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New Book Published: The Messy Truth About Leading People

I am pleased to announce the release of my new book that I wrote with my business partner, Gavin Fenn-Smith. “The Messy Truth About Leading People: It Ain’t Easy”

Micah, the narrator, tells true stories from our experiences as coaches and leaders. The characters and escapades will feel familiar to you. Micah says out loud what usually only gets said in private. They pull back the curtain to tell the truth about how messy leading is in reality.

Although packed with helpful insights, this is not a how-to book. Because when it comes to leading people, there is no plug and play formula. You and the people around you are complex, infuriating, brilliant and flawed. Taking a brutal look in the mirror and learning what makes us tick, ain’t easy.

Be among the first people to grab a copy.

We hope you enjoy our latest collaboration. If you are so inspired, we invite you to leave a review. To learn more about the book and what we are doing, go to http://www.themessytruthbook.com

Stay home. Stay safe.

Can an Individualistic Culture Respond Effectively to a Collective Crisis?

In a classic business book, Riding the Waves of Culture, Fons Trompenaars describes the difference between individualist and collective orientations this way:

“Two people were discussing ways in which individuals could improve the quality of life.

  1. One said: It is obvious that if individuals have as much freedom as possible and the maximum opportunity to develop themselves, the quality of their lives will improve as a result.
  2. The other said: If individuals are continuously taking care of their fellow human beings, the quality of life will improve for everyone, even if it obstructs individual freedom and individual development.”

Rating countries around the world along the continuum between these two poles, it is not surprising that the US and Australia are among the most individualistic and South Korea and Taiwan are among the most collectivistic.

Enter COVID-19. The scientists tell us that the most effective way to control the spread is if we all minimize social contact. That means everyone must collectively distance for the greater good. We can’t be selfish or go it alone or not consider the consequences of our own behavior on the well-being of others.

Hardly the American way and we may soon be paying with our lives. Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan have kept the numbers of infections and deaths lower.

It begs the question: will Americans come together collectively to save lives or is it just not in our DNA? We worry about this.

Most of us are members of small teams at work. That microcosm offers a diagnostic view to our question. How many times has your team agreed to walk out of the room and all deliver the same message or take the same action? How many times did 100% of the members follow through as planned? When debating different points of view to solve a big problem, how easy was it to speak freely and arrive at the very best collaborative solution? How hard was it for you or other members to tuck away your own egos or desires for the good of the group?

I rest my case. Maybe we should look to Australia’s recent fire devastation to see how they pulled together despite their individualistic tendencies.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how to persuade Americans (and other individualistic nations) that this moment calls for us to go against our nature. What is the key to unlocking our shared responsibility to each other?

 

 

Leading in the Midst of Chaos and Uncertainty

We can use many hyperbolic words to describe the situation the world finds itself in with COVID-19. And they would all be accurate. With people working from home, families getting stir crazy, small businesses shut down, entire sectors hit so hard they may never come back and CEOs sorting out how to lead in the midst of this mess, I have some simple guidance to offer.

  1. Tell the truth. Only. Frequently. Be honest that things are bad and will get worse for the business. Be honest about what the company is doing to keep employees whole (or not). Don’t put on the rose-colored glasses at this moment. Direct people to the CDC for all health and virus updates. Use email blasts to share new information in brief, clear bullet points as frequently as possible. Provide a channel for staff to ask questions. And say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.
  2. It’s about the people. In ordinary times, leaders don’t pay enough attention to the human beings that get it done every day. In extraordinary times, leaders must primarily speak to their concern for the staff’s well-being. “I want you to observe an abundance of caution to protect yourself and your family.” “I’ve amped up our remote HR resources so you have easy access to raise any personal concerns.” “We are working aggressively to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep you whole.” If you have usually led with the numbers, now is the time to dramatically shift gears towards the human aspect.
  3. We are, more than ever, in this together. The outcome of this pandemic is dependent upon every single person observing CDC guidelines to safeguard the health of everyone. Emphasize company values related to collective efforts, teamwork, respect for others and compassion. Our lives, literally, depend upon it.
  4. Unleash creative thinking and solutions. We believe that trying times generate new and unusual thinking. We can imagine coming out on the other side of this crisis where work looks quite different…in a good way. Fewer meetings, more small teams deployed, more flexibility about office face time, better use of electronic communications. Give people permission to experiment wildly, not only about the core work itself, but also about how the work gets done. Take a lesson from the military and continuously shift strategies and game plans to adapt to the situation on the ground.

Few leaders or communities of people are prepared to handle this pandemic. I urge leaders to provide clear, truthful and compassionate messages at this time. That will go a very long way in calming people down.

Creating an Intentional Culture

Culture is one of the biggest challenges all organizations face. How to shape it. How to improve it. How to create a positive and productive one. And because culture is all about how human beings interact with each other, it is messy and unpredictable and often very distracting and draining.

I had the pleasure of working with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement some years ago and wrote this paper about their culture. I’d like to share their wisdom with you in hopes that you feel inspired to try some of their methods.

How To Build An Intentional Culture-3

 

Speaking Across Generations

(A bit of a departure from my usual topics but this is what has been on my mind lately. In workplaces, families, communities we need to open up better dialogues across the generations. The inspiration for this piece came from my frustration with a client who is trying to improve the conversation between generations. I hope it provides some food for thought.)

I was one of those ardent, asshole, well intentioned, foul mouthed hippies protesting the war in Vietnam, racial inequality and women’s rights. My brother and friends were being drafted to serve in a senseless conflict, my university had an embarrassingly low enrollment rate of minorities, abortion was illegal, the notion of women having serious careers was laughed at and sexual harassment was a daily battle. I marched in the war moratorium in DC, wore my ass out at various campus sit ins, swore at the university regents for not creating a women’s studies seminar, battled with my mother because I didn’t want to be a housewife, shared my hard-earned waitressing tips with my friends who needed to get to New York for clandestine abortions and sang protest songs with my friends of color.

I was certain that I was right and that anyone who didn’t agree with my peer group’s stand on social justice was wrong. Not evil. Not bad people. Just wrong. After all, they were from another era and only us 20 somethings had the true pulse of right and wrong. And it was my job to let them know how wrong they were all the time.

Sound familiar? I watch and listen to people in their 20’s and 30’s and hear the 2019 version of 1970. In 1970, my generation felt the threat of death to our male peers and the suffocating oppression of women and minorities. We couldn’t take it sitting down. In 2019, the youth feel the threat of climate change and the continued oppression of women and minorities (despite the enormous gains). With the multiplier effect of social media, they are using their voices to push for change.

But something feels very different to me. I certainly see myself in the ranting millennial (even if they see me as an irrelevant relic). Maybe it has to do with the opposition. Hippies had to contend with a 50’s cultural mentality that resisted social change and political leaders that made informed but bad choices. Today’s youth battle a divisive and hate filled culture that has enacted many social changes and political leaders that no longer work together on behalf of the American people. My generation did plenty of screaming and shouting but we also did a great deal of talking and learning. Today’s generation abbreviates their positions via Twitter so that every post is headline or follower worthy. Learning seems to take place more on line than IRL and I’m not sure I trust that.

It seems we’ve lost the art and practice of attentive dialogue along the way. I keep thinking that is why things feel so different and so bad.

The dean of my college was an older white professor with a gentle demeanor. I respected and adored him. He had the (unfortunate) job of overseeing the faculty and students during very crazy times. To pay for my room and board, I spent two years as a resident assistant. That meant that the dean and I had frequent contact. It was not unusual for me to burst into his office to complain about some patriarchal decision. Nor was it uncommon for him to invite me to his office to debate some action I took.

He summoned me for a private conversation just before parent orientation. I was responsible for conducting those meetings.

Dean: Nicki, we need to discuss how to talk to these parents.

Me: What’s on your mind? I thought we agreed on the talking points.

Dean: The content isn’t at issue. It’s your behavior. You simply can’t swear during these sessions.

Me: What the hell do you mean? This is how I talk. Are you asking me not to be myself? Are you telling me that I should lie to these parents and give them the false impression that their children are never going to curse while they are in college? What the f***, Dean?

Dean: In your role, you are an ambassador for the college. You are the difference between a family being excited or horrified that they are leaving their child with us. You are the difference between potential financial supporters or detractors. You have responsibility to the institution.

Me: (lots of swearing and protesting that the Dean wanted to put me in a box)

Dean: (lots of patient listening, not interrupting me, sitting calmly)

Dean: Nicki, I respect your position and feel there is a time and place for your freest self. These parent orientation sessions are not that time or place. I am asking you to do me a favor and help the college. I’m asking you to think about something bigger than your personal freedom at this moment. Can you do that?

Me: I understand your point. I really do. I’m just trying to be real. But, yes, I can clean it up for these meetings.

Dean: I appreciate that.

Me: But I can still be myself at our assembly meetings, right?

Dean: Of course, you can. Thanks.

Long after I left college, I missed this man. I missed his good heart, his grace under constant fire, his ability to hear the message inside a rant. I was a good hearted, well intentioned rebel who didn’t always earn the respect I was granted by this man. I wonder if this type of dialogue is what is missing today.

Are millennials interested in or seeking to understand the person before them? Do they want to have a conversation or do they just want to persuade others of how right they are? Are they aware that they cut off dialogue routinely? How much listening, hearing, learning are they engaged in?

And do we former hippies (baby boomers) listen as respectfully as my dean did? Do we hear the core message? Are we telling our stories to create a connection between the generations? These were the actions of my elders that a) made me less of an asshole, b) taught me some incredible personal histories, c) contextualized previous generation’s struggles and d) created long term relationships.

So, I have a message for both generations. To the millennials: your elders are not the enemy or horribly out of touch. We may not use all the appropriate woke language, but many of us made it possible for you to use your voices today. Rather than shouting us down, find out more about us. To the baby boomers: don’t get so damned defensive. We were them at one time and we know how to build bridges to all sorts of groups. Find out where their passion is coming from. And to both generations: Lighten up! Don’t be so dismissive. We’re on the same team and we need everyone to make the world right. Both generations have remarkable gifts that are needed at this depressing and scary time. Neither one has the corner on the market of the best way or the best words or the best type of leader.

We are in this together. Let’s act like it.

Meritocracy: The Lie

I’ve never been comfortable with this whole meritocracy in the workplace thing. Not when I was a corporate cog, not when I was in charge of HR, not when I consult with organizations, not when I read about and observe the world past and present. I have finally put my finger on why I can’t stand the whole concept. It’s a lie.

In theory, people advance in companies (or society) because they score well on specific business metrics. Targets that are exceeded can earn you a promotion or a raise. Not meeting your goals can cause your career to stall or get you fired. As I said, that’s the theory. In reality, elaborate systems are put in place to measure all sorts of things and individual performance is plugged into the formula and, voila, it doesn’t matter in the end. That person’s fate will have little to do with how they scored. That’s the dirty secret that happens in performance management review sessions. But companies feel virtuous in public that they are a meritocracy.

I’ll give you two true stories from my HR days.

Chris was a talented and smart VP who was handed a failing part of the business. The executive thinking was: it’s so far in the red, we’ll give this pile of crap to someone we aren’t sure of in the first place, if they fail we’ll close that business down and Chris will be gone. Within 18 months the business was in the black and growing. Staff from around the building were putting in transfers in hopes of working for Chris. By every measure, Chris had not only exceeded all expectations but surprised the executives.

In a true meritocracy, Chris would have been promoted or given a huge bonus. Instead, Chris was let go in the midst of a business downturn. Hmmm, wouldn’t you want people who had a track record of pulling the business out of the jaws of defeat? No matter how hard I advocated to keep Chris, nothing worked.

Oh, did I mention that Chris is a woman? Oh, and she’s African American. Might that have mattered? You betcha. What happened to all the stellar metrics?

Pat was revered around the company as the go-to person in the finance department. As the number two person to the CFO, Pat was more accessible and helpful to everyone, including the CEO. During succession planning discussions, Pat was “ready now” to replace the CFO when the opportunity came around. All the boxes had been checked, all the metrics were perfect. When the CFO slot opened up, Pat was not selected. Instead, someone who was politically tight with the CEO with much less relevant experience was put into the role. Pat immediately began job hunting and quickly landed the number one position at a different company. What happened to meritocracy in this case?

Oh, I forgot to mention that Pat is a gay man. The new CFO resembles the CEO; a white straight man. Work hard and you will be rewarded? I think not.

Even in cases where sexual orientation, gender or race were not factors, I heard a million excuses why someone who had proven their merit did not ascend into the role they were being groomed for. Too quiet. Not aggressive enough. I just don’t get them. I like this other person better. Tenure needs to be rewarded. They’ll leave if we don’t promote them. Ostensibly, a meritocracy with clear measures will motivate people to do their best and earn new roles. In reality, people knock themselves out to excel and, in the end, the reasons why someone succeeds or not are as arbitrary as ever.

We would be better off not pretending. Companies should declare the truth: We do need to measure performance in lots of ways and there are other factors that go into advancement. This is not an objective exercise. Subjectivity still reigns and it is often unfair. Just like real life.

Celebrating the Nonprofit Difference

(I share authorship with Gavin Fenn-Smith on this one. A shout out to all the wonderful nonprofit leaders.)

For the past decade, there has been a push to get nonprofit organizations to look and operate more like for-profit corporations.  The reasoning goes something like this.  Nonprofits are underperforming due to notoriously lax management practices, undisciplined decision making, overly emotional responses to challenges, idiosyncratic organizational structures, inadequate operational oversight…and the list goes on.  You get the point.  That is not to say that nonprofits are summarily trashed on all counts.  But as the trend towards greater accountability and measurable outcomes has risen, so too has the insistence that leaders demonstrate more effective management (sic. corporate) capabilities.

At the same time, many talented for-profit leaders who are looking for more meaningful work have flocked to nonprofits to offer their more traditional styles and skills into these organizations.  They, and the nonprofits that hire them, have high hopes that their discipline and experience will bring order to the chaos.  And in some cases, that is exactly what happens.  But the research suggests that at least half the time that dream is never realized.  Corporate types fail to convert a critical mass and leave everyone frustrated and mistrustful…most of all themselves.

This raises an obvious question.  Why do for-profit managers fail so frequently when they enter the nonprofit environment?  But we think the more intriguing question is why do these organizations resist being molded into a corporate image?

We believe the underlying premise is flawed.  The view of nonprofits as deficient is wrong.  We believe that nonprofits are fundamentally different than for-profits and those distinctions need to be understood and celebrated.  To superimpose corporate models and practices onto nonprofits simply does not fit.

Understanding the differences

 Let’s flip the usual equation of forcing corporate disciplines onto nonprofits and imagine instead a for-profit organization shaped to comply with nonprofit operating norms.  To make this a valid comparison, think of organizations with more than 50 people but less than 500.  (In the for-profit world, this includes companies that have moved past the initial startup phase but are smaller than those listed on the Fortune 1000.  For nonprofits, this includes a vast number of organizations.)

Walk into an all-staff meeting and the culture is on full display.  The leaders are not seated in a row looking out at the group but interspersed throughout.  Staff members design and run a good portion of the meeting.  There is an expectation of discussion and challenge on many of the agenda items.  For topics that require decision-making there is an invitation for lively input and a tendency towards consensus.  There are moments to share anecdotes that reinforce the mission or highlight a new idea or learning.  Nearly everyone has protected this time in their schedules so they can be engaged in the conversation.  People want to be with each other, get the scoop, acknowledge achievements and influence the thinking and decision-making.

On any given day, the Executive Director may be called upon to meet with donors, approve grant proposals, attend community meetings with key collaborators, facilitate the staff to reach consensus on a major initiative, solve problems with a field office manager and attend a policy session with the mayor.  These responsibilities are rarely delegated because this is the job description and there are a limited number of functional managers to hand off these duties.  The core skills the ED must demonstrate are passion for the mission, acute and agile interpersonal and communication skills, consensus and coalition building, persuasion and flexibility.

Organization charts are simple and used primarily to identify roles and supervisory responsibilities.  But if you observe daily work-in-action you see people at all levels doing whatever is necessary to get the work done.  There are few hard lines drawn between staff roles and activities.  At the macro level, everyone shares responsibility for achieving the mission so the norm is to pitch in if you are needed.

Some processes and systems are well developed especially if there are government compliance requirements.  But internal work processes are created only when necessary and are generally followed.  There is more attention given to the exceptions rather than the rules when it comes to abiding by routine protocols.  The filter for this is “what is best for this particular client or project”.

The physical office space is adequate and designed to be comfortable for client visitors more so than for the staff.  There are few corner offices, the conference rooms are used for meetings with external partners, visitors frequent the kitchen and there are couches everywhere.

Imagine a for-profit enterprise where the CEO bounces from one discipline to another without functional specialists to delegate the work to.  Imagine a group of employees who wouldn’t dream of missing a staff meeting because of the opportunity to meaningfully engage with colleagues.  Imagine large groups of people coming together to hash out decisions until they arrive at a consensus.  Imagine sharing heartfelt stories about the positive impact on the people you serve.  Imagine fluid and flexible roles with limited concerns about stepping on each other’s toes or stealing the spotlight.  Imagine the energetic focus being on achieving the mission rather than on profits or personal gain.  Imagine an ethos where doing the right thing is more important than following the rules.  Imagine an office space that is designed for outsiders rather than for a hierarchy of leaders and staff.

The research is quite clear.  Many for-profit managers who transition to a nonprofit encounter these norms and want to hit their heads against the wall…even when they have been forewarned.  This environment is not for everyone.  But that doesn’t mean that nonprofits should conform to a set of standards that are counter to their DNA.

 How did we get here?

Why aren’t nonprofit practices viewed as the role model and adopted by for-profits?  Why aren’t these differences seen more positively?  Why is there so much emphasis on nonprofits being run more like businesses?

This whole thrust came about as nonprofits were asked to measure and demonstrate the results of their work.  This unearthed a deficit in many organizations.  They didn’t know how to track, measure and analyze their activities so they needed to learn a whole new set of skills.  As it happens, those skills are deeply instilled in many corporate settings.  Looking more closely, nonprofit leaders appeared to be lacking a host of other accepted management practices.  Decision-making seemed cumbersome and overly consensus-based, roles were unclear and overlapping, systems and processes were loose and idiosyncratic.  In short, nonprofits were seen as lacking basic management practices and many nonprofit leaders were shipped off to classes or received mentoring to develop more “businesslike” disciplines.

That’s all fine and good.  We agree that many of these leaders need to manage their organizations more proficiently and some of the missing pieces are these very skill sets.  But we believe this movement has been overly zealous and may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  There has been precious little conversation about the more unique requirements for successfully leading a nonprofit.

By imposing traditional (albeit effective) corporate structures and management norms on nonprofits, well-intentioned interventions run the risk of missing the mark. Applying standard practices without an appreciation for the inherent complexity of leading these organizations is short sighted and incomplete.

A third way

Let’s reframe the dialogue.  Rather than retrofitting nonprofits to look and operate more like for-profits, let’s appreciate the distinctive leadership requirements.  Once that is understood then it is clear which corporate management habits fit, and which do not.

Understanding the context of a nonprofit is essential.  The mission is to create social change through services, research or advocacy.  The nature of the work is more “on the front lines”, connected to many constituents, focused on change, embedded in a network of interested parties and emotionally charged.  The leadership responsibilities and challenges unfold within this complex web of relationships, politics, partnerships and ever-changing landscape.  These leaders spend more time out of the office engaging others in the cause than they do inside managing the staff and operations.  For them, the organization is the springboard for impact, not the end result.

In this environment, these leaders must exhibit exceptional emotional intelligence, finely tuned relationship skills, a propensity towards collaboration and consensus building, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, an understanding of how all the disparate parts interconnect, an ability to cross multiple boundaries and the flexibility to shape-shift continuously to take care of whatever is needed.  Nonprofit leaders are in the business of change and the instincts and capabilities they bring to their causes are of a different nature.

To be clear, you won’t find most of these competencies and skills listed on a traditional leadership model or on a professional development course curriculum.  This constellation of requirements is unique to the nonprofit reality and critical to their success.  Let’s feature these.  Let’s provide learning experiences to enhance or teach these.  Let’s encourage for-profit folks to take a lesson or two, exporting some fresh ideas into the corporate arena.

Similarly, the internal structures, roles and operations of nonprofits create a different type of culture that also factor into their success.  Here again there is more fluidity, less formality and more attunement to emotions and relationships.  There is greater emphasis on robust discussions, shared decision-making, collaboration and nurturing an esprit de corps.  Although you might witness some of these behaviors in for-profit settings it would be more anecdotal rather than the predominant culture.

We agree that nonprofits would operate more smoothly if the leaders were proficient in standard management practices.  Disciplined standardization of systems and processes, improved monitoring of progress and results and sharpened clarity around roles and responsibilities would have a positive impact on productivity.  That said, it would still play out differently than you see in a typical for-profit organization because of the cultural differences.

Rather than viewing these nonprofit leadership and management behaviors as problematic we see these as strengths.  In fact, many for-profits have spent thousands of dollars on fancy programs trying to create some of these very habits in their staffs with mixed and limited results.  So maybe there is a great deal to value here.

If you blend these unique and admirable skills, behaviors and norms with some well-honed management practices then you have a dynamic and winning combination.  More routine operations can free staff up to focus more intently on the work and bring simplicity into the leader’s day.

Where do we go from here?

Over the coming decade, we will need tens of thousands of new and well prepared nonprofit executives.  The operative word being prepared.  This suggests an imperative for a vigorous focus on talent development in terms of financial backing and creating the most effective learning experiences.

Capital aggregation holds some promise for a more sustainable and strategic funding approach.  A group of funders pool their resources to target a larger group of grantees over a longer period.  Progress is monitored and the expectation is that outcomes and impact will improve without the constant worry about money.  It is too soon to know if this is working but we suspect it will.  Why not target these investments on talent development?

Partnerships and coalitions need to be forged to build the nonprofit talent pipeline much like these funding associations.  We suggest investing in leadership aggregation where one or more significant donors target their grants on a group of leaders within a specific sector or region or community.  The concentrated resources over several years would develop a cadre of prepared leaders to fill the gaps.  If you pull together both financial and talent assets this could go a long way in closing the widening nonprofit leadership gap.

If the funding and commitment were resolved that still leaves the challenge of creating more effective learning experiences that honors the unique circumstances of nonprofits.  New programs and models need to emerge that more accurately reflect the competencies of a successful nonprofit leader.  This needs to be significantly more effective than the ordinary fare that is currently available.  Methods and approaches need to match what is known about high impact adult learning experiences.  They must be experiential, grounded in the participant’s reality, immediately applicable, few classroom style lectures and supplemented by personal reflection and peer support and guided by knowledgeable experts.

We celebrate the strengths of nonprofits and their leaders.  We don’t believe they need to change their spots and become something they are not.  But we do believe they need more appropriate and effective development experiences to improve their own impact and to build the talent of those who are on the rise.  The combination of appreciating the hybrid that they are, more sustainable funding and a new set of learning experiences will go a long way to ensure the future of these organizations.

 

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