Despite the popularity of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why,” leadership groups often have trouble staying at that level. Think of a time when your board or leadership team was meeting and someone brought up a new idea for a new program. It’s likely that without a lot of discussion about why you should or should not do the program, the discussion jumped into how you would do the program.
Is this new initiative strategically important?
I was working with an organization and another organization had come to them with an idea for a partnership. The senior leadership charged with managing the strategic direction of the organization assembled to consider the proposal. Rather than staying in the ‘why’ – why should we enter into this partnership? Is it in alignment with our mission? Does it support the goals articulated in our strategic plan? Will it help us reach a key audience? Will it build our brand and reputation? Does it capitalize on our core competencies? Will it help us strengthen key capacities? Will we be filling an important gap in the market? Instead they skipped right over those questions and had a long discussion about how the partnership could work. Who would be involved? When would be good timing to get started? So the key question of whether the partnership was important for the organization was missed.
Why are we working on this project?
Too often when teams start working together on a project they make the same mistake. Without talking about why they are assembled, what is important about the project, what they each bring to the project, they jump to project management. They start outlining and assigning tasks. This is why I find the Drexel-Sibbet model of team development particularly useful. It reminds the group to start with why. Its second stage considers who is in the group and takes some time to get to know each other. Only after why and who has been answered is the group truly ready to shift into what and how.
So the next time you are starting something new – considering a new idea for a new program or initiative or starting a new project, spend some time discussing the why. Why is this important for us? And if there is not enough ‘there, there’ when you answer why, remember you can also choose not to pursue the new idea!
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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.
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Many of the leaders I work with say they want more work-life balance and to integrate greater self-care into their routine. Yet they struggle to make it happen. They preach it for their staff. Yet they laugh when it comes to making it a reality for themselves.
It’s way more than mani-pedis
The dominant culture in the US does not actually value self-care. While the phrase has gotten a lot of attention in the media recently, too often it is seen as an indulgence and somewhat frivolous. The protestant work ethic measures your worth in terms of your productivity. White culture – our dominant culture – values urgency and deadlines, perfectionism and individuality. None of these things are really the friend of self-care. The focus on the individual can favor “heros” who try to do it all themselves without help from others.
It's a marathon
So I advocate for no martyrs to the cause. Yes your ‘to do’ list is probably too long yet managing your work as if it is one sprint after another will most likely only lead to burnout. Trying to see change in the world is often challenging and sometimes demoralizing work. We need you for the long haul! Remember the long game, build in self-care basics for yourself and let go of the guilt about it.
As Audre Lord said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Sleep on it
As I am learning from Matt Walker, author of Why We Sleep, sleep is the foundation of wellness. Not an “optional life style luxury” that we too often consider it. Per his and others research, sleep is not something that you can choose not to do today and catch up on later. Sleep deprivation (even a regular one hour less than optimal) has severe health impacts. Sleep is more like breathing – you wouldn’t say you’ll breathe a lot on Saturday to catch up! So give yourself a non-negotiable opportunity for eight hours each night
Basic Building Blocks
Exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness and connecting with the important people in your life are all core pieces to wellness. I appreciate this list created by University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work for encompassing holistic look at all the elements of self care. Generally self care is something that needs routines – it is about frequency and consistency rather than intensity. Very similar to how healthy organizational cultures are built.
Building it into your organizational culture
This resource developed by the National Center on Family Homelessness covers the topic from both an individual point of view as well as taking it to the organizational level. The strategies could be implemented by people working in a variety of settings, pursuing different missions.
Do as I do and I say
As a leader, if you are not modeling these behaviors, your staff are not likely to feel comfortable incorporating good self-care into their routines. This is not an instance when ‘do as I say, not as I do’ (and is there ever?) works very well. For yourself, for your mission and for those you work with, invest in consistent self-care. Remember you don't need to do it all right all the time. Take the assessment above and identify a few small steps to start taking better care of yourself. Good luck!
PS -- I write this to have handy as a daily reminder to myself!
Challenge: Nine new executive directors came together to create a learning community for conservation movement leaders. The group aimed to learn about topics related to nonprofit management, governance, institutional advancement, and healthy partnerships. While the group could pursue organizing the learning program by themselves, they decided they would be better supported by a facilitator who would create the content and lead them, working collaboratively with the group to create a program that met the group’s needs.
Approach: After interviewing each of the participants about their hopes for the program as well as the challenges they were facing with their organization, I worked with a planning committee to plan the monthly learning sessions. Each participant completed a self-assessment of their executive director competencies and drafted a professional learning plan to define their learning goals for the program.
During each monthly session we used half the session to dive into a topic and the second half for the group to participate in peer coaching circles. Peer coaching circles can take a number of different forms. To keep it simple, I set two basic ground rules for the time. Each person would present their challenge briefly and then the rest of the group would ask questions for a set amount of time. This process helped each person think aloud about their challenge and the questions from the group helped them consider aspects that they might have missed. This also provided the ‘questioners’ practice with being in a coaching stance, rather than jumping in with a solution. This was a useful skill for them to develop as they supervise staff. In between meetings, pairs met as accountability partners.
Monthly topics included organizational culture, staff management, board development, strategic planning, mapping organizational impact, and creating a organizational dashboard. We culminated the program with a retreat that combined time with accountability partners, focus on a couple content areas as well as topics identified through an open space process.
Results: Participants reported that they:
Felt less alone. “It’s lonely at the top.” This sentiment was expressed early on as the peer-learning network was forming. Being able to compare notes, share wins and challenges and get feedback from peers was invaluable. It helped those in the network feel less lonely as they developed a group of trusted colleagues to whom they could reach out in times of doubt and challenge.
Thought bigger. Several participants came into the program feeling confident about their abilities in running programs. They were unsure, however, about shifting to a more strategic level of organizational leadership. Through feedback from participants and others, they were able to shift their perspective and see how they could take their program management skills and use them as the foundation for their strategic work as executive directors.
Built accountability. For new executive directors, this may be the first time they’ve worked without a direct supervisor. To help each participant achieve their goals, they paired up with an accountability partner and regularly met to discuss their progress. This practice is grounded in research that shows that if you write down your goals you are more likely to achieve them. If you share them with another person and then check in with that person on how you are doing on your goals, you are even more likely to follow through. These pairings not only helped participants advance their work, it strengthened their connections within the network.
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Too many organizations think that succession planning means identifying and grooming who will take over when a staff leader moves on. This approach may appropriate in some cases, yet may put the organizational “eggs” in just one basket. At the same time, two thirds of new hires to replace exiting leaders come from outside the organization. This has remained consistent across 15 years of data and multiple studies.*
What am I doing today to replace myself?
How can you build your bench strength in your organization? How are you developing leadership through out the organization? Andy Robinson, a nonprofit consultant, urges leaders to ask themselves the following questions: “What am I doing today to replace myself?” and “How do I empower others to do the work rather than just do it myself?”
A good place to start with sharing leadership is to define the leadership competencies that are needed for the roles on your leadership team. Once you have defined these competencies, you can then assess who else on your staff has the competencies or could develop them.
Aligning with strengths
Are you aligning staff with their strengths? Are there new projects that could provide a staff member an opportunity to stretch and use their innate strengths? Have you talked to staff and asked about their aspirations? Unfortunately once someone is in a role, it is too easy to assume that that is the limit of his or her ambition and capacity.
How could you do some cross training? This can be challenging at nonprofit organizations that tend to have very lean staffing structures. Ask your staff to document their work first then spend a day or half a day having the person’s emergency back up shadow and get an orientation to their role. One of your most important tasks as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that you can take time off without anxiety.
A significant part of leading well is leaving well. What will be your legacy?
*Nonprofit Quarterly webinar: Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability: An Updated Approach that Changes the Landscape, March, 2017
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.