.
Carol: Absolutely. So with that instance where you did the training and you know, and, and that's often what folks will often ask for that, thinking that well, if we just get people to learn how to do the thing, they'll be willing to do it. And especially around fundraising that, I mean, I'm not a fundraising expert, but I certainly see that that can be very intimidating to folks. So when it was actually about not wanting to do it, what were some of the things that you did with the group to help address that challenge?
Heather: Well, then you've got to dig a little bit more into what's behind that. Not wanting to do it. And so some of that can be sussed out through some interviews. Some of that is, is some group discussion. One of the best discussion tools for that is actually something Kim Klein is a great fundraising guru, I saw her do, which is a comparison of how we feel when we give money and all of the positive emotions. Right? So when you're able to make a donation to a cause you really care about how does that make you feel? Lists all these great emotions. And then when you ask someone ready to make a donation to a cause that they really care about, how does that make you feel?
And oftentimes those are some that have really negative emotions. We have some, we have some shame, we have some anxiety we might have. It's around that. And so then comparing those two and really talking about why those are different and, and where that difference comes from. And, and there's a lot of anthropology, there's a lot of cultural feelings about money and who has it and who can talk about it and how they talk about it.
And so really getting folks to, to grapple with that and think about how their own formation around money happened. I think the last piece is making the why really clear. So sure. Board members understand why it's critical for them to do this work. Sometimes I see where organizations are kind of a victim of their own success.
So if you've got a super competent executive director and a great development director, and the board says, you know, next year, we're going to raise $5,000 and there's some support around that. And the board just doesn't do it. They only raised $3000, nothing happens and there's no accountability and the organization doesn't shut down.
Well, then the board really has not much impetus to do that really uncomfortable thing and actually raise the $5,000. So sometimes there's just getting really clear about this, and there's a number of ways to, to build a little bit more heat into the system, to get folks to move into that place that they think is going to be uncomfortable. And a lot of times folks understand once they get there, it's not.
Carol: So with the consulting, hiring practice, what would you say are some mistakes that you think organizations make when they, when they're first doing this? Or you know, even if they've done it before, what gets them, what mistakes do you think are the key ones?
Heather: So one of the key ones we've already talked about is really kind of prescribing the answer before you really understand the question. So you already figured out the process, but you don't really know the true why behind it. The stake that I see is not having all of the people in your organization bought in to both your definition or construction of what you want to address.
And that there's a need for outside help. So if you think there's a problem with accountability on your board and folks really getting things done, your board chair needs to agree that that is true. And most of your board, hopefully, but at least your board chair and your board chair needs to, we need outside help.
Because the last thing that I, as a consultant, want to do is walk into a board meeting where I am not wanted and they don't think they need me. That is not setting anyone up for success. So making sure that all the players involved in that could be staff, board, community members, that we all have a clear and shared understanding of the challenge and the need for help.
And then the third thing I would say is that not allocating enough staff resources. And I guess organizational resources in terms of time and attention. So sometimes there's a belief that if we hire a consultant, they're gonna magically go off into their office and create the most beautiful plan that ever was created and come back and present it to us and we're going to approve it and everything's going to be different.
And in reality, all the projects I do require significant involvement by members of the worker. Patient, whether that is one-on-one yeah. Time with an executive director, time at a board meeting, background information from staff. There's always a need to get their attention and their time and to really have them be part of the process.
So if an organization is at the same time, as we're doing a project, going through a capital campaign, hiring a bunch of people. If they work on elections and it's an election year or a census year, they just don't have the bandwidth. And so really thinking about how to stage those projects so that they can give it their full attention.
Carol: Right. Cause the project and the plan and it all needs to be the organizations and I, I go to the point of actually saying no, I'm not going to write your plan for you because if I do that, it's my plan. You know, even if you've been involved in all the conversations and in the meetings and it actually reflects all of your input.
Just that act of actually doing the draft yourself makes it yours and you have more commitment to it. And, and clearly involving people. Throughout the process ideally builds that buy in, but yeah, it really is about it being the organization's plan and you're helping them walk through a solid process to get some good outcomes, but it's gotta be, yeah, it's not about, can you go cook us up a strategic plan and come back. That's right. Deliver it.
Heather: Do you have any that you'd add to that list?
Carol: I have one and then it went, it's gone. It's flown out of my brain.
Heather: It'll come back.
Carol: It'll come back. Yeah, I think the whole RFP process can also be really problematic because I understand the need to kind of get a couple of different people responding, but even there you, you can still have had conversations with multiple consultants, ask them to put together a proposal based on the conversations without having to go through the strict process of an RFP which I usually think ends up with a different, with a better outcome.
Heather: Absolutely. I am anti RFP all the way. I think there's real value in an organization. Getting clarity on, as we already talked about what they need, how much money they might have when they want to do the work. But the process, particularly the very structured. So we put it out on X date. You have until a week later to send us your questions, we will compile them and answer them.
We will not be getting, having any conversations in advance of you submitting this proposal. Then we might do an interview or we might just pick you based on the proposal that tends to, to not produce the best results, what you get. There are the people who write the best proposals. It's like applying to college or applying to a job, but only ever looking at the resume.
And it doesn't actually tell you what you want to know. And so much of the work that we do as consultants is really about. Does our ethos match our culture, does our vibe match, you know, so you talk about, and I believe this too, that it's the, it is the organization's work to do, and we are there to create the container for them to do it well.
Well, that's a real ethos. And if you, as an organization's leader, don't have that too, then that's something we need to assess out early on in the process. So having those conversations and I agree, you know, you can have conversations with five people. It's probably gonna take you less time than developing an RFP, reviewing all the proposals, doing interviews, just pick five people and have conversations and see what happens.
Carol: Yeah. And how would you say, how would you advise Executive directors or board chairs as they're kind of going into this process of the kinds of things that they would want to ask consultants or the kinds of things that they need to be looking for as they, you know, not just the proposal, but getting into those conversations and, and maybe even if they do the more formal interview process, what are the kinds of things that you would say are important to pay attention to?
Heather: So I think if you, if you've worked with a consultant before, I think back to what worked well for you in that relationship and what you might have wanted to see differently. So if you're really looking for a consultant, who's a fantastic project manager and keeps you on task. Are you looking for a consultant that's really good at conflict management and having hard conversations, thinking about those things that are almost in between the lines of the official work that you really value in a partner.
Another piece of that is kind of organizational values and what are your consultant's values and are there pieces that overlap there so that you're really on the same page about why you want to do the work together. And then the last piece, I think sometimes I get asked for examples of work product.
Which is really challenging for me to provide. So what I often say to people is the work that I do, to transform organizations, so talk to people about what they do experience with me, and what's different about their organization after their engagement, that's the work product. So I think asking around the questions around who have you worked with.
Where, where you'd be doing similar work. Who can I talk to really getting and checking those references? Vibe values and references basically.
Carol: Yeah. So it's essentially kind of thinking through and listening for a fit when you're having those conversations. So are the questions that the person's asking you, helping you are you further along at the end of the conversation in thinking about the challenge that you're you're describing than you were when you began, and that would be well, that's the kind of shift that you want to, you're there to try to create.
Heather: Yeah. Yeah. You absolutely want somebody who is helping you think through. I also think in a lot of ways you want somebody who is going to show up as a partner. Who has, who brings expertise, but who really wants to be there with you walking alongside you. So this is obviously reflective of my own work as a consultant, but I build out free engagement to fit the organization.
I have things that work well that I bring into lots of engagements, but I don't have. Here's the strategic planning package and I'm just going to put it on top of everything I do. So I want to ask questions to know more about you as an organization and what works well. I want you to know that I'm going to be experimenting as we go and learning about you and shifting up.
The way that we're going to do the work in order to really meet your goals. And, hopefully you're okay with that. If you're, if you're an organization that's super regimented, we're not going to work well together. And I can tell, cause if you send me a 15 page RFP, we're probably not going to work well together. I'm probably not going to apply to that.
Carol: Yeah. So once you go through that hiring process and you've decided on something, what would you say are some things that are important as an organization starts to work with a consultant that can help make that be a more productive process for both parties.
Heather: Yeah. A couple of things. One is it's always helpful for me as a consultant to get some of the basic background information. So obviously I've looked at your website, I've read your RFP, or we've had a conversation, but grant proposals or reports are useful budgets. Honestly, tell me a lot about the organization and where you spend your money and what your activities are.
Annual reports, just those things that can get me kind of up to speed on the work so that I can ask better questions. The second piece is I think having a good launch meeting. Often that is with a small team, particularly if we're doing longterm strategic planning work, or even planning a training for staff, who's the two or three folks who are gonna come together and help shepherd this work at that meeting.
I often review the scope that I put together in their proposal. And we adjusted as a team here was my idea. And now we're actually in it. Let's figure out what we need to shift. Also sometimes in that very beginning phase, just having one on one conversations. So as an a organization figuring out who are the few people that we want the consultant to talk to, again, to get a better three 60 view of the challenge to really, and the players to make sure that they are leading off with a really strong background.
Anything you would add?
Carol: Yeah. So that's good cause sometimes I think people want to put every important stakeholder on that strategic planning committee. And I think that's a nice way to do both and to make sure that you're getting the input from all those important stakeholders. And, and there may be other ways that you're doing that as well.
But then also having a small enough working group that it's easy to. Set up meetings and there's momentum and things keep moving. So it's kind of nice both. And yeah, I think just sometimes people jump into the work they're so intent on you know, What the challenges are or whatnot, but I think just taking a minute and oftentimes this will come from the consultant just talking about how you work together, what works for you?
Do you have any pet peeves? What's your style? How do you like to communicate? You know, is it email? Is it a phone call? So that those things can fit together and just being explicit about those things, which I think so often people skip over can really help kickstart a good, a good process in the end, because this is a relationship, particularly with whoever the organizational lead is.
And he was a consultant. So I'm thinking about how to, how to make sure that relationship gets off onto a strong footing.
Carol: So right now we're in a you know, things are so uncertain. A lot of planning processes have basically come to a halt or people have canceled. Maybe they had a retreat coming up. What's your sense of whether people can or can't or should how, how they might approach planning when, when there's so many unknowns at the moment?
Heather: Yeah, it's a question that I hear executive directors really wrestling with right now. In fact, I was just on a call with a group, a peer support group this morning, and an executive director shared that their strategic planning consultant had said to them in March or April. They were trying to finish their plan.
That, that had been in progress for six months and feeling really guilty because they hadn't. And the consultant said right now you've got a circus. You can no longer focus on building the plane. You are dealing with really rough weather. And when you get to a place where you feel like you can fly the plane more easily, you can start building it again.
And so they have actually at this point, given the kind of work they do been able to stabilize and they have are coming back now to that strategic planning. I think for a lot of organizations, what would have been a longer term strategic plan is looking much more short term. It's looking so the end of 2020, maybe to the end of 2021, depending on where they are in the world.
So shortening timelines, not doing future planning when you're still in the midst of crisis. And then I also am seeing organizations use scenario planning a lot more, a tool that's been in our toolbox for a long time, but this is a time when it really matters. It really is, you know if you work in the school system, you have a scenario for, if kids go back, if kids go back for two weeks, if kids go back for a whole semester, and if you run an afterschool program for kids in schools, You've got a button you've had to have all of those different scenarios and having those planned out so that when it switches, you've got a plan that you can pull off the shelf.
We've already had some of those discussions.
Carol: Can you just say a little bit more about what scenario planning is for folks who might not be familiar with it?
Heather: Yeah, I think. Various standard definition would be thinking about creating kind of a matrix of scenarios. So you would think about what are a couple of different unknowns in your community that have a high chance of impacting your organization.
So I did this work a few weeks ago and the two variables we picked one was about how people were going to feel about the economy. Were they gonna feel like it was going down and hilly, going to feel like it was stabilized or maybe even going okay. The other axis we picked the other trendline we weren't sure of was, are we going to be kind of open or closed broadly?
Right. So are things going to be really open and we're going to be kind of back to normal or are we going to be quarantined or in our houses working from home. So in a very traditional scenario planning, you would actually put those on one, on an X axis and one on a Y axis. And now you've got four to five scenarios. What happens if the world is open and everybody feels really good about the economy? Well, bars and restaurants are totally full. Everybody's excited. Right? What happens if people are feeling really terrible about the economy and we're still all at home? That is our Netflix bucket, right? Like people at home with Netflix and cooking, being at home.
So figuring out those areas, whatever those are for your organization and then planning for each of the four, I'm really thinking about what might be true for us in each of those four scenarios. So that's a very traditional example in the school example I gave, there were the school system in North Carolina where I said we have an, a, a, B and a C, and we're going to pick one of these three.
So they've done that work already creating those scenarios for you.
Carol: So, what are some other trends that you're seeing right now, since you work with a lot of consultants across the sector and they're working with lots of clients. So I'm curious to hear from you kind of, what are some of the current trends that you're seeing in the sector?
Heather: So one of the trends I'm seeing is organizations, particularly 10 staff and under. Really saying, I'm not sure we need an office. We need the conference table. We need a conference room every once in a while. We needed a place to start our stuff, our swag, our records, but we don't need it. I need an office space, particularly in places where folks are traveling significantly to get to a centralized office.
And they've discovered that they can really do a lot of that work online. The second trend I'm seeing is that as kind of stress levels have risen, I have certainly seen particularly executive directors dealing with more burnouts and more burnout in their staff and just all of the challenges that come from having an overwhelm.
They’re anxious. That's maybe dealing with kids at home. So there's a lot of shifts in how people are thinking about paid time off leave alternative options for staffing organizations, but there's just this kind of increasing humanity that is coming out of this crisis. And then the third thing that's kind of related to that is I'm just hearing more and more chatter about how the kind of traditional nonprofit structure isn't working for people. And some of that is the board's not showing up well right now either micromanaging or being absentee, some of it is that we're throwing out lots of, of, of old norms that aren't working for us. And so some of those nonprofit norms are going to get thrown out, but I'm seeing a kind of increasing conversation about that piece as well.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking about that, but not really sure.
Carol: Cause it also feels like it's so embedded in, in all the systems the many, many systems that aren't working right now and, and the nonprofit sector has a lot of those assumptions built into. So yes. So at the end of every episode, I play a little game just to kind of shift things up a little bit.
So I'm going to ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. And I had picked out three out of the box before, before we got on. So based on your scenario where if I, hopefully we won't be stuck in the, the economy is tanking and we're all forever and ever, but with that, what's your most recent, a guilty pleasure in terms of maybe binge watching a show or, or something.
Heather: Oh, well, My favorite. I don't know if this is a guilty pleasure, but in May I bought myself a blow up pool from my backyard and my absolute favorite thing to do. And I might do it this afternoon. If it doesn't rain, I will get in the baby pool with my Kindle and a glass of wine at the end of the day. And that just makes me so happy.
And I read a book that has no redeeming value. That just is pure floss and it's fantastic.
Carol: I don't think you need to be guilty about that. That sounds like a lot of fun. What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you kind of what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Heather: Well, one of the things I'm really excited about in the nonprofits world is that we just launched a learning series for consultants around how to better incorporate race equity into our work.
And so I was sitting on a zoom with 50 consultants who are all trying to figure out how do we do this work better? How can we be in the work with people helping to raise these issues, helping to have careful conversations. So I'm really excited about that series and about the shifts that are coming for myself and my own consulting work and for hopefully lots of other people in those conversations.
Carol: That's great. And how can people find you? How can they can get info?
Heather: Yeah. So if you are interested in the consulting work I do, my company is called Third Space Studio, all spelled the thirdspacestudio.com. And if you're looking for a consultant or accountant or coach or other expert, you can find me at https://www.nonprofit.ist.
Carol: And we'll put all that in the show notes. So people will be able to get the links. Well, thank you so much, Heather. It has been great talking to you.
Heather: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
Episode 09: This week we’re talking to Carol Vernon
We talked about:
Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters, an executive coaching firm that helps leaders and teams elevate their executive presence and communication skills in order to grow their impact. Carol was inspired to start Communication Matters after years of observing that doing your job well isn’t enough. Without executive presence and the ability to communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders, leaders can’t achieve their full potential or achieve the results they seek. Previously, Carol was the senior communications director at the National Cable and Television Association, as well as acting executive director of the cable industry’s education foundation, with both people management and budget responsibilities. Prior to that she worked on Capitol Hill and on more than a dozen political campaigns.
Welcome to Mission impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your host, the nonprofit consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures, where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers, all for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters. An executive coaching firm that helps leaders and teams elevate their executive presence and communication skills in order to grow their impact. Carol was inspired to start Communication Matters after years of observing that doing your job well isn't enough without executive presence and the ability to communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders, leaders cannot achieve their full potential or achieve the results they seek. Previously, Carol was the senior communications director at the National Cable and Television Association as well as acting executive director of the cable industry's Education Foundation, with both people management, and budget responsibilities. Prior to that, she worked on Capitol Hill and on more than a dozen political campaigns. Welcome to episode nine of the Mission Impact podcast.
Carol Vernon and I have a great conversation about communication, something so key to how organizations and teams operate. She explains four typical communication styles and why leaders need to be mindful of each when they communicate with others. We touch on what shows up in communications now that so many teams are working remotely, why it is so key to avoid assumptions as you work remotely and why having a conversation with your teammates, colleagues and volunteers about your communication norms is even more important now than it was in the past. We also consider how people can keep networking even while face to face events are canceled. So welcome, Carol.
Thank you, glad to be here.
So just to get started and to give people some context, what drew you to this work? How would you describe your journey?
I've worked in associations, nonprofits, and in the political world for quite some time, I always loved the work I did. I always felt very much focused on getting it done and eventually observed how you get it done matters oftentimes, just as much as getting it done. I started looking at how leaders were focusing on the how.
When did you start working with other leaders on that? And in that how, do you focus particularly on communication? Often when something isn't working in an organization, as an organization development consultant, I often hear people say, well, you know, communications just aren't working. What would you say makes communications challenging within an organization?
Yeah, absolutely. We are all different people. We as a society thrive on and could celebrate differences on many levels. But we forget the fact that communication is a big part of who we are. And we communicate differently. Each of us has preferences, and we have the ability to play with our preferences a bit if you will adapt them to other people's styles, but we often don't do it with teams. We have gender differences, cultural differences, all kinds of differences in terms of how we show up and it impacts the way we communicate with each other, which impacts our ability to work together.
Can you say a little bit more about those communication preferences? Are there some common things that you see show up in terms of the way people approach communications and they're probably not even thinking about it? It's not necessarily something that they're particularly aware of?
Absolutely. Again, communication preferences are something to some degree, they're hardwired, we're born with them just like we're born with a certain personality preference, right? We’re different. Some of us are more introverted, some of us are more extroverted. We have a communication preference, some of us tend to be very direct, very to the point and we don't need to meet face to face, we're fine right now and in the remote work world we're pretty comfortable with that. Sometimes we'll say that's more a masculine communication style, not that it's only for men, lots of us are very much a masculine, to the point, communication style. So there's some people who have a very direct to the point style, can they shift it? You bet they can. They can adapt it to talk to somebody who has a more traditional, when you use the word feminine again, does not mean that you know, speaking to you as a woman, but we tend to be more people focused, we're listening for how's that going to impact somebody, a real direct communication might not meet our needs, because we're going to listen more for how's that going to impact me or how that is going to impact my colleagues or my team or my organization. We're listening more for the people part. There's some of us who have more of a preference for the details. We're listening for the real detailed piece. So there is a communication style here, neither a feminine or masculine style, rather just a preference for more detailed, more systematic, more how kind of communication style. And then there's some of us who have more of that dialogue, I call it a why style. We're listening for the big picture. Why are we doing it this way? Not because we don't think it's a good way. We just want to hear different things. We communicate differently. And some of us are very much right to the point. Some of us are how, give me all the details systematic. Some of us are who, how does it impact me? Who's involved? Who's going to be impacted by what happens here? And some of us are, why, why are we doing it this way, not to derail it, but just want to step back, want to look at the big picture, give them time to process.
And it's interesting thinking about those as individual communication preferences and some are really more preferred in our culture, in the American culture than others. I think the direct communication style is definitely preferred. And getting to the point, just do it, all those kinds of things. And in other cultures, you know, it's the exact opposite where you know, it's people first. And if you haven't taken the time to do some small talk, ask me about my family, ask me about how my weekend went, that's considered rude.
Every organization has its own culture also, because obviously, every society has, all these pieces lay on top of the crucial part of communicating, which in the world we're living in today this is how we're collaborating. It's all about how we're, how are we communicating?
And as we're working now, remotely, what do you think is really important for leaders to consider as they consider their executive presence in a virtual world?
Well, we're using that term right now, the idea of sort of digital body language or digital communications, really being able to, to step back and it's not just about camera angles, hey, we're on zoom, and we got to make sure our camera angle looks good. It's really so much more than that. Digital communications in the remote world is just ripe for misunderstanding. There's so much here that we're not going to see, where if I were sitting across from you, I get a better sense of your mindset, I would know what you're thinking. I'd be able to pick up more on it. In fact, even, what could ultimately lead to conflict between individual leaders, between teams between whole organizations,
In the virtual world, or doing online meetings, working collaboratively, working remotely I think sometimes when we were face to face, people could assume that they knew kind of what the other person was thinking or they might pick up on a vibe from them. And they might be right about that, and they might be wrong. And so in some ways, now that we're forced to work remotely, one of the things that could invite people to do is to actually slow down, check their assumptions, ask more questions, check in with people more often so that they are getting a fuller picture of how folks are feeling, how's it going for them their work, etc?
Carol, that's a great point. There's a lot of opportunity right now, in terms of the world we're in, the world we're in in terms of digital communications, yes, the question around the idea of presence. And I think having a strong presence in the digital space is a lot about respect, a lot about trust, how do we show that in the digital space, it'll kind of have to do with the speed in which we respond to something. It could be everything from, you know, who do we see on that communication, there's so many pieces about having a strong presence offers a lot of opportunities for us to build more trust. To be more clear, in this case, some sort of short messages are not always the clearest messages, brevity could lead to a lot of confusion. Having a strong presence in the digital space is about, again, so much more than how we're showing up on camera. It's all the parts of communication, it's our words, it's our voice. And we have to think about those coming through in the different ways in which we are communicating right now.
Yeah. And it could be that people are paying even more attention to, you know, tone of voice, etc. Because that's what they're limited to, mid range up in terms of what they can see on video if people have video on and then and I do think that actually taking the time to think about some of those things you didn't have to think about before, which is, how is your computer positioned? How are you showing up on that video screen? What are people seeing, what's behind you, what messages do you want to convey in terms of that presence is something that we probably never had to consider in terms of our home offices or our home spaces before.
Absolutely, there's no question. Everything we do is communicating something and I go back to that idea of trust. And I almost want to say grace, Carol, this word in your company's name, Grace, Social, we need to give people a little bit of grace here, we need to assume good intent is there in the way we're communicating right now. There's a lot more opportunity for misunderstanding, somebody doesn't have their camera on, oh, they must not be engaged. Maybe they don't have their camera on because something's going on in their home or wherever they're working from. From that moment, we need to assume good intent, we need to create a little space for one another. I think the strongest leaders are communicating by showing we care. And I know with my coaching clients, right now, I'm noticing those who are taking the time, I don't want to say they're, you know, taking time to find out how the weekend went. But they're taking time just to slow down and to show that they care. They're really being very intentional in terms of their presence, how they're showing up, you know, they're getting to the point, but they're not, it doesn't mean that they're not taking the time, it doesn't mean that they're over relying on that very direct, very bottom line communication style, they're flexing, they're adapting their styles. They're creating space for others right now.
And you also focus in particular on women's leadership, what are some of the things that that women in particular can do to enhance their leadership?
Oh, terrific question. I think right now, women, just like men have, like many of our male colleagues have a lot of competing priorities. And I think, again, that opportunity to just to be a little bit vulnerable here, it'd be a little bit more authentic given I don't know if it'd be more authentic, but I believe women have that, women leaders have another opportunity to really think about how they're communicating authentically, to this point, this isn't the time to sugarcoat things, this isn't the time to be sort of stepping back, and I've got to protect my team, we need to really think about, and I know some terrific women leaders who are being very much focused on being direct and to the point.
What are you seeing in terms of hearing from your coaching clients of how they're seeing the current situation that we're in, remote working, the pandemic, the protests, all of the things that are going on? How are they seeing that show up on their teams?
I think the world we're living in is causing stress for many people, and we all experience stress in different ways. Again, we're all you know, we're all so different and we're experiencing it in very different ways. We experienced it as a whole society, but each of us is doing it differently. And what I'm seeing, again, from my leaders who are challenged right now is to look at how to communicate, how to shift and adapt their communications, to get the most out of their team. A coach and client said to me the other day, I'm walking a fine line between trying to motivate my team and help them move forward and not burn out my team. And I thought, how interesting to see, he said I'm just totally intrigued by all the opportunities that are in front of us, this sort of the opportunity to do things in different ways. And he said, but I'm finding that I'm having trouble getting other people to look at those. I'm finding some of that also that my clients are challenged by how to flex that and then we're also dealing with just the realities of there are some of us who are digital natives and some of us generationally have different levels of adaptation and a learning curve with technology. So we're seeing leaders need to really not just show up, so this presence is not like just let's fake it till we make it, they genuinely are looking for ways to be to be empathetic, to show up authentically, and to recognize we're different. We're all different. So communicating the goals, they're slowing down, they're probably spending more time communicating than if we were sitting across from each other in the office.
Yeah, because I think in the office, there's sometimes an assumption that word is getting around or communicated and once you're remote, and folks are not right there, you have to think a little more deliberately about it, rather than just kind of assuming that communication will flow through the organization. In terms of that burnout, I've seen some articles recently about how with more and more folks working from home, especially in the association world, certain types of nonprofits that folks are working longer hours since it's all one thing now work, home, everything together. It's all bleeding together and how are you seeing leaders manage that? And keeping work life balance?
I agree with everything you've said, Carol, and I'm observing the same thing. And in talking with some of my clients, in fact, just this morning, I had a coaching call with a terrific leader. As we were talking through the idea of boundaries, we were noting the fact that she's had to step back and create new quote unquote norms, new communication norms around her availability. So this idea, we're so used to you sending me a message, I'm gonna respond, oh, he texts, it's even more important, I'm going to get right back to you. We need to, we need to clarify those communication norms for the world we're in right now. The opportunities here are terrific for teams to be even more effective, more flexible, more adaptive, but without communication norms to help guide them again, right from misunderstanding. My coaching client was talking about the fact that it feels like 24/7, and in this case, this particular terrific leader has young children, and 24/7, she's always sort of split between one or the other, is it the family? Or am I at work? And she said, they're totally integrated. And I think a lot of us are experiencing that crossover. So creating communication norms for our teams is key for this world. And these are norms that may have a long term impact on the way organizations work and are going to work in the future.
Yeah, for sure. And one of the other things that you do is help people be more strategic about their career progression and network. What are some of the things that people can do now, without those more traditional networking events to move their career forward in this interesting time?
I'm hearing all kinds of exciting things that I wouldn't naturally have a thought of, I enjoy the whole process of going out and networking, I've watched some terrific leaders, you know, create really terrific sort of connections with people. And in this space now there's also terrific ways of doing it. But it means doing it differently, being very intentional about perhaps some of the networking groups and opportunities that are out there to meet people in the virtual space to do one on one follow up. So in terms of career progression, and continuing to build out, build out our networks in a very strategic way. We need to think about who are some of the people we do need in our worlds? I don't believe networking is ever a quantity, it really has to be very strategic, and thinking about what do we have to give others? What kind of expertise can we be sharing with others? What kind of info do I have that might be helpful to others? And we need to think about what kind of info would help me continue to build a new sort of community? Is that sort of a traditional way of what I have to give here? And then what is it I want to get? What do I want to learn, though? I mean, what do I have? What do I want to learn about how online is offering all kinds of opportunities to connect with other people? I'm watching my association clients create unbelievably powerful ways of networking online. And then I think it's the one on one, I think it's the individual follow up. Again, it's not about quantity, we need to be incredibly mindful of who we need in our world right now. And I dare I say, we also need to be careful about what we built, who right now we need to protect ourselves from, you know, the key piece here is we need to think about our own control, ourselves, that may be one of the only things right now we have 100% control over and think about who we need and protect, again, possibly who we need to protect ourselves from.
Yeah, it's been interesting, since all the events are now going online. One thing I'm actually seeing is, in some instances, some local associations that I had been involved in, you know, now we're seeing participation from people across the country, internationally. And then another very interesting thing that I didn't really think about, until I started doing this as I would be on a zoom call, or whatever networking thing, you know, because each little box, the person usually has someone's name written there, have written all the names down, look the people up in LinkedIn, you know, follow up afterwards, if I wanted to connect and have a conversation, and I know that I am following up with and you talked about quality versus quantity. But in this case, I'm actually following up with more people from a zoom event than I would have if it had been an in person event because I know that I wouldn't, I mean, yes, if you can get someone's business card, that's great. But you know, I'm not going to go around, peering at their name tag and trying to remember what their name was and write it down and then and then do the follow up. And so it's actually made it for me, it's made it easier to be consistent about that.
Carol, I love that example. We're also different, and some of us are thriving in the online world in terms of creating those relationships. And the truth is it is definitely more challenging for some others. For those of us who are more extroverted, we need to step back and allow other people in the online world more opportunity to step up. For those of us who are more introverted, we need to make the time to be able to come to something very prepared and ready to contribute, it's not the time to step back online. When we step back, I can't tell you how many times I've heard my coaching clients say things, the team seems disengaged. And you know, we've kind of talked to is it truly disengagement? Or perhaps are people taking time to think about what we're building in ways so this idea of something we're building, a network in the virtual space, you bet, there's going to be some people who are going to thrive in it. And I love to hear that you are Carol. And I think you have a terrific practice there of identifying who, for instance, is in a zoom or any kind of networking event, and then doing the individual follow up.
Right. That's all individual conversations. I mean, the event itself is a jumping off point, but then you know that I'm taking the time to reach out one on one. And the other thing that I've been doing with that is we'll set something up and is there a zoom link? I'm like, no, let's just talk on the phone. Because we're spending so much time on video these days. For those one on one, it's not necessary to get on video. I mean sometimes it's nice, but I feel like folks are also experiencing fatigue being on so many video calls. So those one on ones, I'm definitely just just having a phone conversation. And it works just fine.
Funny to think that the phone call is becoming sort of like what was old is new again. Pick it up, picking up the phone becomes a differentiator, it really allows us to say I care, it's really different. In this world, when we all have lots and lots of emails, it tends to instead pick up the phone. And you know, something that's also pretty obvious within here that the meetings that you would set up, a coffee meeting, for instance, was getting yourself to the place sitting down there, ordering the coffee, all of the pieces that took 90 minutes to do all that. And now we don't need to be on a zoom meeting for an hour, what was an hour might look like a 22 minute meeting. This is part of the idea of communicating respect and trust and having good intent is this idea that we may not need all this time that we put into it. What I keep going to is the idea of what's the opportunity here that we want to think about in terms of communicating. We may have a whole lot more opportunity to be more strategic with how we're communicating. This isn't about quantity. This is about quality.
We'll be back after this quick break. Mission Impact is sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector Consulting helps nonprofits and associations become more strategic and innovative for greater mission impact. Download free resources on strategic planning, program, portfolio review, design, thinking and more at gracesocialsector.com/resources. We're back on Mission Impact. On each episode, I play a game asking one random icebreaker question. I have a couple here. So what is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
I think everyone at least once in their lifetime should go to a place that's on their bucket list. To make that happen in whatever way that is, to be able to experience how other people are living, that just can't be beat. So an opportunity to try some other place. See what it's like.
So what are some places on your bucket list?
I am absolutely fascinated right now by Vietnam. And what had been my hope this year to get to Vietnam at the end of the year, and we're going to postpone our trip probably another year. So that's what I've been reading a lot about, culture there and opportunities to travel through the country. I can't wait.
So what are you excited about? what's what's up next for you kind of what's emerging in your work?
Thanks so much for asking. And the biggest change for me is that with a lot of our executive coaching work I do with associations and organizations other than nonprofit and organizational leaders is going very virtual. So I miss the in person connection, but we're doing a lot more zoom. So trying to continue to, to build on that and find ways to work with teams in the virtual space. Again, I don't think that's going to be short term. I think when we move through this and of course we will, I think the way I'll work with teams will look different. And I'm really excited thinking about that. I've had a group of women leaders that gather over a four month training program focused on their executive presence as association, nonprofit leaders. And we're going to take that program virtually later this year. So I'm pretty excited about that as well. That's great.
Awesome. And how can people find more about you and get in touch?
Link in with me if we haven't LinkedIn, I'd love to connect with you. That way I post things there and check out my website, which is www.commmatters.com. I look forward to connecting with folks. All right.
Well, thank you so much, Carol.
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking with you.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/show-notes. We want to hear from you. Take a minute to give us some feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Thanks and see you next time.
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