In this podcast episode, Carol Hamilton and Mary Hiland discuss the challenges and strategies of nonprofit executive directors working with their boards. They explore the importance of leaving a legacy and sharing knowledge, and how it inspired Carol to start her podcast, Mission Impact. Mary's book, "Love Your Board," is also discussed, focusing on the primary sources of trouble for executive directors when working with their boards. The conversation delves into the dimensions of capacity, connection, and culture within a board. They highlight the significance of building trust in board relationships and challenging assumptions in board recruitment. Additionally, they emphasize the need for emotional connection and individual check-ins with board members.
(00:08:52) Dimensions of Board Challenges
(00:15:11) Building Trust in Board Relationships
(00:21:39) Challenging Assumptions in Board Recruitment
(00:27:55) Board Member Engagement
Mary Hiland Ph.D. is a nonprofit governance expert and leadership development consultant dedicated to helping nonprofit leaders lead effectively. Mary has over forty years’ experience in the nonprofit sector – both as an executive and as a board member. She has been consulting and coaching nonprofit leaders for 20 years. Mary is a speaker, published author, researcher, and a business professor at her local community college. She is author of the #1 international best-seller: Love Your Board! The Executive Directors’ Guide to Discovering the Sources of Nonprofit Board Troubles and What to Do About Them (2021) And Mary is a contributing author to four other nonprofit leadership books. Mary is the founder and host of the podcast: Inspired Nonprofit Leadership
Hiland Consulting: https://www.hilandconsulting.org/
Inspired Nonprofit Leadership: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/inspired-nonprofit-leadership/id1446218521
Talk with Mary: talkwithmary.com
Alliance for Nonprofit Management: https://allianceonlinecommunity.org/
Welcome, Mary. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Thank you very much, Carol. I'm delighted to be here.
what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you, and what would you describe as your why? I know you came onto the podcast a little while ago. Maybe it was I don't even know, maybe even a year or two ago now. So I'm guessing that that's why it keeps evolving. I'm curious for you, what is it now as you're thinking about your career that really keeps you motivated to stay engaged?
It's a really good question. For now, I'm glad you asked me what's changed, because of course, we get into nonprofit work because we want to make a difference. And I started in the service profession, but then, now as a consultant, my reason is about helping nonprofit executive directors and other nonprofit leaders be effective and not burn out. But I would say more recently, as I'm getting older and older, as we all are, I've had more of the thought of leaving a legacy. I've been consulting now for 20 years, and I've just learned so much that I think I look at my work with the idea of how can I share what I've learned over all these years? Because I don't want to disappear and not have shared as much as I possibly can about what works, what you can do. So you're not reinventing the wheel, especially for new executive leaders. I think that I care about making a difference in that way.
It's so interesting that you say that, because in some ways, thinking about people's legacy was part of what inspired me to do this podcast. Because I was at a nonprofit consulting, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference, and I went to a panel where there were a number of people who know at that stage in their career where they were thinking about what's next after consulting, but thinking about that legacy. And I was in the process of moving into consulting. And so I was talking to lots of folks who were ahead of me, already established. So I was doing those one on one conversations, and I thought, why don't I start recording them and sharing them so that people beyond just me get the benefit of all of that wisdom? And as the podcast has progressed, I've branched out much beyond folks just towards the end of their career. But being able to capture and share the insights that we all gain by working with multiple organizations versus being inside just one or one movement or one field of work, I think is really valuable.
Yeah, that's a really good insight. The idea that you're exposed to more, you have new ways of thinking about things. Yes, I think that's definitely something. And, I have a podcast too, so that started off as not I don't think I was thinking so much about legacy, but I was thinking about sharing tips and strategies and bringing information. And so it's a great tool and it's lots of fun. And I've gotten to connect with lots of people like you, right?
I mean, it is so much fun to hear about different people's experiences and all the things that we have a chance to observe as we work with different organizations. And I think one of the things that's valuable from that is also being able to help organizations realize that oftentimes what they're experiencing is something that's pretty common, whether it's because of their stage of development as an organization. Where they are in the life cycle of organizations or the typical things that come up between executive directors and boards and being able to see those commonalities and be able to share with the group. What you're experiencing is totally normal. There's nothing particularly wrong with you. It just tends to happen when you're going through an XYZ transition or whatever it might be. And a couple of years ago, you wrote Love Your Board the Executive Director's Guide to Discovering the Sources of Nonprofit Board Troubles and What to Do About Them. And so I'm curious, from your point of view, what are some of the primary sources of trouble for executive directors when they're working with their boards?
Actually, the book talks about the three categories that all these troubles fall in. And I had been doing research and lots of experience, and it finally dawned on me that if you could pay attention to these three things, that you could figure out how to make a difference with whatever the challenges are you're having with your board. And the three things are capacity, connection and culture. And capacity is where my experiences, most executives start. I used to get these calls and I still do actually just come teach my board what their job is. They don't get their roles and responsibilities. This is something that all of us who are consulting in the sector hear. And even when I was an executive, I heard this all the time. So this is very common. This is, I think, the low hanging fruit. This is where people go first, thinking that there's something that people don't understand or they don't know. And in some cases that can be true. Capacity, all of these things have two dimensions. They have a process dimension and a people dimension. So maybe you don't have the right people on the board, or maybe the board's processes are just not good enough, or you don't have them at all. That can be a capacity issue. But then if that's not really making the difference for you, trying to intervene at that level, the next level is the connection level. And you don't have to start with capacity, but you need to think about connection. And connection is all about relationships. And we all know whenever you have a group coming together to do work in an organization together, whether it's a board or a work group, you have issues sometimes around the relationships. Are you an effective team coming together as a board, or are there issues there? Maybe it's not that you have conflict, but maybe you just don't have any connection. You're just not gelling as a group. You come together maybe every other month for a meeting, you take care of business and then you go home. That's not really a connection. So we know that effective boards are effective teams and there's a lot of implications about that in terms of the connection dimension of your board. And of course, then there's the culture dimension and this one is the hardest to change and shift, but it's really important to be aware of it. And I think a lot of people, when they have challenges with their board, they don't even go to the idea of, is this a cultural issue? Is this rooted in something we believe? Is it rooted in an assumption we're making as a group? Or are individual assumptions being proposed in such a way that they're dominating the conversation we're having? So those are the three things, and I use the metaphor of a tree with the capacity being the leaves and all of the different people and things and processes, and the connections being the branches and the trunk, and of course, the roots then being the culture of the board. So there are a lot of situations and examples, but I just found that there isn't a challenge that I hear that doesn't fit into one of those categories.
Yeah, and I love the visual of the tree and yeah, I've definitely been called in to organizations to try to deal with some of those things at the leafy level. Although there are some organizational theorists that say that oftentimes when something isn't going within a group, people will blame personalities will blame the individuals versus we're not clear about our goals, we're not clear about our roles. And so ensuring that the board understands what their role is, is certainly important, but not sufficient, as you're saying.
Right. Can you give me some? I mean, it can be early on, if you have a brand new board member and they just never got a good orientation. That's a real flaw in the sector, I think, is we don't have good board orientations, so we run into more problems right out the gate with that.
Right. So those orientations where it's an orientation not just to the organization, which I think people over index on, but it's also an orientation on what is the role, what are you stepping into, how do you need to be as a member of the board? And that can be a really preventative measure, so that instead of having to solve problems later, you're really making sure that people understand that. And it's probably not just a one time thing, right? It's continuing to remind people of the role of the board. What are some examples of those connections? What are some ways that executive directors can really help foster and cultivate those relationships between them and the board and then between the board members?
I think in the first case between them and the board, of course, this is really critical. And I think that you need to be having one on one conversations with each board member. You need to meet with each board member. Not just at the beginning when you're bringing them onto the board, but at least, and I think this is a minimum at least once a year, you and your board chair should be meeting with every board member, evaluating how it's going. What are you getting out of this, what you need?
There's so many things that you need to be asking and engaging people in to keep them engaged as a board member. So, I mean, your relationship with them is really critical in that regard. So meeting with the board chair can help that sort of evaluative experience. But the other thing then is I think you, as the executive on your own, should be meeting with each board member in person, one on one, maybe six months after you and the board chair have met for the same reason, to check in, to get to know them. And I would be on the phone with your board members every month. This is a relationship, and I think that executives, a couple of things, they don't know how much they can influence what the board is and what it becomes, and that it's okay to do it. And they also, I think, don't invest the time because they're busy. I mean, overwhelmingly busy. So if it's going okay, taking things for granted, those relationships can be a big risk. But I think people hold back. They aren't as intentional about building relationships with each and every board member as they could be. And there is a lot you can do as an executive to do that. What do you know personally about each board member?
What do they know about you? One thing I mentioned to executives is if this was the board that hired you, everybody on this board would know your resume, would know your background, would know about you. Right. Because they interviewed you, they read about you, they checked you out. As soon as that board starts to evolve and new board members come on, do they know anything about you the same way? Maybe a little bit. I don't think executives put their resumes in the board manuals. I don't think they bother to update because they don't think about it. And those are the kinds of things that are the meat of our relationships, getting to know each other anyway. I can go on and on and on about that, as you can see.
Yeah. I think there isn't enough attention paid even at the beginning of building that relationship. But it is too easy to think, especially if things seem to be going, to let it go, let it be on the back burner, but continuing to be in touch. I think in terms of employees, oftentimes folks are now talking about,, don't just do an exit interview, which is also a really useful thing to do with board members, but do a stay interview. you're having those conversations periodically all the way through the experience, so that you continue to get to know the person, continue to understand better how they want to contribute to the organization, help them understand your perspective and your background, all of those things. I think it is too easy with the crush of the to do list to let that slide. But then what ends up happening is that then there are problems that pop up, and you're having to solve a problem versus getting ahead of it and building that trust, which is ultimately what is needed.
And that takes a lot of work. And I think that even if there's no problems, you're not getting the best you can get. You're not getting the best performance. People are doing enough, maybe, to get by, but they're not as invested as they would be if the relationships were really close and important to them. You're going to spend time on what you value the most. And I think that executives, they need to put the board up there at a higher level in terms of what they value in the organization and not have it just be a must do or I've got to have this. You're going to get the benefit of it if you invest the time in it. I really believe that, and I see it. I see the difference for executives that have that.
Yeah. And you talk about meeting with people one on one. Obviously, that's been challenging. Or if you're serving a national organization where your board is, or an international organization where they're distributed by geography, oftentimes you can get the work done by doing it online via Zoom. But I think I was just recently working with a group, and their first meeting in person as a board after three years, and some of them had come onto the board and not met each other in person until this month. And what's missing, I think, for a volunteer is that part of the benefit of being part of a group like that is not only the discussions that happen in the formal meeting, but all those things that can happen in those informal times. Going out to dinner with your board members, having the coffee break that you don't get when it's all on zoom. And I mean, I'm a great proponent of working online because it can be very effective and efficient, and I think you need to make sure that you're integrating that social aspect as Much as you can.
Yes. You mentioned trust. And trust building is really a skill. It's something that years ago I took for granted until I did my doctoral research and I was interviewing board chairs and their executive directors and I was discovering what are the behaviors that people do to build trust in that relationship. And getting personal not inappropriately, but getting personal is really important to building trust in organizations. It's not that you've just got to keep everything professional and not talk about yourself or your interests or inquire about other people. Part of being intentional about building effective relationships is about being intentional about making time to get to know each other on a personal level. And that's a really critical thing to do to build trust. If you don't get into a relationship that involves some of that personal sharing and knowledge about each other and doing things based on that knowledge, you're not going to have as strong a trust as you could. It just isn't going to happen. And it makes a huge difference when it does.
Yeah, you're only getting part of that person, the one that's showing up with the virtual suit or whatever it might be.
That's a good way to put it. Yeah. That you're only getting part of them.
What are some of the things that those kinds of hidden things or you talked about beliefs or that really impact the culture of a board that executive directors can be more intentional about?
The ones I see most often have to do with, so there's the big one. One of the big ones which I know you're doing work around is the DEI issues, is what are the assumptions we make about each other based on the color of our skin, our backgrounds and those kinds of things. But beyond that, some that people may not think about as readily are assumptions about recruiting. I have people say we can't find the people we need and want and if they're trying to be diverse,, we just can't find people. These are assumptions.
And so when I've worked with people in the past and what I teach in my course about board recruitment success, how to get it is the very first thing you need to tackle is mindset and what you need to do. And I'm not sure everybody who takes the course or it's an online course actually does this work because it's a little woo woo and it really is not necessarily comfortable. But I'm just going to say that you have to do this and it isn't just about recruiting, it's about other things. And that is you've got to ask yourselves, what do I believe about this? What comes up for me when I think about recruiting new board members? What's coming up? How am I feeling? Am I comfortable? I mean, fundraising is a big one. I think we all know people aren't comfortable with that. But recruiting, it can be a little more subtle, where people say,, we've tried everybody, we just don't know anybody.
And this is one of the assumptions that really gets in the way, is that board members think they have to know people to recruit them, and that's not true. And so when you can just brainstorm and say, what are we all thinking? Put it up on an easel sheet on a board and then test it, look at it and say, is this true? Maybe it was true before, but is it true now? Is it always true? Where's the evidence? It's true. Take the time to go through and look at what you're thinking and see whether you could suspend it, just suspend it for a little while and say, what if it wasn't true? What would the other side of this statement be? What would the affirmation, if you will, say every day? And I tell them, you need to do this every day. Today I'm going to find the board members we need and want, or There are lots of people out there that would love to serve on our board, or we're going to find the person in this special community that's important to us because we want their perspective to change. The way you're thinking and the way you're talking about it, to yourselves, to each other, it makes a difference. I see it. It does. So I just have to take my word for it. I guess some people do.
Yeah. One of the things you said was people think that they have to know the person to be able to recruit them. Can you say a little bit more about that? And I think the flip side of that is that if they're relying completely on their own networks, it can become a very insular group. So I'm curious about absolutely the assertion that you can recruit people that aren't necessarily in your network yet.
You can. So the question to ask is, who would know? Who are the types of people or a profession, maybe that's related to your mission, an association, maybe even churches, who would know someone who cares about our mission? Where would we find people who care about our mission and be willing to go into those groups, call people, identify people, whether maybe there's some people who teach classes at a university that might know people who are related to the field of service you're in. It's about being willing to do the cold calling.
I even give clients scripts for this. If you don't know someone, you just introduce yourself and you talk about the mission because that's what you're looking for. You're looking for people who care about the mission, who might know someone who cares about the mission. And you ask them, and if they aren't the one, then you say, do you know someone? So it's that consistent networking being persistent, and it works. I tested this with ten nonprofits in the real world, not just people who took the online course. This was before I created the course. And every single one of those nonprofits found people that met the criteria. They were looking for it because they got past this fear of talking to people they didn't know, reaching out to people, and wanting to help. This isn't about you asking for something for yourself. This is about you asking for a cause in the community. And people are receptive to that. It's hard to get past it. It's not necessarily comfortable, but that's the challenge. And it can work. I know it works.
And I think being ready, willing to hear, no, not right now, but then not letting that be, oh, then this can't work. If I get one, no. Keep moving. You'll find the person. Yeah. I think another thing that I see organizations do because of that fear defaulting to is let's do a big blast email or notice. And if you ask everybody on your board, why did they get involved with this organization, chances are they were asked by somebody to step up.
That's right. And when you're talking about a mission, you're talking about an emotional connection. You want people on your board who are emotionally connected with your mission. Not intellectually connected. I mean, you can have both, but intellectual connection isn't going to have the stick to it-iveness that you need. Another issue I hear a lot about recently, because I'm asking about it, number one, is board member engagement. Executives are saying, I'm having trouble with board member engagement. And that's about the emotional glue.
And that goes back to what you were saying in terms of checking in with people one on one, not just having it be a group experience, getting to know what's going on with them. If they seem disengaged, what would they like to step into? Maybe they got asked to be on the wrong committee. I know in an organization that I've been a member of for a long time, people look at me and they're,, she's pretty organized. Let's ask her to organize this big event. Truth is, I hate organizing events. I am organized, but I hate organizing events. So let me use that skill somewhere else for some other cause. So really tapping into what people want to share. And then I think the other thing that just for volunteering in general, is to not assume that folks want to do whatever they do in their day job. They want to contribute to you.
I've been able to long before I was doing strategic planning consulting, I was on a committee in an organization that was doing the organization's strategic plan because I knew that was an interest. It wasn't something I was doing at work because of the point in my career, but I knew that I was interested in it and it gave me a way to start learning about that and develop that skill.
Right, yeah, I think that's really true. It is important for you to be aware of the skill sets you need and want on the board.
But for example, I have people say,, we need a CPA or we need an accountant because we need someone who can help oversee the finance part., number one, you don't need your accountant or your bookkeeper to be on your board. You may have staff with those skills. But the other thing is that people don't have to have that profession to be able to understand how to read a basic balance sheet or a financial statement. Maybe they can be a small business person or a moderate business person or there's a lot of people with those skills.
Just someone who's not afraid of numbers.
That's right. Because you don't have to have the person who's doing the work for your organization. You don't want them to be on your board. You just want someone who is knowledgeable in that area to be on your board. So you have a lot of options for what profession?
Actually, that can be really helpful. Because if you have that person who isn't in that profession, they might be able to actually do a better job of translating that important information to the rest of the board than someone who just has all that knowledge.
And has that curse of expertise.
Yeah. And they can go do a much deeper dive than the board as a whole needs in an area. Yeah.
So on each episode I ask the guest what permission slip would you give to nonprofit leaders? Or what would you invite them to consider to avoid being a martyr to the cause and as they work towards cultivating a healthier organizational culture? So what permission slip or invitation would you give?
Lately I've been thinking a lot about this. I think that I would give and I started this thinking when I was doing my book a couple of years ago. I think I would give executive directors permission to lead with their board more to think about being a co leader, to be a catalyst for the change they want to see on the board. I've built a consulting profession coming in and fulfilling that role. To some extent, the third party person can come in and be the catalyst for change and nudge the board. But I think executive directors can be that and I think that they often think,, the board's my boss. The board needs to have its own initiative and that would be ideal. But when that's not the case, or even when it is the case, it doesn't mean you can't step up and influence and be a catalyst for things to be different. So I would encourage executives to take permission to be more proactive with boards in what they need them to become and to help make that happen. And there are ways to do that without getting in trouble, right?
And really be in partnership. So where can people find you and be in touch?
Oh,, they can certainly find me at my website is highland consulting.org. That's Hiland Consulting.org. But you could email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am on LinkedIn. People can connect with me that way. And, of course, you can also listen to my podcast. We have episodes with Carol inspired nonprofit leadership. But that's the best way, really, would be if you want to talk to me directly, is to email me, Mary@highlandconsulting.org. Or you can go to talkwithmarry.com, if that's easier to remember, and that takes you to my calendar, and you can set up a time to chat.
Awesome. Thank you., we'll put all those links in the show notes so you can find them. And, Mary, thanks so much for coming on Mission Impact.
Oh, you are welcome. It was great to have this conversation with you, Carol. Thanks so much for having me. Bye.
In episode 75 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton and Danielle Marshall discuss
Danielle is an inclusive leader focused on strengthening collaboration among teams, leaders, and stakeholders to foster problem-solving, create solutions, and improve culture. She finds her inspiration in leading systemic change work that promotes equity and inclusion.
Danielle founded Culture Principles in response to a persistent need to operationalize Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion metrics, centering REDI goals and creating accountability systems. She supports clients through her Mapping Equity Framework focused on Unearthing Knowledge, Elevating Strategy, and Transforming Sustainability. She centers her work around organizational assessment, racial equity learning intensives, and the development of racial equity action plans. Understanding that each organization arrives at this work from different perspectives, she utilizes assessment in building a customized strategy for each unique partner. Previously Danielle served as a non-profit leader for 20+ years and today works on strategy development that enables nonprofits to achieve equitable mission-driven results. Danielle holds a Master's degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Louisiana Tech University and draws on her background as an I/O psychologist in applying a racial equity lens to organizational policies, practices, and programs. She is a Certified Diversity Professional (CDP)/ Executive Coach (ACC).
During her playtime, you can find Danielle traveling, knitting, and kayaking in all 50 states.
Important Links and Resources:
Erin Allgood: It, I think, can be really liberating for organizations to see that it's not incumbent upon them to fix everything. that they actually have partners who are gonna be doing similar work and in this, and in that are on a similar journey, but aren't necessarily that their work is complementary to, to theirs.
Carol Hamilton: What is a theory of change and why should you have one? Beyond the answer of well --- our funders require us to include it in our grant proposal, there are a lot of advantages to mapping out what your theory of change is for your organization. It can seem a little esoteric and a little wonky and a little academic. And what even is a theory of change? Simply put – it is a graphic or written description of how your organization’s work moves your mission and vision forward – it helps you map these pieces and show the logic of why you are doing what you are doing. With this, you can also build evaluation systems that demonstrate your impact. Like any other strategy process – the conversations you will have to get the theory of change on paper or on a virtual white board – help create a common understanding of what you are really trying to do. And the process can reveal some gaps in your program design and process. Through the process you might be aiming to do XYZ with your vision – this is the change you are trying to create in the world. And then this is what we are doing in terms of programs and services – and by talking it through as a group, you realize that your expected short term, medium term and long outcomes from your program don’t actually move you closer to your vision. Or what has to be true for those outcomes to happen – the assumptions built into your design are not realistic – there is too much of a leap in logic from one to another – and you need to build in some more steps to move people along the expected journey or pathway. And the map is not the territory! Theories of change or logic models or impact maps simplify what is rarely simple.. They are never meant to capture all the possible permutations. Each person participating in your offerings will have their own unique experience. And they live complex lives with multiple things impacting them, their behavior and decisions. The process generates insights into which program elements and intended outcomes to focus on, and can help you demonstrate how changes are unfolding for participants—beyond just reporting how many people participated.
Mission Impact is 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 podcast host and nonprofit holistic strategy consultant. Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector brings you whole-brain strategic planning, mapping, & audits for nonprofits and associations. 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 this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
My guest today on Mission Impact is Erin Allgood. Erin and I talk about what a theory of change is and the differences between theories of change and logic models, how a theory of change can help you make decisions between the many options and directions you might go – and your many good ideas, why each organization does not have to tackle everything – deciding what is the part of the problem that you will work on and what are you really suited to focus on – and who else is working in your space whose work complements yours is so important, and how it’s not all on your shoulders to fix – even if it can feel that way sometimes.
Welcome, Erin. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Erin: Oh, I'm so excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Carol: So I like to start out each episode with just a question around what drew you to the work that you do. What would you describe as your motivation or your why?
Erin: I love this question and I of course like to listen to a couple of previous episodes, so I knew it was coming.
I have always been somebody who has cared deeply about. Writing the injustices in the world in a lot of ways. My mom will tell you that I came out of the womb of feminist and I just have carried that energy with me ever since. And I had a very circuitous path to becoming a non-profit consultant.
Mainly because I went to school for biochemistry. And hopefully this will be interesting for people to hear this, but I, and then I went and actually got a degree, a master's degree in nutritional biochemistry and was just like, this is not what I wanna do with my life. I was so interested. I realized what I was actually interested in was understanding systems.
I was not actually interested in either doing bench science or doing anything like that. And so I started on a journey after all of that too. One to like to figure out where I wanted to actually like, be like in the world. And I started taking some courses on food systems and I took some courses on sustainable business and so on and so forth.
And that was all while I was working for a pharmaceutical company. This was back in time like the 2009, 2010 timeframe because we were in a recession and there was no other work for me, and I had all these science degrees and I could go and do that. But what it really helped me to do is sharpen that focus on things like, I could not just have a job doing something I didn't care about.
So I really needed to create what I. Wanted for myself. And that's, that was really the beginning of my consulting practice. I started in food systems and then about five years ago I broadened out to really have a much broader focus on organizations that were doing, like usually have some aspect of social justice in their work.
And started doing things like strategic planning, organizational development and executive coaching . There's always little things here that come, come up here and there too, that I do a little bit of a long-winded answer.
Carol: Well, it's often a winding, a winding journey to get to where you are, and especially at that beginning stage of your career where you're figuring out where do I fit?
What am I really interested in? realizing, well, it's actually the systems that I'm interested in and how can I bring that systems perspective. I think that I had a similar point with my first job out of college. Working for people has heard this story before, but working for a magazine that got help helped people get on talk shows and, and coming to the point of realizing I don't wanna be promoting all comers.
Hmm. I wanna be aligned with the missions that I'm helping support and helping move forward. So definitely can, can relate to that. And As you said, you and I do similar work focusing on strategic planning and organization development. And. I'm, one of the things that we, we also do, both of us is help organizations map out their impact, or sometimes it's called creating a theory of change.
Sometimes it's called creating a logic model. There are a variety of different terms for that. And I'm wondering if you could just describe for our listeners what a theory of change is and, Why is it important for an organization to have one?
Erin: Yeah. I love developing theories of change, talking about theories of change.
So I'm so excited that this is the topic we're diving into today. I think of a theory of change as being the overarching way in which an organization creates change, or it could be an individual too. I've actually created a theory of change for myself as part of my business and we're. What I think about.
When I think about a theory of change, it's really starting to identify what that real big vision is for an organization and it's broader than just obviously like their specific work in the world. I like to go really, really big picture with that. And then understand as part of that, like developing the theory of change process, where the organization fits in that broader landscape of change that they, of, of whatever that is that they're trying to bring forth.
And so I think a lot of times when people develop a theory of change, it's just, it's, it's much more narrowly focused. And so I have a bit of a different take on that. And then you had mentioned logic models too. And anybody that knows me, knows me that I. Deeply, deeply hate logic models. I don't know how you feel about
Carol: So what do you see as the difference between a theory of change versus a logic model?
Erin: I think that, like a logic model gets really down into the weeds and it's, and it, presents things in a super linear way. And it, or it, presents how you create change in a linear way.
Whereas I think of a theory of change as being It's, it's not, it's never quite that linear, right? Like we know that, like we know that change doesn't happen in a super linear fashion. We know that it's iterative. We know that like things cer, like certain things build upon one another. We know that like there's oftentimes this like squiggle, of a journey to get from point A to point B with a lot of different detours off of it as well.
And so the way that I look at e Theory of change is like, it's a broader framework in which an organization is. Is what, that's helping to guide an organization versus the rigidity of a logic model where it's like, oh, here's like, here's our goal, here's our, the tactic that we're gonna take, and then here's the outcome we predict, and so on and so forth.
It's, and that, that's not that that's anything. There's nothing wrong with that per se. But it leaves a lot of it. I think that what it does is it forces organizations into a bit of a, into a bit of a box in which they can't, they can't allow things to develop more organically or to emerge as they go through.
And so it, and it doesn't allow them to necessarily grow as they're going through, through a process. And of course, we need to be able to like, have things and outcomes that we care about and want to map to an extent. But the way that I develop like a, when I work with organizations is I usually develop an idea of what it looks like to be successful, and that's not necessarily tied to.
Like a metric, like increased participation by 27% or something like that nature. So it's a lot, the theory of change that I'll create oftentimes is a bit broader in focus. It of course has different strategies associated with it. So say an organization, one of those main strategies is gonna be education. So like, I'll often help organizations identify the big vision that will obviously go through and I, and talk about the mission and the core identity, like their values and beliefs and things like that, that underpin the work that they do.
And then it will start to boil down to like what are those broad strategies that they're trying to do in order to be able to get to that vision. So for instance, one of the organizations I'm working with right now, we have identified that there's two main strategies. One is Like a focus on the individuals that they are trying to help through the work that they do.
And then the other way is addressing systems level harm. So it's like really doing the on the ground work versus like, how do we fix this so that this systemic, these systemic issues aren't a problem as we, five years from now. And so underneath those, there's a couple of different programs that nestle underneath those.
And then, and part of the addressing systems, Level harm. Those programs are like education and advocacy as you can imagine. And then there's the more specific programmatic work towards dealing with the individual piece of that. So that gives 'em a lot of space, in order to be able to say where they want to go from here in order to.
To be able to create these kinds of change and they can use that theory of change as they move forward. It's, that's not necessarily tied to, a like three to five year strategic plan that could actually be like a much longer standing a , a tool for them to be able to use moving forward.
And. It's and then it's also paired with obviously much more specific kinds of goals and objectives and priorities that I would bring into, into the actual written plan itself. But it's that broader framework that allows them to really play within those bounds and to be able to have that flexibility moving forward.
So they're not, they're not super. Yeah, like backed into a corner when they have this like a super rigid plan in front of them or something like that. As you can tell, I don't write super rigid plans, probably.
Carol: Yeah. And I appreciate the distinction between those different, those different things and I mean, even if you get into the nitty gritty with something like a logic model, I always want to.
Tell people or help, help them bring some context that the map is not the territory. A model does not, is just a model. It doesn't define reality. It can be helpful as a tool to help you have a conversation, to come to agreement around what are the assumptions that we're, we're embedding in this, what do we think is gonna happen?
How can we test that? But. Yeah, there's always a danger once it gets mapped out or in a plan that people get afraid to change it. And for me that's never the, the ultimate purpose of any of these kinds of processes, but it's more, I. Can we get stuff out of people's heads onto a page so that we can all look at it together?
Yeah, I'm thinking, I'm, I'm starting to work with an organization right now and it's exactly that. It's a relatively new organization. They've got, the founder has some great ideas about what they wanna do. They're doing stuff already, but they haven't had a chance to expand things.
And this. By doing one of these processes, theory of change, logic model, impact map, whatever you wanna call it. I think one of the biggest benefits will be to get a lot of the stuff that's in his head in other staff, staff, people's heads, maybe in board, if the board ends up being involved and get it out so that everybody can look at it and say, do we actually agree?
On this picture of what we're, what we're trying to do together.
Erin: Yeah. And I think it's, I mean that's like so powerful to be able to do that and just to make sure that everybody's on the same page and it's like the cornerstone of doing strategic planning cuz you never wanna get super far into a process and then be like, oh, we're not all on the same page at all.
But it's also probably hard. And you, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this like, To get people sometimes to commit, especially especially a founder or especially organizations that are just super energized about things, to picking a path. Because a lot of the time, They wanna do everything.
And I'm like, we create a theory of change so that they understand that they, they got, they start to see like the, the through line between like the work that they're doing and the outcome and, and the the vision that they're trying to achieve and outcomes. But it also helps them to see things like, oh, we can't, if we do like a thousand different things, we can't actually be super effective at any of them.
Carol: Yeah, I literally said this yesterday. I was like, I have yet to meet a nonprofit staff, person, leader, board member, executive director, who did not have enough ideas. Yeah. Yep. There is always an abundance of ideas, different directions, different tactics, different strategies, all to move towards the same vision.
But what are the ones that you are gonna choose? What are the ones that you are really gonna deepen and get good at? What's within your core competencies and it's, it's hard to make those decisions, especially as a group, but I think that's, that's a part of what these, these kinds of processes can help with as well to, to set some priorities and refine that.
And I, I appreciated what you said about the theory of change. Also being also mapping the wider context that the organization is in, because the ones that I have seen have been a little bit in a vacuum. So I'd love for you to say a little bit more about what that looks like and the benefits of doing that.
Erin: Yeah. I am so grateful that you asked that question too, cuz I love talking about it. It's, I look at , I think that when. Again, that helps them to narrow some of their focus when we start to look at the broader picture and be like, well, what are, what is the lane that you're playing in this?
And what is, what is also the lane that your partners are playing in? Because it should likely be a little bit different than what they're playing in. And so I think I love the tagline for this podcast, like how not to become a martyr to the cause. Because I think that a lot of people look at it like, oh, we have to do everything.
We have to do everything under the sun in order to be able to like tackle X, Y, z, whatever, whatever their, their cause actually is. And it's, I think, can be really liberating for organizations to see that it's, it's not incumbent upon them to fix everything. that they actually have partners who are gonna be doing similar work and in this, and in that are on a similar journey, but aren't necessarily that their work is complementary to, to theirs.
What I also think is super important about that part of things too, is I like to help organizations really understand that they're start to break up with this idea around, White supremacy culture and like how that gets like enacted within organizations, which is so much rooted in, oftentimes you see that kinda individualism, which can play out like within the internal culture of an organization or for the organization themselves too.
like, oh, we're on it, on our own. We're just doing it, we're just charging forth and we're by ourselves in this. And I help them to start to break up with that idea that they have to do it all by themselves. And that they are like the center of all of that. So it's, there's a couple of different reasons why I, why I help them see that bigger picture.
But a lot of it is, starting to shift this narrative around like any one organization is, is. Going to create the change that they actually do need collaboration in order to be able to bring about these things. And we're talking about wicked problems, right? Like we're these, or like, these are like things that nobody solves on their own.
And to be able to even try to say that they could, develops that hero complex that I think is, so detrimental within our sector because we don't want people out there just being like, like pomp, his assholes like thinking that, that like, they're the only reason why change create, like happens.
No, it actually does. It requires many, many different people working towards the same goal, coming at a, from a bunch of different angles and and we just, yeah, we don't want that to be. We wanna start to shift towards more collaboration and less of this individualism, is one of the things that I try to help organizations do.
Carol: Yeah. Helping them see how they can be complementary to the other organizations that are in the same space as them. Not competing for the same ground but, but working together to, to solve the problem. As you say, they're, they're. Most of these problems that organizations are working on are huge and complex.
And, and yeah, the hero is probably the positive version of Martyr. And both of them, I, I, I mean, from my point of view or, or from my experience, it's rare. and their exceptions, but it's rarely out of a sense of it's gotta be all mine. But there is this like, it's all on my shoulders feeling.
And it's like, no, it's not. I. You're one person, you're one organization. You're at one time in a whole movement of people, sector, what, whatever, term you want to use, that you're part of this larger ecosystem that's working towards that vision with you. And if you can see that, you can take a deep breath, relax a little bit, and focus on what you do best.
Erin: Yeah, when I've done this work, cuz I've done theory of change obviously as part of like strategic planning processes and things like that when I've done this also with , like I've gone in and into like teach younger, students and like college students talking about things like how do we do, how do we start to shift our practices so that we can.
What did I call it before? It was like conscientious consulting, I think is how I talked about it. Like how do we shift our business practices, to be more, I don't know, probably inclusive jest, et cetera, like something of that nature. But , I think what I've, what I've heard from a lot of folks when they reach out to me, they're like, oh, I just wanna do what you do in the world, and how do we, how do I do this?
, and I'm like, okay, one. It's taken me a decade to get to this place. there's no, there's no quick fix, there's no silver bullet here to just kinda like do this work. And so much of what I've, how I've done this work is just so, like, it's just developed organically in a, in a way that's really unique to who I am, but it's, I think a lot of people are so, they have such an appetite to go out and, and be those kinds of change makers and they don't necessarily have.
They don't have the grounding yet to understand a lot of the things we just said, like that we don't do this, that, that it's, that we do, they don't realize that they can't do it on their own. They don't realize that they can't like that it's all focused on them.
So like, for instance, I've seen I've done a bunch of, I also judged a bunch of pitch competitions before. I don't know if you've done that before. It's super fun. But I just hear like these, these students who are just like coming at these things from a place where which they're so amazing, I should say that before I dive into this, but, but they're coming at it from such a narrow perspective of like, I'm gonna solve this problem, I'm gonna do it this way.
And they haven't necessarily thought about it from this broader perspective of like, you're going perhaps into like a community to try to solve this problem. Does that community even exist? Want you to solve this problem? Like, or is that really the solution? That's,
Carol: Is that the problem that they want you to solve?
Right. Have you talked to them? Yeah. What are their perspectives? What are their priorities? Yeah.
Erin: Yep. Exactly. So like part of like the theory of change for me too is just like helping them to, for like. Especially if we're, they're doing it on an individual level to kinda like to interrogate that a bit.
Like where, what are your motivations for trying to, to be quite unquote like a changemaker in the world? Like what is your motivation for trying to do this work and how do you get, and if it's really like once you've like tested it a little bit for yourself and like put it through the ringer and you come back to it and you're like, yep, this is still what I want to do.
, then how do you start to build around that so that it actually, so that it has some more teeth to it, so that it actually has so that it makes sense in the broader context of what you're trying to do. And is that, and have you really taken a closer look at what the community wants too?
That's, so those are some of the, the conversations I have with, I mean, with organizations, but also with individuals too, who are trying to go out there and figure out what their place is in the world.
Carol: Yeah, and it could be, I've heard career advice framed in the, in the point of view of saying, don't think about what you wanna do, but think about what problem you wanna solve in the world.
And so that could be a starting point, but at the same time, it's, what does the community want? What does the community need? What, what are their priorities? And then who's already doing work that you. Want to do and how can you get on their bandwagon first before you create your own bandwagon?
Erin: Right, right. Because a lot of people come at something without really a depth of understanding. And I, I mean, and I'll say that, like for myself too, when I first started doing food systems consulting, I remember, I'd had training in that and I had been so excited to go out and like, Do something.
And I worked with food pantries and things like that, and I was like, okay, well I'm gonna help. Like of course I sound like such a douche bag in younger me, what I mean?
Carol: We'll forgive your younger self
Erin: Okay. Yeah. We'll forgive the younger me, but I was just like I was, I did my master's degree at a time when obesity was like the big thing and I was like, oh, well we've got to like help.
I have to help people who are food insecure eat better. And like nowadays I'm just like, they have to eat healthier. I'm gonna help them, access local food and things like that. And now I look back and I'm like, Oh, I just didn't understand the systems level issues that were at play here.
Like, it's not that people can't access good food or, or I mean, well, yes, they can't access good food for a lot of different reasons, but it's not because they can't do it for whatever X, Y, Z. It's not because they're making that choices or they don't choices don't want to
Carol: do it, which I think is somehow at times how it's framed.
Erin: Exactly. It's like, oh, we actually have really. Bad policies in our, in, that are preventing people from being able to actually access food. We don't, people pay people living wages. We don't do X, Y, Z. And so it took me like a really long time to start to understand that like whenever I saw a problem on the surface, I.
What do I mean? That there was a whole like iceberg below that of like reasons why that problem was presenting the way that it was, and that like, if I didn't start to understand the depth of it, I was not going to be able to like even start to make a, an impact like even the smallest impact or difference on that.
And I think, and so that's why I, I, I always. I've, I've started to really understand the complexity of those kinds of things much more in depth. And I help my clients do that, and I help young people start to do that too, because I'm like, we can solve like a surface level problem, but if we start solve that surface level problem, who's to say that that's not going to give rise to a bunch of other problems down the road because we're not actually getting at the root cause of anything.
Carol: Yeah. And I think that's where processes like mapping out a theory of change can, it basically helps you start mapping out that iceberg. Yeah. What are all the factors that aren't as obvious? And what are all the assumptions built in? What are the things that we're not, not seeing on the surface that could help really make a different or more impactful Strategy to, to address, to address those wider concerns.
And I, I mean, I feel like there's sometimes in the sector a little bit of a false dichotomy between, we're gonna help the person in their, their, their immediate need versus the longer term policy, systemic thing. And to me, we need to do both. It doesn't have to be an either or. Some people will be drawn to one, some people will be drawn to the other.
And, and both. move, move things forward. Yeah. And make, make things more positive for people.
Erin: Yeah. Oh, I love those kinds of conversations we have with organizations though, like that depth of just starting to dive into it and starting to understand what is really like the thing here.
Like what are we trying to do? And I'm trying to think of a good example to share that wouldn't violate confidentiality at the moment, but like cuz I really, cuz I would love to be able to illustrate some of this, but.
Carol: Yeah, cuz it can be, I think that's what keeps people away from these kinds of processes cuz it sounds so esoteric and it's like, wow, we've got, we've got immediate, urgent work to do.
Why would we wanna buy that? We're going through a process
Erin: like this. Right, exactly. Like and kind. It's heady and it's just very, it can feel really abstract for people who like things to be a little bit more concrete. But I'll, like, I did a retreat with an organization and who works on it. Who does harm reduction work?
So, helping folks literally by, handing out clean syringes and things like that and does a whole lot of other things as well. But what it boiled down to as we were doing the retreat was that, One, we had to tackle stigma, in order to be able to like, to help, like the big picture is to reduce overdose deaths, right?
Like, and to give people everything that they need in order to live full, happy, meaningful lives ? And as we drill down more and more and more into that, it was like, oh, radical love. Is actually at the core of this. Mm-hmm. What do I mean? Like we actually have to figure out how to amplify radical love for everyone?
And like, and I give myself goosebumps thinking about that. Like it's when you start to delve into that and it's, and of course there's like, there's like a gazillion more layers of which, that, that come as part of that framework, but , it's. Or how do I do it ? Part of it is like, how do we infuse that radical love into, into the work itself?
Because that's such, that is like a key to being able to actually move forward with things. And to create and to actually transform our society and to one where we really like, where people who do use drugs are actually, they are treated as whole human beings worthy of respect and deserving of love.
And so, for me, like I wanna get down to that level with my, with my organizations and like, so that we can start to say, now how do we operationalize that? How do we operationalize radical love? Because if we can start to figure out how to do that and to put that into place, then we will really be able to, to do unbelievable, amazing things.
And I don't think that there's a lot of them. Like you were saying before, like for a lot of people to try to get to that place, they're just like, what is she talking about? What do I mean? Like what, what are you even talking about Erin? And some people just do not come along that journey with me always.
But once if they can, and if they do, if they can stick with it long enough, they'll be able to see something really, really powerful reflected in the final product. And they will have, just by having asked those questions of themselves, they are going to be a stronger organization for that.
Carol: Yeah, I mean, I can imagine how that. Could show up in so many different aspects of the organization, their culture, how they're treating each other day to day, all of that. If they're centering that, that, radical love and, and really putting that at the, at the center, then it ripples out in a, in lots of, lots of different ways.
Yeah. That's powerful. Yeah, for sure. Aspirational, definitely. So in previous episodes, I've asked a random icebreaker question at the end, and I am, I'm changing things up a little bit. Going forward and just one gonna ask each guest what permission slip would they give to nonprofit leaders, or what would they invite them to consider as they work to cultivate a healthy organizational culture?
So what would yours be? Either a permission slip or an invitation towards, I guess, that radical love that we're talking about. Yeah.
Erin: I mean,
I would want them to have a permission slip, I guess, to take the time out to really do that work, especially with their staff, with their stakeholders, to really ask themselves those kinds of questions because I think that a lot of leaders. And, their staff for sure too, like to lose sight of the mission work in the day-to-day.
They go from task to task. They never pick their head up and get to look at the bigger picture, the, the, the real, the big vision that they're working towards. And so giving themselves an opportunity just to reconnect to that periodically, I think would be transformative. In so many different ways, and then figuring out how to infuse some of that magic, like into, into more of the day-to-day too.
So like how do you keep that, how do you continue to keep that the reason why everybody got into this work in the first place, like alive and front and center for people. I mean, if they can do that, that'll be amazing.
Carol: Yeah, so they can keep that high from the retreat, the enthusiasm and bring it and figure out ways.
It can't, it can't just be a wish. You have to think about what are the different ways that you're actually going to keep bringing us back to our why.
Erin: Yeah, exactly.
Carol: So how can people find you and be
Erin: in touch? Yeah, people can find email@example.com and I also have my own podcast that you're gonna be on, Carol, I'm so excited, called Rise and Ruse Conversations for those who give a damn.
And folks can, probably the easiest way to find that is to just go to Instagram and type in at Rise and Ruse. And so just follow me. I would love to be able to Yeah, connect with anybody and if you go to my website, you can find my contact information and all that jazz too.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much.
Thank you, Erin. I really appreciated the conversation.
Erin: Thank you so much too. This was a really fun opportunity and yeah, and I hope that it'll be interesting for folks.
Carol: Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Erin, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
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In episode 74 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton and her guest, Veronica LaFemina discuss
Veronica LaFemina is Founder and CEO of LaFemina & Co., an advisory firm supporting nonprofits and social impact businesses at the intersection of strategy, culture, communications, and change management. Veronica partners with organizations and their leaders to go beyond what “looks good on paper” to focus on what works well in real life. She is a leader, strategist, facilitator, trusted advisor, and certified change management professional with nearly two decades of experience as a senior executive at national U.S. nonprofit organizations and a high-impact consultant. Her work has been featured by Inc. Magazine, the Today Show, NPR, CNN, Capterra, and in news outlets nationwide.
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Carol: My guest today on Mission Impact is Veronica LaFemina. Mission Impact is 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 podcast host and nonprofit holistic strategy 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 of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Veronica and I talk about why big change initiatives often fail. We explore why a map of how to get from A to B may not be sufficient, why the role of a key leader visibly supporting the change is so key and why radio silence is a bad sign.
In this conversation I really appreciated Veronica’s point that with a large change initiative the “launch day” is really the middle of a roll out – not an ending. And I appreciated what she said about preparing middle managers to answer questions from their staff. As a former middle manager, I can only think of a few times when leadership took the time to do that – to make sure we were as fully informed as we could be so that we could answer our staff’s questions. When you do not have answers – or your answer is I don’t know – it can undermine trust. And it really provides the opportunity for our brains as storytelling machines to go to town. Nature abhors a vacuum – and an information vacuum will be filled by speculation, rumor and other stories – then can become perceived as fact very easily. This is rarely malicious – it is just how we are wired – and in absence of information we will likely fill in the gaps with our story of what is going on to allay our anxieties about the unknown and to feel more of a sense of control and agency. And then we will likely believe our own stories – often not even realizing that it is just our thoughts and speculation about the situation.
The example that Veronica uses through most of our conversation is a technology project – which on the surface can seem like a technical not an adaptive change. Yet even with a change in tools we have to change our habits and some of our ways of being. And while this example may seem more simple than the very complex changes to culture that many organizations are attempting in becoming more equitable and anti-racist, there are many parallels to the common challenges and things that get in the way.
These include sustained leadership support, working to cultivate the conditions for success, recognizing what you are asking of people in what they will need to do to shift from one way of being to another, celebrating the bright spots and small wins.
Welcome, Veronica. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Veronica: Thanks, Carol I'm so happy to be here with you today.
Carol: So I'd like to start out each podcast conversation with what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Veronica: It's a great question. I like to joke that service has been in my DNA. I sort of was born into it. A family where service and being involved in the community was always a really important part of our lives. And so whether that was through volunteering, whether that was through scouts or church or community projects. I have many fond memories of being involved in figuring out how we can help our neighbors' lives be better, what we can each do to make our community a better place.
So how that's carried over in my professional life is I am very passionate about finding better ways of working so that we can ensure that folks in the nonprofit sector and the social impact world have the tools and support they need. And that we're really focused on getting to our goals, like on, on meeting the mission that we're here for. So, really mine is. A strong family basis and just some good reinforcement from the universe along the way that this is the right track to be on. I love that.
Carol: When I talk to guests so often, there's something early on that, that set them on their, this, this path and for me it was probably being the younger sister of a, a person with a disability and just watching them having to navigate the world and, and how, Systems are not necessarily set up for everybody, and how can we make that better?
How can we smooth the path for folks and make life more accessible, easier and and then, the same in, in the workplace. Like how, how can we get out of our own way to get further and closer to our mission?
Veronica: I love that and I resonate with that a lot too. Just the idea that there's so much potential, right? There's so much opportunity. I feel like I really see the world in our sector as a place where so much is possible, and if we can remove barriers, if we can take away unnecessary restrictions, unnecessary boxes that we're putting ourselves in, there's just so.
Much that is available to us in the form of human creativity, innovation, and the opportunity to solve some of the really big problems we have in our country and in our communities, in our world. So I love hearing your story too, Carol. That's really empowering and exciting. I
Carol: Removing barriers and smoothing the way is top of mind because I was just listening to a Hidden Brain podcast interview where they were talking about how Rather than pushing actually removing barriers makes it easier for people to, to do behavior change whether that's at the individual level or or at the organizational level.
And one of the things that you've worked a lot on is helping organizations. initiate those big change processes, which unfortunately too often don't go as planned. Don't end up with the results that people expected. I think the statistics are. I looked them up. They're pretty bad.
That the, the, the guesstimate, I guess, or maybe it's based on research that 70% of change efforts fail. What do you think are some of the things that, that, that do get in the way of organizations being able to move forward, change that they're really, that they really want and yet somehow it's not sticking.
Veronica: I am so passionate about this topic because I think in the social impact sector in particular, We get really excited about all of the ideas we have about a new program, a new way of working in our community that we can sort of dream and envision the impact of, but we don't always remember that in order to get there, we have to go through the process of going from where we're we are right now to that destination.
So we sometimes think it's as simple as, well, if I just draw a map, we'll know how to get there. But that's not true. And so I have worked in communications and change management and strategy work for almost 20 years both as a consultant and in-house and executive leadership roles. And I remember that feeling of frustration, like, why isn't this working?
We've, we've been thoughtful, we've planned well, we've done all these things, and I'm using air quotes here like that. Best practices tell you to do. Nothing was really working. Or when something was working, we couldn't always replicate it, right? The situation would change, the environment would change.
And so it was tough to understand what is most effective about this. So several years ago I went and got a change management certification because I was like, well, I've been doing change work my whole life. Now I wanna know what these guys, they, these large training companies or research companies are saying.
And it turns out that Prosci, which is where I got my certification, has been doing longitudinal research and why change fails for the past 25, 26 years. So it was interesting to me as a practitioner to see so much of my experience echoed in that research. One of the main reasons that change fails in organizations is the lack of a visible and engaged executive sponsor.
And if people aren't familiar with that term, an executive sponsor is usually someone who's on the senior most leadership team of an organization who is charged with being like the face, the voice, the person who's gonna make it happen, right? They've got the authority and ideally the budget to make the change happen.
And they may get really excited and come into the first couple meetings, kick off the project team, get everyone amped and ready to go. And then they disappear. And that lack of commitment and stamina at the executive level to stick with a change through its whole process is a leading reason why change doesn't work in organizations.
So, a lot of times a board or. An executive director might think, oh, okay, we've got these five big initiatives we're gonna launch this year. we're gonna have one quarter. We'll each take about three months. We'll just brush our hands, get it done, and everyone will be working differently.
And wouldn't it be nice if humans worked that way? But we just don't. So, so I often talk to leaders about the fact that if you are going to undertake a change, that could be something like, Implementing a new CRM or other technology that your team use needs to use, or something really big, like a cultural initiative where you're trying to put inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, like top of mind and as a part of how your organization works, how long are you willing to stick with that?
Is it three months? Is it six months? What if that change takes 18 months? What if it takes, what if it takes three years? That is a really important question. Executive sponsors and the people who are stuck influencing executive sponsors need to be asking themselves, what stamina do I have to be present to be engaged, to be vocal?
Because as soon as that person starts to disappear, staff automatically deprioritize. That change, they automatically say, well, if it's not that important and this leader is onto something new, then I need to shift my focus. I have to change my priorities to just follow them. So leaders, I sometimes call these leaders like hit and run change leaders where they may have great intentions, but they're not being honest with themselves about their capacity to stick with it, for the change, for the length of the change.
Carol: What you said at the very, very beginning where you said, five in one year that just made me go, ugh. Right. Maybe not so much. When I'm first talking to potential folks to work with, asking them what else is going on. Because if they're gonna do something, around the work that I do, whether it's strategic planning or mapping out their impact or some other project, but they.
Also are in the midst of doing a rebranding, or they're also in the midst of changing that CRM, which can be a big, actually a culture change. Huge. It's not gonna work to have it all going on at the same time. And Right. The leader doesn't have that same focus on what's most important.
And then that signals to staff, again, to follow the leader. What are they prioritizing today?
Veronica: And I, I think too it is normal and human to believe that we have the capacity to do way more than we can. And that's because when we think about our own lives even, right?
We think about everything that we get done in a day, or everything that we get done in a year, and we are like, well, surely as a group of humans, we could do more. But actually it is the opposite, right? When we're crafting change in our own lives, we know the audience pretty well, right? We know how to make adjustments so that we're increasing our motivation or increasing our ability, making things easier for ourselves to do so that we'll actually do the behavior we're aiming for.
But when we're working at an organizational level, even if your organization, if it's three people or if it's 30,000 people, We have to be aware of the needs that humans have when it comes to change and how we're probably not meeting them a lot of the time. When I talk to leaders, there are these concerns about, well, that takes so much longer.
I have all this pressure to deliver and perform and my. My response to that is if you have a PR pressure to deliver and perform, right, whether, again, whether it's from your board, whether it's from a key donor or someone in, a community funder, things like that, then they should want you to be able to get it right.
So the change sticks, right? So that we're not ticking a box Yes. Acquired new CRM. Like the, the aim of that is not that you turn the switch on for your new system. It's that the human beings who need to use it are using it effectively in making that a way of working for the organization. And I would say that's another big reason why change fails, is that organizations leaders are not clearly defining what success looks like, or they're picking the wrong measure, right?
So launch day is the success check instead of, six months after launch. X percent of employees are effectively using this technology every day or every week in their lives, right? They're not really accounting for the fact that this isn't just something we bought that is gonna sit on the shelf.
Like this is something that needs to be a way of working, and that takes time because as humans, we need practice. We're really great at understanding something intellectually and then never practicing it. Therefore, we're not sure if we're capable of doing that.
Carol:, I mean, I, I'm thinking back to a, a project that I was on when I was inside an organization and the amount of time and energy and resources that were put into the, to the planning, the deciding what, and it was a technology project, deciding what features we were gonna have, working all of that through getting to launch date.
But there was almost no thought or energy from the folks who were leading the project in. How are we gonna train people? There was a one day training, but then how are we gonna follow up a week later to say, have you actually gotten into the new CRM and have you tried this? Have you entered any data?
Have you tried to run a report? Any of that thing to actually do exactly what you're talking about, or change in behavior. Because the behavior that we saw beforehand was that people would run reports and then manage everything through spreadsheets. So the information always was lost and disconnected, which is obviously the exact opposite of what having a system like that is supposed to do.
But as you say, just having it doesn't create the end result unless you build the conditions for that.
Veronica: Right. And presumably, so here's what I'll say. Like presumably we have a good reason for this change, right? Well, let's give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that it has been a really thoughtful conversation about introducing a new piece of technology.
Or we do wanna be more inclusive and equitable as an organization. Like let's assume our hearts and our brains are relatively in the right place. Sometimes what happens is we treat these just as the projects that take us from Genesis to, okay, we did the launch day. We even did training. Check we did that and we didn't actually think about the fact that change management is the act of moving people, right?
Moving people from one way of being to another, which by the way is something we all could be really great at in the social impact sector, cuz that's so much of our work outside of our orgs too. And so, again, it's really common to not have solid communication strategies and training strategies in place.
Right? We. Sort of expect that we say it once or we announce to everybody at the same time, and that that will be enough and it isn't, right. There are reasons that we know we have to repeat things to supporters or donors seven or more times, right? For them to actually hear what we're saying. We know in the world of social media, like if we wanna get our organization seen, we have to keep getting out there and sharing the message and connecting and engaging in a real conversation with folks.
But especially, I mean, it's always been true, but I would say especially in remote workplaces, we forget how early we need to start engaging the other humans who we are working with to ensure we're not missing something. Because when you're deep in the weeds, it's really easy to believe that you've designed this perfect solution.
But you could get great intel by talking to people who are on the ground working with that system, or who are going to be really involved in carrying out that change. We don't always have that luxury, sometimes there are changes that are confidential in nature or, have to have some embargo date on them.
But that doesn't mean that we can't then plan to have a, like we can't have an appropriate strategy for how we'll communicate and train in that situation. so often, right? Again, it's like, hey, we're doing this thing and then there's blow back, and executive leaders or board members are flummoxed.
They don't know where that's coming from because they've just been thinking about and planning for whatever this is for six or nine months, and they're forgetting that this is brand new. To everyone else. And so we can't expect people to be open to a completely new way of doing things if we've spent very little time helping them understand why this change is needed, what we hope they'll do to help us make this happen.
Getting ready to teach them what they need, creating the knowledge that's there, giving them time to practice, right? We practiced again, practice. Is something we're so good at as kids, and then we just like to leave it by the wayside in our grownup years. Some knowledge and time to practice, like you're not gonna get it perfect a week after training.
None of us are that adept at a completely new system for the most part. And then also reinforcing it, right? The announcement isn't the end. It's actually a middle point milestone. Because, hey, we're flipping the switch on that thing, but it's all of the communication and conversation and, and really setting our managers, our people, managers up for success and to be the leaders we need them to be as we're having these conversations.
I mean, nothing sets a change back more than a manager saying to their team, well, I don't know. This is the first I'm hearing of it too. And when that's the thing you're hearing around your org, you can bet that you're going to be doing some repair work, right? Really doing some work to recover, trust and recover enthusiasm or momentum toward whatever change you're looking to move forward.
Carol: You're, what you're describing brings to mind a process that I was part of where in a volunteer organization we were going through a leadership change and I was on the committee that was looking for the next leader. And we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in all of this.
It was, there was strict confidentiality around a lot of it. Who were you talking to and all of that? But we were in all the details. We were starting to be able to see the next phase, but the rest of the group was not part of that conversation. And so they were gonna be in a totally different spot when we made the big announcement.
Carol: And so what were things that we could do then? And I'm wondering if you talked about it being a middle phase. What are some of those things that organizations really need to think about if they really think about the whole arc? If the, if the launch is just the middle, then what, what's the second half?
Veronica: Sure. So what I'll, what I'll first say, right? So if the first part is really thinking through how we want this change to go in the first place, getting clear about what the priorities are and what success looks like, right? So that we can then use that to lay groundwork or start having conversations.
In the example you're talking about, Carol, we may not be able to say, who we're talking to or how many folks we've interviewed even, but we certainly can reinforce that the board is having conversations or hear, enough information to help folks come along and understand that this isn't something we've forgotten about.
When we look at, after Flip the Switch day, right? And not every change has that launch moment. Some of them are, are, gradual and, and build and become more robust over time. But in situations where we do have a, the new tech is live today or that thing, there are a couple of really key things to prepare for.
So one is that training your managers, right, your people managers, to be able to speak about the change with their teams really matters. We know from Prosci research and from other research out there that. Staff want to hear from the senior most level executive at the organization about why we're doing this change and what it means for the future of the organization.
So, from the vision holder of the organization, that's who they wanna hear the big picture from. What they wanna hear from their boss is, how's this gonna change my job? What's gonna be different for me? And most managers? Have not been put through formal training programs about how to communicate effectively about change, right?
Or how to just manage change on their teams. So thinking about what tools, right? And by tools I'm saying like what talking points? What emails, what kinds of Q and A documents can you provide to those managers? And then train them on, right? Have conversations with them, ideally in advance of the change so that when it's announced to the whole staff or when there's a big switch flip, they're able to immediately start having conversations with their team members about what's happening, what's expected of us, what this means Those tools can also include timelines, right?
So things like for the next month there will be opportunities for training and here are the training our team needs to take. My expectation is that everyone on our team will complete their training by X date and we'll come together and share and ask questions so that way I can communicate back to whoever's developed our training about things we're still not sure about.
It should include regular check-in communications. I think we have this perfectionistic mindset sometimes when we think about it as a launch and then we put out the big announcement that everything's gotta go perfectly. And again, that's an unrealistic expectation, right? What we want often is feedback or questions or concerns that people may have so we can then understand how to continue providing information or support.
That will help address those needs. The worst thing that can happen when you announce a change is that you get no feedback or commentary. Because what that means is people aren't talking to you as the leader, but they sure are talking to each other on Slack channels or teams, channels or texting each other and saying, can you believe this?
I can't believe they're adding one more thing to our plate. So really thinking through, not just that month after the new thing gets launched, but. What do you want to communicate six months from now? What do you hope it looks like and how can you continue to ensure that you as the leader, are showing up and talking about the continued importance of this, sharing some signs of success, showcasing folks on the team who've made great progress or doing great work with this change.
So not just like the project team that launched it, but hey Carol, like came up with this fantastic new report that we're using in our. Area of the business because that was made possible by this new system, right? It unlocked opportunity and information. And so using all of that as a way to continue that forward momentum, get people engaged and motivated because even if they're motivated on day one, it's a lot harder to be motivated two months later when you haven't done your training requirements yet.
So making it as easy as possible and providing those motivating factors is really important.
Carol: And I love that point about engaging with the managers beforehand to help them prepare. It gives them a chance to ask their questions, have their visceral reaction to the plan if they, if they weren't aware of it before so that they can work through their emotions before they're then having to answer questions from their team.
I think there's a lot that is really just taking that step, which, There, there's some steps there, right? That you lined out, but in, in a lot of ways, it's not that complicated. And could really make such a difference in people being ready. thinking about what are the waves of folks as you, as you ripple this out, I think of the The innovation there's a graph, I'll have to look it up on what it is when, when you go from the early adopters to the, to the, the laggard, the laggards are over here, but the people in the middle and there's this big gap.
And oftentimes, to be able to, in an organization, bridge that gap would be to do exactly the, some of the things that you're talking about.
Veronica: And I, I think too, one of the great benefits of the time we're in now is that we have seen that our organizations can change, right? There's been some extreme external pressure for that in some cases, but, organizations that were struggling for a decade prior to considering how they would make telework or work from homework figured it out in an emergency situation.
And that doesn't mean you should keep working under emergency protocols, right? You have to figure out a way to make it part of your. Work going forward, but we have the capacity to change. And so giving ourselves, setting ourselves up for success by not, like purposely doing these things that make change fail is really important.
I think this happens sometimes with executive leaders who, they're not ready themselves. Right. They might get pressure from the board. They might not believe in it. They might prefer their Excel spreadsheets to using a CRM that feels complicated. And so when leaders are not ready and are not willing to hold themselves accountable to doing the things that they ask everyone in the organization to do, they're like, your staff aren't missing that.
People see what's happening. So being. Honest with yourself about, are you ready to do this right now? And if not, what would it take to get ready? What, what does it mean for you to be willing to learn something new? Honestly, a lot of the time now, that might mean that, that doesn't mean that, every single person is doing things the exact same way in the organization, but nothing like we're, the.
The words I'm looking for, I guess, are like, nothing moves more like wildfire through an organization than like when someone is doing a workaround or someone is like, flouting the system and no one's, no one cares, right? Because then they're like, well, why am I spending all this time. Entering data this way or trying to be, trying to follow things.
When, leadership, like clearly it's not a priority for them, right? So it's very, like I talk to, with leaders, I work with about the importance of our, of having a high say, do ratio, right? So if we're saying we're gonna do these things, then we actually need to follow through. Otherwise we're just like having the feel good moment of having addressed it verbally instead of it becoming a real way of life.
And, Change management takes trade offs. It does, and I, a lot of leaders don't like to hear that. They wanna think, well, we can say yes to all these things and get it done. But really great change management requires that we say no to certain things, or we say not yet, or we say that comes next after this part gets done.
It's now that we can't have multiple changes going on at once. But if we overcommit, if we say yes to everything, then none of it sticks. And that means a legacy for you as a leader of someone who had a lot of great ideas, but not a lot of true impact. And I believe we want a sector full of leaders who have great ideas that have great impact too.
Carol: I just, it makes me think of the need to just integrate that and have it become normal. Right. No longer the thing you have to think of or the checkout list you have to look through and read to remind you how to do the thing. It just becomes the new, new normal and. And going back to that, the senior leader's sponsorship, but also commitment to a change.
I mean, a lot of organizations over the last several years have spent a lot of time and energy focused on trying to build and reshape their cultures to be more inclusive. And I'm part of a collective that works on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Work and, and a couple of my colleagues were working with an organization and there were a lot of and mostly we, we were still at the leader level trying to move forward with them.
And it just became clear. Not that they weren't committed, they had the, the say they had that, but there were some ways in which the organization worked and overworked chronically. That was never gonna really allow them to focus on it and do the things that they needed to do to make the changes.
And so we ended up actually exiting out of the project and, and not working further with staff because we didn't want to be in the position where we'd raised expectations from staff without that leader's commitment. To really take the time, energy and, and fundamentally shift how the organization was working to make it possible to do things differently.
Veronica: Well, and there's something really important what you said there, Carol, which is we have to be pretty self-aware as leaders in this space. It's hard, right? Because for many of us who've been working in social impact for a long time, there is a culture around. Well, we have to, we like to use the phrase we have to all the time, and I, as a facilitator, hate the phrase we have to, because if we're saying we have to, it means we actually don't have any idea how we're gonna do it.
But we just think it's important to keep on our strategic plan list or peg board or things like that have to, is not a priority. That's a check box. And so many of these initiatives deserve. More time, more attention, more thoughtfulness. And if we can't give them that time and space, it doesn't mean that they aren't important, but it means we need to rectify some stuff to really be honest with ourselves about what we're capable of, right?
Like we have a constant drive, like a constant productivity culture, right? Like, well, if I. Just do this one more thing for a client that we serve, or if I, I just push a little harder and launch this new program. Like us, we get so spun up in the busyness of it that we fail to recognize that we're actually preventing the change that we're wanting to make happen, happen.
Like we're, we're working against human nature, we're working against how organizations work and that. Sets us up for some heartbreak, right? Like we, when our heart is so big that our hands cannot keep up with that, the appetite that our heart has created. We have to be, we have to be honest with ourselves about capacity.
And that's, talking to leaders right now, I'm really heartened to hear more leaders, more executive directors and CEOs really thinking through, How am I gonna have this conversation with my board? How am I gonna have the conversation with them about how we are trying to do so much that none of it's gonna stick, right?
Or that we're, attempting to like, grab some duct tape and rub a few pennies together and, and make something happen. But like, if your staff aren't well informed, if you aren't an organization that is practiced and changing the way you work. Everything else becomes harder, right? Your staff are the face of your organization to the community, to the folks you serve.
And so like when they're not well informed, when they're not on board, when they're feeling insecure or stuck or out of the loop, that all really flows out into the work you do on the mission side. So, if you're, if you're a leader who's like, well, but we're like the mission and we've just gotta keep going.
Well, right. Okay. But to do that effectively, we have to make sure that the people who power this organization know what's needed, know why we're doing it, and have the tools and information and support to do it effectively. Otherwise, it's just like a bunch of stats we throw in an annual report that don't really mean what we are, what we are hoping to accomplish with our impact.
Carol: You mentioned the have to, we have to do it being a red flag for you that, that it's probably not actually gonna happen. Are there other things that you hear or people say that make you step back and say, oh, wait a second. Let's dig into that a little bit more. Oh,
Veronica: One of my, I mean, again, another big reason. Change fails because we designate the wrong executive sponsor. Mm-hmm. And what it normally sounds like is something like, we really like diversity, equity and inclusion are part of our values. We strongly believe this is important. We wanna be an equity led or equity centered organization.
And our employee resource group, right? Our culture committee. Our diversity committee, they're gonna lead that effort. Well, you. That employee resource group is often staffed by super enthusiastic, really smart, really incredible staff members who probably don't have positional or budget authority to do anything in the organization without the executive team being heavily involved.
And so when we delegate responsibility for leading an initiative, that group can be such an essential part of helping us move forward with change. But it is. Super unfair to put that on the shoulders of staff who already are giving extra time already out of their like willingness and commitment and desire and their values.
Like they wanna make this organization better. They're already doing that. And then you're saying, but we're not gonna give you any of the executive support or the budget or the authority to make any of this happen. So, when I talk to leaders and they're looking to delegate who that executive sponsorship will be like, it's someone without who may not be on the executive team.
I could even be a board member. We have to have a really serious conversation about how well that board member understands the workings of the organization. Are staff willing to speak up to this person to tell them what they think won't work? Because if you can't have honest conversations, As you're crafting these changes, what you end up with is a bunch of people saying yes to things that won't work, and then you don't find it out for six plus months because they're so terrified to talk to the board about it because of how the power structures that exist between board members and staff.
So I would say that's another big one I hear quite a lot. And, and the other one would be more, as we're. It's getting through it right as we've done our, our latch and, and things like that. It'll be people on the training end saying, well, we, we did the training. We gave the training on this particular topic.
We put it together. It worked, but not like verifying. Not having those check-ins about, okay, but what are we testing for Exactly right. What is it that we were training to do? Are we just training someone how to generically use this platform? Or are we training them? How do we use it here? What that means for all our policies and processes, right?
So when different members of the team get very pigeonholed, And while we, we did the training or I made a communications plan, instead of really thinking about it holistically, like we're working together to move this group of humans to a new way of working they are not being like, what I need right now as training or I could really use this piece of communication.
It's all gotta work in an immigrated way. And so, when I hear leadership teams or teams being pretty fragmented right? Or pretty siloed from one another. That's another moment I take to say, like this is an all in thing. We've all gotta be on the same page. If we are expecting the whole organization, like if we can't be on the same page, it's super unlikely that the rest of the organization is all gonna be able to come together around this.
So let's spend that time and energy now figuring out what's needed, but then also how we cross over, how we communicate, how we're gonna bring feedback back to the group. So that we can have the result we're looking for. Right. Which is a new way of working with this
Carol: organization. And you bring up a whole other topic, which is The, the leadership team that is a team in name only, but I don't think we're coming to the end here, so I don't think we could open up that whole can of worms.
But. Any, any, any other you've told us the main things. Let me see if I can name them out. The executive sponsor, you need one. They need commitment. Whoever you're working with needs, resources, and launch is just the middle. How are you continuing to support people as they change their behavior?
What I'm thinking of would be like, how can you create it so it's more of just in time versus a one-time training? Yes, job aids are different, resources, the way that people go now they Google something and they look something up on YouTube for a three to three minute how to do whatever the thing they're looking for.
So, What, what did I miss? Anything or is there one other important one that we need to name? I
Veronica: would just say, a lot of it is do we have all the right resources, right? The right resources for a change include budget. So not just the budget we spent on the new CRM, but like the time, the train, additional training, the additional resources we may need to pull in to help us prepare and be ready to implement this change.
And also the resources include. Really well informed managers, right? Like we, if we think about the kinds of leaders, we need those managers to be and recognize that very often they're not supported in that endeavor, then we can really think about like, how can we ensure that that is our primary thing, the thing we start with, instead of being an afterthought that comes at the end, like these people are the front line.
Of ensuring this change happens. How can we surround, protect, and support them with the right tools and materials? And so, the switching from a project mindset of change to how humans change mindset of change is a really important way of considering change management in our organizations.
And why change fails, like, Humans are not, waterfall Gantt charts. They just, they don't work that way. So how can, how, come on, why not, right? Like, how can we apply the right methodology, the right approach, the right tool to the right situation so that we're not left confused at the end of why things didn't work.
Carol: You were talking, I also had the, what came to mind was the last part of a yoga class where you do Shavasana and you lie down so that you can integrate the practice that you've had from that previous 45 minutes or half hour. Mm-hmm. So make sure that you have that in your not project project.
So at the end of every episode, I ask a, a, a random icebreaker question, so I've got one here for you. Who would you most like to sit next to on a 10 hour flight and why?
Veronica: Oh, gosh, that is so, that's a really good one and so tricky, Carol. Okay, so I. I've been thinking a lot lately about Juliet Gordon Lowe, who founded the Girl Scouts and what she would think about the world we live in now and the position and like, and just space that girls and women take up and what leadership looks like today.
So I think I would probably choose her because when you think about the movements that have truly grown and blossomed and continued to evolve over time, I really think the Girl Scouts are like a huge inspiration. An example of what it looks like to do the modern expression of your mission.
So I would be curious, like to get her perspective on what, what it looks like, what does it look like to her now? Is this what she envisioned? How has it changed? And what, what change was she hoping to make in the world? Because I think. She didn't get to see all of this and what exists today.
So the opportunity to talk with the founder of the movement that has become such an integral part of our society would be really fascinating for me.
Carol: I'm sure that would be, that would be a fascinating, fascinating conversation. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Veronica: I am really enjoying doing a lot more one-on-one work with executive leaders these days. So, as someone with a communications background and then moved into strategy work, I find myself continually moving upstream to say, how can we remove barriers?, what is it that's needed? And I'm finding that so many of the executive leaders I talk to are incredibly exhausted.
They know that. Everyone's looking to them for their vision and direction, and they know it's in there, but they're struggling to get it out and to make time with the day-to-day chaos that goes into running a nonprofit a lot of times. So I'm really enjoying that one-on-one work. One-on-one work with strategic leaders, both, as a strategic advisor capacity and in coaching.
And then I'm also really enjoying spending more time talking to folks like you Carol, on, on podcasts. And I've had a couple of speaking engagements coming up lately and, and some coming later in the year. So the opportunity to write and speak about these ways of improving the ways that we think and plan and work so that we're.
Letting go of the stuff that's not working. We're letting go of the expectations of how things should be and instead being willing to embrace different ways, being willing to say, maybe we did that way, that way for 30 years, but I'm, I'm ready and willing to try something new. So that has been great for me and obviously I really enjoy connecting with folks on LinkedIn as well.
Lots of great conversations over there that you are always such a great contributor to as well. So I love getting to exchange ideas and perspectives with folks who connect with me there.
Carol: All right. Well thank you so much. I really appreciate the conversation and might have to have you back for another one about one of the other juicy topics that comes up through our LinkedIn conversations.
Veronica: I'm here for it, Carol.
Carol: Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Veronica, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 71 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Dr. Orletta Caldwell discuss:
Dr. Caldwell is a passionate and qualified educator and nonprofit management specialist. Caldwell brings more than 30 years of administrative and leadership experience to the CEO of Beyond Existing Enterprises. Highlights of a stellar and diverse career include Executive Director, Camp Baber, and Assistant Professor at Grand Rapids Community College. She has served in many professional and volunteer capacities, including Tech Soup, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), Metro Detroit Council of Christian Churches, Urban Renewal Commission for the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado; Board Member/Secretary, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and the Southfield Downtown Development Authority for Southfield, Michigan. She earned her Bachelor of Public Affairs from Wayne State University, Master of Science in Management from Cardinal Stritch, and Ph.D. in Public Policy & Administration specializing in Nonprofit Management from Walden University.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Dr. Orletta Caldwell. Mission Impact is 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 podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning 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 this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Orletta and I talk about her work with African- American led community-based organizations. We explore the specific challenges these organizations face, what folks need to be aware of when they shift from being a project to being an organization, and why it is so key to understand that even as founder you do not “own”
Welcome, Orletta. Welcome to Mission Impact. Thank you. So I'd like to get started with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you? And what would you say is your why?
Dr. Orletta Caldwell: My why? I grew up. In a black church, save a community, help people that are worse off to you. I have been truly blessed in my life and I've just always wanted to give back, and that's my why. And one of my reasons is funny. I'm not interested in being in the front so much, like, president of this or that, but it was always more to provide resources so people can do what they want. Better. So that's been my wife for a long time.
Carol: I love that. I also am more of a behind the scenes person, so when I describe my work, I describe it as I help the helpers mm-hmm. I'm multiple steps away from whatever help is being done. But, helping them do their work better is where I can then see impact.
Orletta: And that, and that's always been my thing. It. Putting those tools together, coming out of a process, but making other people be able to do their jobs better. So that's why.
Carol: You and I both do capacity building with nonprofits, but you really focus specifically on African American led organizations. What are, what are some of the specific opportunities or, or challenges that those organizations face?
Orletta: Well, traditionally in the research shows, they always say they're smaller and have less access to money. And I had one guy who was at his clinic, it was his workshop, and he said, we're not grassroots. We're mud roots. We don't even have enough money to get grass. And that's. What I've seen so many times, and it's always because they may not know what's going on, and I've always wanted to be this bridge to say it. It even led me to go for my PhD to find out what's going on in the nonprofit sector and take it back to my people, my community. And that's why I've focused on them. I'll work with anybody, but I've focused on African American nonprofits for that.
Carol: What are some of the things in terms of building that bridge that you're helping folks gain connection to or access to?
Orletta: A lot of it is compliance issues, filling out that paperwork knowing that that paperwork should be filled out and it's not so much. If you don't fill out the paperwork, bad things are gonna happen. Sometimes I'm like, because you don't have this proper paperwork, the good things can't happen. You don't have access to the grants and the funding that you could have. You miss out on little things. People don't check your credibility. So I'm really into helping nonprofits stay compliant and making sure you understand the rules. Filling out the charitable solicitation paper. Don't let a $275 fee stop you from getting a 501C3 that can open up opportunities for your mission.
Carol: Because I can imagine folks might start something and it's really more of an informal project or initiative. And, they may not be aware of those steps. So what are some of the steps that people need to be aware of? And this certainly in the US context of to shift from just a, a passion project or to, to really becoming an organization.
Orletta: Well, one thing, I live in Michigan and I'm like, just get your, they don't really understand. Once you get your articles of incorporation from the state of Michigan, for example, you're truly a nonprofit corporation, and now we can work on your tax exemption status, which you have 24 months to do, and they don't really understand that, so they're paying out of their pocket. A lot of them, again, when they file for the incorporation papers, they're incorporated. They don't realize they have 24 months where it can still be considered tax deductible donations to them because you have the intent to file for your tax exemption and so they lose 24 months. Of money they could be receiving, cuz they're like, well we're not, they don't think they're a real nonprofit until they get to 5 0 1 So it's those little, niggling things like that. And then my favorite one is the Founder's Syndrome. They think that this was my dream. I thought of it, I ran it. And when I come into a class and say, we don't run, you don't own a nonprofit. That's not how it's set up. That, that, those are interesting conversations. So it's those little things, and those little things. Having a real budget, planning for that, having a board that's gonna actually help you and not just grab your family and your friends. Those are the things, and it's the small things, but it keeps them from having the impact that they can have.
Carol: I don't know that they're that small necessarily. I think there is a lot of misconception about this notion of being a corporation, but that a nonprofit can't be owned by an individual. Can you say more about that?
Orletta: I always tell 'em that the nonprofit system, what I do with my, I teach a nonprofit management series course I wrote, and one of the things I, every time somebody wants to say, Or get into that groove of I'm the owner of my nonprofit, and it's like no, you are you doing this on behalf of society. The reason the nonprofit sector was set up is that you're supposed to be, you're doing it on behalf of society, and if you do it on behalf of society as a reward, we exempt you from your corporate income taxes. But that's, since you're doing it, it's a higher level of standard. We have to make sure that you're doing that and you're not what we call, getting personal gain from the quote unquote profits. And so we, I'm saying, I always try to pull my students back to, why are you doing this? Because you can be nice and not run, start a nonprofit corporation, and I always tell 'em that too. So if you're doing this, you're doing it on behalf of society as such. There's certain rules. And one thing is you don't own a nonprofit. And actually the board is the stewards on behalf of society to make sure that you're running that organization correctly. And that's how I put it to them so they can understand, foundationally what we're trying to do here. And we're not saying you gotta go. We're just saying, you can't take those funds and have a good party.
Carol: It's a whole notion of being a fiduciary for the board or being a steward of those resources on behalf of, of society, of the larger society community. Which I think. Is that a thing? Gap where people not, may not realize, the intent and the purpose of the non, the tax exemption
Orletta:. there's a little, so many misconceptions about the nonprofit sector. So I just, I just chuckle and smile and it's like, okay, we're gonna get through. I had one student, she cracked me up. She's one of my best students and she's getting grants and everything now, but she was just like, but this is my concept. What do you mean? Can my board let me go? Oh, yes, the board runs it. That's the way they are set up. So a lot of them, and it's a lot of that information. If they, if a person doesn't know it, they just don't be, they don't run the organization correctly. And so I really try to work with that.
Carol: You talked about having a real board, not just pulling your friends and family. Can you say a little bit more about that as people are getting started?
Orletta:. What typically do they do? Cuz this is what I always heard. Can I put my husband and my daughter and my cousin in and I'm like, okay, you can legally yes. However, The board is the people that are supposed to look out for your mission. They're the one. So when you out of organization may be having money issues, it's the board that's supposed to help you get that money. So I'm like, why don't you use those purposes, find somebody who has connections, find somebody who has money, find somebody who has expertise, maybe some accounting expertise or different things that you need to run? Increase the impact of your nonprofit and what a lot of people do when you get your friends, that's what you got, your friends, and then again, you feel like you're the founder cuz you're pulling the whole organization on your back instead of getting some people that can support you and grow the mission. Everything should focus on the. I, that's why I don't like nonprofit terms so much. I always prefer mission based cuz everything we should do emanates from the mission and you should have boards that's going to push and impact that mission together with you and not you got people cuz you gotta fill it out on a form.
Carol:. And that whole question of like, who are you pulling in? I mean, certainly people are gonna start with their network, but thinking a little more strategically about, what skills do we need? What competency, what social capital do we need to move this mission forward? I was working with an organization once where it was essentially. One person was running the organization and the board was made up of a group of college friends. And I think it was fine for the first couple years they were excited, but over time, people became disengaged and because they had friendships, the, the, oftentimes groups are already conflict averse, but it made it even more so because they were not gonna just lose them. They were putting the not wanting to harm their relationships as friends, Over what they needed to hash out as a board. And so they really got stuck, mm-hmm. And so, it may be easy. It seems easy, but It also makes it hard to bring in new people, right? Because if you have a subset that really knows each other and they've known each other for the last 15 years or whatever to be able to come in as a new person, how long are you gonna last? If you don't feel like you're actually part of the group, so, Coming on as a board member for the organization versus I'm doing you this, doing you a favor because you've started this thing. It has a really different motivation.
Orletta: It does. And again, it takes the focus, it puts the focus on the founder and the mission. Right, and I think that's the key thing when you really, I find, when you really think about what is this mission, what are we trying to do here? That focus, if you focus on that, it just changes how you make decisions.
Carol: What are some ways that you found seeing people be successful about getting out beyond just their friends and family to build a board that is really gonna move the mission forward?
Orletta: I even recommended people to who, who's volunteering with you. That really is. Into what you're doing. Those are potential board members. And then I said, you can even put on like indeed.com or even some of the free, I know in Detroit we have like a board. I can't, my brain is like an internet listing or something. So if you're looking for a board member, you can put it on there. And I said, it's fine to find a stranger. You may find a stranger. That's so, that's so much more into your. Thank you. So I, I say, see those people that's donating to you and they don't, you, you barely know what you're talking about yourself, but they're helping you. That's a good board member. That's somebody who's really into what you're doing and really into you too, if you wanna, if you wanna have a good relationship with them. So those are the things I say, find people who's into the mission and wanna
Carol: be, and they're there for, the purpose versus just the person.
Orletta: We're, I know we're a very individual driven sector, but, I think we do need to look at what's the mission. So those are the kinds of things I think about, like who are good board members.
Carol: So you're in the process right now of working on a book about the history of African American organizations. Can you give us a few, I know it's not finished yet, you're probably who knows how, I'm not sure how far along you are, but any, any interesting things that you're researching right now that are coming up and bubbling up?
Orletta:. This is my dissertation. I got my PhD at 20. I earned it in 2021. I was looking at
Orletta: Thank you. I was looking at what keeps, what do African American leaders do to sustain successful nonprofits. But part of my literature review when my chair said, I need you to. On the history of African American and his non-profit history. And here I am, I studied this stuff and all this, and I scoffed and I remember reading that memo and thinking what, what history? And it was just ridiculous. But that was the first thing I thought. And it was even worse because I grew up African Methodist Episcopal, that's the first African American. Over, I think there've been since 1787. So I'm like, what are you talking about?, the Free African society. So as I was looking into this and I was writing this literature review, there was an organization, I think it was the Massachusetts Negro Bureau and I wish I can remember the name, but I know they started in 1693 and that was you. Over 400 years ago, and they've been running, they were running, their mission was to help their enslaved brothers and sisters. And that's when I'm like, we've been doing this. We've been doing this. While enslaved, we've, through reconstruction, civil rights or whatever. And so I talk, I'm talking to a book editor right now. We're hashing out what we're doing and he wants to call it the Invisible History of African-American Nonprofits. And it's been like, for me, it's been like a faith journey too. It's sobering. But hearing li reading these stories and researching stories of these people, Who could have just said, forget it, you're on your own. And it always came back for the community and Randy's organizations and some of these organizations are still in existence cuz I'm looking from 1693 through civil rights. And that's where the book is gonna span from. And that whole entire time there's been pivotable figures and organizations that kept doing the work to keep the community.
Carol: That’s amazing to be able to really bring that history to the fore and that, that the length of that legacy that it's always been there. Yes. It's always been there. It may not have been celebrated, but it's always been there. That's amazing. I'll look forward to it, when it gets published. But you also talked about With your, with your work, with your PhD around what makes African American leaders successful, so what were some of the things that really helped people move forward, bottom line, line, once it got beyond some of the stuff that you're talking about, of that and getting beyond the basics of really being able to succeed.
Orletta: Beyond the bottom line, they persist. I mean, even with the lack of money, the smaller ones. But one thing I found out cuz I, what I wanted to make sure, academically, cuz they always, it was always like some of the research tried to say is we didn't have to have particular skills intrinsically as, black people. And I'm like, okay, I know that's not true. That's stupid. So let me, so I want to find out, what do successful nonprofit leaders across the sector do? Well, they get training, they build boards. They build a team around them. And then I looked at what these African Americans were doing. I had interviews. They did the same thing. And not only did they do the foundational things they knew they needed to do to be successful, build better boards, build a team. But because of one interview in particular, she was telling me how, she got a grant from the state and the program manager didn't think they were worthy of it cuz it was a black organization. So how much harder she worked to make sure that all the dots were crossed and everything was done correctly so that they couldn't say this organization C couldn't do it because that's what she had, had to deal with. They knock on doors hard, more, they have, because we, that's one of the things we don't have access to the boards and foundations like our counterparts. So they knock on more doors. I always tell my students you have to go to functions and you just gotta talk and talk and talk and talk, more and you have to do more. The one thing I did find there is an innate loneliness. Hmm. Because often the community that you're fighting, To serve, don't understand what you're doing, and they'll fight against you, while you're fighting for them. Plus, they're being bridges. They can't just do their job. They have to be a bridge, on behalf of a, a whole group or community, and a lot of times to get into those stores to get the money. So it's a. They have a heavier lift, but they do persist. All nine of them persist. And I interviewed nine people. The one thing I found was this was their second career. Mm, all of them. It was like, so you are interested. Can just retire and go home and say, forget this. Which is always, it's been a trade in the nonprofit field, but none of them came in as nonprofit leaders or anything like that. They just saw a need and I looked at what we call a social contract. Socially, I think it's contract theory, Bandura. And it was something innate in them from their community that they learned that I have to give them myself. And so that was a trade I saw over and over. I have to give of myself, not of my wealth. Black philanthropy is not given of our wealth, it is given what we have, but giving of my time and talent and treasure to help the community as a collective. So you, I saw a lot of that too from that.
Carol: There's an organization that I'm aware of here in Maryland that I think is, it has goals to go national, but a black ed network, black executive director network for African-American nonprofit leaders, executive directors. And I think, anytime you're a leader of an organization, it can be lonely. Mm-hmm, but those particular challenges and to be able to come together and compare notes and, and help each other. Persist. When you get to the point where you're like, oh, I cannot knock on another door. I cannot do my little elevator pitch One more time. Colleagues can encourage you to step, get back up and, and move, keep going
Orletta:. we get a lot of microaggressions. it's that small thing when you go like, ugh, and they go like And you just talk, you don't even say a word and it's like, okay, get back out there. And, and, and that's encouraging. So, because it, it, it's a, I and a lot of them are tired. I can, I can see it. It's like, oh my god. ? So, but they just keep doing it. I have this one woman, she runs a garden program and she's teaching sixth graders. She should be sitting in her rocking chair having a good time, and she's trying to teach sixth graders that I don't even wanna be with to show them how to plant a garden so they can sustain their lives in this neighborhood that has food.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. And, being able to bring the whole career experience to the sector, I think so, but then there is that gap, right? Of mm-hmm. Not knowing all the nuts and bolts about this particular sector, how things work, what's different about being in a for-profit business versus a nonprofit corporation, all those kinds of things. Yes. So appreciate that you're, you're addressing those items.
Orletta: That was my real goal. I mean, one, the, the great, one of the greatest things I feel I've accomplished is, is this, it's just a seven week course. I teach at community college, a local community college, but now I can do it virtually too. And it just, in seven weeks, we hit on every aspect of what it's gonna take to manage a nonprofit. So it's not like you're gonna be, I'm proficient now. I've got it. They come out with a one to two page blueprint for the organization. And so I've taught the class enough now that I've had students that use that blueprint. So now I have data. We love data. Yep. I have data to show that I know what I'm talking about. And if you put a good effort into this, you can get your nonprofit running and be compliant. And, some two of them have gotten grants and are working on programs. And I
Carol: I love that. It's just a one one to two page road roadmap? Keep, keep it simple. Keep it moving, right?
Orletta: Yes. That, and that was my thing. And when they do their presentation at the end, I only give them 15 minutes. I'm like, if you can't tell me in 15 minutes what you wanna do, you don't know what you wanna do. And they get frustrated, but it's like, no, you only need 15 minutes to tell me what you're gonna do. That's all you need. Right.
Carol: What are some other things that you found in your studies, beyond persistence? What were some other things that stood out?
Orletta: Is it for me? The difference between white philanthropy and black philanthropy. I did the presentation, I was at my job at TechSoup and I, we were an, they were asking me questions and how we can get African Americans, more leadership and stuff. And I was like, okay. And for somehow we got into this conversation about, philanthropy in general, and I said, you have to understand why philanthropy, and I don't wanna be critical, but basically it was a bunch of robber barons that, raped and pillaged the land and, gathered their resources, got rich, very wealthy, had to clean their past, and now they give their wealth and then their spouses had some jobs, they had something to do. I said, versus black philanthropy, we didn't have a massive wealth, we gave her what we had, washer, women, janitors, porters, gave off what they had and we gave it to us, the collective. And the one example I always use, I used to run camp Babe. That was the ame church's camp, the way that camp was. To be purchased was one of the members. The lady put a second mortgage on her home for $16,000 back in the forties, and that's how the AME church got that camp. So obviously it wasn't, she wasn't wealthy, she mortgaged her home. And so you can see the disconnect and the difference between how, when we look at philanthropy a lot of times, Organizations is to keep, literally keep our communities alive and fed. Like the one woman, I said Detroit is getting better, but we have some food deserts and she started a community garden and she lives in the neighborhood. Actually, this neighborhood I grew up in, it's the land of time and people have forgotten, but she's determined not to forget them. And so they're not, they don't have this proclivity. Community organs. D, she makes them, she actually runs Mimeographs almost and go up and down the street and make people show up for block club meetings. And she's out there in the summer with sixth graders when she should be at home, drinking lemonade, pushing people to keep their properties up and that stuff. So that was the thing I learned. It is just this, it's a life or death situation. One of my students was taking money out of her pocket to feed her. So now I've taught her how to get a domain and she's got all her paperwork now so she can have somebody help pay for this cuz she's literally feeding the children in her neighborhood during the summers. And then on holidays she does neighborhood dinners. Hmm. So, that's the kind of, those are the differences and the things that they're doing, and they do it on very little. Like when he the guy who worked for I o b, it, when he said mud groups, it really is, I mean, they're taking so much that muster seed of faith and just pushing it.
Carol: Well, thank you. Thank you for all you're doing. At the end of each episode, I ask an ice, a random icebreaker question from mm-hmm. A box of cards that I have to ask some questions about. So what would you say is an interesting tradition that your family has
Orletta: tradition interest? Oh. Or unique. My daughter and I, oh, my daughter and I, every time my daughter is an alumni at Michigan State University go green. We go, when they play Northwestern in Chicago, we've, for the last five or six years, we always go to that game. No matter how cold, how hot, whatever. No matter if the Spartans are doing well or not, we always go to that game. We spent a weekend in Chicago and we went to the game and we sang the fight song on the EL train with the rest of the things, and we acted very obnoxious. So it's just something we do, and it's like every other year. It's like, well, they're playing Northwestern again. Okay And we go. Awesome.
Carol: So what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Orletta: Well, the book is coming together and it's so funny imposter syndrome when a book editor is like, taking you seriously is talking about, I'm like, oh, so this is actually good. So I'm excited about that. Like I said, I like to be in the background, but I am being considered for ED for a role. So I'm, but it's, it impacts everything I've ever done in my life. So the mission is totally what I'm into. So lemme see if I'm well ready to go to the front again. But those are the things I'm excited about and my daughter moved back to. Oh, nice, nice, she's my only, so. Yep.
Carol: I've got an only daughter too, but she's trying to train right away, so.
Orletta: Good. Okay,
Carol:. All right, well thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast and I definitely once, once the book is out, we'll have to have you back and have another conversation about that history. I'm definitely interested to learn more. Okay,
Orletta: great. I love to talk about it. You can say I'm, I love, it's just been, it's been life changing, so I'm, I'm looking forward to it.
Carol: I appreciated Orletta’s reminder that no one owns a nonprofit organization. This is a basic concept but because both for profits and nonprofits in the US are organized as corporations it is easy to confuse the two. For nonprofit corporations, everyone involved – especially the board – is stewarding the resources for the good of the community. The mission or purpose of the organization that has a public benefit is why the organization is given certain privileges – tax exemption for example – or the ability for donations to be tax deductible. I also appreciated her tip for founders to get out beyond their friends and family as they recruit board members. Those folks might be easy to get involved with – but do they really want to be part of your organization to support the mission or to support you, the founder? Board members need to be recruited for their support of the mission and what time, talent and/or treasure they are going to bring to help you move your mission forward. I can’t wait until Orletta’s book on the history of African- American nonprofits and philanthropy comes out. I think it opens a lot of eyes to a history that has always been there but hasn’t been fully told.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Dr. Orletta Caldwell, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Riveria Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 63 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton focuses on healthy organizational cultures with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 63 and the first episode of 2023 of Mission: Impact. This is the second part of a two part highlights episode. Our topic today is healthy organizational cultures and what gets in the way of them. I am pulling clips from conversations with Anne Hilb from episode 36, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows, Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall, and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson. We talk about why it is important for leaders to invest in themselves and consider getting a coach, why paying attention to power dynamics and naming them is key, and why it's important to realize that it takes time and investment to shift a culture away from less healthy practices.
Mission Impact is 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 podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning 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 of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Reva Patwardhan explains why many nonprofit leaders struggle with the idea of investing in themselves for executive coaching even though as the leader they have a broader impact on the organization and thus shifting their own behavior to healthier habits can have a big impact. As Reva points out it is in service of the mission.
Reva Patwardhan: The nonprofit sector, for whatever reason, has been behind. And really recognizing how important it is to invest in leaders, as individuals, as human beings. And that is what leadership coaching is. It's really investing in you. I think that's why it's hard for people. It's hard for an executive director to say, Hey, I'm going to spend some money on an executive coach because it's really for her. It is for her in service of her mission. And when I coach with people, we do have the mission centered in our work, but it is for her and her ability and her passion and her values. That is part of the process of what we're doing to serve the mission. In order to center your own wellbeing and your own development, I think it's a hard thing for a lot of people to do. We're very much conditioned out of that. And I do work with a lot of women but very much conditioned to always be giving to others, not to ourselves. And that is what coaching does.
Carol: Deneisha also prioritizes coaching in her practice in working with organizations trying to shift their cultures. Leaders have few spaces where they can be safely vulnerable and coaching is one space where they can own up to their own struggles.
Deneisha Thompson: Executive coaching and making sure you have strong leaders who are positioning themselves to learn and grow and be responsive to the needs of their team. Leadership is so, so, so important in building a culture. And when I do coaching with executives, I really try to work, to create environments where people can be honest and vulnerable. What I've heard from so many leaders is “I know that I have room to grow, but it can be really isolating as a leader to get the type of support that you need.” So who are you surrounded by? You have your staff who work for you you're supposed to know what you're doing. And so you don't really wanna be vulnerable with them and say, you know folks, I don't have this, so I'm not sure about this. I don't really have experience in this area. I'm not really sure what to do. No leader wants to tell their staff that they don't know what to do. Then you have your board who is supervising you, that's not necessarily the space where you also can be vulnerable and honest about your opportunities for growth. And then you have your colleagues who are other leaders of other organizations, and you definitely don't wanna tell them most of the time that you don't have it all together. And so. It becomes really hard for leaders to get the type of support that they need in order to be good leaders. And a part of that is also not creating systems to get feedback from your team around your leadership. And it is one of the most common things that I see that leaders are not getting evaluations.
Carol: I have also seen this. Even when an organization has a positive culture and the executive director has cultivated a really healthy relationship with the board. The board may not see the need to provide the leader with feedback if things are going really well. But that is not the time to sleep at the wheel – Recalling the conversation about feedback from episode 62 – feedback is both positive and constructive. Both are needed for the leader to learn and grow. And coaching can provide a safe space to confront one’s shadow side as Deneisha describes. Coaching provides a space to practice slowing down and being more mindful of the intentional response you would want to have in a tough situation instead of just reacting out of fear or anger or frustration.
Deneisha: Let's get in touch with your shadow side, because we all have one. It's never really the thing. We're proud of stuff, but what happens is it shows up at work and your teammates see it, and they don't know that. We do a lot of work around, who am I as an individual? How do I show up? When things come up change my reflex. So I am not automatically thinking about the external factor or the person who caused this thing or caused me to be frustrated. My first instinct is to be reflective and think about , how am I showing up right now? How did I contribute to this thing? How do I calm myself down so that when I do go to have this conversation, it can be productive and get us to a better place and not just be like a way for me to vent and, and, or feel vindicated. So I think it really just takes a lot of intention.
Carol: In the safe space of coaching you can shift from just venting to thinking more productively about the situation and how you want to show up in the future. Reva also notes that Younger leaders coming into positions have higher expectations for their role and what it will contribute to their career. They are not as willing to put up with poor working conditions that previous generations have become used to.
Reva: There is a wake up call going on for the sector. If it's not happening already, it's going to very soon because there is this emerging sense that people don't wanna put up with any of this crap anymore in their jobs. It's getting harder and harder to fill the position of executive director. In the for-profit sector being a CEO is seen as this glamorous thing. I think part of that is because of the ridiculous salaries and we don't necessarily wanna model ourselves off of that. Part of it is that they have resources, they have support to do what they need to do. In the nonprofit sector, [when] becoming an ED, you should feel proud. If the mission matters then so do the people who are working for the mission.
Carol: It is too easy for folks in the sector to prioritize mission over people. In the for profit sector, the call is for people over profit. In the nonprofit sector – there needs not to be a binary of choosing one or the other. They go hand in hand. If people are treated well and have good working conditions, they will be able to do that much more for the mission. And if you have been in a position of power in an organization you may forget your impact as Anne Hilbe points out. You may be aware of all the things you cannot do, and forget the agency you have. Yet staff will be waiting to watch and see what you do. Remembering what your position brings with it and being cognizant of that and willing to admit the privilege you have to just proceed with a decision at times is important.
Anne Hilb: Those who would be doing the asking have much less power in the organization. The folks with formal power and titles need to really understand the power over that they have , and take ownership over that. The understanding of that power, because I think oftentimes we are a manager or in the C-suite, or even just have informal, formal power or hurt in that we. Are positioned to take power in a manager position purely because of the type of role that we have, because it's a more formal desk job and it can roll into a manager position or because we have Privilege. We tend not to recognize that. And so working on that, understanding in an organization or just as an individual is really important in order for these shifts to happen.
Carol: Those power differentials are just one of the aspects behind how we see the world and the lens that may become invisible to us. Your social identities such as your race, gender, sexual orientation, class and education status all impact how you see the world. And you cannot assume that we all see things similarly or are having the same experiences as Danielle explains.
Danielle: We need to be able to. Understand that we are not all seeing the world. Similarly, we are not all having the same experiences. There is this really interesting thing in the US where [because of] the melting pot everybody's supposed to blend together. Therefore we all have to be the same. I don't agree with the fact that we should all be the same but beyond that, it was never true to begin [with]. There are different cultures. There are values, there are different beliefs that people bring to the table. There's just simply different understandings of the world. To not look at that is a detriment to us because yes, we may have gone through the same situation, but how we experienced it is vastly different, so we've all gone through this period of COVID right now. And depending on who you were. So did you live in an urban environment? Did you live in a more rural environment? Did you have a stable job or were you one of the first people to go on furlough or lose your job?
Carol: Reva speaks to an additional element of the differentiation that Danielle names – being the only. This puts additional pressure on the individual as they are often then seen as a representative of a larger group. Or having to engage in a circumstance where others have set the unspoken rules and standards.
Reva: The problem is the fact that you are the sole member. You're the sole representative of your community. No one else in the room looks like you, you're the only person of color in the room, and that's the problem because you feel ashamed of the anxiety. You're trying to solve the problem yourself. Trying to hide the fact that you feel the anxiety. It's actually very normal to feel anxious in that situation. That's not the problem. I think people in this situation – this is just a very ripe moment for imposter syndrome. They might be thinking , someone else could be doing this job better. The person who was in this role before me did it better. Or they might be thinking , I'm the least competent person in this room, which makes it feel like this is a problem with me. That's just paralyzing. What I do is, I help people take their power back and find their voice. Part one by realizing you're not crazy. This is a genuinely hard situation. You are not broken. So taking your power back [and] finding the things that you can do in your immediate sphere to take action.
Carol: Shifting from the individual level – and thinking more broadly at the group and organizational level – starting a process to examine the culture and start to dig into the challenges – and then shutting it down. Or just letting it fizzle due to neglect or the initiative getting over run by other priorities – can have a really detrimental effect as Terril and Monique describe. It can actually be even more damaging than doing nothing – because staff get their hopes up about positive change. So if you start a process – be in it for the long term.
Terrill Thompson: But it's really, really damaging. To open it all up, bring people's hope up and then nothing changes.
Monique Meadows: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals, here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they don't first feel like they're crazy? Like this is actually happening. What agency do you have? What power do you have within the system to make the changes? That's also a part of our work is to see at all levels within the hierarchy that there's some power there. And so how. With the role that you have, how can you move this along so that you can move closer to fulfilling your mission?
Carol: Starting with an organizational assessment can help get things out in the open through the conversations that are sparked by the findings as Deneisha explains.
Deneisha: I do an org assessment to get us started. And I always pride myself. It's similar to supervision and with the evaluation that at the end, when someone gets their org assessment and you share it with the leadership and share it with the team that it should feel familiar, it shouldn't feel like, like a bomb just dropped and there's all this new information. But oftentimes the response that I get, people get their org assessment and they'll read through it. And they're like, yeah, we knew all of this. And it's almost as if they're expecting it to be a document full of secrets and things they didn't know. And that says to me, these are issues that everyone knows about. We know the landscape of where we are, but we don't have a system for us to have that conversation, which is why we had to hire a consultant to come in and tell us where we already know. And we could have elevated in a landscaping conversation if we just had a team that was able to communicate and talk to each other. And so it'll be like their assessment. It'll have recommendations. It'll have questions for further consideration. And I find, oftentimes the staff are like, this is amazing. I've been saying this for years. And then the leadership is. Oh, we, we knew some of this or, , it's good to see it, or you really captured , our organization
Carol: All these processes have the impact of slowing things down. Stepping away from the day to day work and the to do list and examining HOW you are doing the work and the why – not just the what is something I talk about often on this podcast. Reva also describes the benefits of taking a beat.
Reva: The ability to pause and to actually say, , I'm a leader in this organization and I'm gonna decide to actually program into my day to day and set boundaries, time to reflect and pause. And that is a priority because when I do that, I'm better at my job. A lot of times people are truly experiencing urgency in their work. There's urgency coming from somewhere. Often people are working with, or serving communities that are experiencing urgency. It can sound bizarre. Who am I to slow down? Why do I get to do this but one of the things that can happen with coaching is you start to see, oh, this actually is gonna help me be more in service than I currently am, because it'll help me. See the forest rather than just the trees. If I'm constantly moving from one task to the other, I'm never able to ask the big questions, or if I'm asking the big questions, I'm not able to do anything about it. There's the undercurrent of frustration there of, there are things I'd like to do and there's no space to do.
Carol: Whether it is pausing as an individual or taking the time as a group to really dig in and get vulnerable with each other – it takes an intentionality and investment as Monique shares.
Monique: Groups say they want to do the organizational culture work. They bring in folks and. When they realize that the depths of time, like the amount of time, like the kind of commitment and the vulnerability that is really present, they shut down. Groups also don't always have the resources to really invest the time. Right. Folks are pulled in a thousand different directions. We found that to be one of the challenges. Are you really able to commit the time and the resources, the people power to be able to dig in and do this.
Carol: But as Danielle notes – it is feasible – it is possible – and there are folks already doing it.
Danielle: Some people are doing it every day. They don't necessarily stop to think about it. If I'm working with a group that is dealing with food insecurities, and they're also trying to tackle, let's say racial equity systems, they're not stopping the feeding of people. That work continues, but they are allocating time to sit down as a team to review the policies, to begin to look at data, who works in this organization. What's our retention rate based on the disaggregated data, are there certain demographics that are promoted at higher rates to are maybe leaving the organization? Or even hired into the organization at that point. So they're doing both sets of things and I, by no means, would say it is easy because it is an intentional carving out of time. But the people that are able to hold those two things as truthful and important in the moment, those are the groups that I see having the most success.
Carol: It is possible – and it is also important to recognize that we are all caught in systems that are not working. The wider system is broken yet we need to keep working to create a better world – internally for our staff and externally in the mission we are pursuing. Deneisha describes some of the challenges that come with working within that broken system.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally they don't treat each other well, internally they have a toxic culture, internally they have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued. What's the real issue around why you are not reaching the impact that you hope to have both in communities and kind of internally as a team. Again, the through line of that is culture. You need to have a culture that is going to allow you to get to the impact that you want to be able to grow organizationally, to be able to support your staff so that they are able to do good work. These communities cannot wait for you to figure it out for you to have these tough conversations and learn how to work better together so that you actually can achieve the type of impact that everyone is working so hard to achieve on a daily basis.
We blame the government. We blame communities. We blame each other. How do we reduce the culture of blame? Everyone has to have skin in the game. Everyone needs to work on personal accountability and everyone contributes to whether or not we have a healthy culture.
Carol: It can be hard to face those realities and it is easier to look outside of ourselves to blame others, blame the system. Yet as Terril points out, we need to give ourselves grace. We are human, we will make mistakes. And we are able to acknowledge those and keep moving forward.
Terrill: when we show up as full human beings who make mistakes, who are learning along with the client, people trust us more because we're not robots and neither are they. We need to be all in it together.
Monique: We look at the multiple aspects of identities. As we do that, we invite people to look at the places where they have identities that are privileged identities and the places where they have identities. [They’re] oppressed. In terms of the modeling and the transparency that Terrell, and I do, we share our full selves with folks. Acknowledging that I have certain identities that are very privileged. I'm a US born English speaker. I live a middle-class life. And I have identities that are oppressed. I'm black, I'm a woman. I have a disability. What we do is, we invite people to look at their whole selves, not just through a single lens. And so. That really shifts how the conversation happens for groups. ? So you've got, white folks who are used to being in the conversation where they are the oppressor. I mean, that's, that's what we're working with here. We're saying, well, actually, you're more than that. You have many identities that you're holding where you're impacted by systems that. Take power away from you too. We bring that kind of conversation into a group when we're talking about equity and we find that for the folks of color, for the trans folks, for the LGBT folks, It's a, it's a new way of looking at ourselves. It's really powerful to be part of those moments where the group's like, oh right. Because there's so much fear going into conversations around equity. We've found that that type of approach kind of that's what the fear go away, but it definitely just creates compassion for each other.
Carol: That grace, that compassion we need for ourselves and each other will fuel the way forward. Then we are more ready to step in and have the brave conversations we need to create healthier cultures. As Deneisha points out – it is everyone’s job. Whether you are the staff leader, on the board or part of staff – you can do your part to contribute to your organization having a healthier culture. Remembering that it takes time. Allowing ourselves to get the help that we need. Finding safer spaces to have tough conversations. Bringing in someone from the outside who can hold up a mirror and help you look at yourselves – for the good, bad and the ugly. All of these actions are small yet important steps toward building braver organizations.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with the guests highlighted in the episode, the full transcript, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 61 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Larry J. Robertson discuss:
Larry Robertson is an organizational development and certified governance consultant who specializes in helping nonprofit and state and local governments assess, plan, and improve organizational strategies, governance, leadership, and talent. His work includes organizational assessments, strategic planning, strategy coaching, nonprofit board development and transformation, and talent management. He tailors services to fit the needs and aspirations of each organization through an appropriate mix of analytic consulting, coaching, training, facilitation, and product development. Larry has extensive experience offering these services to organizations that range from small, startup nonprofits to large, mature state and municipal agencies. He has an M.A. in Human Development from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Miami.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Larry Robertson. Larry and I talk about the fundamentals of healthy nonprofit governance, red flags that governance needs attention, and why boards should be hearing from and interacting with more staff than just the executive director
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome, Larry. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Larry Robertson: Thank you, Carol. Good to see you.
Carol: So I'd like to start the conversation with helping people get some context of your background. So what would you say drew you to the work that you do and, and what motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Larry: I mean, I think the simplest answer is, is having discernible impact. And I, I, I know we're gonna talk about governance some, but I came that route somewhat indirectly. Okay. I was sitting on a board some years ago and We were nominated for an award. We ended up winning the award. And as a result of that, we got two free trainings. I was one of the people who went to the training. Then out of the two of us, they asked, Well, who can sit on the committee to select our winners for the next year? And so I was that person who didn't step back when they were looking for volunteers. And I ended up being on that committee in 2012. And, and they haven't gotten rid of me yet. And as a result of that, I was on a board that had a significant impact, but that was the impression that I had. But then as I started to learn more about governance, I started to see just how significant an impact the board can have by what it does or what it doesn't do. And we can talk more about that.
Carol: Excellent. You often work with organizations around board development, around governance, strengthening their governance. What would you say are some of the fundamental elements that folks involved with non-profits really need to understand about non-profit governance?
Larry: I think there are probably a couple of things. One is the fiduciary responsibility that a board has, is one of the paramount things. And then one of the things that tends to happen is that boards. Play out how they carry out that function in either a range of ways, one of which can be very onerous and they can be over-involved in the organization and down into the weeds of it. Where if they have competent staff, they don't really need to be there. They need to play a different role and be complementary to the staff. The other one that is equally dangerous is when they fall behind and don't play an active role and pay attention. The detail and one of the biggest ways that that happens is by not observing the extent to which the organization has the capability to survive and then preferably to thrive. Cuz what my work focuses on is how do you actually get organizations to thrive? The sweet spot is the great spot. And that's where boards recognize that they have this, august duty to be the fiduciary body of the organization. But they also are strategic partners with the executive leadership. They recognize as a fiduciary body also and strategically they recognize the need to kind of. Ensure that the board, that the organization has sufficient resources to operate, that there's this clear vision to a path to the future. And that their focus is as much there as it is about the inner workings of the organization. And they look for results to come back to them rather than the detailed process pieces. And, some of the conversations I have with people are really about the concerns they have about the role that the board plays. And if those rules of engagement aren't clear, you can get a lot of fuzziness, you can have 11 people on a board, and they all have 11 different interpretations of what governance entails. And so a large part of what I try to do is some level setting of really trying to get down to things like what's the purpose and do we have a shared understanding of the purpose, the roles, the responsibilities of the board. And then, then we can talk about tactics of how you actually make it work.
Carol: Absolutely. And you started out by saying fiduciary responsibility and I'm, I'm could, could you just define that for folks?
Larry: I mean, you're the stewards of an institution and that means that you have a range of duties, duty of care, duty of loyalty, all those things. But more or less, what it basically means is that the institution is within the grasp of the board and that the board really can be looked upon as the chief responsibility officer. They actually represent the highest level of responsibility within that organization, legally and morally so to speak. And so they need to make sure, much like parents need to make sure that. Their family is taken care of. When you send some of your kids off to college, you wanna make sure that the university takes care of them as well. And so there's a, there's a really August responsibility that you have as a board member and people as they consider board membership, they really do need to take that seriously because legally they're the ones that are gonna be responsible for that institution. And I keep calling it an institution because of some boards. Look more toward the leader and not as the institution, the cause, the purpose of why we're actually having this non-profit exist, and that is really typically supposed to be the paramount reason why the organization exists. It's so easy to get caught up in all those interpersonal things and either, trying to be out front of the staff leader or following the staff leader or, depending on the stage of the organization. They may not even have that yet. But I think a lot of folks go into board membership leadership without really understanding. How they are on the hook for the organization, its purpose. And not necessarily the, the, the people the individuals that happen to be there, happen to be around the table at the time. Although, of course, those individuals have so much impact on whether the organization is thriving or not, particularly if they're founders. And if, if I'm on a board and looking at a founder, I have to look at this as if that is their baby. That is their brainchild, and you have to respect that. At the same time, that can't be the only driver of how you operate. And so you wanna be respectful and it's a really delicate balance to strike.
Carol: And, and I think you've already named a few of those, but what are some red flags when you're coming into organizations that signal to you that governance is weak within the organization?
Larry: Well, I'll say that governance needs opportunity strengthening for improvement. . I think some of the things are: lack of clarity about the purpose of the board, whether the board is really in the game to have true impact, or if it's there because legally you have to have a board in pretty much every state. The extent to which the board members are engaged, and that would mean that they participate in strategy setting. That they recognize that their role is complementary. To the staff, but distinct from the staff that they also have some sense of where the organization is in its development. And that is one of the things that we can get hung up on is some of, I think you and I have talked about this before, some of the orthodoxies that people follow, everything is situational. And if a board recognizes that the organization is at a particular place and its development. It needs to govern according to that and then where it's headed after that point. So a very new board or a new organization that is getting its footing needs a different level of governance than, say, a board that, an organization that has. 20 years of experience resource rich and has, really more existential strategic concerns at hand. The other thing is the extent to which boards have made the simple decisions about what participation entails. What including expectations around whether you give, you, get funds or those sorts of things. And so basically at all to the extent that the roles. The purpose, the responsibilities of the boards are clear and that they actively make a meaningful impact on the organization. And so those are some of the, some of the key features, I think, and the extent to which they actually view themselves as a cooperative body and collaborator with the staff is one of the things I'll look for.
Carol: A couple things in that, that you talked about. I was working with an organization and, and I generally am working with them around strategic planning. I think one value is that those of us who are consultants that go from organization to organization and, and have some of that perspective around, around a life cycle, a typical life cycle of a nonprofit, they were going through that very common transition from a completely volunteer board. They'd had staff for a little while, but we're still struggling with roles and responsibilities and, some of the founding board members wanting to have things, the way they'd always been when, when they did everything. And just being able to share that construct of you're going through a very typical transition, it calmed everybody down. Mm-hmm. because they'd made it so you know about the personalities in the room versus just the very typical organizational transition that they were going through, and how then roles needed to be renegotiated and, and rethought. So I really appreciated that. And then you talked a couple times around the complementary role of the board and staff and then having a collaborative Engagement with the staff. And one of the things that I've seen where some of those orthodoxies around board governance maybe have been misapplied have been where some of them work around. The executive director, as the only staff person of, that's chosen by the board and then that real bright line between board and staff that that can be, can become so, Hard and fast that the executive director is really the pivot point and neither group talks to each other. And so then that, to me, I've observed where that just puts so much power in that executive director role that it can be really harmful to the organization.
Larry: I think that it's a communication, but more or less it's a management leadership issue around permeability. It's true that the board does oversee one person, which is the exec, the chief exec. However, that is not a hard and fast firewall. A good board is gonna be inclusive. And it's gonna be comprehensive in where it gets its information from. It's gonna get that information from staff as well as external parties as well, who have a vested interest in the organization. So I'll, so let's base it on, what I've seen is the high functioning organizations and what they typically, what you'll typically see at the board meetings are open staff who are welcoming and sometimes actually have a role in those. They pay very particular attention to key staff, particularly financial staff in, in board meetings because they have a level of insight that is contributing to board's decision making. They will play a big role with development people. And oftentimes, I know at least on the board that I was on, we would follow the lead of the development person and the chief executive. And so there was a very close relationship there. They'll pay a lot of attention to what's going on programmatically, but only in the sense of not getting into the machinations of programming, but in terms of the impact that the programs are having on the population that they're intending to serve. And so that relationship tends to be really collaborative in the sense that the board needs to make, needs to deliberate and take certain actions, and they can't do that in a vacuum. And the chief executive. A good chief executive will recognize that they don't have to be the expert in the end all in the conversation. And so they will invite into that conversation the people who have the bird's eye view of those particular areas. And that will inform the board in making, really having well rounded deliberations because the staff will be right there in the mix of that conversation and there, and there's a clear distinction between who has voice and who has vote. What a tendency in these really high functioning boards, a staff board and other people that they invite into the conversation have a voice. At the end of the day, the board has the vote, but the question is, what does the board have the vote on? And so that brings to another chapter in the conversation, which is how do you make a clear delineation between that, which is the provide of staff and that which is the provide. The board and while they might have conversations that have some overlap, who takes action and makes decisions is gonna be, should be clearly delineated. It makes it, it's not as nice and neat as I'm portraying it, but to the extent that you can get it close to there, it will make for a better partnership between the two parties. And there will sometimes be some tension, but tension isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means there's a resolution that needs that's around the. If you work it the right way.
Carol: And I think what I've observed is folks really wanting it to be a very bright line and, very. And, and so struggling with the ambiguity of, is this ultimately a board responsibility and role or what role does the staff have in it, especially around strategy, aligning to the mission and those kinds of things. What have you seen where organizations have, have done a good job of, really setting their, their strategic alignment and being inclusive and yet, honoring the responsibility the board has with that fiduciary.
Larry: I can think of a couple of recent examples from me of organizations that have won the board leadership award, and they both, they actually both have, they have a couple of things in common. They serve marginalized communities by and large, and they were large organizations that decided to make huge changes. Their physical plant, including one, in one case, the place where they serve, because where they served really affected who they served. And they made changes to partnerships. And so all of these things came into play that affected how they looked at what their mission was and any shifts that they made in mission. They had those conversations in concert with the staff and the communities that they served, so they weren't just doing it in isolation. They engaged very thoughtfully in a very planful, intentional way over a significant period of time and made these significant shifts in that. Put them on the line in terms of how they raise money, what they raise money for, the partnerships that they created to create these new physical plans, because they actually had to do that in one case, the organization moved from one part of DC to a different part, and that was a radical shift, and they basically referred to themselves as a placed based organization, but they had to get staff aligned with that. Both of them did if they recognized it in order for them to make the major shifts, they were pretty bold moves in both cases. They had to adopt the mentality and an orientation and a practice of full ownership. Of all partners, staff were partners. Not these, not something, they weren't doing things to staff, they were doing things with staff and in the end it made their success more apparent because they were able to accomplish these, these, big things. And, a few years out, in both cases, they're actually now, you know, prospering as a result of that relationship. And they don't have the types of tensions that a tendency when. Are not, they're not necessarily an afterthought, but they're not engaged in the processes as genuinely as they should be. And staff will know if they are really owners. And it's, and I make the distinction between owning and buying in, It's great to buy into something, but you actually get a whole lot more bang for the buck when you can get everyone to own it because they actually are part of the making of it. And, and I think in these cases, that's the difference.
Carol: . And I, the way you're talking about it when it's, when folks are trying to really, I think find that, that perfect bright line of, the, what's, what's on the board side, what's on the staff side. There's the, there's often To me, what it comes down is, is power dynamics and the healthy relationships that you're talking about are more of that partnership, more of that power with rather than power over. And so really appreciating that we all have our different roles. We're not gonna all be doing exactly the same thing, but if ultimately we're pulling in the same direction and, and own those decisions I think that makes a huge difference. But it takes a lot of trust. I'm, I'm working with a group and there's, there's a lot of questioning around all, all the different basic VO vocabulary and what do people mean by each thing and, and, and to some extent, I, I'm curious about what the real level of trust is with between the different parties that's there,
Larry: You said something, Carol, that I think triggered something that I hadn't thought about as overtly as this before, and that, and you basically described emotional intelligence. Maybe a different twist on a question you asked earlier. What would I, what do I see in those boards that really work well? That's actually one of the things
Carol: Is it the board members and those and the leaders all?
Larry: It’s an emotionally intelligent organization.
Carol: So say more about what an emotionally intelligent organization looks like.
Larry: Well, one of the biggest things is that everyone is gonna be mission driven. I'll give you another example of one of these organizations, and they just blew us away. When they were coming up for the board leadership award a few years ago, they recognized that they were at this inflection point, some time ago, that they had lost a significant funder. They were doing work both nationally, internationally, and thought that they needed to, really focus and make a shift. So it's a part of their strategic plan. They did a couple of things. They wanted to focus more on really serious aggressive development of raising funds. So they brought a couple of people onto the board who were, and one of whom I know. So it's like if they got hurt, then they were rocking . They got these two high level development people on their board and they started to create this whole path of development as a part of the board membership. But one of the other things that they did that I thought, One of the most emotional and intelligent and mature things I've seen is that they actually set out a plan to fire themselves as a board.
Carol: Say more about that.
Larry: What does that look like? So what they essentially did is they set within a certain amount of time, each member of this board will be off of the board. And I think it was maybe about three or four year period. And at the time that they came up for the board leadership award, we, we were talking to the last two or three members of that original, that previous board. Both of whom I would put on any board on Earth, quite frankly, they were just that good. But the thoughtfulness and the selflessness behind what they did was just so admirable. It was one of the few times in the interviews and boards, I didn't ask any questions and at, and at the end I asked my committee mates, Can anyone poke a hole? And we are a really critical group, , and the room went silent and they, and it was just because they had that, they had, they were just pumping on all cylinders. And that was a good example of how the organization from staff to board recognized that culture is based upon leadership, and leadership is dependent upon the emotional intelligence of its.
Carol: And what they did there sounds like they were really intentional about essentially succession planning for, from the board point of view and, and really building a, a pipeline and, and seeing their exit versus, I've gotta stick around cuz I was here at the beginning.
Larry: Right, and they also understood what drove them was, they looked to the future and said here are the competencies, here are the skills, the, the experience, the attributes that we need to have now and into the future. And I know you and I did the piece on succession planning with another group and that it sounds very familiar, doesn't it? That they looked into the future and said, this is what we're gonna need. . And so let's now start to prepare for them, and that is like one of the biggest things that a board can do is to be, and that is really one of the charges as a strategic body. What a board should be able to do is to start to project and, and, and you don't do it with a crystal ball because life does interrupt, but you wanna look into the future to the extent that you can and start. Look at, what aspirations, what challenges, what opportunities are down the pike and who's around the table to help us address those things. And that's what the, and that, and I think in the, the cases that I've presented so far, that's what the boards have done, is they've all been really very intentional about recognizing what the future might look like for them and how they can have an impact on that future by making, smart strategic decision. By incorporating the input from different sources of information, data, people, et cetera.
Carol: And one of the big things that has been demonstrated through research over and over again is how White, top organizations are, especially at the board level and, and that disconnect between the folks who are sitting around that table and the purpose of the organization, who they're trying to serve. And, and, but that, that lived experience not being centered in the conversation. So I think a lot of organizations are really grappling with that right now. And, and it does take some emotional intelligence to realize, Okay, it may be time for me to step aside.
Larry: True. And because the question is who are you serving? Are you serving self or institution? And in each of the cases that I've talked about so far, it was very clear that these really high functioning boards understood what their purpose was. That their purpose was not about them. It was about the mission. It was about the people that they serve, and they put that above all else.
Carol: Well, that's why I started each of these conversations with a question around why, because it's, it's just so important.
So at the end of each episode I play a game where I ask a random icebreaker question that I have a box of. So. I always put out three so I can just grab one from it. So what mistake would you say you keep making over and over again or, what lesson does the universe keep throwing in front of you that you have to learn over and over again?
Larry: Let's see. Only one?
Carol: One's good enough for today.
Larry: I think the one that I remind clients of that I have to keep reminding myself of is that it is around the concept of the stages of change. And I know if you're familiar with what Percha and Clement's work and recognizing that you can't always jump into action mode if. Haven't gone, worked through the processes and basically the stages of change. Talk about pre-contemplation, where you're thinking about thinking about it, and then contemplation, and then you're actually thinking about it and then planning and, and, but much like most consultants, I have to take a step back and constantly remember, we're not ready for action yet because they are not emotionally, mentally at that place. And so I have to keep reminding myself. The process begins is really about figuring out where someone is in the stage of change and getting them to move from that. Your task is to get them to move from that stage to the next, not directly to action if they're not ready for that. And so I think that is an age old thing that most consultants battle with. And we have to, we actually have to pray on it, meditate about it, or whatever. It's a level of mindfulness that's important to keep driving us.
Carol: Always a question that I have for myself is, am I doing what I'm asking my clients to do? Am I doing it myself and staying true to that? Or am I just yapping about something? ? So it's an important thing to remember. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Larry: I think I've. Finding these opportunities with these small startup organizations and I'm finding some real stars. There's one I'm working with now that I've been really excited about because they've only been around since 2018, but they have already progressed beyond the thinking and how they have actually put together their pieces. They've already passed a lot of organizations that have been around a lot longer because they do something very simple, which is that they listen. And they ask questions about what they should be doing, and it's like, Oh, I love these. And they're, and they're a group of young people and young people of color. And so they, they've, they've gotten my attention. And there's another project that you'll probably relate to this, that. I'm working with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in the DC Bar, Pro Bono Center on, it's putting together some sort of a package. We haven't put together this toolkit yet on helping folks think through the process of starting a non-profit. What you experience, what I experience as consultants is that we walk into habits that have already been formed. And so what this initiative is that we are trying to kick off probably in, in 2023, is to get them on the thinking, the conceptual stage of it, and to give them a good running start to include the recognition that you need to have the right people on the board to. They may not be the people who are gonna be on your board three to five years from now. Right.
Carol: And start that mentality from the very beginning.
Larry: Understanding the developmental stages as an organization that you're gonna go through and what you need now and what you need as you move on toward, having your feet solidly, planet on earth will be a very different type of dynamic. And some, in some cases it may mean that the founder may need to shapeshift into a different role as.
Carol: , I really appreciate folks who are founders who realize that that's their energy, that they're really good at getting things started, but not necessarily the right person to stick around for a long time. And they may need to go start something, a new thing or, or they become
Larry: The face to voice, the passion of the organization. It depends. I mean, it depends. And someone else can operate it. And that happens a lot with the people I've worked with. Arts groups, particularly performing arts groups, and that tends to be, what they do is they siphon off the artistic part from the organizational part, right? And they have this bifurcated management structure, but it works for them as long as they, again, have clearly delineated roles.
Carol: Exactly. Well, you mentioned the board leadership award. It's, and it's the org I think it's the organization that you mentioned, Center for Nonprofit Advancement in DC which is essentially the, the state non-profit association for the DMV area and I'm on their other awards committee, so for full transparency, the one that looks at the executive director and the CEO of nonprofits. And, and, in that, in those conversations we're having the same deliberations and the people that end up winning that award really have that Emotional Intelligence, but also I think the emotional maturity and health to be truly collaborative, both with staff and with the board. So. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast. It was, I, I really appreciated our conversation.
Larry: Thank you. And I'll think about that last question again.
Carol: I appreciated Larry’s point that while the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff need to be clear – they are not a bright line – and there should not be a firewall between board and staff beyond the executive director. This is always a balancing act because it can be too easy for board members to get too far into the operational aspects of the organization or start acting like a staff member’s boss when that staff member reports to the Executive director. So it is messy – and needs frequent attention and likely renegotiation as the organization grows and matures. I also appreciated Larry’s point around cultivating open communications throughout the organization. That for the culture to be truly impactful and collaborative – board members should know staff and likewise. The executive director should not be the sole source of information that the board relies on. I have worked at organizations where staff were literally prohibited from speaking to board members unless they were on the senior staff. To me this is a red flag. It points to a very controlling and top down culture. What is the ED afraid of in that case? Perhaps it is inappropriate complaints by staff going to board members? And if so – is there a safe and clear way for staff to share their feedback and challenges? I have experienced executive directors so closely managing what information was shared to hide real challenges within the organization from the board – to the point in one case where the senior management almost bankrupted the organization. So communication, trust, collaboration and transparency – all things that will result when the folks involved in the board – staff partnership that undergirds healthy governance have the emotional intelligence and maturity that Larry mentioned.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Larry Robertson, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it! And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 59 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Hugh Ballou discuss:
Hugh Ballou works with visionary leaders and their teams to develop a purpose-driven high-performance culture that significantly increases productivity, profits, and job satisfaction. through dramatically decreasing confusion, conflicts, and under-functioning. With 40 years as musical conductor, Ballou uses the leadership skills utilized daily by the conductor in teaching relevant leadership skills creating a culture that responds to the nuances of the leader as a skilled orchestra responds to the musical director while allowing each person to excel in their personal discipline while empowering the culture.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Hugh Ballou. Hugh and I talk about what defines leadership and why moving from idea to action is so critical and too rare, how influence is key to leadership, especially nonprofit leadership, how communication flows within organizations are so important, and why they are too often ineffective.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Hugh. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Hugh Ballou: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Carol: So I like to start to give people some context and just ask you what, what drew you to the work that you do, and what would you say motivates you? What would you say is your why?
Hugh: I am a leader because I influence people and I enjoy helping people who are visionary create the skill set and the tactics to be able to influence other people because out of every a hundred people have an idea, only three people do something about it. And so I really like working with non-profit leaders cuz they have such great programs and ideas, but they need what I have to be able to accomplish their work and completely fulfill their mission rather than getting stuck partway.
Carol: . So you, as you said, specialize in working with leaders and particularly non-profit leaders. And there are lots of books about leadership. There are lots of people who talk about leadership. How would you define leadership? What does the word mean to you?
Hugh: Well, I spent 40 years as a musical conductor. And people perceive the conductor to be a dictator. That doesn't work very well in today's world. you got a bunch of union players in an orchestra, you paid 'em for two hours, they're gonna leave in two hours. Whether you've accomplished what you wanna accomplish or not, they're not very sensitive. Like, Oh, I need two more minutes. No, you've paid us for two hours. We're going. So we're not a dictator because we got this little white stick. You can't really make people do anything. What you can do is influence people to function at a higher level. So leaders have a position of influence and we influence people to work in the vision that we've defined. So a transformational leader transforms ideas into reality. Transformer leader is the whole methodology of transformational leadership is focused on the culture of building high performance.
Carol: You talked about influence. What, what are some ways, what do you see as being effective in influencing the group that you're trying to lead?
Hugh: If I'm in front of an orchestra and it's not, I'm not getting what I want, then I need to go look in the mirror and work on myself. If I'm at a board meeting as a non-profit executive, and it's not going well. Well, maybe I haven't been really clear on where we're going. I haven't been very clear on everybody's role and responsibility, and I have not been very clear about how I expect them to step into this place of performing. And so I've created a look for, for look, performing culture. Just by my lack of preparedness, my lack of understanding, how to motivate and engage people. And right there if I'm prepared, I'm on time. I'm enthusiastic, I'm an expert at what I'm doing because I've studied it and I've worked on myself, then people will respond in kind. It's the reciprocity of what we do as leaders.
Carol: . And you talked about vision within that and. Sometimes an organization could be led by an or with a, by a leader that has a really strong vision. But it seems to me that reciprocity that you were talking about, of helping everyone see themselves as part of that vision, building a shared vision is, is also so important. How have you seen that work in organizations?
Hugh: Well, that's essential. Here's an example. Now leaders have the vision period, but leaders don't do it alone. And leaders wanna get other people to ratify that vision and then come back up with a plan of how to get to that vision. So your vision is the idea that what about, what are you doing? Center vision. Transforms leaders, transforming organizations, transforming lives. So we, it's a transformational process. We do this in our, our mission through, through coaching, through planning, strategic planning, through, leadership empowerment, through board development, et cetera. So We do it because we've got a team behind us and I created the vision. I've had others that have created parts of that to apply it. So we send the vision out and then people come back and they might have some modification of how it sounds because it's gotta be really clear to everyone. So we, we, we'd accept those modifications so it's clearer and. We've been to namby pamby and it needs to be more profound in the language. So we negotiate those changes and then it's up to everybody. So you're in strategic planning. If you, if you write a strategy and you give it to the board, you've completely cut 'em off at the knees. They cannot engage because it's your plan, not their plan. So we guide the planning process. They participate, and once they start creating these, these parts of the plan, they own it. And what goes on in the culture that we orchestrate, That's my word. I'm a conductor. We orchestrate that system. There's a whole shift in the culture because we've co created the plan based on the leader's.
Carol: I think that co-creation process is so important when I'm working with clients non-profit organizations, and it's usually the board and staff working on that strategic plan and, and vision. And, sometimes they'll want me to write it at the end, right? And I like literally no, you. This is your plan. You need to, you need to craft it. I can help, I can guide, I can provide feedback but it's gotta be yours. So that piece is so important. You've mentioned being a conductor a couple times. What would you say having been a music director, having been a conductor, what, what has that taught you about leadership?
Hugh: People respond and we can create problems. We can make problems worse, or we can make it very clear so people know how to respond. And so the culture is a reflection of the leader.
Carol: . And that culture piece is so important. I've noticed that recently there's been so much conversation about folks going back to the office. Sometimes people trip and say they're going back to work. Well, we've all been at work for the last. Two and a half years. That we're going back to the office because we need to have culture. Forgetting that when you have a group of people, you always have culture. What are some things that you've seen leaders be able to do to really build effective cultures?
Hugh: Well, and many leaders in this time, we were separated for two years plus. Didn't miss the Olympics, they just went virtual, but they really created systems. No matter where people are, we could be engaged. So my teams, I guess your teams too are pretty much in different continents all the time. They have people all over the world. And so it really amplified our presence. It's so, the culture piece is that relationship piece. Now, in a musical ensemble, like other ensembles, there's a very clear culture. If I wanna say something to the violin, I talked to the concertmaster, and I said, They need the bowing to do this. The concertmaster turns around, interprets it in violin talk. There's a certain language they use and I don't just say, Hey, you over there do this. No, there's a very clear protocol there. And it's a very clear protocol that you start the rehearsal with the concertmaster right on the lick of the hour cuz there's somebody from the union there. So you start now and you end now. So it's my job to get the work done in the time allotted. So this is a very clear culture and nobody criticizes the conductor. People raise the bar on their performance and they try to do it. The culture respects the leader, which is the conductor, they play as the leader intends. If they don't respect, they play exactly as they direct, which could be choppy. Which could be fragmented. So there's a, there's a relationship piece that defines the culture. And they respond to the person because I treat them as individuals and respect the individuals. So the culture is the center vision, is my brand. It's the synergy of the common vision. So if we go through that exercise like we talked about a minute ago, of, of defining not only the, the milestones that you want to achieve, your ultimate long term objectives and your short term goals, and those milestones along the way. Then we've got this, this energy, which really sets the bar for the culture cuz now we're working together and we see how we can tag team on things. So it helps you prevent these things called silos where some people are working independently and not connecting with the community. Lack of communication is the biggest problem. And most nonprofits I've seen in 34 years of doing this and nobody. Why it's there cuz we haven't created the messaging and then we haven't created the relationship. Because sending an email doesn't cut it. Seven percent of the message is in the words. Seven. And so what about all the rest of it? So you make sure that they understand it. So part of culture is creating that respect for one another and the relationship underneath what we do. We aren't what we do, we are beings, and so we look at the tactical stuff and skip over this human being part of it, which is so critical to a leader.
Carol: , absolutely. And building those relationships. , I feel like every organization that I've ever worked with talks about, communication challenges or silos. And, too often I've seen the, the recipe or the, the solution to that being a restructuring or reorganizing, which really only, it shuffles the deck for a little bit and then people reorganize back into new silos. So I, paying attention to how, how do we bring people together in a cross-cutting way? Or if there's a really, if there's a very clear protocol on, as you had gave that example of I'm gonna talk to the concert master and they'll talk to their folks, that the message chain, but most, most groups are, the non-profits are, are relatively small, small teams, informal. They don't necessarily have a lot of really strong protocols, but they can still, even with a small team, get siloed if they're not figuring out ways to have the information or go across functions and share information in a useful way. What are some ways that you've seen leaders be able to set up some of those cross-cutting mechanisms to really help with those communication challenges?
Hugh: When you have, like we have boards that come together and board meetings, you don't work at board meetings. You report on what's happened and you structure the next happening. So you work between meetings and the biggest mistake is we try to dig into the work in the meeting when we really need to spend time talking about what we're doing. And that's where you start fostering. Cuz I'm working on this, somebody else is working on this, somebody else is working on. Different, but there's an interdependence in all of that. And so if we start talking about what we're doing and say, Okay, here's what I could use from the communications committee. Here's what I need from the finance committee. I'm doing marketing. So we start, Bridging those gaps by saying, This is what I need. And by the way, I've created this data, which the two of these committees will find helpful to other committees. I wanna send this to you cuz it'll save you duplicating the work. And so thinking about the reciprocity of how we work together intentionally. And then when we have committee meetings, We never think about the specific messages that need to be communicated, others. So I insist that when we end meetings, any kinda meeting, there's an exercise. What's a message that somebody needs to know? Specific message for somebody who wasn't here, and you start thinking about, Oh, Soso needs to, oh, so and so, and then, okay, then who's gonna tell 'em? How will they tell 'em, or when will they tell 'em, we need to happen before the next meeting because there's some stuff here they need to know so they can show up at the next meeting. Or it's their responsibility to find out, well, how are they gonna find out? And unless we create the message and then send it out. So having somebody that's the communication clearing house, somebody. Y better if it's a staff person, but sometimes there's some really good volunteers that do that work and are better and want to step up. So what do other people need to know that weren't in the room? And then how will they know that? So being intentional if you do that in every meeting and insist on that, that does a lot to start closing that.
Carol: . Well the other thing that made that, as you were talking, sometimes meetings would just be one update after another and, and people aren't necessarily asking the question of how do all these things relate? And there may be somebody in the room who thinks that way, so brings it up. But thinking about and asking the question intentionally about what are the dependencies? How could we, What, what does one project have to do with another, could, could bring that and, and also help people stay awake while they listen to all those updates. Cause that's another thing. I know I can, if I'm in a meeting, that's all that I sometimes will, will get distracted and so I'm not following where the opportunities are for intersection.
Hugh: And there's, there's a, there's a rest. There's also how much people can take in one sitting, right? So we tend to want to dump all the information at the meeting when in fact, when you send out the deliverables for a meeting, I suggest deliverables are not on agenda. So we talk about stuff. So what? Let's get something done. So if you shift your paradigm from agenda to deliverables, we're gonna accomplish abc. People go, Oh, that's just semantics. No, it's a paradigm shift. We're not gonna be guilty of activity. We're gonna be charged with and, and driving. Results and people like that. And so if you say, Okay, two days before meetings at seven, here's another thing people know they're supposed to be on time and we say stupid things like be on time. Well, they know that. So instead of saying, We're gonna start a meeting at seven o'clock, You could say to them, Okay, we normally start at seven. We need to get more done this time, so we're gonna start early. So please be ready to go at 6:59. And people go, Why do I come in? Well, if you come at seven, you'll be late. And we're starting. So that gives them a specific time because seven o'clock is sort of, Oh, it's around. And we know we're a little bit late. They're gonna wait for us. No, we're starting at 6:59. So our job is to start on time. So the communications start with. We're gonna start at 6:59. We're gonna be through at 8 27. So we have to state that commitment. But if we're specific and we say two days before we're, we're gonna talk about fundraising. So we're gonna, we're gonna, our deliverable is to, to define five. Strategies for increasing our revenue by 25%. That's very clear. So we've defined five strategies. Now we have that as the number one deliverable. Now my job is to go backwards from that and figure out, we brainstorm, we sort common ideas, we prioritize the ideas, then we make a plan, and then we assign it to a committee to do the details. And so our off limits are, What we're not gonna do is the details of those plans, cuz you can't do all that work and do the details of the plan in the same. And we shouldn't. It's not a work meeting. So we've defined the brainstorming work, so we define what we're gonna do there. So the other communication piece is what meeting is it? Okay. It's brainstorming. All ideas go, it's sorting, it's focus, and then it's planning. So there's three different activities, and we need to be clear on what we expect people to do. Two days before we send that deliverable. We may have one or two others, but we're gonna do this so people know when we leave, we're gonna have completed these, this, this item, and then we send them any relevant information so they can come prepared. So it's like a conveyor belt. It's going, We get on the conveyor belt, we do the meeting, and we get off. And so we've helped. Get smart enough to have the data to make the decision, so we don't download a bunch of stuff at the same time and expect people to process it, think of the questions and make decisions. That's just not good.
Carol: , I really appreciate the reframing of an agenda to a set of deliverables and being really clear about that. Sometimes I've seen items on the list of things to talk about if we're gonna discuss this today, or we're gonna have a brainstorm, we're not making any decisions today and be clear about that. Right. Be clear about what stage of that conveyor belt you're on. But the way that you framed it in terms of we're gonna do x for this result, I. For me it would be more motivating to then do all that prep than I might otherwise leave until 6:45 before the seven o'clock meeting to feel like I can show up and, and be helpful.
Hugh: I use storyboards. I use regular paper cut, regular paper in half from the printer, and then I spray a board. It's it's report boards from the office supply, and then everybody has markers and they, everybody's working, so they're not looking at the back of my head when I'm writing on a chart pad, the energy of the room dies and you take one minute, one minute, one minute, you've wasted 15 to 20 minutes in a board meeting for people looking at the back of your head. So if you took that 15 minutes and used it for people, they can, they can write simultaneously and we put the ideas up. They're active, they're creative, they're participating. That changes the culture more than anything. So people say, Oh, that's silly. You should use Sharped. That's the industry standard, Well, that's also the industry problem. And so if people are engaged, you don't have time to sleep. Plus, if you send them the data, then we're gonna process it. And then up in the B top I'll say, Here's the question we're answering or brainstorming around. And I'll brainstorm and they'll say, We're gonna take these cards off the board. We're gonna move 'em over here, and we're gonna group 'em by topic. And so it's sorting it, and then we're gonna move those over into 1, 2, 3. It's a plan. Some things, like you said, we're not making a decision. It's information. Only. People need to relax and just be able to receive the information, so it's our job. To communicate what we're doing and we don't do that very well.
Carol: . Most folks don't think, Another trick that I've seen a colleague use: have them finish the sentence. By the end of this meeting, we will have achieved X and, and be really clear about what those outcomes are. And I use that all the time to just. Get that end state, what, what's the, where are we aiming, where are we aiming for just in this 45 minutes, what's gonna be useful? Where are we gonna get?
Hugh: You form the culture. You rehearse the, like seven, seven guys jump over a wall and ask our race and they change the tires, fill the cast and whatever else. Adjustments in their back over the wall in 13 seconds. And they rehearse that and everybody has a role of responsibility. 13.1 seconds. Driver's gonna lose a spot in the race. And so we need to have that fine tuned. So the other defining piece of a culture I call guiding principles. When we do, you do strategy, we do core values. And core values are essential in that we have to be aligned. And if people aren't aligned with the core values, anything gonna work out. So personal core values or organizational core values and. Those are static, usually. Integrity, honesty, fairness. So that we, I take those another step that's essential. Then they quickly become useless because it's static and people have different ideas of what that means. So we shape those in what we call them. Guiding principles so that shapes how we make decisions. Like one non-profit that I worked with had had a school that didn't teach standardized testing in Virginia, and their students went on to college, made the honor roll because they learned how to learn. They didn't just learn how to regurgitate in a test. And so their number one guiding principle was, we will not accept money from any donor that wants to change how we educate children. E. Guideline for making decisions. So they were aligned around that principle. So we don't think about the principles to apply those values to the decision making.
Carol: , absolutely. I mean, I think naming those values is just a first step. And then having that conversation about, well, what do you mean by integrity? What do you mean by respect? What does, how do you know? How am I gonna know whether I'm being respected? How, how do I receive that? How do I show that to me? And then the other piece around the guiding principles creating some set of. These are the decisions, these are the things that we're gonna map anything against for a decision. So that, so that we're having some consistency around how we're, evaluating new opportunities or new challenges is so important. . So one thing I love to do at the end of every podcast episode is I have a box of random, well, they're not random cuz there's a box of icebreaker questions. But I've got a couple here, a couple here, and I'm gonna grab one for you and I'm gonna ask, the question I'm gonna ask is, what's the last thing you bought for under $50 and you love and use?
Hugh: A burr, a manual burr grinder for my coffee beans. I'm a coffee snob and you have to have a burr grinder. So all of the granules are the same size, so you extract the majority of the flavor. So it's a little hand crank and I'm gonna use it tomorrow. I'm traveling and I have an electric one for home, but it's a little crank one. And it's essential because we all know hotel coffee is terrible.
Carol: Well, I will have to look that up because I also am a fellow coffee snob, but I don't often grind my own. So I'll have to try that and see if that's a new innovation. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Hugh: Emerging is, I just finished a leadership symposium where I live in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had people from around the region come and attend. I had 12 faculty members that
were just out of the box. Brilliant. And if you wanna be a good leader, you surround yourself with better people. And I could, I certainly have done that. So I'm excited about the next chapter, getting people in. We have this community for non-profit leaders and how we get together. It's a free community off of social media, so we don't have all that to mess with. And we talk about leadership and we talk about how to help each other. So in the south we say none of us is as smart as all of us. And that is true, even though we have our own language.
Carol: All right, well you send us a link to that and we'll make sure to put it in the show notes so people can find it. Thank you so much. It's been great to talk to you.
Hugh: You're a great interviewer. Thank you so much. It was my joy to be with you today.
Carol: I appreciated Hugh’s points about defining what deliverables you need from a meeting. I saw a study on LinkedIn recently from Korn Ferry that found that employees spend an average of 18 hours per week in meetings whether in person or virtual and managers spent 22 hours. That is close or more than half of their hours at work. The same study found that a third of those meetings could have been skipped. The study estimated $100 million a year for a single large organization. That is likely large in for profit terms – thousands of employees.
So which meetings on your calendar could be an email, or a short video created using a platform like Loom? And which need to be redesigned.
A key step is to define the purpose of the meeting. Why are you getting together? What are you hoping to accomplish? How are you communicating the purpose? Are folks clear what the expectations are for the meeting? Are you brainstorming? Narrowing options? Making a decision? Looking for intersections across different functions work streams?
Be clear about what your goals are and use the mad lib I learned from a colleage – by the end of this meeting, we will have [Fill in the blank].
This is all especially important for those regular team meetings or other regularly occurring meetings – check in on those – do they have a clear purpose? Does the purpose need to be reconsidered? Nonprofits run lean operations generally. So your Time, money and energy is precious. Taking a critical look at your meeting schedule is a good place to start.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Hugh, his full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 54 of Mission: Impact, Carol celebrates the podcast’s two year anniversary by doing a best of episode about executive leadership transitions. We talk about:
Guests and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Today’s episode of Mission Impact is a little different. To celebrate my two year Pod-iversary, I am doing another “best of episode.” Today’s podiversary episode focuses on leadership transitions - a topic that has been the focus of several interviews. We will be hearing from Elizabeth Woolfe, Carlyn Madden, Don Tebbe and Andy Robinson. We talk about the types of transitions that organizations experience and how different leaders approach those transitions, why it is so important for leaders to make space and groom the next generation of leaders, whether or not having an interim executive director is a good idea, and how those exiting the leadership role and those entering as new leaders can prepare themselves for their new chapter.
Mission Impact is 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 podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning 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 of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Leadership transitions come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of factors will go into what type of transition the organization is facing. One of those is the attitude of the leader, others include the lifestage of the nonprofit – is it a start up? In a growth spurt? Is this the first transition from the organization’s founder? Has there been ongoing transition on the board side, not just the staff side of the organization?
Don Tebbe is a leading expert in nonprofit leadership transitions and with Tom Adams in many ways founded the field of executive transition management. He has written several books on the subject and we will link to those in the show notes. He talks about what inspired him to focus on this aspect of nonprofit management.
Don Tebbe: In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I was trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place. To really, to do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life.
Tom and I put together this program two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors, cuz those, those are some of the. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there and, I think it's just, it's a space where governance, executive leadership, and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity really, to address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. When we realized that we needed to be working with organizations earlier, before they. That moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. What are the characteristics of these high ity organizations? those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment and the impact. And what's going on in those organizations came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that was vitality. And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and board leadership that the board hires the executive, the board, is responsible for, shepherding the mission and shepherding impact.
Carol: Leadership transitions really do impact all aspects of the organization and are an opportunity to take stock of how leadership is being shared – or not- across the organization – between the board and executive director – between the executive director and staff.
I appreciated Andy Robinson’s challenge to organizations and their leaders. His question goes to the heart of thinking about, planning for and preparing for transitions. And normalizing this process, instead of thinking of it as an anomaly.
Andy Robinson: One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the work of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge that many organizations are perpetual organizations. Hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? Then I say, are you gonna be here for the victory party? And of course everybody laughs and says, no, I'm not gonna be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not Actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition.
Carol: If you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. This is a real call to action for leaders – because very few are really putting this front and center as they lead their organization – or their movement. To dig deeper into how different people approach their leaving, Don Tebbe has reflections on the different common styles people take.
Don: The hero's farewell, and he outlined four different characters, four different profiles.
ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything was gonna be just fine. Governors who went on to other big jobs and left the organization behind so forth. Monarchs, they are gonna be carried out feet first. Stewards, what I see most of in the nonprofit world. People that can leave gracefully, but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization. So I encouraged department executives to think of themselves as stewards, and they're gonna hand off the organization to the next steward.
Carol: For those starting to think about their exit from leadership, which of these avatars will you embody? Will you be a monarch, an ambassador, a governor or a steward? And how ready is the organization as a whole for change? How are you cultivating shared and new leadership on your staff and board? Without this, the board – who is charged with finding the new leader can be ill equipped for the responsibility as Elizabeth Woolfe explains.
Elizabeth Woolfe: If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. And it really, that can be a real recipe for disaster because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board coaching and board development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, like sheep following the leader, to something that becomes what's more appropriate for a later or iteration of the organization where they're, they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills.
Carol: Andy Robinson echoes Elizabeth’s points.
Andy: You and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years. Term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that even if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this.
Carol: Don advocates for the staff leader to take the reigns in planning their exit.
Don: You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I go to try to clarify that doesn't mean you suring the board's authority and trying to force in your handpick success or on the one hand, nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship they want with this new executive, paying attention to how that handoff and making sure that the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive.
Carol: Carlyn Madden explains some of the work her search firm does to prepare the groundwork for the needed changes.
Carlyn Madden: On the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents. To get a sense of the lay of the land or does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, see staff members for membership association, the actual members of the association, key volunteers, possibly even program participants. We're talking to funders, we're doing a survey, we're doing one on one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It's just, it's gonna depend on what the organizations are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what. What was really stellar about the LA person in this position?
What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that often needs too often, staff culture is a big east. I think we're really going through a virtuous time. Rightly so. In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader.
Carol: She also comments on what has often been missing from how boards approach executive searches.
Carlyn: What hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect individual organization. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the The thesis banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon.
Carol: Andy Robinson pointed out the mission critical aspect of grooming the next generation and preparing a leadership pipeline. We talked about some specific actions that leaders can do to start that process.
Andy: one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand it off. I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the medical stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center
when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's gonna lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda. Cuz the ability to, to run a meeting, facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. Don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way. And often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space?
Carol: One thing that I would say to every leader – you can start creating more space for others to lead by one really simple yet challenging act. Do NOT be the first to speak in a discussion. Wait a beat. Wait two beats. Even when it feels awkward to be in silence. Let others step in and share their perspective before you. If you always go first – most likely everyone around you will be sharing in reaction to and in light of your contribution. I observe so many leaders dominating conversations and not realizing the impact they are having. By doing this, they are leaving a lot of good thinking on the table from those around them. If it feels super awkward – tell people you are going to do this – and have them hold you accountable.
If you do try this, I would love to hear some results of your experiments.
As Elizabeth points out, your leadership pipeline doesn’t have to only be inside your organization. You can be looking to cultivate leadership with those in your wider ecosystem.
Elizabeth: If it's that organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that but most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not.
Enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession, but it is always nice. And, I encourage organizations to do this, to have sort of a. A running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in, in a search or someone who would, they, they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough.
Carol:. Carlyn also talks about how those wider networks and ecosystems are so important for effective searches. As well as tapping into a variety of networks.
Carlyn: Hire by hire and talk about some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographic has not actually changed. And so what is required are that the conditions of executive search have to change.
we're very firm in that color transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not actually building out networks, multiracial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying, who do you know in this space. That would be a good executive director because there's so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles. Our networks are very homogenous. If a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for it. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors.
And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Carol: Carlyn also talks about the differentiation process of what is essential for the executive director role and what is there because of the current person in the role.
Carlyn: What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible heights in a very small period of time, short period of time. But there are also things, their pet project. And the board recognizes it to some extent but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay.
Carol: Interim executive directors is something that organizations going through a transition should consider as an option. There are consultants who do nothing but interim work and can bring their experience to your organization. But our experts were not totally in agreement about interims and their value.
Elizabeth: The transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to, to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next. I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason. And, and especially with a founder, and a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies and or, and when you make pancakes and, and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, It's like that. If you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. The statistics about, especially following a founder for new leaders coming in and not being successful is really shocking.
So the interim can really be that bridge very successfully. For all of the reasons that you just outlined, it's like a palate cleanser. It's a good thing to try. The most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. And oftentimes that's the best reason to have an interim. Because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship building and relationship cultivating as the leader was. And it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Don: I've been listening to your interview with Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of interim executive. Being the standard approach for an organization now, that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations. For a lot of organizations that just doesn't work, you've got fundraising relationships that you need to hand off, or you've got key government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, you know, having an interim in there and doing that hand off twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work.
Carol: Carlyn and I talked about the danger of a new executive director becoming an accidental interim – especially if they are following a founder or a long term ED.
Carlyn: Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys? Or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because this person can help steward and.
Steer the organization's operation and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their position they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's sort of. Accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there for a much longer term. Maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of opportunity.
Carol: The glass cliff, not the, just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, you women, women of color, especially being offered the, the impossible job. Yeah, exactly. And then people wondered why they couldn't.
Carlyn: Where women are called in to clean out a. And then have an impossible job out of them. And then our, their performance is managed in a way that is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, or the challenge ahead.
Carol: As Don points out it is never too early to start thinking about transition and succession. It is not just a process to follow or a set of steps. In William Bridges work on transition, he describes three phases that people go through - the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning. In our action oriented culture, we often think we can jump directly from the ending to the new beginning. The liminal - in between spaces of the neutral zone can catch us off guard. It is messy and confusing. And all through the transition, you can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Don describes how this impacts leaders.
Don: the executive really should initiate the succession. Process and rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. You probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people four, three to four to five years ahead of their departure. A lot of times, executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process to me, there's no ambiguity. You got three jobs. Job number one: lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're gonna retire, have something magnetic that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: Don talks about how many leaders are caught by surprise by the emotional element of the transition – and I would add - everyone in the organization is going through their own emotional roller coaster too. Don tells a story that illustrates just this point.
Don: He was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and.
Said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never gonna leave this organization. I'm gonna go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but you know what I mean? It really upset the apple cart. And I think it also makes people feel whipsawed. It can be a real stew for the staff and ripe for people, some of your best people, to look elsewhere because they're questioning their career. The future with the organization and, and there's always questions anyway will we like the new executive? Can we trust the board to pick the right person for a job?
Carol: I appreciate Don’s comment about the leader preparing themselves for the next step. In our conversation, Andy described his own process of succession and transition into retirement.
Andy: I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring to other people or jobs. I don't get anymore, cuz it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who wanna enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and I've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants. Black indigenous people of color as a way of supporting social justice and equity.
Carol: Carlyn and I explored what emerging leaders can do to get ready for an executive director role and what the board needs to do to set the new leader up for success.
Carlyn: if you're an aspiring ED, this is your time to shine. But if you're a board know that, that it's gonna be very additive to get the right person. So you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in this situation where they're negotiating a parallel job offer. You have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table, all sorts of things. If somebody is looking to ascend into an executive director role, the board is paying very close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing. What are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first week? How are they let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members so that that's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I will meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to be a happy hour,
We also do 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director, and the board chair.
Carol: The topic of transitions seemed super relevant as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. As the going impacts of the Great resignation, great reshuffle keep reverberating through the economy. And the nonprofit sector as a subset of that – feeling all those transitions too. We are also I think – finally in the much anticipated generational transition as boomers retire and new leaders step into the limelight.
If these clips intrigued you and you want to go back and listen to the full episodes from each of the people featured in today’s best of – Elizabeth Woolfe’s is episode 12, Carlyn Madden is 27, Andy Robinson is 21 and Don Tebbe is 32.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the full transcript, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything that you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 53 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Reva Patwardhan discuss:
Reva Patwardhan is the founder of Greater Good Coaching. She works with nonprofit leaders who’ve followed their hearts into careers of service and advocacy. She helps them discover their innate strength, resilience and confidence, so they can use their careers to make the impact they want in their lifetimes. She has 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser, communications director, lobbyist, board member, facilitator, coach and diversity trainer. Reva co-facilitates small experiential learning groups with the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She chairs the Board of Directors at Rethink Media. She is a certified Integral Coach, and a member of the International Coaching Federation.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Reva Patwardhan. Reva and I talk about leadership coaching. We talk about what it is and what it is not, the extra challenges nonprofit leaders have in investing in coaching, why an organization’s mission can push people into a state of constant urgency and how slowing down can actually help them work better and more effectively, and why taking a trauma-informed, somatic approach to coaching is key.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome. Welcome Reva to the podcast.
Reva Patwardhan: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Carol: So I like to start each conversation with a question around what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why?
Reva: So I'm an executive coach and before I was a coach, I worked at a nonprofit for about 14 years. And I had a lot of different roles there, fundraiser, lobbyist, communications director. And in that time there, I realized that I had a real love of supporting the people around me. Even when they were doing jobs that I was not necessarily capable of doing. And I also really just had a great deal. So there were, like every nonprofit we had issues with burnout and not every nonprofit, but a lot of nonprofits have. Right. Hashtag not all nonprofits.
Carol: Just most.
Reva: Yeah. But I stuck around because I just really loved the people I worked with. I just admired them so much. They were so smart and so passionate and just incredibly committed and I believed in what we were doing. So that was just like all the magic components for me. So I decided to make a career out of that. And yeah, I really feel like the people who are actually out there trying to solve problems that we all face that are, they are not there's no. or a little profit motive, it's just like, I am here to try to solve this problem. Those are really hard jobs. And those are exactly the people that we need to be figuring out, like, what can we do for you? Right. And so I really feel passionate about asking, what do we need to be doing to make these jobs that are very hard and also very crucial, more sustainable so that we are not crushing the very people who are carrying. Our hope for us.
Carol: Yeah. A hundred percent. So I feel like coaching it's certainly become more prevalent in the for-profit sector. Yeah. And more well known. But I feel like there's still quite a few misconceptions about what it is and who it's for why it's important. So, how would you describe leadership coaching?
Reva: Yeah, leadership coaching and you're right. There is quite a gap that I've observed between the nonprofit sector and the corporate sector. The nonprofit sector for whatever reason is, has been behind. And really recognizing how important it is to invest in leaders, as individuals, as human beings. And that is what leadership coaching is. It's really investing in you. I think that's why it's hard for people. It's hard for an executive director to say, Hey, I'm going to spend some money on an executive coach because it's really for her. Right. it is for her in service of her mission. And when I coach with people, we do have the mission centered in our work, but it is for her and her ability and her passion and her values. That is part of the process of what we're doing to serve the mission. Right. So, in order to center your own wellbeing and your own development, I think it's a hard thing for a lot of people to do. We're very much conditioned out of that. And I do work with a lot of women but very much conditioned to, to not to always be giving to others, not to ourselves. And that is what coaching does. And I think what it is beyond that, I think it varies quite a bit. I think one reason why there's a lot of confusion about what coaching is because it varies quite a bit depending on who you work with, and there's a lot of great ways of coaching out there. And it really is a matter of finding your right fit. So I'm a big believer in figuring things out, talking to people and finding who's the person who resonates for you. The way that I work with people is I work with the whole person. That means we're talking about feelings, we're talking about the things that really matter to you. We there's room to talk about what's happening in your home life as well. Because you're the same person there. And we're always looking for what is life and work asking of you right now? What edge are you at? Where the way you did things before got you to where you are. Let's thank those methods. Let's honor that. And what new edge is life asking you to meet right now?
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that. And I appreciate the whole, whole person perspective that, just going against that myth, that we park all that stuff at the door. When we come to work, it's all there. Whether we talk about it or not, it's all there. So one of the things that you focus on when you're, when you're working with nonprofit leaders is somatics. Can you tell me a little bit about what somatics is and how you incorporate that into your coaching?
Reva: Yeah. So when I work with someone somatically, what I'm doing is. The reason I do that is I find it's one of the quickest pads for someone to access their innate wisdom. So when I'm working with someone I'm not it's not consulting because I'm not providing you with a bunch of answers. I might offer ideas. I might thought-partner with you, but I'm not offering you suggestions. What I'm doing is asking questions to help you figure out and feel into what is right for you. And it's that feeling. That is the power of coaching. And I really see one of my goals as a coach is when someone walks away from their work with me, one of the things they've learned is how to listen to themselves very deeply. And what are the ways they can be with themselves? How can. , what, what ways of being with yourself and coaching yourself, can you practice and learn that help you learn how to get unstuck so that you become someone who, so everybody gets stuck, but do you stay stuck or do you know how to get yourself unstuck? And all of that is Starts with being able to really slow your mind down. And the container of coaching for that is really, it's a powerful container because that's what we're doing is we're slowing ourselves down and we're pausing. And we're noticing in the moment, right, as an emotion comes up or right. As something important was said, you're slowing down and saying what's happening there in the body. And what guidance can we get from that?
Carol: So somatics being about paying attention to what's going on in the body, not just what we're thinking. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I feel like, folks. It's always been there, right? Like we've always been in these bodies and yet, in our culture at least in the US context, there's been this mythical separation of our mind in our body. How much resistance or acceptance do you find when you're working with folks to step into that work?
Reva: Yeah, so I always meet people where they are. Right. I think that's really important. That's one of my core values and I don't push. Right. I respect people's boundaries. That's another core value and I do invite, right. And I find that most of the time, people welcome that because what they're experiencing in their day to day life is a lot faster. A lot of fast pace, a lot of rushing from one task to another. So what it often feels like is just having a chance to finally take a breath. And then it's like, okay, what is it like for you when you get to take a breath, let's just spend some time noticing. I don't experience people. Like I think part of it is because a lot of folks and this isn't true for everybody, but a lot of my clients do seem to get pretty quickly the value of tuning in. It's just, it's something we all innately are able to do. It's just that it's conditioned out of us. So when you Remi you're reminded suddenly that, oh, this is something I can do. Maybe you haven't done it since you were four, but oh, this is something that I can do. It's not , it's not wild or scary. It's just like, this is the thing I can do.
Carol: Yeah. And I feel like so many of the conversations that I have with other coaches, consultants doing different work, different work with organizations, PE individuals. Almost always some element of that. Let's just slow down for a minute. Let's take a pause. Let's take a step back. Let's try to pull you out of that rush, rush, rush meeting after meeting mentality that gives people just a little bit more space to think. Yes.
Reva: Yeah. Yeah. And what if we could have that more and more in our lives. Right. Right. What if as a leader, I had the ability to pause and to actually say, I'm a leader in this organization and I'm gonna decide to actually program into my day to day and set boundaries, time to reflect and pause. And that is a priority because when I do that, I'm better at my job. And so part of the, and, and it sounds, I think a lot of times people are truly experiencing urgency in their work, right. There's urgency coming from somewhere, right. And often people are working with, or serving communities that are experiencing urgency. And so it sounds, it sounds really bizarre. or it can be like, who am I to slow down? Why do I get to do this and all of that stuff? But one of the things that can happen with coaching is you start to see, oh, this actually is gonna help me be more in service than I currently am, because it'll help me actually. See the forest rather than just the trees. If I'm constantly moving from one task to the other, I'm never able to ask the big questions, or if I'm asking the big questions, I'm not able to do anything about it. And there's the undercurrent of frustration there of, there are things I'd like to do and there's no space to do.
Carol: Yeah. Okay. And I think when the, when the leader actually does that, and then, people see that on their calendar or they talk about it, it starts to give permission for other people to also do that within the organization and, question this whole culture that we have of, Rush rush, rush, busy, busy, busy, every job description saying you must be comfortable in a fast paced environment, you know? Yeah. And I mean, what my little step in that direction is to try to stop, when it's the first part of a conversation and the hi, how are you? Oh, I'm, you know? Oh, it's been, so it's been so hectic. It's been so. Busy. I try to avoid actually saying whether it's true or not. Cause I just feel like it, it plays into this myth that we all have to live that way.
Reva: Yeah. I mean, I'm not gonna, I'm gonna be real. I also often live that way. Sure. I often also feel overwhelmed and rushed and all that stuff. It's just that I think one of the gifts of doing this work is I don't feel. As guilty about slowing down, because I know that I can't lead from that rushed place. I can get things done, but that's different than leading.
Carol: I haven't quite managed to let go of all of the guilt yet. I'm working on it.
Reva: I said mostly or something mostly. OK.
Carol: That sounds good. But it's gotten better. You also take a trauma-informed approach. And I feel like I am hearing this a lot with clients that I'm working with, that they're taking a trauma-informed approach with their clients. What does it actually mean to be trauma-informed?
Reva: It means being careful of your impact. Mm. I think it means having some humility and respect for the person that's in, that's in front of you. I think it's being aware that there is a lot of trauma, more so than ever, I think, in the world. And there are tools to help people. It's having a toolbox to offer people around that. And it's knowing your lane. So I'm not a therapist. And if I'm really, if I'm seeing real trauma with someone, then I'm going to refer them to someone who can, can help them with that. And when I say trauma, I mean like a level of trauma that I can't deal with, but there is a certain level of trauma we're all carrying, I think. And so everyone has to skill up for that. And part of it is respecting those boundaries. It's like, whatever defenses this person has, they're there for a good reason. And so let's not pretend they're not there for a good reason. And so I do work with people around understanding their defenses and slowly loosening them. But I work slowly, which my, one of my one of the things that I really believe in is in order to move quickly, you have to slow down, go move, slow to go fast. Right. So that is often the most effective way towards transformation is just having patience, continuing to meet whatever's happening in the moment. And not rush it, not push it because that's ultimately not gonna work anyways. Yeah. That's how I think about it.
Carol: Can you give me an example of what some of those defense mechanisms might be and, and kind how to, I don't know that skilling up that you talked about in that arena.
Reva: Yeah. Yeah. So so I work with, so I work with people around emotions, right? So as you said, it's, it's the whole person who's coming in the room. And I see coaching as where we get to work with the human side of our challenges. And so if someone's coming in with a challenge and we're unpacking, what is the, what is the human part of this and focus on that. So there's emotions coming up. So I'm making space for those and we're, we're, we're we're unpacking that we're working with that. Like what's behind these emotions. What are some thoughts? Some, some mindsets or thoughts that are there. What are some wounds that need a little bit of space there? And if I find someone who, if I find that someone is, you know that's really hard to be with a certain emotion. I respect that. So we move slowly. So we titrate. So it's like, So what if you're just with this emotion for one second, just to see what it is, right. And then we back off, we intentionally back off. Right. So I might offer them something to practice on their own. That's just like just saying hello to this part of you that feels this way. once a day and then you just back away and then slow, very slowly increase. Capacity to be with it. So that's one.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah. So my tagline for my podcast is helping nonprofit leaders have greater mission impact without becoming a martyr to the cause. How do you see that show up with folks you work with and, and how are you trying to contribute to shifting this culture of overwork and extraction in the sector.
Reva: Yeah. So I'll tell you one of the things that I've been seeing a lot lately, And I think it was always there and I've just started to be able to begin to catch onto it more. But I've noticed that there are certain very prevalent, toxic dynamics in the nonprofit sector that when you are in the middle of that dynamic, when you're really a part of it, it can feel like a personal problem. Mm. Right. So something's going wrong. and in the organization, but because it feels like a personal problem, I treat it like a personal problem. So and so what happens there is if you, so if you imagine you're a leader, an E.D. and things aren't going right. And the thing that's not really feeling like the thing that's not going right is me. And my efforts to address it have failed. So what do I do? Like, what do you do in that situation is you hide it, you hide the problem right. If you blame yourself for the problem and you haven't been able to adequately address it, you hide the problem. And so you're then unable to do anything about it. Right? And so like some examples I've seen of this are Executives, who've gotten really good at hiding their overwhelm. And because they're, it's just become this really normalized thing that their funders don't fund overhead. And it's been like that for so long. That it's just a completely normalized culture where overwhelmedness and burnout are just normal. And so if you are overwhelmed or if you have a problem with being overwhelmed, that's a problem with you. Right? And so let's hide that rather than actually trying to figure out how to do it. You feel compelled to hide it. Another example is like so you have to say, part of your job is going to speak at, to represent your organization and your community at community meetings where there's politicians or whatever, and you feel very anxious about it. And you're ashamed of that anxiety. Well when it's not the anxiety, that's the problem. The problem is the fact that you are the sole member. You're the sole representative of your community. No one else in the room looks like you, you're the only person of color in the room, you know? And that's the problem because you feel ashamed of the anxiety. You're trying to solve the problem yourself. And trying to hide the fact that you feel the anxiety. It's actually very normal to feel anxious in that situation. That's not the problem. So I think people in this situation it's like, they're, they might be this is just ripe for a very ripe moment for imposter syndrome. So they might be thinking that someone else could be doing this job better. The person who was in this role before me did it better. And or or they might be thinking like, I'm the least competent person in this room, all of that stuff, which makes it feel like this is a problem with me. And so that's, and that's just paralyzing. So what I do is, I help people take their power back and find their voice. Part one by realizing you're not crazy. This is a genuinely hard situation. You are not broken. So taking your power back, finding the things that you can do in your immediate sphere to take action. And really, and just to the whole taking your power back thing, that's like, What I try to do is I try to help my clients see it for themselves. So it's not just me telling them. It's like, sure, help them see it for themselves and actually feel it actually feel the truth that, oh, oh, I see. It's not me. Right. And so from that place, you can take action. And the fact is most of these problems, they are much bigger than one person. So, and it may be a long game, but just starting the process of strategizing and, and planning out, how can you get more resources in this? Who can you reach out to? Who's gonna be your support system who are gonna be your collaborators and actually problem solving this. Right? So it's putting the problem where it belongs, which is in the collective. right. Not in the individual.
Carol: Yeah. And even some of the things that you talked about at the very beginning of who am I to slow down or who am I to invest in myself and get coaching goes to this whole mindset of if you're passionate about your, your issue and you have to give it all and this selflessness of the helper and that can be just a recipe for burnout. It's like here, here are the five steps to burnout. Here you go, go do these things, go believe these things.
Reva: Yeah, and I think there's also a recipe for burnout for the people in those jobs. And I think there is a wake up call going on for the sector. If it's not happening already, it's going to happen very soon because there is this emerging sense that people don't wanna put up with any of this crap anymore in their jobs. Right. And it's getting harder and harder to fill the position of executive director. In the for-profit sector, being a CEO is seen as this glamorous thing. And I think part of that is because part of that is like the ridiculous salaries and we don't necessarily want to model ourselves off of that. Part of it is that they have resources, they have support to do what they need to do. They don't. And so in the nonprofit sector, I think becoming an E.D. should feel, you should feel proud. You should feel proud of being an executive director or being a leader of a development director. Communication director any, any like any role, like doesn't just not just at the director level, but you should be proud. Anyone should be proud to work in the nonprofit sector, whether you're an entry-level fundraiser. I started out in the, as a door to door canvasser. We should feel proud of our work. Right. But I think one of the reasons it's very hard to feel proud of our work is because we don't feel appreciated. Right. And there is that undervaluing and a big part of that is not being supported in the work. Right. You're just allowed to flail. And so, and so people are saying, no, why, why, why would I do that to myself? You know?
Carol: Just the sense it's like never enough. Yeah.
Reva: And, but the fact is I think that we actually still need the nonprofit sector in this country. We live in this country where this is the way it's set up right now. And if we wanna be able to solve big problems, We have to be able to do work that centers on impact and not profit. We just have to do it. And maybe there's sweeping changes that need to happen, but this is where it is right now. And how do we not lose all our wonderful people?
Carol: Yeah, no, I am seeing that, that, and, and just hearing people talk about it, this underbelly of the sector, that's always, probably always been there. And various, I don't know, historical reasons for that. And just this mythology that gets exploited and folks are saying, no more. How can we do this differently? Doesn't have to be this way. But it's hard to step out. It's hard to step out and, and do it in a, you know, to work on being countercultural, right, even at the individual level.
Reva: Yeah. And that's why I do this work. It's like, okay. I, if I think that this is important work and I really want there to be people doing it, how do we support them? How do we find ways to make this work for them? If the mission matters then so do the people who are working for the mission.
Carol: Right. Yeah. All the people involved matter for sure.
So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one moderately random icebreaker question. So I've got three cards from my little box. So if you, for, for any place that you visited, what's, what's a place that you would love to go back to.
Reva: Hmm. Bali.
Carol: Mm. Say more.
Reva: Oh man. So Bali is a beautiful place. Now I'm worried about promoting tourism to a place that maybe can't handle it.
Carol: Don't go to Bali, right?
Reva: I was there maybe 10 years ago, so, and oh, it was just, it was just the, the people are just very, were just very open and lovely. And the. The nature was just beautiful and gorgeous. And it, every, any time I go to a different country, I think I've been to India many times as well. It's my parents' mother country. I've been to Mexico, I've been, I've been, anytime I go to another country, I just feel a sense of freedom because I'm. It's like something about just like now I don't have to follow the usual rules here.
Carol: You have this, the sense of even when you're going, you're, you're breaking cultural rules in the other country. They give you a pass like, Ugh, they're a foreigner, but they don't know so, so you have a little bit of leeway and can yeah. And also like, people give you a little grace.
Reva: Yeah. Yeah. People give you a little grace and it's, it's more, it's just like, it's lovely to just get out of the water that I'm usually swimming in. Yep. It's lovely to get out. What I define or what we define as normal here. Sure. Just to leave for a while.
Carol: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. My parents first posting in the foreign service was in Indonesia. So we have many home movies from there and from Bali. This was before me, but I would love to go visit. I'm sure it would be totally different than when they were there in the 1960s. Yeah. But yeah, it's, it's a place on the list. So thank you. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you in your, in your work and what's emerging?
Reva: Yeah, the thing I’m most excited about is my work with my one on one coaching clients. There is something so powerful about that moment when someone faces the truth of the challenging moment they’re in and starts to sort through, what are the things that are in your power to influence, and what are the things that are bigger than you that you can reach out for help on, and what starts to become more possible for you when you stand in an unconditional sense of your own belonging and the unconditional belonging of your community. It is really beautiful, powerful, transformative work and it is an honor and a joy to be able to do it. It is the thing I love doing more than anything and I feel blessed to be able to do this work. If anyone listening would like to talk to me about the possibility of working together please come to my website. I would love to talk to you. It's been a long time and I've been at this work for a bunch of years now. And I have a lot of new, a lot of new things to say, and I'm excited about saying them.
Carol: Excellent. Yeah. So what would you say are your top three new things to say?
Reva: Well, one of them is just seeing this relationship between imposter syndrome and the nonprofit sector's inability to address major problems that are sector wide or organization wide. And to see that imposter syndrome is not an individual problem, it's actually baked right into the structures of the nonprofit sector.
Carol: And our society for various identities, if you've been questioned your entire life yes, then you will learn to question yourself, yeah. In your capacity and when you have not. Yeah. Well, thank you so much. And thank you for all you do for nonprofit leaders. I really appreciate it and appreciate you having this conversation.
Reva: Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.
Carol: I appreciated how Reva described her approach for helping her coaching clients deal with uncomfortable emotions. It is not a matter of all in. It is a matter of step by small step – titrating is the word she used. – Meeting folks where they are and only going as far as is a little bit beyond their comfort zone – be with it for a little bit and then back off. I also appreciated her broader perspective on the toxic cultures that too often emerge within nonprofit organizations – overwork, overwhelm, and burnout. That when you are part of it – it feels personal, and it may seem like it is embedded in the personalities of those around you. And as a leader it can feel like a personal problem – which can lead to denial and avoidance and hiding from the challenge instead of addressing it. So instead by naming it leaders and staff can take their power back and address the elephant in the room.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Reva, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it! And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 51 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Thomas Anderson discuss:
Dr. Thomas E. Anderson, II is the founder of Teaiiano Leadership Solutions. He has over 20 years of experience leading high-performance teams in faith-based non-profits. As a coach, consultant, and workshop facilitator, Thomas helps founders, leaders, and managers to navigate the multi-loop (…and often elusive) process of vision development and realization. In fact, he measures results by how much he helps clients to move forward with their vision for the future. Thomas is a recurring presenter at Regent University's Annual Research Roundtables and has published academic articles in the Journal of Practical Consulting and Coaching (JPCC). Above all, Thomas enjoys being a devoted husband to his wife, Jamie, and dedicated father to his daughters, Arianna and Azalia.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Thomas Anderson. Thomas and I talk about how organizations can learn to see and listen, why more and more people are working with founders, and what foresight is and why it is important to organizations.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Thomas. Welcome to mission impact.
Thomas Anderson: Thank you, Carol. It's nice to be here today, talking with you.
Carol: I like to start each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do? What would you describe as your why?
Thomas: That's a great question. I started this work just to basically help visionaries to, I used to say, to change the world, but it's really to help visionaries to impact the world or to improve the condition of the world that we live in.
Carol: And. As you just said, you're a coach and consultant that really works with folks too, you focus on vision development. Why would you say that vision is so important for whether it's an organization, a team, an individual.
Thomas: that's a good question. And I have to caveat it by telling you a little bit about the backstory of how I got into this work. So I had every intention of graduating from undergrad and just going right into it. Nine to five corporate jobs staying there retiring, but the more and more I talk to people who are around me and the more opportunities that were coming my way, they were really related to people would come to me with their ideas or they would come to me with some type of creative, something that they wanted to do. Made everyone else who gave them feedback on it say, okay, I don't know about this. You might be crazy. Those kinds of responses kept coming to them. And so when I was just open to just the fact that, okay, you want to do something new at the time? I graduated right after the dot com bust. I was in a sense , either forced to go back to school or to try something new. And I was at the time trying something new. And so I saw, I say all that to say, I saw how it motivated vision has a very motivating it's a very motivating phenomenon within itself.
Carol: I work a lot with folks in the nonprofit sector and it's usually someone. Has a vision of, of how the world might be better or how they could have impact or how they could serve people or a gap that they perceive. They step into that. Sometimes the vision is very clear for the founder and not necessarily for everyone that they pull along with them. So you recently did some research into vision development and then its realization. Can you tell me a little bit about that research and what were the, what were the questions that you were trying to answer?
Thomas: Yes. Yes. I'd be happy to. And you just brought up something that I thought about earlier. There's a trend going on and I can, I can break it down like this. And this is what my research has shown just on a cursory level. More new businesses are popping up and even more so since the pandemic has happened. The number of new business applications doubled between 2007 and 2022, and they actually spiked between 2020 and the end of 2021. They have level back off to that doubling, but when you couple that with the fact that corporate longevity has decreased from 67 years , companies used to last on average on the S and P 67 years in 1920 to 15 years. And in 2012 you had this trend that businesses are getting younger. And the chances of working with a founder are higher. And so I started to think, what does that say? Or a visionary leadership vision and visionary leadership. And so what I started to do was to reconceptualize there was a call in the research from a couple of scholars to reconceptualize visionary leadership. And I started to think about the trend of businesses actually getting younger. And I said, okay I need to jump in here. And so I started to ask two questions. The first one was, can an organization learn. And then the second is if so, how do organizations practice? Seeing together now I've had a couple of discussions around my book topic, or I should call it a manuscript at this point because we're still in the process of the proposals and so forth and so on. But I'm even revising that question to look at a topic that came up in one of the sessions: can an organization learn to hear or learn to use the senses. And so what that looks like, going back to my original question, is how organizations learn how to detect and anticipate the future in such a way that they can choose which future they want to pursue. And also on the same token, be nimble enough to make changes along the way.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by an organization seeing or an organization hearing.
Thomas: Still, when it comes to seeing, basically when we talk about vision, we all know that it's future oriented and so. A term for that is the preferred future. And so which future the organization prefers, but visioning itself, starts with the ability to see. And you mentioned the founder earlier in, and that really comes into play here because founders take a journey through what they can see to be the preferred. But there's a lot of information there. That lies outside of the realm of visioning. It lies in the foresight realm of future-thinking, just picking up on trends that are happening or doing some type of horizon scanning or thinking about scenarios that could play out. And so all of that comes into play when talking about organizations. Learn to see together, not just the founder learning to see, but everyone, at some point being invited into the process through their feedback or through a whole group collaborative session, just in bringing all of that wisdom into one room and saying, okay, based on that, what do we want our company to be in this.
Carol: Yeah. And you talked about foresight also. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by that? Sure.
Thomas: So foresight it's not really pie in the sky. Like sometimes vision enforced that can be treated that way, but foresight is basically seeing or detecting what's coming up in the next. So just to, I guess, make a juxtaposition between foresight and strategic foresight and strategic planning, right? Strategic planning looks, and you're an expert at strategic planning. So I need to get this right. Strategic planning looks in the near future, right up to maybe three or five years of foresight. Beyond that it can, it usually starts at five years, but can look up to 50 to a hundred years not to say that people can predict the future. But, you're just picking up on all of these trends that are going on emerging trends, things that could turn into something later, we just don't know. But there are things that would impact or could possibly derail that perfect picture of the future that many organizations and the founders do hold.
Carol: it's so interesting when you're talking about the near term and the longer term for nonprofits with the, with there being so much oftentimes just. Way more to do than can possibly get done. The visions tend to be huge, even when the resources and the organization are, are really small. And so I find even getting organizations to think about the next three years or the next five years can be challenging for them to just take the time. To step back, what are some ways that smaller organizations can tap into what other people are doing around foresight? So they don't have to start from scratch when thinking about those trends.
Thomas: Hmm, that's a good question. I was talking to the president of a smaller organization. It wasn't a nonprofit, but I think the lesson for me in this was that there are certain organizations that are mission driven or are concerned with their teams as wellbeing. And I think that's good. The point of commonality, but what she told me is that she gets together with our team monthly and each team member gets a chance to be the CEO. And so in that meeting she selects someone or they volunteer. And what the first task that they have is to tell, in their own words, what the vision is. And so that's a good way for the leader to not have to always take center stage in communicating it, but also for someone to come forth through someone else's boys and for the leader to also see where that person is and what they see and see the organization from their vantage point.
Carol: That's a great point. I often, when I'm doing strategic planning with organizations and in that initial phase where I'm talking to everybody, one of the questions I often ask. Why does your organization exist? What's the purpose to get everyone to, to describe that mission? They're probably not going to be able to recite the mission statement, but do they at core, have a common understanding of what the purpose of the organization is and, and have that be a checkpoint in the process so that if there, if it's like really all over the place, then that's something that the organization needs to deal with. Yeah. So in your research you were looking at how organizations can see and now maybe how organizations can hear or, or use the other sentences that we have. What were some of the findings that you, that came out of? The work that you did?
Thomas: Great question. So I, going through the process, came up with 11 operating principles that were the focus for each chapter. Around organizational vision development and realization. And so I talked a little bit about this earlier, but vision is more than what meets the eye it's using your senses. It's really detecting and, and I came up with a lot of synonyms that I placed in, in the book. But one phenomenon really stuck out to me was picking up on weak signals on the horizon. And these are signals. Can often be missed, but they can inform the direction of the vision, the, what I call the iteration of the vision. That brings me to a second concept where I think Brenda Zimmerman, who was a consultant and a futurist, and she worked in chaos and complexity theory. She recommended it. Good enough vision, not necessarily wordsmithing it to the point of beyond recognition. She's had to get a vision to the point where it's good enough and then use it to be tested and, over the course of its life cycle, it'll change.
Carol: I love that idea of a good enough. Again, when I'm working with organizations, I'm also trying to get them to what's a good enough strategic plan and to remind them that, yeah, you're not trying to predict the future and These aren't w once it's done, it's also not a tablet that came from on high, right. It’s something that you all created. And so when you need to, you can also update it. So just reminding people that there's flexibility, even when you want to set some intentions and some direction, but yeah, what's good enough.
Thomas: Yeah. And it changes from a wallflower vision and to a working document.
Carol: Absolutely. What were some of the other findings that came out? Yeah,
Thomas: Sure. So there are two trends that in my opinion are upending the traditional idea of visionary leadership and even vision development. And one of those we talked about just now is good enough vision or emergency. The other is shared vision. And in founder-led companies, I'm finding that shared visioning doesn't happen as much with employees at the start as, and I was surprised. I did one quick survey and the customers. So founders would actually. Go through the process of shared visioning with customers using design thinking. I know you're very familiar with that process more than they would with their employees. Once the company had grown. And I found that to be fascinating.
Carol: Well, yeah, I guess there is the focus there on going to the customer, but then if only a few people are involved in that conversation, then there's a big gap of folks who are in the day-to-day and yeah. For nonprofits. Oftentimes, the founder, the CEO, and the board get involved in those conversations and staff get left out of it. And I really encourage groups to include, as many people as is, really practically possible to get involved in those strategic conversations, because everyone has something to share and a perspective and that frontline, actually, implementing a program, actually making things happen is so important. When you bring it back up to that bigger picture vision,
Thomas: And I think we're at a point and I think we're at a pivotal moment in just organizational life. And considering visionary leadership and what it was contextualized for in the late eighties and nineties and where we were as a country at that time. I think we're at a moment where the call even on a generational level is for more people to be involved and that's, I'm picking up on corporations and nonprofits. I work with faith-based nonprofits and I don't really see a difference. People are lacking time and the budget to do certain things, but there is something that I did come across in the literature. It was a book on visionary leadership by Burton. And he actually when I was reading. And also looking through the work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner the leadership challenge. And I had a conversation with Jim Kouzes also. And what I found was there's a backstory, even to leaders coming up with a vision because they spend time talking. To people walking through the halls and Jim Kouzes just put it like this, leaders pick up on the vision. That's latent in the hearts of the people. Those are the visions that really end up working on when you start to generalize them for the entire organization.
Carol: that shared leadership is so important because in a nonprofit organization there isn't just one person making the decision, right. It's always a group effort. Whether it's all volunteer all everyone on the board needing to come together and, and have a common shared, shared vision , between board and staff and I think that's one of the things that always can trip people up if they've come from the for-profit side and especially with smaller organizations where they've been in charge and been able to do things the way they wanted to, whether that was best practice or not, they had that ability.
And so to step into the nonprofit sector, whether it's faith-based or. Where it's much more of a matrix it's much more of a collective so that building that sense of shared leadership and shared vision is, is just so important. What would you say are some of the challenges that leaders face when trying to implement their vision and implement, and then build a shared collective vision?
Thomas: Yeah, there are two challenges that immediately come to mind. One is the adoption, like having the vision to be adopted by a critical mass of stakeholders, whether they be employees managers donors just getting that vision adopted. And what, Carol, there is an example of that. I've been unpacking some of these examples and reading through them several times. And so with the March of dimes, I actually read through their history and included it in the manuscript. And so over a period of more than 80 years, their vision. And their mission has evolved several times. And so on its website, its structures, its history, for instance, around the four areas of an evolving vision. So the first iteration, what I call it, the first iteration was curing polio and the era was 1938 to 1955. When the VI, the vaccine for polio became available in 55, they entered into another iteration and they called it. Eradicating birth defects. You could also call it eradicating congenital disabilities that ran until about the mid seventies. And then they entered another one healthy pregnancies and they were ensuring at this time that babies were strong and that moms were healthy. This is random too. And it overlapped into the current era that they're in, where they're tackling a crisis of premature birds. And, and I think that I, as far as I can tell, that's where their focus has landed. And so we, we see things like that with the division becoming , moving in cycles instead of straight.
Carol: each of those are certainly related and they've stayed in the same realm. But the particular challenges or particular eras have been different. Yeah, I mean, oftentimes we'll ask Organizations for some organizations, their mission is going to be perpetual, like healthcare institutions, a hospital. Others would love to see themselves out of business. , a homeless shelter, a food bank if we didn't have needs for that, we'd be a better society, right? Like folks don't want to have to have. The services available. But they see the need and so they build organizations to fit those needs. But yeah. So, so visions can, can iterate in, in a variety of different fashions.
Thomas: And that's a great point. It reminded me of the challenge that the March of Dimes faced in that first shifting from that first iteration to the second, whether the loss of sponsorship and they had to. Find creative ways to tell their donors who had pretty much devoted themselves to the mission. And that shared mission of eradicating polio. Tell them there are other problems that we need to address here. And to your point about they would have gone out of business. Had they not iterated that.
Carol: Which could, which would have been a in, in some ways a valid choice, right. Except that they were, they looked around and there were other related things that they could, that they had the infrastructure to tackle.
Thomas: Jim Henslin, he wrote a textbook on sociology. He put it this way. He said they could have gone out of business, but the bureaucracy. Made them continue. And so they said, okay, we have to come up with something else because there are jobs that stayed there we built so much Goodwill in this brand. And so they had to continue.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I think we'll, we'll actually , caution organizations against that, that, that they're not. Certainly they want to be in the nonprofit sector. You want to have a well-run organization. You want it to be well-managed, be effective, all of those things. But if it becomes only about. Perpetuating the organization versus really staying on mission. That's where there can be a little bit of a gap, but certainly there's a multitude of challenges that they could have tackled and then what they chose to tackle. It made sense in terms of where they were and how they were set up.
Thomas: For sure
Carol: I'm curious, what are the phases of iteration or other examples of that vision iteration that you see?
Thomas: They are pretty much four phases. That first phase deals with foresight. Just really detecting what's going on in, in and around an existing organization. Or if it's a startup around the startup, in the external environment. The second is the one we know just sitting down, writing the vision, creating it or co-creating it. And there's a micro phase in between there where the vision is emerging. It's just organically in different quote-unquote containers. It could be through values. , it could be through culture. It can, it can emerge through several different things. The third phase is where stakeholders have a choice and this choice is often taken for granted for founders. They can accept them, its division or stakeholders can reject it. And we're seeing a lot of rejection of organizational vision right now in the great reshuffling. The great. What is it? What is the other name for it? Great. Resignation resignation. I think I've gravitated to reshuffling more, but yeah, the great shoveling, the great resignation where people are voting with their feet, they're rejecting the vision by leaving. And if organizations don't get to the point of the end of founders, especially in leaders, don't get to the point where they accept, okay. People can accept the vision or they can reject it. Then sometimes it becomes impossible. And if folks reject it, it's always impossible to get to this fourth phase where they, and I didn't come up with this term, but it's called vision integration. Dr. Jeffrey Coles, he came up with the term and he did a lot of the research where people do two things. They use the vision to make decisions in their everyday work life and they use it. The vision to guide their behaviors and their actions during the.
Carol: it's so interesting with the whole great reshuffle or whatnot. I think it comes down to, for certainly in the nonprofit sector. What I've observed is often there's been a real gap between the vision that the organization has for the change that they want to make in the world, but then a real misalignment with how they actually act internally, how they treat each other, the culture that they've built and I think it's especially acute when it is a mission-driven organization and people they essentially have higher standards for a group. And so they, when they, when they see that gap, they're much more likely , to, to walk away. And I, I think certainly in the nonprofit sector folks just have gotten to the point and, and then I think with. I don't know, it's pandemic, you, you reminded me that we're, that our, all of our time is finite. That things become more urgent than they might've been. You might've put up with it in the past where folks just aren't willing to as much now.
Thomas: that's a great point. While you were sharing that, I thought about when you, you talked about sometimes there's a disconnect people can vision mission. And I don't know if I said this previously, but it's often something that can be taken for granted with when it's in place, but if it's not in place you feel, or, or employees can feel that disconnection between Where the organization, what the organization does and where their job fits in. And that vision often gives everyone a common direction. And then it's a good launching pad just for even those team meetings weekly to say, this is where we're going. This is everybody's part in it. And , the check-ins, it gives focus and direction to a lot of the work.
Carol: I think that's a piece that people forget to do on a regular basis. And, and one of the values that I see in, in going through a strategic planning process, I mean, sometimes what will come out. The other end won't necessarily be super different than what folks saw going into it. But it's like a rechecking and a confirmation that folks are on the same page. I often get a lot of feedback, wow. That's really helpful to know that other people are feeling the same way I am or seeing it the same way I am that validation. So, I'll often say if you come up with a whole bunch of goals in your plan that are brand new, I actually will be curious about that. Like, why is there such a departure from what was before? And oftentimes it's much more of a through line and it's about conforming or reconfirming or reintegrating that.
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Carol: So at the end of each podcast episode, I played a game or I asked you one random icebreaker question. So I'm curious, what's your favorite family tradition?
Thomas: Oh, goodness. That is random. Wow. I love that question. Let's see my favorite family. I wouldn't have to say there are several, but if I have to pick one, it would be going to Hershey park. Yeah.
Carol: And how's that tradition originating and the same way.
Thomas: What am I, that's a good question too. I think we are just random, and that's why I say yeah, I'm going to stay with the randomness because I think we were random at times and we like to just experiment, try new things, go places. And I think we just looked it up and we saw that they had a chill child-friendly rides and attractions, and we said, okay, let's go.
Carol: And you love chocolate. Well, I am, I'm always in agreement with that one, for sure. So that's something you do on a regular basis or when we can, at least once a year.
Carol: Well, I'm not, I'm not a rollercoaster person, so I stay away from us at the museum at the park, but I was lucky that my daughter loved them and my younger sister also loved them. So it was a big treat that my younger sister, auntie, would take my daughter to the amusement park. And they got, they had a great time, left me, left me behind, best stay out of the way.
Thomas: I discovered, and this is funny now, but I discovered that. I had vertigo on one of the rides at Hershey park. So my wife is the roller coaster person
Carol: Yeah. There you go. I definitely have vertigo. Vertigo is a real thing. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work? You talked about a manuscript.
Thomas: Yeah, I'm totally excited about that. So I'm working with beta readers right now to figure out what's missing what's resonating with them. And, and they're mostly scholars in visioning and organizational change so forth and so on. And so I'm hoping to have that type of yes, by the end of the year.
Carol: All right. Well, we'll look forward to it and let us know so we can let folks know when it moves to that next step. That'll be exciting. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Thomas: Thank you for having me.
Carol: I was struck by Thomas’ example of the CEO who has each of her staff be CEO for their monthly meeting and to articulate to the team what the organizational vision is. It is a great way to check in and find out whether folks are in alignment and really understand where you are trying to go. I also appreciated Thomas’ description of the ‘good enough vision.’ So many organizations can get caught up in trying to get it perfect. Whether it is their vision statement, their mission statement, their strategic plan. Having the attitude of we need to get it ‘good enough’ and then get moving can really help keep the momentum going. And the importance of visions being a shared vision. If you are a founder and you are the only person who really gets your vision, it will be a lot harder to realize it. You will be more effective if you create the vision with the people you are working with – whether everyone is a volunteer or you have a staff. It needs to be the vision of the group, not just the founder.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Thomas, his full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Keep making an impact!
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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