In episode 22 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Michelle Nusum-Smith discussed include:
Michelle Nusum-Smith is owner and principal consultant at The Word Woman LLC. A licensed nonprofit consultant, coach and trainer, Michelle helps nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals achieve their goals. With over 20 years of nonprofit experience, she has expertise in all areas of nonprofit development and sustainability. Michelle has extensive speaker and facilitator experience. She is licensed to offer consulting services for the Maryland Nonprofit’s Standards for Excellence® program and has the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to work with nonprofits across the country. A graduate of the Honors Program at Coppin State University where she earned a BS in Management Science with a minor in Marketing, Michelle is a member of the Grants Professional Association and an Associate Consultant at Maryland Nonprofits.
Important Links: Interview Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Michelle. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Michelle Nusum-Smith: Thank you, Carol. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Carol: I'm sure we're going to have a great conversation and people are going to learn a lot through all the expertise you bring to nonprofits, but I like to start with what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Michelle: Interesting question. I would certainly say my mom is definitely, I think the seed planter. So I was a do gooder before I knew what do you put or meant? We were always involved in some kind of community outreach, giving engagement, volunteering something. And so, my first job was in retail. Like most of us. Well, my first professional job was in health and human services, and I just loved the idea of helping people and giving back. But if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I would have been a teacher. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love using tools and techniques and resources. And so I echo spending most of my professional career in the sector and learning that most of us are very passionate. But we don't necessarily realize that nonprofits are businesses like for-profit businesses. They are best practices. And so people would ask me for help and assistance. So I eventually went from being an unofficial consultant to thinking one day, maybe I should officially do this. And so Almost 11 years ago now I started Word Woman LLC.
Carol: Well, that's awesome. And congratulations on your longevity because a lot of folks think, oh yeah, let me go out and do this, but not everybody makes it and makes it for eleven years. so congratulations on that. I appreciate what you said about your mom. My brother has special needs. He's autistic and profoundly deaf. And my mom was always his advocate. And then through the work, being his advocate, she became an advocate more broadly in the disability community. And it really was an inspiration for the things that he was not always thinking about. Well, certainly you want to make sure that all of your own folks, your family is taken care of, but then, what's the broader implication of all the folks who need the same help and what skills can you bring to help them take those same steps. So, appreciate that, that beginning. And what are the areas? I know you work in a lot of different areas, but one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with pursuing grants. And it seems to be that oftentimes. This is the first thing that people think about when they get into the nonprofit sector they're passionate about, an area they want to help people. They want to create some change or some good in the world and they come out with grants, we have to go after grants. What would you say is the most common misconception that people have about pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, it's interesting the way that you tee that up, because that's exactly it people, I think I've actually had to talk people out of starting a nonprofit simply because they narrowly think about the grants and the fact that, hey, you have to be a nonprofit to get one. So I would say that the biggest misconception is that just because you're doing good people won't want it. Like funders are going to want to give you a grant. So you don't have to think it through. You don't have to actually have a plan. Just tell them that you have a 501-C, three status, and they'll give you a grant.
Carol: Yeah. And I love the comment that you made about actually talking people out of starting a nonprofit. Tell me more about that motivation? What caused that conversation?
Michelle: Sure. I tell people all the time I am the nonprofit consultant that will talk you out of doing something you were willing to pay me to do. And that's because I'm very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And I know how critically important it is to protect it because with for-profit businesses, if a business does something wrong, it's the public that kind of singularly looks at that business and says that business is bad. But in our sector, if a nonprofit ends up on the front of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, it's not just that nonprofit, it's the entire sector, that's bad and corrupt or what-have-you. And so I really like to talk through with people when they approach me about helping them with starting a nonprofit, why do you want to do it? Let's explore the reason, let's explore some different fits, right? Let's explore if there were some alternatives. So a great example would be just last week. I talked to a group and they wanted to start a nonprofit simply because they wanted to get grants. And I explained to them that what they wanted to do, they could easily start a fund at the community foundation or get a fiscal sponsor or a nonprofit partner. And after a bit of back and forth, because they had made up their mind that they wanted to start this nonprofit, I put them in contact with some folks and they came back and circled back to me and said, you know what, Michelle, you were absolutely right. We're getting a fiscal sponsor. So. Yeah, other times it's you really should start a for-profit business let's own that M.O. and move forward.
Carol: Right. And there are different options now within the for-profit sector of being a B Corp or other kinds of, kind of for benefit, corporations that where, where the organization is not necessarily putting. only putting profit as the bottom line, but looking at a triple bottom line, if you will, but still being created as a for-profit entity. You talked about a couple of different things that folks may or may not be familiar with. One of them was a fiscal sponsor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that is and what the benefits are for someone getting started with a fiscal sponsor?
Michelle: Absolutely. So whether even if you start a nonprofit, so one of the things I explain to people is that just because you have a nonprofit doesn't mean that you have tax exempt status or you're eligible to receive charitable donations, that's getting the 501c3 status from the IRS though, when you start a nonprofit or you have some kind of informal program or activity that you want to be able to secure community support. That may come in the form of France that may come in the form of donations. A great strategy for that is through fiscal sponsorship. And what a fiscal sponsor is, is a nonprofit organization that has the 501c3 status from the IRS, but also has the capacity and willingness to bring your activity under their umbrella. And so the program, the nonprofit gets the benefit of 501c3 status. Without having the responsibilities. So all of the funding goes through the fiscal sponsor who helps to sort of manage those resources will be kept for the program or the nonprofit that doesn't have that 501c3 status. So it positions you to be able to still do your charitable work, to still get community support, but to do it with the support of an entity that is positioned and has the capacity and resources to. To properly manage that support.
Carol: Yeah. And oftentimes that capacity that could be difficult for organizations or when they're not, when they're fairly organizations where then when their program, when they're a person with an idea, is, managing the money, managing the accounting. If you end up with any staff, people, or contractors managing all of that, all of the kind of operational it, all of that kind of thing that, the, one of the things that I see is so many people have great ideas, but then every time you create a new organization, you also have to have some way of, accessing that, all of that infrastructure and, most times most people go into the sector or if they want to start an organization, their motivation is not around creating those operational, that operational infrastructure it's about helping people. Right. and so, yeah, so the fiscal sponsor can kind of. Take on some of that and provide some of that. So that the person with the idea who wants to create the program or who has created a program and wants to build it can really focus on that rather than. more of the administrative side or plug into already a system of administration that, that can, can support them. And then the other thing you talked about was, community foundation a little bit more about what they are and how they can contribute to someone who wants to get started.
Michelle: Oh, yes. So everyone who is listening, if your nonprofit is looking for support or financial support or capacity support, third, we go and have a conversation with your community foundation representative. The community foundation, unlike a family foundation or even a corporate foundation where they may have one singular purpose or focus area, the community foundation, a model, a Fords, nonprofits, the opportunity to make, to potentially tap into multiple sources more though at the same time. So the foundation has its own funding that it distributes. But there are also funds that individuals, corporations, community groups may establish that had their own purpose, their own criteria. So it could be grants, it could be scholarships, it could be seed money for a host of different causes. And so, one of the problems that we often have with accessing those resources is. The failure to have the conversation. And so we immediately just want to look for the current opportunity, submit the grant requests and cross our fingers and hope that we get funded. But if we have a conversation prior to you and we explore, well, where are the opportunities? I have a friend who is the president of the community foundation, and then. She was sharing with a group that was presenting, at the foundation for it. And she said that, we have people who have these funds who have an interest in supporting various causes. And we don't always know the nonprofits that fit that criteria. And so it's important for us to have these conversations, to explore with the different organizations, what their missions are, how they carry them out. So that the staff, the community foundation can figure out, well, how do we connect the individual who has the resources and wants to give it the organization that has the need and is trying to figure out how to cover it.
Carol: So almost like a matchmaking process, if you will. Absolutely. And when you talked about your, the kind of main misconception that people have is, I've got a great idea. I want to help people. I'll just go, I'll just fill out some forms and foundations are magically going to give me money. And you said that the biggest thing was, not having a plan. Can you just, can you say more, a little bit more about what you mean by that and what are the kinds of questions that people should be thinking through and kind of making decisions about to create that plan?
Michelle: So doing the homework. So what is homework? Homework is having a clear understanding of your mission and your vision and your strategy is developing programs based on those strategies that include a clear plan. Who, what, where, why, how and a budget to match it. So a lot of times organizations will identify an opportunity and then try to develop a program or project around the opportunity. Best case scenario is that you've already determined what you want to do. how much it costs, you have a timeline, and then you're looking for the opportunity that aligns with that plan. So that when you, when he gives it to you, the paperwork you begin to fill out the application, it's less of a, does this fit? Will they be interested? And more of, we know that this is a fit and we're just plugging in the information we've already developed. The other thing of course would be. how do we ensure that this is a good fit? And one of the ways that we do that is that we reach out to the funder in advance. Doesn't always happen, but sometimes the stars align and you can actually have a conversation with a foundation representative, send a quick email, potentially even have a meeting with them so that they can have a conversation and understand what it is you're planning to do. Ensure that, give you some assurance that it does align with what the foundation is interested in supporting. And that way, when your grant application arrives, it's not a surprise. They're expecting it. And, and having them that pre-work particularly the conversation positions us as non-profits to have an ally on the inside because when the decision-making starts. And nobody's sitting around the table, knows anything about your organization. They can look to what I call the gatekeeper, that program, officer, whomever, who could say, Oh, yes, I know about that organization. I can answer some of those questions you might have.
Carol: Yeah. So that first step of really ensuring fit, that, that you've done your homework and I would guess, and I'm not a fundraiser, but I would guess, just the basics of have you read what the foundation covers funds. Is what is the work that you're doing within their purview? Is it something, within one of their, one of their programs, cause most, most foundations and, and you said it's different than community foundations, which can have a wide variety of, of, areas that they're interested in, depending on all the different donors that might have funds with them, generally, Family foundations, corporate foundations, large and small typically have made some decisions around their own strategy around what they are interested in and what they're pursuing. So that first check of, well, let's read to make sure that we fit in some way. And then if we think we do reach out and say, well, I'm thinking, and so would it be something like this of, you write an email, this is kind of a para paragraph, like this kind of what we're, what we're aiming to do is this, within what you guys are interested in, in funding,
Michelle: That it's funny because I'm always reminded of, I was doing some grant work for an organization and I found this family foundation doing some research. I sent an email and it basically was like, you described a paragraph that introduced them to the organization. This is our mission. This is who he served. This is the work that we carry out. We will love to explore, Learning more about your foundation and where we might fit the president of the foundation. Now, of course, it's a small family foundation. So when I say presence, there's a small, but mighty group, email me back. Actually she called and left the voicemail and she said, we've never heard of this organization, but we're very intrigued that email that took me a couple of minutes to write resulted in a face-to-face meeting. An invite to apply for funding at the maximum amount that the foundation funds it. And that organization was funded twice, simply because I found the foundation and sent an email. So it does work.
Carol: And it can save you a lot of time if the answer is no, absolutely right, because it takes a lot of work to write a grant. Yes, sir. And if you don't even meet the first criteria and you get, you get pushed to the side in the first cut. That was a lot of work for nothing.
Michelle: I tell folks all. So you, you keep, you were saying, read, read, read, and I can't emphasize that enough. Read the bill, the foundation's website, read the request for proposal years ago, I was a volunteer to do grant reviewing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I did that for three years and these were 50 page documents. Grant applications for requests between half a million and a quarter million dollars. I can tell you that some of the applications were denied simply because it was very clear that the applicants have not read the request for proposal. They didn't submit the information that was appropriate. So we had to score them poorly. So you gotta read, read, read, and then follow the guidance.
Carol: So, what are some things that help people do a better job of pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, like I said, definitely don't want that homework. I would say really making sure that you read and re-read your proposal, your material before you submit it, make sure that your budget. Aligns with your narrative. I shouldn't say things in your budget that weren't mentioned in your narrative and vice versa. And then I think the other way to be successful with brands is to make sure that you deliver on your promises. So don't just get the money and then, go off celebrating, take it seriously and then deliver so that the funder will want to support you again.
Carol: Yeah, a couple of things you said there. I think oftentimes they may not think of the connections between the budget and the narrative, or, think of it. Oh, that's that last thing that we have to fill out, but really a budget in, in a way is like it's a plan in numbers, it's a plan and money and, so it really should connect back and it should be clear for the funder, how you're planning to spend their money because obviously, that's a key concern for them.
Michelle: There you go. And the budget should be real. I have had times where I've gone to meet with folks and I asked them for their budget. They slide it across the table and I slide it right back because I get to hell. It's just a bunch of numbers that you've made up. So. Actually be the homework and research. You shouldn't have to guess on certain things that you could just Google to find out. What is the, what is the cost of that item? and so it gives you, like you said, you get this mirrored version of the project in numbers that mirrors the narrative and it positions you so that you can actually deliver on what you propose because. If your budget doesn't align, then you're put in a position where you may run out of money, which you've told the funder, this is all the money that we need. So it's very important to make sure that the budget is based on doing your research and based on actual need and that it mirrors your plan.
Carol: Yeah, it seems like, another thing that I've experienced more from being on the program side of, here, all of the million things that we promised to the funder that we were going to do, and it's like, well, it's just me and this other person. And we only have so much time in the day and I don't know how we're going to deliver it all.
Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. Please do not over promise. First of all, if it's not feasible, it doesn't make sense. Years ago I was doing a, I was working with an organization and this was pre pandemic, but we were still by as Dean because they were in another country and they were going to be doing this maternal health project where they were responding to a request for proposal. So the project idea was already set and they were supposed to work with pregnant women and follow them through their child's third birthday. And I asked, there were two folks that I was meeting with, only two people who staff this organization. And I asked the simple question, how many pregnant women are you going to serve? I kid you not, The executive director said a thousand, and that was my face because I was thinking, first of all, where are you going to find a thousand pregnant women? Number one, but number two, how are you going to possibly follow them? Plus their children for three years? And so I think that what they were thinking was we need to give this big number. So it sounds like we're making a huge impact into that. I would say years ago, it was all about the numbers, the outputs, which is a grant term. So you're counting people, you're counting that you're counting, beads. Right? So that's how we measure success. The bigger, the number, the greater the success. But now we talk about impact, which is more about the outcome, the result of the work that you did. So we, instead of touching people. So it's great that you could say, well, we, we touched a thousand people, but did you actually affect change with them if you just simply touch them? Not really, but if you could actually work with a hundred and move them from where they are to a better position, a better situation. Then that's more impactful. That's more significant than simply just touching a thousand.
Carol: Yeah. So really looking at, and that goes from the request for proposal, the fact that they wanted those pregnant women to be followed through for three years, that's a significant amount of time. and yeah, to think about what's feasible in terms of your staffing and, and how many people you can reach and how many people will you be able to continue to work with over time. Yeah. What would you say? I think there are folks who are starting out, they have some misconceptions. I also find that sometimes board members can really have misconceptions about, grants and, and be very focused on grants. What would you say are, I mean, there are obviously a lot of upsides to getting grants, but are there any kind of hidden costs that you would, you would, talk about that to just caution people that they need to kind of consider those things as well when they're pursuing grants.
Michelle: So you touched on one of the things earlier where you said there's a lot of time and energy invested in just preparing the grant proposal. And, and if you have paid staff, then that means that's money or investing. So that may not result in a grant. And when it comes to getting the grant, there's a cost per se, related to that as well, because there's the cost of managing, there's costs related to investment of time for reporting for evaluations. So it's not just give us the money and, and, and we'll just go off with you, our mission, you, you touched with something else too, which is, this whole idea of the board and let's get grants, let's get grants. I actually have a client right now who, I just, before we got on our call, she, I was receiving emails where the board members found grant opportunities, which is great because that means that they were engaged. But we do want to recognize that grants cannot, should not and won't be your only source of funding. Grants have a lot of limitations. They don't pay for everything they're time bound. And so it's very important that as part of from the board level, part of our strategic planning that we're thinking about all of the available funding sources, And then we're thinking about how do we tap into all of them to ensure that we had adequate resources, whether that's individual donations, corporate support in the form of donations or sponsorships membership dues, do we pay half to like programs where folks may pay for services or as fees related to being involved with our organization, we need to look at all of the available funding sources. And then have a strategy so that grants are part of the strategy, but not be the strategy.
Carol: Yeah. And I wanted to, to ask you that, obviously grants are just one way to, to raise funds. And so you talked about those different types of possible revenue streams. What are some of the key aspects that organizations need to consider when they're thinking about putting together a fundraising plan?
Michelle: I would say certainly the fundraising plan should be driven by our strategic plan. So we're, we're planning to raise the money to support our, our program plans, our operating costs. Thirdly, there are costs that, as I said, are not going to be covered by restricted sources of funding, such as grants, keeping the lights on. So you may have a grant where the fundable say, we'll pay for the person who's presenting. We'll pay for the materials. We'll pay for food, but we're not paying the electricity, the electricity bill. And so we need to incorporate as part of that fundraising plan forces, better unrestricted. So individual gifts, you have some individuals I should say, could be central to our fundraising plan. And it should incorporate the various sources of revenue and an action plan or strategy for how we're going to carry it out. And that again, should be top down. So the board should be driving this effort, even when you have staff that may be implementing your plan.
Carol: So you talked about a couple terms that some people probably are already familiar with, but others may not be restricted and unrestricted funds. Can you say a little bit more about what that means?
Michelle: Sure. So the way I like to describe the differences for those of us who go to church and you make your tithes and offerings, most of us don't ask any questions about where that money's going. We just trust that it's going to be used for good. We go about our business. So as individuals, we're making contributions to our church without any strings attached or expectations, other than seeing the manifestation of, of the good, right. Whereas if you receive a grant or you receive a large gift from an individual donor, it may come with some expectations, some straights. So it may be restricted regarding the budget. So when we submit a grant proposal, we include a budget. The funder expects for you to spend the money as you budgeted it, as opposed to, if somebody just writes a check, there are no restrictions. You can use the funds or the benefit of the organization based on what's needed. There are restrictions that are related to the time and use. So, for example, you may receive less than you receive a grant for $50,000. And because of the funders approach, you get one check upfront of $50,000. So you're looking at your bank statement and it says there's $50,000 in there, but that $50,000 is tied to what 12 year I'm sorry, 12 month grant periods. So, although it's sitting in the bank, it's supposed to be spent according to the budget over that 12 month period. So restricted means there's some guidance around how you use it. Unrestricted means thank you, we'll pull together our strategy and then determine how to spend it.
Carol: Thank you. Thank you. So, on each episode I play a game at the end asking one, random icebreaker question. And so I have one here, what's something you believed earlier in your career that you think differently about now?
Michelle: Ooh, that's an interesting one. So something that I thought early in my career. That I think differently. This is a funny answer, but it's the one that popped in my head. So that's the one I'll share. So when I was younger, I looked young and I thought that people wouldn't take me seriously until I was old. And so I had this crazy idea that once I turned 40, that miraculously people will begin to take this seriously, but now I realize that people have always taken me seriously. Maybe not as seriously as I had bought or had hoped, or just, just didn't realize it. And age doesn't need to be a predictor of your credibility or your impact. And so I'm a believer that anybody and everybody, no matter your age can have a huge impact.
Carol: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. And so what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing these days.
Michelle: So I'm doing lots of different things, but I'm a Gemini. So I've always had my hands in a lot of different things. But one thing that I will mention that's related to our discussion is I have been wanting to do a grant writing boot camp. I've done them in the past. The one that is much more technical and much more, hands on and practical in application and I'm going to be I'm. So it's still in the works, but I will be doing that over the summer. It's going to be a six week virtual, I believe, virtual program. and so I'm looking forward to that and looking forward to you, Being who, who, who participates and, and the work that they do because of it.
Carol: So. Awesome. Well, we will put links in the show notes to your website so people can check it out and see when that program, when, when you launch it, which I'm sure will be super useful for many people because, yeah, sometimes it's, it's oftentimes that nitty gritty, that, that can get in people's way. When they're, when they're trying to, trying to, Put together, those, those grants, those proposals hopefully avoid all the things that we just talked about, but learn even more. I'm sure with you so, well, thank you so much. It's been great talking to you today.
Michelle: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate this opportunity.
In episode 21 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Andy Robinson discussed include:
Andy Robinson provides training and consulting for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Over the past 25 years, Andy has worked with clients in 47 US states and Canada. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, he has designed and facilitated 70 online meetings, webinars, and remote workshops covering a variety of topics, including fundraising, board development, marketing, leadership development, facilitation, and train-the-trainer programs. Andy is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money, www.trainyourboard.com. His latest is What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
Carol Hamilton: Well welcome, Andy. Great to have you on the podcast.
Andy Robinson: Thank you for inviting me, Carol. It's good to be here with you.
Carol: So just to start out, I like asking the question of all my guests of what drew you to the work that you do, what, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Andy: So you're looking for my origin story in this work.
Carol: Well, I mean, it could be a more recent version of that, cause I'm sure it's evolved over the years.
Andy: All right. Well, for those of you who are listening, but not watching, I'm an old guy with a gray beard. And my, my origin story goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and I was fresh out of college and I didn't know who I wanted to be when I grew up or what I wanted to do. And I was a little stunned. I was like, what, what happened here? What do I do? And so I was casting around for something to do, and I opened the newspaper and. I looked in the classifieds and there was a job title called activist, and I thought, huh, that's interesting. What does that mean? What do those people do? And I applied for this job and I was hired and it turned out what I was doing was door to door canvassing. So I was one of those nice young people who came to your door and knocked on your door and told you about an organization. I had a conversation, asked you to give money. And that was my entry point into the world of nonprofits. And I think also the worlds of social change, social justice and community organizing. So what. Moves me now is what moved me then, which is the desire to create a positive change in the world and looking for tangible ways to do it. And for the last 25 years, I've run my own consulting practice as a trainer and consultant and facilitator. And I work with groups on planning and fundraising and facilitating meetings and building leadership and some of the stuff that you also do, Carol.
Carol: Yeah. It's interesting that you talk about that period right after college. It took me a little bit longer, but my first job that I got was working for a company that helped people get on talk shows. And so I found that I was actually rather good at writing the publicity and PR for folks and decided that I wanted to apply that skill to causes that I believed in. So that's what prompted my shift into the nonprofit sector.
Andy: This is sort of hilarious, cause you've recruited me to be on the talk show today.
Carol: Yeah, I've come full circle, I guess. So you said you, you've been in business for a long time and before that obviously had a long career in the sector and well, all the entire career in the sector, but in, in different roles. And you've said recently that you're shifting now into semi-retirement. And intentionally stepping back, taking shorter gigs. What's, what's your intention in doing that?
Andy: Well, there's three or four things. It's, it's a, it's a lovely question. The first thing is my own. Sustainability energy. One of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you work for yourself, but one of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you often never stop working. So I'm one of those people. Who's often at my desk at 10 o'clock at night, responding to emails that I didn't get to during the day. And I'm, I've reached the age where it's time for me to dial back my work so I can have more fun though. That's one answer to your question. The second answer to your question, and this slides us into the topic of succession planning. I have been helping and supporting other people enter this work for a number of years as facilitators and trainers and consultants. And I helped to lead a university program on this and then. I'm an informal coach to a lot of people who are entering into supporting nonprofits and, and, and the work that meets. So 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 those out to other people or jobs that I don't get any more. Cause 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 want to 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 they'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. So that's my current thinking and I'm spending more time having fun. I'm, I'm hiking out in the woods and I'm cooking good food and I'm spending time with my spouse whom I adore. And I still have enough work to keep things going. And that seems like a good balance right now.
Carol: Yeah. And a couple of things that you talked about you've worked with other leaders on succession planning. What do you think other nonprofit leaders could, could learn from your approach and how you've been doing it? It seems like you've been very intentional in how you're approaching it, which. I don't think it's particularly actually very well supported in our culture.
Andy: Well said. Well, I wanna, I wanna frame this two ways. One of the things I've done with organizations over many years is strategic planning, which is also something you've done a lot of. And one of them, I have a couple of favorites. Planning questions. 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 workflow of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge 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? And we spend some time chewing through because it might be a generation or two generations or three generations, right? Depending on the organization. Then I say, are you going to be here for the victory party? And of course, everybody laughed and said, no, I'm not going to 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. So, this is not this optional thing. If you don't have a succession plan, excuse me. If you're not building leadership, as you're building your organization and doing your work and changing the world you're failing. So that's a little aha for people. And I wanted to apply that same thinking to myself, you know? So there's an old thing that people might remember if they were Scouts or they learned how to backpack, you're supposed to leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. Like if you show up at the campsite and there's trash, pick up the trash, when you, when you check out, take the trash with you, don't let somebody else deal with the trash. And so literally I am trying to leave the campsite. In better shape than I found it. And I feel like the way I can do that is by handing off and supporting, and training and building other people who are coming in behind me. And I will tell you, I have, I don't know the number there's at least 50 and probably more like a hundred different peers that I interact with over the course of a year, in terms of sharing jobs, trading notes, doing referrals. Picking each other's brains. I mean, I have an amazing network and that's what sustained me for all the years. I've been self-employed as all these lovely peers who are generous to me and I aspire to be generous to them. So if I can help people do that for themselves. And built that peer network and what a gift. Right. That's beautiful. So that's my intention here and I will do it imperfectly, cause we all do everything imperfectly, but so far so good.
Carol: So what would you think? What, what, what are some ways in which inside an organization, a leader can, can start to groom that next generation.
Andy: Yeah, well, once upon a time I mean, I've done webinars on this topic and, I could probably rattle off 10 steps. I don't know that that's a lot, but I'll throw you two or three, which is one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand 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 menial 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 of things. That's one idea, second idea. And this speaks to the facilitation work that you and I both do is when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's going to lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda because the ability to. To run a meeting, to facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. So I am currently chairing a board and I had a board meeting last night. So this is top of mind. And as I was building the board agenda, I had about, I think, five different people leading different parts of the meeting. And so that's a second idea if you're actually bringing groups together, share the power within the group so that you have that agenda where people are. Taking turns, facilitating and leading and, and building the conversation. The third one is one that I've touched on already, which is 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. And so part of it is accepting the fact that other people do things they think about. Problems or challenges or opportunities differently. They approach them differently. That's something that should be embraced by leaders, as opposed to we have one way we do things here. So those are some ideas. I mean, I kicked this back to you. I know you think about this. When you're advising leaders on succession and distributing power, what tips do you offer?
Carol: Well, it's interesting that you talked about delegation because I think people think about that. That's an obvious one, but yet folks struggle with it for so much. And I think it goes to the last point that you've talked about. And I've been in situations where I've dealt with things delegated to me. And the leader has told me explicitly that, that, no, you, however you approach it is great until I stumbled upon the way that they actually wanted me to do it. Yes. And I think it's not even conscious on their part. Right. It's not their, their conscious intention was to hand this off and let me run with it. And then, I approach it differently and, and it was like, Ooh, well, wait a second. Not so much. And I think you can then ideally you then have a conversation to figure out what's the middle ground between the two. I don't know that I always handled it that way. Because I think my perpetual lesson that I've had to learn over and over again is indeed that people do things differently than I would do.
Andy: if you've done any anti-racism training, anti-oppression training, one of the first things they talk about is the difference between intention and impact. Sure. Right. And often we have very good, positive, sacred, Holy high-minded intentions, but we're clueless about the impact we're having on other people. And this is one of those examples. It's like, My intention is to give this job to you. But the impact I'm having is I'm micromanaging you while you're doing it. I'm just doing that. So, I mean, I have a mental way to do this, which is I would have people imagine there's a spectrum. And at one end of the spectrum, I'm pointing to my left are people who are really good at empowering others and supporting others and delegating. That's one of the ends of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum pointing to my right. People's responses, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier to just do it myself and full disclosure here is I live down at that. Right, and the second end of the spectrum, my default button is, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier. And what's interesting here is I have spent an entire lifetime trying to move myself down that line to the opposite end of the spectrum. Getting myself out of the way. So, I mean, I don't know if this is today's topic, but I will touch on it. I carry a lot of privilege. I'm an upper middle-class, white, cisgendered, straight male. I have an Ivy League education. I'm able-bodied. I mean, I have all the markers. I have English as my first language. I am, I have all the markers of privilege and I feel like my work for the last several years and maybe the last decade is to shrink my footprint and take up less space. And because that's what that's, what privilege is, is you take up a lot of space that you're not even aware that you're taking up. So, and I'll talk about this in front of groups and, there's a chance to bring this into a training or a facilitation, and there's a moment to have this conversation. I'll have it, but one of the ways that I can delegate perhaps in an we'll use the word unintentional, but as a secondary way is to just take up less space, to speak less to. Shrink my presence in whatever way that looks like, because that creates space for other people to step in and embrace their leadership skills. So I am like the amazing shrinking man, but I still take up huge amounts of space, but I'm mindful of it. And I am checking that whenever I can. And 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? And how do you really underline that and embrace that as a, as a strategy and a tool?
Carol: Yeah. So one of them is just, let's say, you're, you're discussing a topic with a group and trying to figure out different ways that you might approach it brainstorming. And if the leader can take a beat and not be the first person to talk can be huge.
Andy: Yeah. And I’ve facilitated a couple of online things over the last year where I've had leaders say to me, I'm not, I'm going to say very little, I'm going to not speak first. I'm going to step back intentionally. This is not me telling them this is them coming to me and saying, FYI, if you see me being quiet, it's me stepping back. And my response is thank you. And if I, if I feel as a facilitator, I need their voice. I can call on them. And say, Martha, haven't heard from you yet on this, what's your thinking. And I can cue them when needed, but that's, that's a great level of self-awareness and I'm, I'm glad you brought that up.
Carol: Yeah. And there's some tools, I mean, for brainstorming, there's some tools that you can use to help everybody's voice get in the room. By just having people, write things down first, like, the classic sticky notes and, and now in the virtual space on something like mural or jam board and, before anybody says anything, allowing people a few minutes to get their ideas out onto the board and in some cases you can trace, who's had what, but most people, by the time they're on there, they're not paying that much attention to it. And so it gives space for people, all, all the folks who are participating to step in. And, and one other thing that you talked about at that rotating facilitation, which is a simple thing, I was in this past year I've been teaching folks how, how to facilitate effectively online. And I was working with an intact team walking through the program and then they were trying to think about, okay, so how do we actually, the classic challenge with training of how do we actually make this stick? How do we, that was nice, but we did it in your, in your session. How do we actually start implementing this in practice? And so we talked about them using it in internal meetings first so that the stakes are lower. And so when I had my one-on-one with their leader, one of the things we talked about, I was like, well, okay, so what meetings do you typically lead? And he always led their weekly staff meeting.
I was like, well, what if, what if you rotate that. And, the intention there was to make sure that everyone was practicing facilitation. But as you say, facilitation and leading a meeting, thinking about an agenda, how are you guiding the group? How are you guiding the conversation? What questions are you asking about self leadership skills? So just by that, by him stepping back and saying, no, I'm not going to be the default, in a weekly meeting that doesn't need to be me. Is an easy first step to take. Yeah,
Andy: I totally agree. And one of the things I'm noticing about all these zoom meetings is all the boxes are the same size. And if you're fairly skillful, I mean, my experience of Zoom so far is that the alphas who tend to dominate it's a little harder to do it in that environment. And especially if there's some good facilitator helping work the process the alphas are less alpha and. That creates an equity opportunity. So what's one of the things I'm appreciating about all these virtual meetings is I think they do level the playing field a little bit if you handle them properly.
Carol: Right. And again, it all goes back to how you're structuring them. And and, and I think it's interesting to also watch how some people who might not speak up then have access to the chat. And so, they may not be contributing verbally to the meeting, but they're contributing often very coherent and quite eloquent thoughts in the chat. So, there's, it just gives people different ways to interact with the group and contribute. Again, as he said, if you kind of. Position that well, so
Andy: Carol, can I bring some Shakespeare into the car? Sure. In many, many Shakespearian tragedies, there was a fool and the fool is the person who says to the King when the King is being a jerk and maybe he gets whipped or beaten a little bit, for the most part, it is their job to speak truth to power. And I feel like if you're a leader and you're thinking about succession, you need to designate somebody in your organization who will call you out when you're overstepping your boundaries and not be punished for it. So I think, I think every leader needs a full. Where they trust and love, but who will speak truth to them and say, you're overstepping here. Or you're, you're AWOL what's up. Or you really handle that one. You could handle that one differently than you did. And it takes some courage to have somebody who is your designated call you out person, and it doesn't have to be publicly, can be privately like, FYI at that meeting, you missed an opportunity. I want to share with you what I saw that opportunity was. So. Sometimes as the consultant, we fill that role. Sometimes our job is to speak truth, to power and name things that people don't want to talk about because they're difficult. But even if you had somebody like that within your organization who had that role and handled the Def that's a succession tool as well.
Carol: So what I think we've talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the mistakes that you've seen leaders make when, when. When they're thinking about their exit or perhaps not even not even thinking about it and then that broader transition that's, cause it's never just one thing. There's always a ripple effect. Yeah, it goes through the organization.
Andy: There's a guy named Don Tebbe. Who's written a lot about this. And one of his quotes is leading well is leaving well, or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's leaving well is leading well, it works either way. So first of all, we have to lift that up as a value. It's okay to leave well, in terms of mistakes. Oh, let us count the ways. I think a classic mistake is hanging onto them, you know? And I am I'm I'm right in the middle of the baby, boom, I'm boomer through and through boomers, we need to step aside and I acknowledge that maybe you haven't saved all the money you need to retire, or maybe you're having too much fun or maybe there's still work to do that you want to do. And that's awesome. And time to step aside, at least figuring out what that looks like for you. So one thing is just hanging on too long and it is, it is baked into the system, but the skills that one needs to start a company, a business, an organization to start anything is a different skill set that is required to build it to maturity. And it's few people that have both of those skill sets. So you and I have both. I dealt with this thing called founder's disease or founder's syndrome or founder itis. Right. And God bless founders, ‘cause we need them. They make stuff happen. They are amazing people, but founders sometimes leave trouble in their wake. So I think one thing we have to do is to be mindful of that as we're doing this, 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 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. And it's a different world. Would that be a second mistake? And I'll kick this back to you. I can come up with more, but I mean, what have you seen as the biggest challenge to succession? What gets in the way?
Carol: Well, one that was interesting. I was working with a group where it was that classic thing of the board members. originating founder, the founder was still on the board. some of the founding board members were still there. And I think part of the challenge, like, and the person, said that they wanted to step back, said that they were tired and they didn't, they wanted to groom new people and said all the right things. And again, behaved in the absolute opposite way of micromanaging staff and, and, questioning if a board, if the board made a decision then going around the board to undermine it when the, they didn't agree in those kinds of things. And I think what was as part of that challenge, and I think for many people is that for that person, it was so much part of their identities. That they couldn't imagine what they would be without leading that organization.
Andy: I came up in an era. I mean, again, my career started in 1980. I came up in an era where if you were working for nonprofits, especially these, heavily mission-driven nonprofits, the assumption was you were, you would bleed for the cause. And you'd come in early and you'd stay late and it was your life. And one thing I'm loving about working with millennials is they actually want to have a life outside of the office and an identity that's not connected to their jobs. And that's great. So I think the problem is, a generation that came up the way that I came up, which is your identity is your work. And your identity is the causes that you care about. And there's something positive about that. I mean, that's, that's commitment and that's powerful, but it's also destructive. So yeah, you're right. I think we have to have identities that are, at least we can separate from the work we do or the organizations we're involved with. Because I think the classic problem is people won't let go because their identities are tied up in the work.
Carol: Yeah. And then they feel, less than, or they don't, they're not useful or, they have no purpose without, without this work that they're doing. And I mean, I guess for me, I, I saw my dad struggle with that. He was the greatest generation and dedicated every minute. Of his working life to his working life. And just struggled when he retired or, it was in a system where you, you had to retire at a certain age. And because everything about his adult life had been wrapped up in that job. And watching the difference. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she also shaped, like we. He was in the foreign service. So we traveled around the world and every country, she would get a new degree. So she entertained herself by getting degrees, taking care of us. But then like, but she was never as attached to those. I don't think in the same way, it's just, wasn't the same. And so for me, going into the workforce, I always had the, and my, my tagline for the podcast is how, how to be in the nonprofit sector without being a martyr to the cause. Cause I just think that martyr syndrome is just so toxic to our sector. And so I've always tried to think about, well, there's work. And then there, then it's not that there's like work in life. Like your work is part of your life, right? It's not that separate, but how do you kind of. Keep cultivating other communities, other networks and other aspects that you want to develop. I mean, I, I do know a lot of people through my faith community who are retired and I've just, I've seen some amazing transformations of, someone who was a lawyer who specialized in some incredibly arcane aspect of, Law who then after he retired and he struggled to retire, took him like five years from when he started talking about it to when he actually did. But then started taking classes, started taking art classes at the local community college and mean has become quite the, I don't think he was trying to become a great artist, but, but he's become quite accomplished and really enjoys that.
Andy: So exploring different aspects of yourself is as important I think. And, and I will argue that our greatest ex president is Jimmy Carter. He did, a lifetime's worth of work after he left the white house. Right, right. Amazing things, amazing things. And so, yeah, I mean, that's someone who had a third act or a fourth act, or however you want to count it. So, yeah, it's certainly possible to have a life after work. Like maybe you all have that.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I've also worked with yes. And you named it, you named it. So I'll, I'll say it, the baby boomers who would be having conversations with me and I'm, and, just baffled with this baffled look on their face. So I just don't know where the leaders are going to come from. And I'm like, okay. I know when you started being a leader, you were like 15 years younger than me. In your career, but you don't think that I could possibly be in that role, you know?
Andy: So yeah. Yeah, that's right. I am carrying the shame of an entire generation.
Carol: Well, we will, we will require you to do that.
Andy: No problem. It's it's, it's, it's the old thing. It's, it's like men have to talk to men about sexism and misogyny and. White people about racism and boomers have to talk to boomers about letting it go. So here we are.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So since we've been at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one ice breaker question from this box of icebreaker questions that I have. So since we've been talking about, second, third acts, fourth acts retirement what's the last thing that you completed on your bucket list and not as soon as of course that you have a bucket list.
Andy: Oh, interesting. Yeah, we just bought an electric vehicle. Oh, wow. Yeah. From a neighbor. So we got a second hand Chevy bolt and I've been driving it for the last month and I'm learning all the bells and the whistles, but it's one of the things. And actually we had a We had a charger installed in our garage some time ago. And then we were going to buy another car. This is more detailed, but anyway I wanted to get an Evie and now I have one. So that was on the bucket list and it has been completed.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. Well, when, when our cars die and we're waiting well, We're just watching them and they will die soon. That is on our list next to, to try to try to buy an electric vehicle. And probably we'll probably end up with a used one cause we ended up with a used Prius, so that'll be next. So, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you?
Andy: We talking about work or, or fun, or where do you want to get?
Carol: Wherever you want to go
Andy: Well, I will say this next Thursday, which is the 28th, excuse me, the 25th. I am teaming up with my buddy Harvard, McKinnon, who is one of North America's great fundraisers. He's written many books. He's a lot of fun. And he and I are doing a webinar together called raising more money by asking and to answering better questions. And it's all about. Questions that donors think that you really have to anticipate and answer, but also questions you can ask donors to deepen the conversation. So for the fundraising webinar, it's sponsored by the sustainability network, which is Canada's national support network for the environment. And that's on the 25th. So people can track it down and go to my website, you'll see the information there. And so that's coming up and that's something I'm excited about.
Carol: This episode will probably be published after that happened. So will that be possible for people to access it after the fact?
Andy: It's a great question. I don't know. But I suspect if they go to the website for the sustainability network, which is sustainability to sustainability network.ca and poke around there, you may find it if not reach out to me and I'll put you on my list for future events, I'm doing lots of webinars and trainings. Someday I may actually go back on the road again when that's allowed. We'll see. And I look forward to supporting you in whatever way I can.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great talking with you this morning. Thank you Carol.
Andy: For inviting me. It was fun talking with you too, and have a good day, everybody.
In episode 15 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Mary Hiland discussed include:
- The pivotal executive director – board chair relationship.
- Why trust is so key and how to build it.
Mary Hiland brings over 40 years of experience to nonprofit leaders to create a paradigm shift about how to develop an informed and inspired board that is truly an asset. Her mission is to help nonprofit leaders ignite and unleash the potential of the board, getting rid of the mindset that a board is a burden. Her deep expertise and hands-on experience (26 years as a nonprofit executive and 17 as a board member) bring credibility and confidence to nonprofit leaders who know she understands because she’s “been there.” Mary coaches, and mentors executive directors and board leaders. She is a speaker and published author. She has a weekly podcast, Inspired Nonprofit Leadership: conversations to inspire, inform, and support nonprofit leaders.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Mary. Great to have you on the podcast.
Mary Hiland: It's great to be here, Carol. It's always great to connect with you.
Carol: So I'm curious, what drew you to the work you do? What would you say motivates you, how would you describe your why?
Mary: Oh, that's a big question. I've been in the field a really long time, so I'm gonna mostly address the work I'm doing now as a consultant, because that's been the last 18 years. I had a different ‘why’ early on when I was much younger, but I see a lot of potential in the boardroom of nonprofits, having been around for over 40 years in the sector. I see a lot of challenges in the relationships between the executives and their boards, and I had great experiences in both of those scenarios. I had great boards, and I had great relationships with my board chairs, and it's painful to me to see that things aren't as good as they could be. I really want to support executives and board members to reach the potential of those relationships and the functioning of the board. So, I’ve developed a passion for that out of just hearing the stories and observing, and knowing on the other side what's possible, seeing the really powerful impact that boards can have and executives who are just thrilled with their boards, believe it or not, out there.
Carol: Yeah. That executive director-board chair relationship is so key to the effectiveness of the organization. What would you say are some of the key elements that can make that relationship successful?
Mary: Well, it's interesting that you should ask me that because I did my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director, and there was no research out there about the question you just asked, what are the critical success factors in this relationship? I really wanted to learn about it. I didn't get all of the factors out, but there were two themes that came out in my interviews with board chairs and their executives. This has held true in all my observations that the first critical success factor, which is probably no surprise to anyone out there, is trust. But what I found was that people don't always know how to build trust. They really don't know how to build relationships. I went into it thinking ‘everybody knows how to do that. this is a natural thing,’ but it isn't for many people. So I developed a model of trust-building, and we could talk more about that if you want, but trust-building is really important. And there are different ways to build trust that you may not think of, and it's easy to lose. Unfortunately, the other was when they're interacting with each other one-on-one, but not necessarily in person, whether it's over the phone, not in email, but over the phone or zoom these days, or in-person, what are you focusing on in your conversation together? There's a lot of options for that, as you can imagine. And there's different types of interactions that you're going to have, and the interactions can help build the trust. But some were focusing just on the executive using the board chairs as a sounding board and a lot of focus on the day-to-day operation. Then others were focusing on more planning together. They were doing some of that sounding board stuff, and Day-to-day stuff, but then they were planning together and being strategic thinkers together, and then the final level of interaction and topics, and focus of what they were talking about was more, the best word I picked for this was leadership. They were actually leading together, thinking about how to engage with the community, thinking about how to engage the board so that there was this depth in the scope of what they talked about and focused on. I don't want to go on and on and on about it, but I don't see too many board chair-executive relationships where they're even thinking about ‘how do we spend our time together? What do we talk about? What are the agendas?’ It's probably the agenda for the board meeting, maybe a problematic issue with the board member, some other more tactical kinds of things, but that is not wrong. You need all of that, but it's trying to think a little more deeply about the quality of what you're working on together.
Carol: Excellent. Going back to what you initially said around building trust. I know a lot of folks now, they may cringe when they hear the word trust-building exercise, or may think that you're going to make them go out into the woods and high ropes course or something like that. What are some straightforward ways that, in your experience, are the building blocks of building trust?
Mary: Well, that's a great question. And you're right about that in the woods. I'm not that a person and I resisted this issue. Let me just share this one little thing. I resisted this in my research because I said if I stand in front of some Executives and Board Members and say, ‘it's important to build trust.’ They'll look at me like ‘did you have to go do a doctorate to learn that? Let me highlight a couple of different things that people may not think about. I think we all know that you can't be lying to people. You have to do what you say you're going to do. These are the things that people think about typically. One that I think is really relevant for Executive Directors, but also for Board Members is competence. There's a type of trust called competence-based trust in my model. You wouldn't hire a plumber to do the electrical work in your house. Now that seems very simplistic, but Executives, how are you showing your Board Members that you are competent in your job? Now when you're first hired, I tell Executives, you probably gave them a resume. You talked about the networks that you have, your skills, your talents, but after you're hired, when you get new board members, do you do that again? Do you share your resume with them? How are you showing your Board when you gain a new skill,or you think you get better at something, or broaden your network, or just do some professional development? How are you sharing that with people? I know Non-Profit executives can be very humble, which is great. I'm not talking about inappropriate bragging here. It's not inappropriate to demonstrate to people that they can have confidence in your leadership, that they can have confidence in your skillset. So that goes both ways with Board Members helping Executives understand that they're competent in their role as a Board Member. What past experience have they had? What leadership experience?
Carol: That's a great point that you make that, when folks are thinking about orienting new board members, I think most of the time they're thinking about orienting to the organization. Lots and lots of information about that. They often forget about orienting to the role of being a Board Member. I think that other layer that you're talking about of the Executive Director basically orienting the new Board Member to themselves as well and their background and what they're bringing to it. Not acting as if the Board Member already essentially knows them.
Mary: I think that is a very often missed opportunity for executive directors. The other one is giving feedback, communication, and trust. We probably think of it as telling the truth, but there are other elements of communication that help you build trust, other behaviors. And one is actually giving feedback in a constructive way, but the other is being willing to receive feedback and it's really important for executives to be sensitive to the fact that if they come across defensive to their Board it's like saying to them, to the Board Member or the Board Chair, ‘your perspective of me is not valid’ and dismissing it because you're defending yourself right out the gate and that doesn't work. It doesn't mean you have to agree with their perception of you, but it means you need to hear it and you need to let them know you heard it. Then you can say, ‘well, have you thought about looking at it this way?’ or, ‘I have a different viewpoint on that,’ but that's not the same thing as being defensive out the gate. When you're defensive and dismissing people, nothing is going to erode trust faster because they don't feel heard and they don't feel that you're hearing them at all in terms of understanding a different viewpoint. They can't trust that you're open to new ideas. The other is your willingness to give feedback because you're saying to that person when you do that, I believe that you are open to learning. I believe that you can grow and change. You're expressing confidence in them because you're taking the time to share something that you've observed or experienced with them. That can go a long way to build trust. So giving that honest feedback and giving it in a timely manner is really important because it also says ‘I'm invested in your success.’ And I'm sure you've seen it over and over again Carol. The supervisor, the leader who waits and waits and waits when the new person joins their workforce to give feedback that's negative because they feel, ‘Oh, they're just new.’ They just dismiss it because giving negative feedback is uncomfortable. Well, think about it as a way you're building trust with that person. So that's another one that I think sometimes we don't think of.
Carol: I know a lot of people don't really have a lot of skills around giving feedback. People talk about it a lot, but I don't know that I was taught in college, or other places, probably not until I was doing my graduate degree in organization development where we really dug into ‘what is feedback?’ What's the purpose? It actually often says more about the person giving the feedback than the person receiving it. You know how to receive it. So in that instance, where you said when someone is starting to get defensive and they can feel that they might be getting a little emotionally hijacked by the situation for them to even think, ‘I'm just going to say, thank you.’
and ‘I'll think about this.’ and come back to it later when they have a little more perspective at a little more distance from the instance that it's happening.
Mary: I think it's helpful out there that we're spending a little more attention on relationships whether it's driven by some of the horrible situations we've seen, but I think that it's a very important part of growing and developing, particularly as a leader. If it's okay Carol, I do have a trust-building action plan that's free if it's okay, I can tell people how they can get it. It tells a little bit more about the types of trust and these behaviors are available that are listed so people can get that by going to Hilander Consulting. That's H-I-L-A-N-D-E-R consulting dot org, org slash trust building. If you go there, you can get that.
Carol: That's in the show notes as well.
Mary: That would be great. Because I created that to help people broaden their perspectives about trust and get some sensitivity.
Carol: Such a big concept that's really helpful to have it broken down into elements. What are some behaviors? What are some actions that you can take to start working towards building that trust and then you also talked about the different kinds of conversations that executives are having with their Board Chairs and named three different kinds: that sounding board day-to-day is the planning that made them move to more of a strategic level, and then the leadership level, and the first one that you mentioned around the day-to-day I think on one hand, that Executive Director role can be a very lonely place where, Executive Directors don't necessarily have or may not have peers that they can reach out to, to have those kinds of conversations at the same time. I would imagine that if they're drawing their Board Chair into those day-to-day conversations about what's going on. While they may be training the board on, your role is not to be involved in staff.
Carol: They're actually drawing the board into that role through that conversation. Oftentimes, the reports that people have in board meetings and all the different things that they use, they include, and then they wonder why Board Members step into wanting to get involved in operations? Well, you spent half the meeting updating them on that.
Mary: And I think this is such an important point and I would not want to leave people thinking that I would be encouraging going down that operational rabbit hole of detail with your Board all the time, particularly your Board Chair, but here's where, when you're kicking off your relationship with your Board Chair, you need to start by talking about ‘how are we going to work together?’ it's important to establish a ground rule with your Board Chair. That if it's okay for me to bring what's on my mind to you and experience our relationship as a safe place to have you as a sounding board, then I need you to understand and tell me that you get it. That I'm not inviting you to come in and tell me how to do my job, I am inviting you to give me your perspective, but it's creating a different place and environment for us to have that conversation. It's not telling you that I want you to change your role or the boundaries that we have together. I think that's a really important thing to establish upfront because your board chair may not know how to interpret that. Carol, we know that if boards don't have meaningful, strategic leadership, meaningful conversations, values-driven, conflict conversations to have. Discussions about looking for a way to make a difference in half meaning they're going to go to what you leave them. So if you're leaving them the details, that's the only place they know how to get engaged, so be careful and that's where your board meeting agendas and people talk about generative boards and those kinds of conversations, and those are very important for that reason.
Carol: Those are some of the basic things, but what are some ways that a board chair and executive director working together can really shape an agenda that leads the board to have those more strategic conversations.
Mary: Well I think it all starts with having a good strategic plan frankly. I really think if all you have is the answer to this question. If we were really successful in advancing our mission three years from now, what results will we have created? And if you're bored and you can't answer that question, you've got a measurable three or four results that you're working at a high level to achieve then of course, next question. And if you haven't done this, definitely a board agenda item is ‘what's the board's role, does the board have a role in achieving that particular goal?’ And if it does, what is it? How's it going to organize around it, and what result is the board going to accomplish in this first year toward that. So when that framework of your work is in place, it creates the opportunity to look at how we’re doing, how are things going? Also for board discussion, how is the board functioning as a team in its own development? Just like you should be thinking as an executive leader about your own development and what are you doing? So thinking through those higher-level strategic issues, any particular challenges, making room on the agenda for discussing and learning about what some of the challenges facing the organization are. So you can't say exactly what's coming up for you, but that's what you want to bring up and shape that agenda. You're going to have some ongoing work that you need board decisions around, the regular oversight things. Again, the progress on the strategic goals. So if you have the framework around you, hopefully it makes it easier for you to know what we need to talk about.
Carol: Yeah. I think just even having a practice around, ‘we're gonna consider one higher-level strategic question at every board meeting.’ And also separate out, ‘is this a conversation to have a discussion about this and brainstorm and just explore the issue?’ Are we learning something, are we getting some outside input about this? Or is this a point at which we've spent plenty of time discussing and now we have a concrete proposal and we're going to make a decision, but I think there's some folks who want to move to a decision real quick and others who want to explore longer. So being clear about where you are in the conversation on those strategic issues can be really helpful as well.
Mary: Yes. And I think just going through the process of creating awareness about decision-making, ‘how are we making decisions?’ That could be a great conversation at a board meeting. I had a client who called me and said, come teach our board how to make decisions.
Carol: I had a conversation with someone this morning about that. It’s hard for groups. They come with where they've been, how they've done it in other places, all folks are operating from all sorts of different assumptions. So getting that out on the table and talking through, ‘how have we made decisions? How do we want to do that moving forward?’ It's really important.
Mary: That's right. That was a very interesting challenge for me. It was a long time ago to really look at what we know about decision-making and this was a very high-stakes decision and there was a split vote on the board. And when the board, not knowing Robert's Rules of Order, which I don't recommend using by the way, I do think you need something, but they had thought that if someone calls for the question, you have to stop discussion and that's actually not true. When you stop discussion arbitrarily like that, because one person says let's just vote in this case, resulted in a split vote. And one side of that boat got up and walked out of the room because they felt so discounted and not valued, and they were not ready to make a decision.
Carol: Rules can be useful and they have their limitations. When you're in a messy, controversial conversation, it's probably time to put them aside a bit and just allow the conversation to go.
Mary: Yeah, one thing that I've used is that often boards want to have a high level of agreement and may even be trying to work towards consensus and Sam Kaner has the same ‘consensus continuum’ where, it's like one to eight, like I'm totally for it down to one being ‘I veto this’ and all the different gradations in between and just getting a sense of where people are. I was on a board where we had a high stakes decision, and it really was not one where there was a good solution. So, we agreed ahead of time that as long as we got everyone to a three, which was, ‘I think I can live with this. I don't love it, but I can live with it.’ That was going to be good enough because we knew that we weren't going to get to any solution that folks were going to be super excited about wholeheartedly. I think that it's a good strategy for the board chair particularly to stop discussion sometimes and just test and say, let's just do a sample vote here so we see where people are on this. It allows you to have a more efficient meeting if everybody agrees, but they aren't realizing they're agreeing. Also to allow for some agreements about, ‘well, let's talk about it for another 20 minutes or something.’ I think that the value of pushing for consensus is that people will stretch and be more creative about solutions if it isn't too easy to get there. So that's an opportunity, but not always achievable.
Carol: Yeah. You've talked about a third level where the board chair and the executive are working at what you described as a leadership level. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that kind of working?
Mary: Yeah. Now this is about what they're focusing on when they're together. What I found in my research, and I can give you a link, it's not on the top of my head, but a link to an online journal that I wrote a summary of all this research in so [the listeners] can get a little more on this if they're interested. But it was interesting because the pairs that had the highest level of trust, which we didn't talk about, but it's called identification-based trust. And it's when you don't just know the person, you identify with them and it's a little more personal. Those board chairs and executives were sharing more personal [information], but appropriately personal [information]. Like, one board chair knew the executive director - and this may seem silly, but it was really important - collected teddy bears. So he bought her a teddy bear, little things like that. So the highest level of trust pairs were also the ones who most often were at this third level, which was cumulative by the way, when they got together, they were focusing on what I called management planning, and then leadership. Now at the leadership level, it was as if they were standing side-by-side facing out into the community, but they had engaged the board with them. So whatever that took to be thinking about being more outward on their impact, more focused strategically on that versus some of the pairs that were maybe stuck a little more at the managing level where they were always working on what's going on in the organization, always focused only on the organization, the planning groups were focused on the organization sometimes, but also the board and working together more strategically. The leadership level of pairs was more the characteristic thing was that they were doing all of that, but also very outwardly oriented about constituents, about impact, about things going on in the community. So I'm not sure how to describe it more than that. I'd have to go back to my transcripts - this was a long time ago - and read some of the stories.
Carol: I think that gives a good perspective. You can imagine lifting your head up and looking over to the rise and looking outward rather than just in the details.
Mary: Yeah. So then it was cumulative. It wasn't mutually exclusive. It was just, they never got beyond a certain focus, and nobody agreed to be interviewed that didn't think they were doing a good job together. So in that sense, the research was biased. Cause I didn't have any horrible pairs. I had people say, ‘well, I don't want to be interviewed with my board chair.’ I interviewed them separately, but they just didn't want to invite their board chair to participate.
Carol: So, what would you say more broadly beyond the board chair, the executive, what would you say the executive needs to be cultivating in terms of engaging the whole board?
Mary: Well, I think there are some additional things they overlap with the trust-building, obviously you need to do that. You need to build your relationships one-on-one and do you need to be there collectively with them? Don’t control that you're the only one interacting with the board as part of trust is trusting that your staff can interact with the board without you having to be paranoid and controlling about that. But I think that one of the key issues where I see challenges for executives is in communication. You may have 12 to 15 board members, and every single one of them has a different preference for how you communicate with them. How much should be provided on a particular issue. Some people just want the bottom line, and other people want volumes. This was my experience when I was an executive. So I think being proactive with your board and as you get new board members, having the conversation about ‘what are their preferences,’ but then collectively as a board raising awareness that everybody has different preferences and getting the board to agree with you on how much they want, how they're going to communicate. How do you manage say, email communications? Do you have a subject line flag for action now? Information only when you can get to it? Communication agreements and guidelines that you create together are very powerful and can be very helpful for executives because they're not trying to meet 14 different, 15 different people's needs for different kinds of communication.
Carol: You're talking about emails. I've seen those on agendas and hadn't thought about then transferring it to that information that you're sending out to folks of: is this for your backup, for background decision, I need input right away that that's really key to have some agreements around those so that people can differentiate and really focus in on what's the most important.
Mary: Yeah. And I think the other thing that I said about competence, there's a gal who did some research on the board-executive relationship years ago, Maria Galinsky. She coined the phrase ‘executive assets.’ She said that that's something you want to keep your board informed of all the time. That's where I picked up this idea and then melded it with the concept of competence-based trust. That's important for you to keep in mind, and as you're building trust, then you have the safety of not having surprises, which we all know, but different board members are again interpreting surprise differently. So I think that's important.
Carol: Well I'm going to shift gears a little bit here. On every episode, I play a game, where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one here for you: what's something about you that surprises people when they first hear it?
Mary: Oh boy, something that surprises people when they first hear it…. I'm trying to think. I know that there's something out there that I used to say, ‘well, this one, I don't like to say very often because I don't want to feel like I'm bragging.’ I have five degrees and that surprises people sometimes. Also I don't have a middle name, I used to sing when I was younger. There's a few little things like that that I don't talk about very often.
Carol: Well, thank you for sharing that. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing now?
Mary: Well I'm close to finishing my book. I'm very excited about that. I have the final chapter, which is the wrap-up chapter to write. Then of course it goes through that whole long process of deep editing and doing the book thing, but I'm really excited because this book is based on four executive directors and it's based on a couple of my studies about boards, how boards get better and what do you do about the problems you're having with your board? I'll just quickly say that, what I learned after doing a lot of research and case review was that every problem you have with your board fits into one of three areas: capacity, connection, and culture. So I talk about that, give examples of that, but more importantly for executives, I talk about: what are you going to do about it? So I find that - and you probably do too Carol, in your work - that a lot of times when people have issues with their board, the solution is a capacity solution. Where they're saying, we just come and train my board about their job, their roles and responsibilities. I get this every week and then they'll be better bored. Well, training is important, but it's not going to change behavior. So I'm hoping that my book helps executives understand when that's not going to be enough. And when they need to look a little deeper and what they can do when they do feel that the problem's a little deeper, so it's not so overwhelming.
Carol: We'll have to have you back on when the book is published.
Mary: That would be great.
Carol: So you already mentioned your website and the free resource that people can download about trust building. We'll make sure to put those into the show notes, so folks can find them, but yeah, thanks so much. It was great having you on and great delving into that board chair-executive director relationship that's just so key.
Mary: Well, thank you Carol. Thanks so much for having me. I love that you have a podcast out there too, and that we're able to reach people through this medium. It's very exciting, I think. I just want to wish your listeners well and encourage them to take care of themselves and encourage you to do the same.
Carol: Absolutely! That's so important. Well, thank you so much.
Mary: You are welcome. Bye-bye.
There is a brief discussion of police brutality in this episode around 16 minutes in.
In episode 14 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Keisha Sitney, discussed include:
- Why leaders need to be role models for their staff and lead by example
Keisha Sitney is the Chief People Officer for The Y in Central Maryland and the founder of Golden Key Coaching. She works to ensure the people strategies and resources support and match the strategic priorities of the organization. Keisha is an executive leader who has been with the Y for 30 years, both at the national and regional levels. With in-depth experience in coaching, talent management, strategic visioning and planning, and facilitation, Keisha has served in operational roles at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, led the national multicultural leadership development movement as well as served as an internal consultant for C-Suite leaders from Ys across the United States. She holds a Master's Degree in Organization Development from American University and a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Howard University.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Keisha, great to have you on the podcast.
Keisha Sitney: Thank you. Thanks for having me, I’m really honored to be here.
Carol: I want to start out by asking, just to give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you and how would you describe your work?
Keisha: Well, I have worked for Y the organization for [30 years and I’m] celebrating my 30th year there. And being only 35, it's hard to fathom that I've been in that place 30 years. But in all seriousness, I really enjoy helping people to reach their potential. I think that I started off working with young people, and directing childcare centers, and doing team programs and things, and after decades of operations, I really found that my passion is for the people, the associates, the leaders that are doing the work and helping them make sure that they feel equipped, that they feel energized, that they have all the tools and resources, that they have the confidence to do the work that they're supposed to do. Nonprofit work can be grueling, and sometimes we may give and forget that we have to also pour in to ourselves. So that's a part of my why is making sure that people are able to pour into themselves?
Carol: Yeah. What are some ways that you help people do that?
Keisha: Well, I think that a lot of it is in coaching and reflecting and going through and finding ways to reflect on situations: ‘how did I respond to this, how am I going to do this differently in the future?’ I think that that emotional intelligence and self-awareness is really key. We can get so caught up in the doing of the work, and I find myself telling leaders all the time through our organization: the work is not just the work, it's not just the tactics and the processes. It's how we get things done. It's who we work with in order to move things forward. I think that a part of that is how we are aware of our own selves and how we impact that. So it's important, that critical part of leadership, in my opinion.
Carol: I don't know if leaders are always aware that the folks around them, their staff, are paying very close attention to everything that they're doing. And oftentimes, leaders are relying on what they're saying or what they're communicating in an email, but what they're doing, that is always more powerful, for people to watch behavior and, start to unpack, and doing that reflection so that you can think about, ‘okay, well, these are the things that happened.’ someone's telling me what they saw and that they made some interpretation and it maybe wasn’t what I intended, but that was the impact it had. So it's really key to always remember that, as a leader, you're in the spotlight
Keisha: Yeah, you're accountable, regardless of your intent. Maybe the impact is still being impacted. When you're mentioning leaders and people looking up to you or watching, how do we take off? How do we use it, how do we sharpen the saw? How do we develop ourselves? We tend to say, ‘Oh, we're going to send them to training or we're going to make sure you use your leave,’ but then, ‘Oh, well, no, I'm so important, I've got to work. I've got to be here’ or, ‘call me, I know I'm on vacation, but I'll still be a participant in that meeting.’ And it's risky to, to be the person that says ‘I'm scheduled for leave during that time. Can we reschedule that? I really want to be a part of the conversation, but I've scheduled this time and it's really important to my family.’ Not to say that as a leader, sometimes you don't need to just be there. If it's something that's come up, that's an emergency, but every emergency isn't an emergency. So I think that leading by example and taking care of ourselves and our families is really critical. And it's something that I constantly work on. I can't say I've got it down pat, but it's something that I strive to improve every year.
Carol: Yeah, those are hard boundaries to keep, even when we know that's in our belief, I know that's certainly what I believe and I try to do for myself and then to demonstrate to others. And I have the luxury of being an independent consultant. I used to give the explanation of why I'm on leave. Now I simply say that I'm not available. It's a little easier for me to do that without someone having access to my calendar, et cetera, but it's still hard to maintain those boundaries, and even if you're working, just keep some time for thinking and for analysis, for stepping back and not being in meeting after meeting after meeting as leaders are so often in. Especially now, in COVID, the day can never end sometimes. But I think being aware of what really is an emergency, when is it really critical, and when is it not so that you have those reserves when those emergencies come up.
Keisha: And one thing that I try to remember is, as women, and leaders, and moms, sometimes there's a thought you're supposed to be super-woman or super-mom, and I don't try to ascribe to that. I try to remember that, I'm juggling a lot of balls, but. Every ball is not a glass wall. So, there might be some things that I can let drop and they're going to bounce back and I'll just pick them up wherever they are. Or maybe I can pass it to someone on my team or something like that. But things like my children, or my husband, or my health, those are glass balls that I can't get back. If I drop them, they're shattered. That's been helpful for me to prioritize those things that'll be fine until next week, but this is the priority and takes precedent, so I need to calm myself.
Carol: I love that image because we so often hear ‘I'm juggling a lot of things,’ but remembering that all of those balls that you're juggling don't have the same impact and are not all precious in the same way. You don’t have to be the one juggling all of those things, and you can pull other people in, help them grow by giving them a stretch assignment that you may be in charge of, and maybe it can really help their development.
Keisha: Exactly and people want to help. They want to come through for you. So I think it isn't for us to share those opportunities with others and prioritize for ourselves.
Carol: So, part of your work has been working on building a more multicultural increasing equity within the Y. What would you say has been missing in past efforts to address equity in the nonprofit sector? I mean, there are a lot of organizations that are trying to address that in the outside of their organizations, but I'm talking about inside organizations.
Keisha: We have to start with ourselves internally. If it can't be just a process or a policy, or procedures, we have to start as individuals. We come to work with our own beliefs, the way that we are raised and how we see things. And we are all born with biases and it impacts how we show up and impact how we treat others at work. What we value, who we value. Knowing where people's ideals come from and why they make the decisions they make, or the way they behave. It's helpful in us being more empathetic to one another. I feel like the conversations that are being had nowadays, with the pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, and the epidemic of racism, people aren't able to ignore it. I think having these uncomfortable conversations, leaning into the discomfort, and committing to doing it again and again, is what's going to make the difference.
I've led multicultural leadership-development efforts at a national level for our organization. And there were some times where I felt like we were just teaching the diverse leader how to be within this larger structure that is not necessarily welcome. So, teach you - as a person of color - to straighten your hair, to get in, get the interview, say the right things, and do all those things. But how do we change the system so that it doesn't expect me to conform in order to be successful, that I can be valued for. However, if I choose to wear my hair this way, and I know that sometimes it seems like a small thing, but those small things, they just add up and there seem to be many ways where, as a woman of color, I felt like I haven't always been able to bring my whole self to work. So I do think that it's important that we allow folks to bring themselves, and their culture, and their beliefs, to work and not have to hide who they are.
Those conversations are key. And in that leadership development that you're talking about, it's essentially like we're refining code switching or refining, basically teaching whiteness. I feel like that's probably replicated across not only programs within organizations, but many, many programs that are offered as not capacity-building, but just different levels. So that's essentially what the program is about. How is that really helping us get to equity. We need to teach white people to be okay with people who are different. I know that there's a lot of books and things talking about being anti-racist. But we have to continue to just work on dismantling the systems. It's not just teaching one group how to be, or how to respond. It's educating ourselves on how things got to be the way they are. And they didn't just start with us here. Here's the impact of those things, here's how this group might've benefited from these laws and these systems. And then here's how this group may not have benefited or how they might've been kept back as a result of those. And then getting people to make change, how do we bring it to the forefront and then start to dismantle it. But it's in the long haul. It was built over time and it won't be dismantled overnight either.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting. I was listening to one of Brené Brown's podcasts, she now has two, and I'm not remembering who the person that she was talking to was, but the person she was interviewing was talking about how, when organizations try to start working on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They'll often go to the policies, the practices, and she described that, as the transactional part of the work. And that was interesting to me - because so often it ends up being posed as somewhat of an either/or of either you're doing transactional, or you're doing transformational and what she was saying, which I found so interesting was you have to have both. So you have to deal with all those practices and systems and how that's all embedded in the code of how we work. That's not enough, it's not sufficient. You also have to work at the relational level and then other work. We're trying to come at this from a conscious part of the brain that actually is not triggering a lot of this. That so much is about the unconscious bias that we've been taught over years. And how that's embedded in our limbic system.
Keisha: It is. We have to do something to consciously stop it and be aware that, ‘okay, this is what I'm thinking.’ This is what I'm hearing. This is what I'm saying, what I'm replicated. I found that one-on-one conversations have also been very, very helpful with - and I can't speak for every person who's like me - but I can tell you how this impacts me. I can tell you how this impacts my children. I can tell you how this impacts my family, and it's exhausting to share. There have been times when I'm like, ‘I'm tired of educating everyone else. I'm just going to do me.’ I've got to preserve myself.
Diversity fatigue is a real thing. I’ve found relationships that are important to me and I've really tried to develop those, whether it's professionally or personally, but by sharing, this is the impact of this. When I hear of another police killing a black person, I think about how that could be my son who is 17 now, who's 6’ 4” and it could be my daughter, who's 17 and just a black, young woman. It could be me, it could be my husband. And sharing conversations with folks. One of my colleagues said, that really hit me when you talked about your kids and my kids, because it's always, that's that family over there, but it's like, we have these things in common, but yet our kids can be doing the same exact thing and mine will be killed and Rose’s will not. So I think that that's one way that I've tried to personally make connections with folks and help them to see things in a different light.
Carol: Yeah. I appreciate that. And I appreciate what you're saying, that there are just sometimes when I'm not going to engage. I need to preserve myself.
Keisha: Yeah. I can't always engage in conversations, and it's not always fruitful. There are some folks who, it doesn't matter what you say, and I'm not willing to sacrifice myself for those types of conversations.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I find it can be helpful to identify some bright spots, or people who are operating under those same circumstances or constraints, within the same context, but somehow are having better results. In your work, have you encountered some of those bright spots because I think that that's a place to start working from.
Keisha: Yeah. I mean, I've encountered quite a few bright spots. We have a movement of leaders of color throughout the national Y and we call it our multicultural leadership development. It's mentors, coaches, and supports. And we've created safe spaces, similar to the employee resource group models where you have groups of people who may be able to come together and work on policies. You've got the affinity groups, those types of things, but ours is more of a mixture. Not just African-Americans with African-Americans. So you might see African-Americans, Hispanic, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders. There you might have indigenous folks of which we need to improve our numbers versus nationally as an organization with regards to leadership, reflecting the communities we serve. But for those of us who are members of those communities, finding the commonalities and being able to support one another, educate one another, and to be with one another, and developing our own cultural competence, just because you're a person of color doesn't mean that you're going to be culturally competent as well.
The things that we're asking from other groups that we should be able to model those things as well. So it's definitely been a great support system. And we've seen a lot of folks who've been able to engage and advance their careers within our organization. In connecting the dots where they're not just at one small organization, that they can be connected to our larger network of organization. So really a lot of success there. We have seen some increases in our numbers nationally of leaders that are at the top level, in the C-suite CEO position that are of color. But then we've also had some challenges that go on the other side of it. We've done a lot more work on bias and undoing institutional racism. Anti-racism work, a lot more equity work and looking at the systems. And I don't think that that's something that, as national non-profits, a lot of us do. Recognizing that we are a part of those systems that we talk about, a part of this country. We have the same kind of history as we've evolved in these 175 years that our country has evolved. So, I think we're doing a lot and there are a lot of folks who are committed to it. There's much more to be done.
Carol: Sure. Sure. And for the Y particularly, you're a federated system and that can - I'm guessing - make it particularly challenging, but there are many other national organizations that are set up that same way. Can you just briefly say what a federated system is, and then maybe talk about how some of this work has either been able to move forward or, or been challenging.
Keisha: Sure. We're federated meaning each organization, each Y, is its own independent 501 c3. You're all members of the national YMCA, and there are some guidelines that we need to adhere to in order to be a member. But we each have our own boards of directors, our own financial leaders, those kinds of things. And we can make our own decisions. There are a lot of benefits to that because the work that's happening in each community is different. So we don't have to be bound by some national perspective or priorities that are not appropriate for our community. The benefits of being a larger, federated organization, our brand is something that's recognizable that we work hard to have some things that we say are in common and that when you go to a Y, no matter where you are, that there should be these types of things. For us, that healthy, living youth development and social responsibility are three of our big core areas that we do our work.
Carol: So there was a second part to that question. I'm just also wondering, with that federated system, there's also the autonomy of each organization. So, trying to move forward, something at the national level may take longer because you essentially have to persuade or pull in every organization within the system.
Keisha: We're a very diverse country. We have, in some ways, a lot of division and something that we all believe in. And then there are some areas where we're not all on the same side and our organization is not any different from that. so for us to all rally around the same thing, it is not always very easy. It can be painstaking, but I know that there are some things we do believe in equity and inclusion as a national organization. We believe in the safety of children and young people. And there's just certain things that are no-brainers for us. But how that gets implemented in each area is sometimes very different and can be difficult. I'm not speaking on behalf of our organization nationally. It is an area that I've seen that, when we’ve pulled together, it's very impactful.
Carol: You've actually developed your own leadership model. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what you've found wanting and other models that spurred you to create your own?
Keisha: Sure! Thank you for asking about it. It's interesting because I've coached leaders for many, many years, and also had a lot of focus on learning and development. I feel like we tend to highlight leaders who seem as if they arrived; as if they just showed up and they were perfect, these flawless leaders and I've done presentations, and I've done a little riff on Beyonce’s flawless music. We don't really highlight leaders who mess things up or who are learning. When I see someone who's in a position that's at a high level I think, ‘man, how do I get there?’ I don't hear about the times that they failed four times, that they were rejected for six other positions that they've gone for, you just get to see where they've shown up. So I really try to encourage my colleagues to share some of their failures, some of their flaws so to speak. The model is that leaders are flawed and they are not perfect, but we do learn from things. So the [idea is that] we're failing forward. Everyone makes mistakes. And how do we utilize those to propel ourselves and our learning, or whatever it is that we learned from those failures. Then maybe we prevent some of the failures in the future, or maybe they'll be a little smaller. But recognizing that all of us will fail at some point and how we fail forward? the lesson for lifelong learners that we constantly have to sharpen that saw, we have to learn more. Part of it is reflecting and getting better, learning about what we do and how we can improve, learning about our field, our craft, just continuing to [learn]. There's no point where you've just arrived so we need to always be lifelong learners. The A is for authentic! I think authenticity in leadership is very important for us. If you want people to follow you, you want them to trust you. People don't want to follow someone who doesn't seem genuine. And a part of that authenticity is [admitting] that, you’re not always right. I may not be perfect, but sharing more of our why, our story, why we do things or what's motivating our decisions and things like that. Sharing a little bit of a vulnerability. So if we were to talk about Brenè Brown, vulnerability is just super important. So I think that that's all tied to authenticity. And then the W is for work. You can't be a leader without doing the work. You’ve gotta roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. I do believe in working smarter, not harder. I'm not going to try and take the hard way, but in leadership, you definitely have to put in the work wherever it's needed. That's my model: leaders of LAW.
Carol: I love it. I think it was one thing - I don't think much goes viral on LinkedIn - but this one probably did where someone actually wrote their failure resume. Yeah, so when you write your bio for when you're speaking or whatnot, you rarely include: “and right before I got that job, I was the runner-up for four of them.” [You don’t include] where you were laid off here, or where you got restructured out of that job at that. We're resilient. Those are the things that we need to reiterate that, especially with this generation coming up and I hate to sound like the old person in the room, but you want folks to know it's okay, you gotta be resilient. We don't know what's going to happen next, then COVID, and what this next iteration will be, but we will band together. We will be resilient. We'll make it through and figure it out.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think folks have a lot more resilience than they realize, and it's part of it. It's looking back and seeing, ‘that kind of sucked at that time, but I picked myself back up and got back on the horse’ or whatever and [you need to] try it again. And I think just the way our brains are wired, we learn so much more from those failures than we do from all those successes. So, we have such a negativity bias that those are definitely more memorable. But then not only keep it as our own private learning, but I think what you're saying is, for leaders to actually share those with the folks that they're working with so that folks really know that it is okay. We don't want to make a lot of mistakes. Nobody wants to make mistakes. But on the other hand, if there's a culture where making mistakes is punished, then it just has so much impact on folks willing to take risks. That has to be there for innovation [so it] can really have a chilling effect. So yeah, pretending that you're perfect, it's exhausting for the person who wants to work with that anyway. It's not realistic. It doesn't have to be perfect. We're not expecting it to be our final product, but you're going to put this bad boy out, see how it works, and we'll fix it. We'll continue to hone in on it.
Carol: So, you allow people to be okay with, like you said, innovating and we don't want to make huge mistakes, but we know that's a part of the process. Then we can build our confidence in knowing that it's a part of the process that I may stumble.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think, also for organizations to look at who's allowed to make those mistakes within the organization and who it has higher consequences for. And I'm sure in most cases there's probably already research that shows this, but the more male and white you are, probably the more you can get away with. Yup. Very much so. And I didn't necessarily see it myself. Being in HR, coming from operations in so many places that I'm really drawn to making sure that we're consistent with how we handle those situations. Like you said, are we doing the same thing if the person is white and male that we would have done if they were young and female, or a person of color, or something like that. It’s super important that we have that consistency.
Carol: Yeah, well I want to shift focus a little bit. At the end of every episode, I do a little game where I ask a random icebreaker question. So, what is one family tradition that you'd like to carry on in the future?
Keisha: I created a family tradition of cookie baking for the holidays, and I'm not a person who cooks nor bakes. So it was interesting for me to come up with that, but I just love the idea of my children coming together, and having other cousins over, and us getting flour all over the place and making cookies from scratch. It's just a great way to set the holiday season off. It's a big mess, and every year I say, ‘why am I doing this?’ but I'm really trying to figure out how to do it during COVID. I'm like, ‘okay, pass out flour and it could be making an idea, or you do something via zoom. It's definitely one of the traditions that I hope my children pass on and that they continue to do it.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I hope I get a box of cookies.
Keisha: You may not want them! They've gotten better over the years. Like I said, I'm not a baker but, fail forward! I've gotten much better, but I've been failing forward for some years.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much.
Keisha: Thank you. Appreciate you, Carol. Good to talk to you.
In episode 13 of Mission Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Peter Lane, discussed include:
- How to bring health and wellness training to organizational consulting
- Why you should hire a health and wellness coach
- Understanding how others feelings impact your own and vice versa
- How organizations can utilize their resources to better care for their employees
- How organizational culture impacts employees’ ability to take advantage of those resources
- How leaders set the tone for an organization’s culture
- Adapting wellness policies for the COVID-19 Pandemic
Peter Lane is an organizational consultant with more than 20 years of experience. He is also a National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) trained at the Mayo Clinic. Peter works with individuals and teams that are committed to ongoing learning, reflection, and making positive change for themselves and their organizations. Before becoming a wellness coach and consultant, Peter worked for 18 years as director of programs at the Institute for Conservation Leadership
After working with many nonprofit leaders over the years who were experiencing the negative physical and emotional effects of burnout, he decided that focusing on wellness in the workplace is an important strategy for how he can contribute to the success of nonprofit organizations. Peter serves on the board of directors of the Reve Kandale Foundation. He received a Bachelor’s degree from Clark University and a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Peter. Thanks for coming on Mission: Impact! Great to have you on.
Peter Lane: Thanks for having me!
Carol: So I just want to start out by asking you what drew you to the work that you do? What really motivates you and what would you describe as your ‘why’?
Peter: Oh, such a great question. It's something that many of us ask ourselves as there are shifts at different times in our lives, but for me I would say that I've always worked in the non-profit field, so that's really anchored me in community-based organizations and people coming together to solve problems in their community. And more recently, I became certified as a health and wellness coach, partly from my experience working with nonprofit leaders and partly my own interest. So for me that's been really exciting and part of my ‘why’ is how I can bring my health and wellness background to non-profit organizations and leaders. That's something I'm still working on and figuring out how to do and how to incorporate it into the consulting and coaching work that I do. Health and wellness coaching is a new field in and of itself, so it's an exciting time to be working in both spaces.
Carol: Yeah, and it's certainly something that's so needed in the field. I've had a couple of different people on and we've talked about the whole problem of burnout with nonprofit leaders and how hard it is to do things around self care, and maintaining those boundaries. But I'm curious, when this episode is going to be released, it'll be just about the time of year when lots of people are thinking about the end of the year, making resolutions for changes, I'm starting at the individual level level. What are some things that really help individuals start to shift their behavior towards wellness?
Peter: Well, in some ways, when working with the organizations, we try to help them create a shared vision organizationally about where they want to go. And in many ways it's the same for individuals. People do look for a health and wellness coach for a variety of reasons, and often it's something like, ‘oh, my doctor told me I needed to lose weight.’ So that's the presenting issue, but the challenge is to work with those individuals to get a sense of how their life will be different? How do they want life to be? Really helping them think about and craft a vision statement for their own wellness. That's really the starting point along with helping them do a little self-examination around their values. What's important to them, their strengths, what are the capacities there that are going to help them make a behavior change? Also thinking about when they have faced similar situations, and what helped them accomplish their goals around that. There's that sort of self-learning along the way, and that's where we usually start: helping people get grounded in who they are and where they want to go.
Carol: It makes a lot of sense. Stepping back and starting with that vision, which people often want to do, but without some structure or process to walk them through it, it's a thing that you might get around to doing, maybe sometime next week. And committing to a coach, you're then helping them take those steps that started helping them. It might've already been there, it's probably been there, but not necessarily clear about what that vision is. I'm guessing that it's more around all the things that you don't want.
Peter: Yeah, for some people, it really is a challenge to dig deep, to think about what they want their health and wellness to be different beyond wanting to exercise more or wanting to lose weight, or wanting to have a more balanced life, or whatever it is. That's buried deep. And helping people bring that out often relates to things around their family, or how they want to age, or sort of different things that they might be able to do in their life. And that can be a very regulatory process that really connects them to the work ahead, making the behavior changes.
Carol: You talk about those behavior changes, because I feel like we've read a million magazine articles about 10 steps to exercising more regularly or whatnot, but what does the evidence show in terms of what really helps people take positive action in terms of making those behavior changes that they want?
Peter Lane: Well, one that we've just been talking about is connecting to that deeper purpose and vision. You and I think about the same way with organizations: what are the smaller steps that they can take to get there and to build confidence around those steps? So when I work with somebody in health and wellness coaching, I always say that there's gotta be setbacks. That's actually part of the process, and actually, setbacks are good because you can learn from them and that will help you as you continue setting realistic goals and helping people think about what in their environment will support them and making those behavior changes. Those are the kinds of things that are gonna support people as they go along their journey.
Carol: I think setbacks are inevitable in a process like that. So what are some things that you've seen people learn from those setbacks?
Peter Lane: I think the biggest one is — I guess it's self-love, being kind to oneself. People beat themselves up. We’re our own harshest critics, and so one of the biggest lessons is: it's okay. Don’t go down the guilt path or the beat yourself up path. I see that as the big lesson. People begin to understand how the people around them — most often a partner or spouse — how their interactions and their behavior together impacts their ability to make those behavior changes. So it's occurred to me — and I haven't done this yet — but I've thought about doing couples’ health and wellness coaching, because it really is a family system. It really does have an impact on what your relationship is with the others around you.
Carol: That's so key because I think that too often in our culture, we think about the individual and we don't think about the whole context that the individuals are living in. Just that first round of who's in their immediate family, who they’re living with, how is that going to impact what they're going to be able to do? Even as we're coming into winter, my husband’s gotten into biking regularly and that’s the thing that he's been able to do most consistently in terms of exercise. I'm not going to be inviting anyone from Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner so we decided — or I suggested — that we should just make the table small. We'll get rid of the extra leaves that are in the table and take half the dining room and set up your bike with a trainer that enables you to do it inside, just knowing that he had suggested that he’d do it in the basement. I knew he would never go into a dreary basement in the morning when it's cold, it's gotta be somewhere inviting. There has to be that context around it to make it possible to want to get up.
Peter Lane: Yeah, that's a great example. You start thinking about how you can make changes or shift things in my environment that will actually help me make those behavior changes.
Carol: Yeah, because the last thing you want to do is buy yet another piece of equipment that becomes a very expensive clothing drying rack.
Peter Lane: Absolutely, yes.
Carol: So it's easy for people to see how health and wellness impacts, or relates to the individual. You say you talked about it in connection with organizations and with nonprofits. Why would you say that wellness is really important for organizations to think about as well?
Peter Lane: For a while, I was involved in co-leading a leadership development program that involved coaching for the participants. So over the years, I was talking to a lot of people and I would say — it's sort of anecdotal — but often the coaching got around to things like really wanting to spend more time with my family or my kids. I don't have enough time to exercise, that’s why I'm so stressed out. So it was all of these issues that were not related to managing staff or leading staff or boards or fundraising or all of those other issues. It was their personal wellbeing and, at the time, I didn't realize there was such a thing as health and wellness coaching, but what people talked about were things that interested me and I could see how their personal wellbeing was impacting their leadership and their ability to do their job. That really stuck with me. And when I struck out on my own as a consultant, before I hung out the shingle, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted to do. What were things that interested me, what were parts of my work previously that I really enjoyed and gave me satisfaction, and worked with a coach. So I really, I really saw this connection between work and personal life, and taking care of yourself, and how, if you take care of yourself, that gets embedded in the organization. And in my mind, anyway, if we have healthy individuals taking care of themselves, our organizations will be healthier as well. So that led me to the field of health and wellness coaching, and that's my interest.
Carol: My tagline for this podcast is, “how to be a nonprofit leader without being a martyr to the cause.” And I think what you're talking about is all of that, because it's so easy. In the western world, in the United States particularly, the glorification of overwork is so much there. And then when you add in a cause that you really believe in oftentimes there's always more work than there's capacity to deal with it. It's very easy to get pulled in and not set those boundaries. Not be able to really. And then what you talked about is how that shows up and in terms of that impact, on the individual leader and then how that ripples out through the organization. So when you were coaching those folks, it was around their leadership, and yet it was these ‘personal’ issues that were coming up. How did you see that impacting how they were showing up at work?
Peter Lane: It was in a variety of ways. For example, in leadership there's such a great degree of how you manage yourself and how you use yourself in different situations and the extent to which a leader can be intentional about how they're acting. They can access more information, more of their own personal resources, and act in a more strategic and intentional way. When people are stressed, their ability to do that decreases. So there's that part of it, how they're interacting with others. And I also think — Carol probably in your work too — you see individual leaders and organizations, they really set the tone. Regardless of who's there, they really do set the tone. So leaders who are modeling healthy behaviors that promote wellness for him or herself, that’s also gonna shift the organization. I think we've probably all seen leaders who are running a hundred miles a minute, or over-scheduled and that just creates tension around for others who feel like they have to be running at the same pace because so-and-so is. Those kinds of unhealthy behaviors for individuals can really seep into the organization.
Carol: Have you experienced that at all in your, in your work? All the negative consequences?
Peter: Yes. Which is fine. I mean too often, but I think most of the time it's very well intentioned. Like the person is really dedicated to the cause and they want to see that work done and there's just, there's always more work than could possibly be done. So, in their role as an executive director or someone higher up in the organization, there's a tendency to take on responsibility as well and get isolated from the rest of the organization. For a little bit, I worked at an organization where they still operated under the myth that summers were quiet. Well, we did like half of our leadership programs during the summer. So there was never a break. We went from getting to the annual conference and then it'll be quiet, and we'll get past this thing, and then it'll be good. And it just never stops.
Carol: There's always the next thing. So yeah, I’m wondering if, with organizations that are like, “okay, we're tired of this, we know we're burning people out, we know that we're losing people because of it.” What are some things that an organization can start to do to incorporate more of a wellness perspective into their work?
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I choose strategies based on how they can incorporate health and wellness into their organization. One is just around policies and procedures, the nuts and bolts of what they offer employees. A lot of organizations, to some extent, do that. And it might look different for different organizations. [It might be] flexibility around work schedules, or providing a meditation room, or setting aside time during the week when staff have, almost professional development, set aside time for an hour to read a book that you wouldn't normally have a chance to read, purchasing healthy snacks and water. Those kinds of things. I've been talking with other coaches and organizations — and this tends to be larger for-profit organizations where employee assistant programs, a health and wellness coach is available to the organization. You don't see that in the nonprofit world, but that's one thing that I would love to see: making that available to more non-profit organizations. Then the other area that I think about is organizational culture. The policies, procedures, the nuts and bolts of things are a little easier to implement where organizational culture and shifting that is probably more long-term. It takes a different intention. As part of that, I think about organizations that somehow build that into their strategic plan or their vision of how they are as an organization. Then once you do that, I think you can begin to think about the practices that are going to support wellness in the workplace and help you move along that path to create an organization that's going to sustain individuals in a healthy way.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting. When you talk in terms of steps that an organization can take, there are those more nuts and bolts-y things, but even when they do that, I worked in a larger organization that had some resources and they ended up setting aside one room, what had been a small conference room, and made it a napping room, but the culture did not support anyone taking a nap during work.
Carol: I have to admit that I would sneak down, look around and try to make sure that no one would see me. Like I hadn't slept the night before, so I really was falling asleep at my desk. It wasn't like I was getting anything done or being productive anyway, but I remember just feeling like I had to make sure that no one saw me as I snuck in.
Peter: That's a question of culture, right? People don't feel comfortable doing that.
Carol: I think that the more successful thing that they did — and it was interesting because it went beyond just that one organization, there were a number of different nonprofits in the same building. Obviously that was when we were all not working from home, but all the different organizations hired a yoga teacher to come and offer a class once a week. And it had a great response, and it was great because we actually met people from other organizations, and there were probably some other ripples of meeting these other people who were in the building, who did similar work that you might not have met otherwise through the yoga class. So that went a lot better than the nap room.
Peter: Yeah, it's interesting. At the beginning of the pandemic I had requests to do what essentially were 30 minute, virtual self-care sessions which were a great way to bring people together, and for staff of one organization, it was an opportunity to come together in a way that wasn't trying to figure things out or working with all of that craziness going on. But interestingly enough, now that we're seven, eight, nine months later, people aren't doing that as much. It's like we've moved past the self care stage.
Carol: Yeah. Out of the crisis where we felt like we really needed to pay attention, but what are some other things that you're seeing organizations do, with so many people working remotely or working from home in terms of supporting employee wellness?
Peter: I think people are still trying to figure that out. What I've been hearing lately is the tiredness of being on Zoom or being in virtual meetings and people trying to figure out how to minimize these or work in some other way. That's a big one, and then [working] around people's schedules, they've got PR for many of the people that have kids at home. They're working, but they're also being parents and teachers. So organizations and individuals are trying to figure out how to create the right flexibility and support for individuals that are in these different kinds of situations.
Carol: Even thinking about when you really need a video meeting where people need to be on the computer and when you don’t. [For me,] when I'm just talking one-on-one with someone, I'm mostly making phone calls to just not have extra screen time, and then you could — depending on the situation — take that call as a walking meeting. So that's one simple way that I try to incorporate that during the day.
Peter Lane: I also like thinking about how long meetings actually have to be. If you schedule it for 30 minutes, or an hour — even if it's the same topic — if you scheduled it for 30 minutes, it will probably go for 30 minutes. If you schedule it for an hour, it'll go for an hour, most likely. Just being really conscious of why you're meeting and how much time is actually needed for that. I also love the idea of the walking meeting. I know that's not for everybody, I find it a little bit of a challenge, but I've been in meetings and talking to people that do that. And I think a great way to break up the day.
Carol: Yeah. So one thing that I always do at the end of each episode is play a little game where I ask you a random icebreaker question that comes out of my hand and a little box of icebreakers, so the question for you is: if you could go back in time, what's one thing that you would tell your teenage self?
Peter Lane: I would tell my teenage self that everything will be okay.
Carol: I think that's good advice for all of us right now.
Peter Lane: You will be okay.
Carol: Yeah. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you, what's emerging in your work?
Peter Lane: Well personally — and I didn't mention this — I'm getting married in a couple of weeks, so I'm looking forward to that. But that's obviously on the personal side, professionally next year, generally I'm just really interested to see how things progress in terms of the pandemic and what impact it's going to have on organizations. Obviously everything hasn't played out yet in terms of [whether] we go back to normal, or if there is some new normal, and how that is going to impact organizations and the work they do. So I'm interested in that. And then I've been talking with a colleague about putting together a leadership support/coaching series, a cohort that we would offer together and be able to incorporate health and wellness coaching into that. So we'll see.
Carol: That sounds awesome. How can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Peter Lane: You can check out my website, peterlanecoaching.com, and my email is email@example.com.
Carol: Well thank you so much. Well put those links into the show notes so folks will be able to get access to them.
Peter Lane: Great. Well, thank you, Carol. This has been a lot of fun and a great opportunity to talk about the work that I love. So thank you.
Carol: All right. Thank you.
In episode 12 of Mission Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Woolfe, discussed include:
- The importance of an interim director for organizations
- The process of transitioning and the strain that puts on an organization
- The importance of having a plan in place for when your leader leaves
- Growth mindset with Boards
- What the role of the Board and the role of the staff are in an organization and how those differ
- The importance of taking breaks for yourself
Elizabeth Woolfe is a lifelong nonprofit professional with expertise in affecting strategic change and facilitating growth for organizations, as well as in assisting boards and organizations through transitions. She also has strength in building philanthropic relationships between nonprofit and for-profit companies, facilitating collaborations, and program development. Her particular areas of interest are interim leadership, management of organizations and boards, strategic assessment, organizational development, board functionality, and relationship building.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Woolfe: Thanks. It's great to be here and please call me Liz. It's shorter.
Carol: That’s true! So, what drew you to the work that you do? What's the why, what motivates you in the work that you pursue?
Elizabeth: Well, my usual answer to that is that I've spent my entire career, except for one very brief foray, in the non-profit space, and I generally view that as a calling, I don't know that I ever questioned it.
I think from early on, I had a desire to do things that helped people and to do work that seemed - whatever this word might mean to people - meaningful. And I was never pulled in any other direction, but to do that work. It was a path that manifested itself and I followed it. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to make decision after decision to stay on that path. I just don't know that it was ever a real decision to embark upon that.
Carol: That's interesting. Cause I started out my very first job working for a small business that helped people get on talk shows. It was this very interesting little niche that I was working in and found that I was pretty good at that promotional aspect of getting our folks on shows, but after leaving that, it was a conscious decision for me to move into the sector because I thought, if I'm going to use these skills to promote causes, I want to promote causes and support things that I really believe in, and help people in a way that I think is really functional, away from ‘whoever pays the bills is who you’re going to promote.
Elizabeth: I used to call that the dark side. There were periods of time where I had this thought that, ‘oh, I will go to work for an agency or a for-profit company that has a foundation or something like that.’ And I would play around with that and I would maybe look for different positions and maybe go on an interview. But I would walk out of the interview going, ‘I don't want to do that. This doesn't sound like a fit.’ And without really questioning it - my company is called intuition consulting and it was named that because I feel strongly about following your intuition. And it's something that I recommend to others, but I also take my own medicine and do for myself. And I guess I was not questioning it because I just did that from the start.
Carol: So feeling that alignment, which is great. You serve as an interim director for organizations as part of your work. What would you say organizations gain by engaging an interim?
Elizabeth: Well, the transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next phase of their existence. So I can say that I do a lot of interim work as the interim, but I do a lot of transition and succession planning with organizations. And I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason, especially with 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, or when you make pancakes and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, 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. I think interim work is extremely interesting, and transition work in general is really important to understand with organizations, especially small or mid-sized organizations that require some degree of stability to anchor them with many of their functions.
Carol: I think taking that time, And, and it's hard. I think often, organizations want to jump to find that new person as quickly as possible and be on to the next thing. But you don't want the new person hired to be an accidental interim - almost like a rebound - executive director. I think that taking the time to have the organization experience a different style of leadership is important. It seems like organizations can also deal with things or have harder conversations with the organizations to get them ready to set the next person up for success.
Elizabeth: The statistics about new leaders following a founder coming in and not being successful are really shocking. So the interim can 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.
Carol: What are some of the things that you observe organizations experiencing when they go through those transitions?
Elizabeth: Well, I've managed a few big transitions with several of my clients and I think the most important one is really what the trickle-down effect is. It's not really just where it's happening, it's in every relationship that the organization has. I think oftentimes that's a second thought or maybe not even thought of by the board, or by the departing leader, or by whoever is left to understand that everyone who interfaced with this person is affected by this person's departure. I'm focusing on a founder or a CEO, just because that's really 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. 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.
Carol: So, what are some things that you would say help those major transitions go better?
Elizabeth: Well, I think giving it the necessary amount of time [is important]. It's not a quick process. I usually say from start to finish, the succession-building process should be very conscious, and it's not a question of, ‘we want to get rid of our leader.’ It's really more, ‘we want to prepare for the eventuality that we may have to replace this person for whatever reason.’ There are good reasons, and there are not-so-good reasons. There are things that can be planned for well in advance, and unfortunately there are emergency situations that come up that, if you have no succession plan, even a rudimentary one can be even more upsetting and more traumatic for the organization. I think that this is always something to consider and that it builds in that amount of breathing space so you can say, ‘oh, wow. Now here we are at this crossroads, but we've planned for this. We know that we can manage it using these steps, whether we use an interim or not.’ Replacing someone doesn't take five minutes and I almost always recommend using a search firm, especially for a CEO or any C-suite leader, because it's almost impossible to manage a search at that level and continue to do regular necessary work. With one of my clients, the entire process from start to finish took eight months. That was not an unusual amount of time, it was pretty much the norm. But, if that were without an interim and without a search firm, it would probably take twice as long.
Carol: So, thinking about always keeping succession planning front and center, what are some of the things that need to be part of that succession plan, and what are the elements that organizations can do when it's not an immediate need?
Elizabeth: Well, first I have a really good idea of what that position is and what it does from the very tiny day-to-day to the bigger picture, where does this position sit in the organizational structure? Obviously a CEO is normally at the top of the organizational structure but, in reality, what does this person’s responsibility involve? Do they manage all of the external relationships with funders, or is that something that is co-managed or taken over by a development person, or someone else? Those relationships are really key, as I said earlier, and I think what's really important is an understanding of how engaged the board is with the organization and with that person - usually the leadership - what kinds of relationships do they have and can that relationship be managed in a different way? Once you identify where all of these succession-related issues lie, what's most important, is really a thorough understanding of what the connections are. It's always nice to be able to say, ‘under these circumstances, this is the protocol we will follow.’ You can create that. In real life, things happen and times are crazy. I know an organization that just had their CEO announce that they were retiring in January and, this person would stay until they found a replacement and then COVID hit. All of that had to be rethought, because it wasn't really the right time for there to be another major transition, which is fine, and luckily, the CEO was able to say, ‘yes, I will postpone my retirement for at least another six months.’ You have to be flexible and nimble and many smaller and mid-size organizations are capable of that, which is the good side of things.
Carol: I think having a plan sketched out, you may not follow it exactly, but you're not starting from scratch and you're not having to think through it all as you're also having to start doing it all. Also, I think a lot of people, when they hear succession planning, they mistake it for ‘I need to identify who I'm grooming as my successor.’ and it really isn't that, necessarily.
Elizabeth: No, it can be part of it. I mean, if it's an organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that, and 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. And I encourage organizations to have a running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in a search, or someone who they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough to the work that is done there, that they could be helpful in identifying who could be next. It's nice to have an advisory group at the ready in case they are needed. Sometimes some of those people could be appropriate candidates.
Carol: Right, So we've talked about boards a little bit, a unique aspect of nonprofits is the role of a board in the governance of the organization. What are some common mistakes that you see boards making maybe in dealing with succession or more broadly.
Elizabeth: Do we have longer than an hour? I could go on for days with that. Boards are one of my favorite things and that isn’t always an easy thing to say. I do actually enjoy board work. It's so interesting and multifaceted, and as you say, it's an integral part of a nonprofit, or it should be an integral part of a nonprofit’s organization and functionality. Specific to succession the board is really key and it's a time where I've seen boards really rise to the occasion which is great. And I've also seen boards that can't, and it's not over succession or transition. It's really a deep-seeded functionality or dysfunctionality as the case may be, but that situation of change exacerbates one or the other, or brings it to the forefront. To go general, boards have a great deal of responsibility. If they choose to exercise it, if they don't choose to exercise it, the organization can still function, but the board does have, at a minimum, a set of responsibilities in terms of guidance and in terms of advising. And some boards go a lot deeper and some are more strategic, but at the very least, they are more objective eyes on what the organization does, and what direction the organization is headed in, and how well the organization fulfills its mission on all of these different levels.
Carol: You talked about founders and oftentimes a founder will be a very dynamic personality and all of that is what helped them create the organization and then build something, which then creates the dynamic of a board that's really following that person and not necessarily in a real partnership. So when that founder leaves and they have to step up, it's not the way that things have been done in the past and can be harder. And that makes that transition particularly fraught.
Elizabeth: I couldn’t agree more. That's so common, and I think if [the board] doesn't view themselves as ever evolving, then they don't ever get to the point where they escape that, regardless of what happens on the leadership side, even when a founder leaves and new leadership comes in. If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. 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, and very much like sheep following the leader to something that becomes more appropriate for a later iteration of the organization where they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills. That's why board rotation, board transition, and cultivating new board members is so important because the people that are present at the birth of an organization are not necessarily what the organization needs 5, 10, or 15 years in. And sometimes, you'll have that very dynamic leader that everyone's following, and in other cases, it may be a group of people around a kitchen table. So they've always had a collaborative relationship, but then when they do bring on staff, everybody's been so involved [that] letting go and allowing staff to start doing the work that they need to do, that can be challenging. At the same time, I think that boards have an opportunity to then look at other ways to be involved in the organization besides being on the board, [although] when it's small, that may be the only volunteer role and that board does everything, as a working board, or volunteer board, or in an all-volunteer organization, but then to start differentiating, what we actually need from a board member and if you want to be involved in this organization because you are very excited about and passionate about environmental issues, but you really love getting your hands dirty and doing that stream monitoring, then it's fine. Go do that. It's hard for people to then say, ‘well, but we've always had all those people on the boards. We do it differently,’ or worse that this is what we've always done, it's not successful anymore, but this is what we've always done. So we're just going to keep banging our head against the wall because this is all we know. It's very hard to crack open that door and say, ‘look, there's a whole world out there for you. You could be this, and you could be this, and you could be this, except for the fact that you're looking in your rear view mirror, or living in the past. I've experienced all of the scenarios that you just went through. Some in my consulting life as a CEO myself, and also as a consultant and as a coach, and they're all very big and hairy problems. Every board is different. The chemistry is different, the environment that they're in is different. So as a consultant, you have to visit that with fresh eyes all the time. That's why I always say that even the incremental successes are to be celebrated because boards are so hard to move. And it's very rare that you find a board that welcomes this ongoing change and development with open arms. It's much more the case that they are really change-averse and, even when they understand the rationale, they are so terrified to let go of it. It's fascinating, really.
Carol: I'm curious if you had someone who was thinking about volunteering on a nonprofit board, what's important for them to understand as they step into that role?
Elizabeth: Well, I think unless they've had previous successful experience, there's a lot of people who come to a board, and they've been on a board before and it may not have been a healthy board and they carry all of this baggage with them. So their expectations are very different ‘cause they either want it to be the same, ‘cause they don't know any better, or they want it to be different because they do [know better]. Depending upon where they're going, that may or may not be the case. I like to get them all fresh when they haven't been on a board before and mold them to what they should be. Those are the most successful ones. But I think in terms of advice, always be aware of the fact that, even though there is a line between what the organization does day-to-day: their programs and how they execute them, and what the board's responsible for: the governments, and the guidance, and the strategic-level stuff. Be aware of that difference, but also be aware of where the gray area is, where those two things can meet and really be productive. Because you can't be too far apart, but you can't be too close together.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Elizabeth: Sure. So it's really a question of keeping the board from micromanaging what the day-to-day of the organization should be. In other words, the board should be responsible for this 35,000 foot view of the organization. What is the strategy that they're going to implement moving forward, how are they going to execute it in the bigger sense? It's the program staff and the CEO and the development staff's responsibility to mold that out of the lump of clay that they're given and make that into programs, [and figure out] how much they have to raise in order to do them, who's going to run them, who they’re going to serve, and how they’re going to measure their success. There's a big difference within those two worlds, but where they peacefully coexist is in having these kinds of conversations of translating what this strategy is. So we want to get to this, we want to serve this many people, or we want to execute our mission by creating a program that brings an awareness of what we do to more people. That's it for the board. They can outline that strategic framework and hand it over and have really productive conversations about what that means. But once that happens, they don't need to be on top of the program staff saying, ‘well, what does the program look like?’ ‘Who's going to teach that?’ ‘What days are you going to do it?’ That's not the board's role.
So, every episode, I play a game at the end where I ask you a random icebreaker question. So... if you could have any celebrity to be your best friend, who would you pick and why?
Elizabeth: It's either Oprah or Bruce Springsteen, but I don't think I'd be able to talk if I were with Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, because, well, first of all, I've looked up to her and, and followed her for so long.
I feel like I am already her best friend, although she doesn't know me. We read the same books. I almost always read - even sometimes before she picks them - from the book club. We have a lot of common interests. She's funny. She likes all different kinds of food. She loves to travel. She's really interested in helping people. I just think we have tons of things in common and would make great best friends.
Carol: That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Elizabeth: So right now I'm right in the middle of a little interim CEO gig that I'm doing for one of my clients. That will be concluding at the end of October. Then I'm hoping to take a little bit of time off because I need it and deserve it. And I think self care is very important. I always encourage the CEOs that I coach to make sure that they take good care of themselves because it's not an easy job. It's sometimes a very lonely place. So I would hope that I will be able to do a little bit of work, but a little bit of relaxing between the end of October and the end of the year. As far as next year is concerned, it's really interesting because I never really know. And for 2021, I really, really don't know because nobody can predict what's going to be happening anymore. So I am keeping myself pretty open and not letting that freak me out at all. I’m figuring that whatever comes along will be something that I will be able to consider and I’m not worrying too much about it right now. I don't think stress and worry really get you very far and I've trained myself to really not worry about it.
Carol: That's great. So how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Elizabeth: So, my website is intuitionconsult.com, and I'm pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. I'm very interested in connecting with people for all different kinds of networking and mentoring-type things. I would encourage whoever wants to talk to me more to please reach out.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate our conversation.
Elizabeth: Thank you, I had a great time.
This week we’re talking to Becca Bartholomew.
We talked about:
• Ensuring all voices are included in planning processes
• Why it is important for leaders to not only have intelligence but also have emotional intelligence and somatic intelligence
• What the buffering sign on your computer has to tell us about today’s work environment
Referred to in the episode:
Barry Oshrey’s Tops, Middles and Bottoms
The Ladder of Inference
Your Body is Your Brain by Amanda Blake
A facilitator and coach with expertise in organization development (OD), Becca has extensive experience working with groups and individuals to foster communication and effective collaboration among diverse stakeholders. Becca helps her clients implement strategies that increase their emotional intelligence and efficacy. She is known for her clear communication, innate ability to foster trust, and firm, yet gentle approach to helping others recognize their blind spots and engage specific tools to articulate and reach their goals. She gracefully supports her clients toward self-reflection, new learning and increased awareness of their impact on others. She works with leaders of all types and has a special passion for those newer to leadership as well as those who hold societal privilege and want to address their roles in upholding and then dismantling systems of oppression.
Becca on LinkedIn
Becca on Twitter
This week we’re talking to Beth Sperber Richie.
We talked about:
• What is burn out is and why burn out is so prevalent in the nonprofit sector
• What the research shows about rest and productivity for organizations.
• What vicarious trauma is and how it impacts staff and an organization’s culture.
Beth Sperber Richie, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and consultant in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Richie works with non-profit leaders on how to sustain their staff and their mission given the grind of social change work. She gives workshops and presentations on managing stress and burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, improving cross-cultural communication and counseling skills and setting boundaries for front-line employees. Her workshops focus on practical skills and engaged involvement of all participants.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Learn about the Effective Online Facilitation, 4 week group coaching program.
Carol Hamilton: Hi Beth, welcome to the podcast, it’s great to have you on.
Beth Richie: Thanks, great to be here.
Carol: Could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this work and how you got to where you are?
Beth: I got involved doing clinical work with trauma survivors. I'm a psychologist, so the clinical work came logically out of the stuff I was studying when I was back in graduate school. I began working with trauma survivors clinically in the nineties, and as much as I'm passionate about that work, I've enjoyed that work and feel that it's been very meaningful to me over the years, I began to realize that I'm talking to one person at a time and I'm helping one person at a time. I started to look for the ways in which I could multiply the impact that I could have, and consulting with organizations just seemed like a logical next step. It really started when a friend of mine started an organization that helped landmine survivors all around the world, he was asking all the right questions about how to get landmine survivors back into the workforce. How do we take somebody who’s a farmer and who's lost their limbs in the landmine accident, and get that person back into the paid workforce. How do they support their family, but wasn't really asking the questions about what the impact of the trauma is on the person. I started asking him those questions and that led me to work as a consultant with his organization.
Then, because it was a new organization to talk to him a lot about what organizational policies and procedures and what practices can you put in place for your staff that's going to be dealing with this really traumatic material on a daily basis. That was what got my foot in the door. I saw that ‘here's a way to have an impact on many more people at once.’ That's what really hooked me to the idea of doing consulting in this area. I know that when you and I first spoke, we talked a little bit about the whole idea that you have about how important it is to make a healthy organism, relational cultures that it's not just enough to work with an organization, the goal is to help them make the organizational culture healthy. That's such a dovetail for me with this work that it's an opportunity to help organizations where people are helping folks who have experienced trauma, how they keep their staff healthy and how do they keep the organization healthy as they move through working in this arena, whatever that arena might be.
Carol: Actually, part of the goal of this podcast is to help progressive nonprofit leaders do that work that they want to do to build a better world, but without really becoming a martyr to the cause. Much of your work centers around that, and one of the things that you help organizations with is managing stress and burnout. I feel that that is such a large part of the nonprofit sector that people almost see it as a given.
Carol: To the point where, if they're not experiencing it, they think they're not truly dedicated to the cause.
Beth: Yeah, like they're not working hard enough if they're not in pain.
Carol: I'm curious, how do you define burnout? Cause I think it's a term that's thrown around a lot, but burnout is another level and I'm not sure that everyone really defines it the same way.
Beth: Well, I think you're right. Everybody does not define it the same way. When I'm working with organizations, I get people to take a look and do a little bit of an assessment of their own level of burnout. For me, burnout is not just that there is stress in your work because lots of work has stress. Burnout to me is like the moral distress or the moral level of fatigue, where you just find it difficult to get the motivation to do even a simple list of tasks. The other piece of this for organizations that work with trauma survivors is the vicarious trauma of hearing those stories has an impact on the listener, to the point where they can actually get post-traumatic stress symptoms, similar to the ones that the survivors themselves get, where their worldview is actually shifted. I think that that's particularly a hallmark of vicarious trauma, but I think it's true, in burnout that it's almost a worldview switch where, what used to be something that motivated you and got you excited, that you had the drive and the burn to make this change in the world that gets to the point where you're tired and hopeless, [to the point] that there's actually been a shift in the way you view the world. To me, that is the difference between burnout and just general stress. I think general stress is easier to recover from than burnout. I have a couple of nonprofit leaders that I'm working with at the moment who both like the idea of burnout rehab. That's what we've been calling it.
Carol: What are your steps for burnout rehab?
Beth: It depends on the individual human being, right? Each burnout rehab is its own special thing. [What] I say to everybody I work with is you need to find the thing that works for you and then apply it liberally. The metaphor I use is that of a stress fracture. Despite not being athletic myself, I produced three children who are athletes. One of my children played right through a stress fracture, he continued to play. My daughters are the same way, one of them had her knee ripped open in a soccer incident and she wasn't even aware that she was bleeding. They had to take her off the field because apparently it's not legal to bleed while you're playing soccer, you have to be taken off the field. She didn’t feel that it was necessary, but those to me, those metaphors of the stress fracture or you're playing hard that you don't even realize you have a ripped open knee, is exactly what happens with our nonprofit leaders that they're working hard and strong. [They’re so far] beyond stressed that they're at the point where they don't even realize that they're bleeding or that they have a stress fracture. In the same way that with a stress fracture or with an open wound, you would have to come off the field. That's step one for burnout rehab.
[The problem,] as far as I'm concerned, is how to get off the field when you don't want to get off the field completely. The athletes don't want to get off the field completely, they don't want to go off the field at all and neither do the nonprofit leaders. We have to get them off the field, and one way or another figure out ways to put boundaries around their work, either in terms of time like, “you are allowed to work X or Y amount of hours a day and that's it, or you are no longer allowed to work Saturdays and Sundays, or I know nonprofit leaders that I've worked with who are working on vacation, I remind them that that's not actually vacation. Some of it is putting boundaries around the work, recognizing that you have a stress fracture and therefore you shouldn’t go back out on the field and play the sport again. The other is to figure out what's sustainable for them in the long haul, how can they individually find that burnout rehab that works, the metaphor I like is the idea that we all think about filling our cup, is your cup half full, is it half empty. The whole notion of a full cup to me is that that full cup can then spill over onto other people, a lot of nonprofit leaders feel that if they're not feeling burnt out, then they're not really working hard or they're not really doing it right. I remind them that their own cup is actually a way to help other people, because it allows them to keep going in the long haul.
Carol: I think [it also] models that for any staff that are working for them, because I've talked to many executive directors who say: ‘well, I tell my staff not to work on the weekends,’
and I say ‘okay, are you working on the weekends? Are you answering email? Are you sending them an email on vacation?’ Well, if you're doing that, no matter what you say - my mother loved to say, ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ but clearly that doesn't work. We watch how people behave and that's really the expectation. People see that and they feel they have to work towards it.
Beth: They have to match what the leadership of the organization is doing. I’ve said more times than I can count that whole thing about emailing on vacation. You can have a company policy that says you absolutely must take X or Y amount of vacation, [and] I know a number of organizations that respond to this [with] mandatory vacation. [They say,] you must take a break ‘cause we want you to be here for the long haul, but then they write emails on vacation. If you're writing emails on vacation, then your staff gets the message [that] they should never take a break. We've got excellent research out there that talks about what taking a break does for people and how much more productive people are, even after a short break. It doesn't matter what field they're in, this research has been done across many different fields, I think one - I'm not going to come up with a citation right off the top of my head - but I think of one group that looked at basketball players, their free-throw percentage went up when they took breaks from working out. We know it's true with folks in the arts. We know it's true with folks in business. We know people have looked at this in terms of the research, on taking a break on from many different perspectives.
People who take vacations get higher ratings from their supervisors in terms of being more effective employees, and it's correlated very strongly with the number of days of vacation they actually take. We know that the research tells us that this is how we rehab for burnout and how we come back. As I say, it's an individualized program in terms of how you actually get the person to make the cognitive switch to: this is actually good for me, I really need to do this. I have sports injuries and I feel like I've probably experienced burnout at some point in my career, [and] I do feel like with both, you don't come back to where you were before the injury. I think it ebbs and flows over the span of a career, what you might've been able to do in your twenties, or maybe when you were in a startup phase with an organization, it needs to shift. Yet the times people don't shift because they started out a certain way, working a certain way either for an established organization or as a founder let's say or whatever, and then that just becomes the culture. So being much more mindful of how you’re setting those boundaries and then what are those different things that fill your cup?
Carol: I feel like I've seen much about that research that you're talking about and yet somehow in our culture, there's still so much bravado about this macho, ‘we've got to always be working, got to always be busy. I'm busier than you.’ stuff that I'm trying to step out of.
I don't need that, but how the hell is it for most people, they think, ‘well, it's not possible for me to do it differently.’
Beth: Yeah, and some would see [it as] a failure of their imagination that they can't imagine that taking breaks would have a positive impact on that, that they could do it in a different way than they did it in their twenties now that they have different responsibilities at home, it’s ironic. I think that Corona and the Coronavirus has caused a lot of people to really rethink and to look for new ways to figure this out. Just plugging through is not going to work if you’ve got an eight year-old at home who needs your attention and needs your help getting the education that they need. Folks are, are looking around and saying, ‘oh wait, I have to figure out a new way.’ I think that this is an opportunity, that's the silver lining, there's an opportunity here to get a little bit creative about how people approach their work and look at it in a different way. When you described the whole notion of burnout rehab being this combination of sets and boundaries, and then the TLC and how you fill your own cup.
What I always say to people is ‘sometimes how you fill your cup is the work,’ and I like to say self-care is not always a bath bomb. Like this is not about going to the spa.
There are a lot of people for whom the work itself is fulfilling that it does fill their cup. I say amen to that, then you're probably not burnt out, but for other folks in your organization that might not be true. The other piece of this is that, when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to fill your cup. Part of the reason the work fills your cup is when you are connected to the mission.
What ends up happening is we get into getting ready for the board meeting, the actual getting ready for the board meeting becomes this huge stress. That is a disconnect for me. What is our mission or what is our goal? Even though the board is important and that helps move the organization forward, it is connected to the mission [and] when we get too wrapped up in the, ‘I've got this meeting and then that meeting,’ or ‘I need to make these fundraising calls,’ or ‘I need to get ready for the board meeting,’ whatever the day-to-day logistics of the organization are that those logistics disconnect from the mission and the part of what refills our cup in the work is mission-driven work or mission-focused perspective.
That's something that people can get this too disconnected from, and that can contribute to burnout. When someone says, ‘no, I just care so much about this one work. That's what drives me. That's what fills my cup.’ to that person, my response is ‘okay, when was the last time you were really connected to the mission of the organization, as opposed to just what it takes to run an organization.’ For people who are not yet willing to say, ‘oh, I just need to fill my time cup.’ That means going out in nature, for those people, I would say, ‘ when was the last time you actually were connected to why you came into this work in the first place?’
Carol: They could do both. They could take a walking meeting. I've been doing a lot of those since Coronavirus. I am pro-walking-meeting.
Beth: There are ways to combine moving your body, being outside, and something done, it's a win, win, win.
Carol: You work with organizations where the staff are really experiencing what goes beyond day-to-day stress of vicarious trauma and compassion, fatigue. Can you first, both define those things and then tell me who's typically affected and how that shows up in organizations?
Beth: Absolutely. The difference to me between vicarious trauma, let's say in burnout, is that piece that I said before of a shift in worldview of seeing the world as a little bit less safe, or that if you had gone into this believing that there are good people in the world and there's good things in the world, being exposed to a steady diet of trauma can eat away at that pretty quickly. The other way I think of it is in terms of how you get burnout or how you become burned out and how you get vicarious trauma, you could get vicarious trauma after a particularly difficult one-time experience, whereas burnout is more like the steady drip of water eroding rock. You wake up one day and look around and say, ‘oh, I'm burnt out,’ but it's been based on this slow, steady drip of the difficulty of the work that you're doing.
The other piece between burnout and vicarious trauma, to me [is that] vicarious trauma is actually probably about being exposed to traumatic material, whereas burnout can happen in all sorts of organizations. You might be an organization that is working on social change and you might feel burnt out by the slow pace or by the backward steps that you feel like is happening in a particular environment, but that's different from actually being exposed to traumatic material. Who tends to get vicarious trauma? I would say most times it's first-responders. It's in this environment, healthcare workers, but it's also people who hear the stories. I've worked now with two and am working with two different gun violence prevention organizations. You might go into that because you're politically motivated and you feel like you want to change the political strategies and you're an advocate, but you’re telling the stories of people whose lives have been shattered because of a murder that they experienced or because they were part of a mass shooting or because of other traumatic material that, that they're going to have to process.
Anyone in the organization who is having contact with survivors and in most gun violence prevention organizations, the survivors are at the forefront of the advocacy work. You're going to be hearing those stories and anyone from the person who's sitting at the front desk to the CEO, to the ED, whoever it is, one in the organization could potentially be exposed to the traumatic material. That's different than just the burnout - one of my children works in the climate change field and she might argue that there's some pretty traumatic scenarios out there. It's an example of it's a long haul. It's a lot of work and you could get burnt out by the enormity of the problem and the small steps that you are making to make change in that arena, but you're not actually being exposed - for the most part - to actual trauma or to the traumatic experiences of others. That's a big deal, and certainly people who get vicarious trauma can be burnt out, but it's not always true that people who are burnt out all have vicarious trauma if they've not been exposed directly to that material.
Carol: My daughter worked doing direct service with a number of different groups, working with students in lower resource schools, helping them with college access and there was always something going on with one of the students, maybe not directly with them, but then with their friends, family, and just hearing those stories all the time. One thing that was interesting that you said before was that people can experience PTSD symptoms. I feel like in the media, and what people have heard about PTSD, it's okay. As if veterans are the only people [who] experience PTSD and that's not true. I'm curious if you could just share some of the signs that people might, if they're experiencing that and not really knowing what's going on, what might be some things of how it shows up for them?
Beth: Particularly for people who [have] vicarious trauma that I always described the post traumatic stress disorder symptoms as being a pendulum swing between numbing out and over feeling or, or feeling to a larger degree. We call it hyper-arousal in our field. That you go from 0 to 60 in terms of emotional response. Some of the other classic symptoms are people having nightmares or having flashbacks to the event that can even be true. If you just heard about the event and didn't witness it or didn't experience it yourself. I can say personally, one of the ways that I realized I had vicarious trauma in the early days of becoming a therapist to work primarily with trauma survivors was that I would have nightmares about the things that had happened to my clients happening to myself or to members of my family.
It can show up in all sorts of different ways, but I think those are the two hallmarks if you're feeling a lack of feeling, a numbed response to something that in the past probably would have generated some response for you or in the opposite direction. I feel like everything people think of PTSD being somebody hears a car backfire and they think it's a gunshot and they jump through the roof, but that can be true for anybody. They can have a hyper-emotional response to a story here, to a smell. to a sound that is not like a gunshot, there are lots of different ways that people can experience that. That could be true for your daughter as well. She’s heard those stories enough that she becomes hypervigilant about scenarios that she might be in that are similar to what she's heard from her clientele.
Carol: How does this impact the organization at large? I mean, certainly it impacts the people who are providing direct service working on the front lines, but I'm guessing that there are ways that it shows out throughout the organization and impacts culture as well.
Beth: Yeah, it's a great question and absolutely the most obvious [is] when you have high turnover in an organization, because people, , as you said, people think of the progressive nonprofit world as - I've had people say to me, ‘we assume that people will be gone in about 2-2 ½ years.’ That that's the timeframe and that they see that as an acceptable outcome. They’ll just get some new 20-something graduates from college
Carol: And give them vicarious trauma.
Beth: Exactly. I think that there’s the sense of it [being] inevitable and my feeling is [that] it's not inevitable. It doesn't have to be inevitable and you lose things as an organization; that turnover is really expensive. It's expensive in terms of time, cause now members of your staff have to spend time - even if you have an HR department - other members of your staff or content folks are all going to have to interview people and figure out who they want to bring on. You have that time issue. Time, obviously, costs money and people are not doing the other things that you need to be doing. When you're doing that work, you have to train new people over and over again, you lose the historical memory that goes with the folks and you lose the relationships that those folks have built, whether it's with a board member or with a fundraising source, a funder, or with other members of the staff you lose when they burn out and leave, or when they get vicarious trauma and leave, you lose all of these intangibles in addition to the time and money that you've spent on the hiring process. Turnover is more than just another hiring process, which is exciting.
Carol: It also impacts all the people who are left behind because I'm thinking over my 20-plus years at nonprofits to think I'd have to go back and calculate, but what was the percentage when I was actually doing a part of someone else's job because we all had to. So-and-so left and we had to divy it up. People don’t feel like there's the bandwidth or the resources to hire a temp, or that feels harder than just doing it yourself or those kinds of things, there's all sorts of ripple effects.
Beth: Those ripple effects then potentially contribute to the burnout of the rest of your staff, because they’re doing more work.
Carol: It’s a vicious cycle
Beth It can be, my feeling is [that] it doesn't have to be right.
Carol: What are some of the things that organizations can do to take steps to have it not be an inevitability?
Beth: There are actually some decent organizational assessments out there, mostly talking to the members of your staff to figure out - one of the things I think that's helpful about bringing a consultant like me in is that I can do that in a way that folks potentially can feel like their responses are actually anonymous. They can be - hopefully - a little bit more candid and honest about what their experience is like. Sometimes people don't even realize that that’s what they're doing. [They’ll say] ‘I'm sending an email on Sunday night because I'm living at home with my family during Corona. I know that tomorrow morning, when you all need this information, I'm going to be homeschooling my kid.’ Okay, great. How about you try making that explicit, I'm sorry, I've sent this email more times than I can count. I'm sorry.
I'm sending you an email on Sunday night. I don't expect a response and the reason I'm sending it on Sunday night is because I know you need this tomorrow. I know that I have the following things tomorrow that are not work related. I have to take my kid to the doctor in the morning, therefore, whatever it is to just send the message. a piece of it is assessing the culture. To see whether this is a, we should be responsive all the time. This is a 24/7 experience, always be available. See if that message is being sent out there, but the other piece is to actually ask staff what would support them.
Just as you asked me before, well, what does burnout rehab look like? my response unhelpfully was, it depends on the person. The same thing is true. What's going to work for this staff? I don't know, but I'm going to ask the staff what they think, ‘Oh, well, we're going to put in a wellness program.’ That's always my favorite. We're going to put her in a wellness program, we're going to convert this empty office into a wellness spot, we're going to put water sounds and an exercise ball and some yoga mats and let people do what they want with it. My feeling is don't waste your money. Even though that's not a lot of money, don't waste your money. Spend some time talking to your staff about what actually feels like a wellness moment for them. Maybe what feels like a wellness moment for them is everybody actually getting together and talking about the work, right? Maybe it's about sharing wins. I have one organization that I work with that in the last couple of weeks has decided to give all of their employees eight hours of flex time to use during the work-week. At any time you want to discuss it with your manager, but here's some flex time because they're recognizing the impact of coronavirus and what it means to have your whole family at home. You might not have computer access or wifi access at X or Y time during the day, or you may need to be caring for an elderly relative or for a child or for each other or whatever it is. That was something that came from the staff. As something that would be useful to them, if they just felt like they were not stuck inside those core hours then they could help their kid during the day and work at night. Maybe they can't get an eight hour work day, [but] having those eight hours of flex flexibility gives them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have had, but to me it's really about assessing from that particular staff what feels to them like it would sustain them in the long haul.
Carol: A lot of this comes down to setting appropriate boundaries and, as you said, filling your cup. What are some of your favorite ways to fill your cup?
Beth: Being in nature is huge. On mother's day, my husband, who, he and I have been married for almost 30 years and he knows me. He knows the goal is to get to some body of water. There are no large bodies of water near where I live but we can walk to a creek and that'll do, we get outside near water. That for me is the big one. Then the other one is music, either making music with friends or listening to new music that I just got exposed to for the first time. Those are really big for me in terms of filling my cup. How about you?
Carol: Well it's funny, water for sure. I once went on a vacation where we only were by water one day and I realized, no, this is not a vacation for me. I need to be by water, the entire vacation, whether it's a beach or at a lake, or kayaking or some body of water, anywhere I [need to] have water. I spend my summer at the pool. I'm a little nervous about this summer. I think kayaking] will be the thing that keeps me going throughout the summer months. Also doing something that uses a different part of your brain. You talked about music, I used to play music as a younger person and maybe one day I will again, but these days I've been playing around with drawing. I'm no great artist, I actually do not call myself that purposefully so that I can continue to just dabble in that. Then for me, sports, anything active. Getting the body moving, all those things that don't have to do with being at a computer.
Beth: Getting away from the computer is huge, especially right now. What I say to people is that sometimes it even helps to be doing something that is a volunteer thing. My family packs boxes at a local food pantry and it's physical work. I like that, it's different.
It's not sitting at a computer, but also, I'm not in charge. That fills my cup. Being able to do something that's good and helpful for somebody else, but I didn't have to organize it. I can just show up, pack my boxes, be with my family and leave. Fantastic. It doesn't have to be a bath bomb. Sometimes it is actually about providing service, but providing service in a way that feels different for you or is not the same thing over and over again, because our brains crave novelty, and we need to use our bodies in different ways and we need to use our minds in different ways and anything we do that steps away from our day-to-day can be very useful.
Carol: I actually have often reminded boards and people working in recruiting volunteers that they shouldn't assess that, say they need someone to work on marketing and communications that they should go after someone who does that professionally well, in fact, they may want to do something totally different and they may want to facilitate your small groups or do workshops or do some other thing, and someone else who is interested in that and may want to try out those skills as a volunteer. Oftentimes volunteering gives you an opportunity to try something different, or like you said, just show up and be told what to do, not be in charge. You have something concrete that has happened by the end, this had a clear impact on someone.
One of the things I like to do is play a little game at the end here. I have a couple of icebreaker questions. Let me pick one. If you could never work again, how would you spend your time?
Beth: Oh, if I could never work again... I hate to be one of those people that sounds like the people we're talking about who are burnt out, but honestly, I really do love this work that I'm doing with organizations. I would do this for free, that's a terrible marketing strategy, but it's true. I do need to pay the bills, I can't do it for free, but I think that would be one thing I would do, one of the things I know about myself is that I like variety. That would be one thing I would do, somehow finding a way we mentioned to be near a body of water would be something I would do. I would play my guitar and sing as often as I possibly could, find some other people to hang out with who had nothing else they had to do and just spend hours singing. My life could be one long campfire with a guitar. I would love that.
Carol: What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Beth: I actually had an opportunity recently to do a webinar for some social service agencies in DC. The mayor of DC, mayor Bowser has put some focus and some money into looking at the district's response to trauma. I've been able to do one webinar in a series, and I'm going to get another one in the can coming up in the not-too-distant future and I'm really excited because those are the folks who I most want to be in touch with. Those are the frontline workers who are the government folks in DC who are handing out food stamps and who are trying to find people housing and who are trying to find people jobs. I think both burnout and potentially vicarious trauma is high in that group of folks. I'm really excited to have an impact on those folks who are providing such important services in DC.
Carol: How can people find you more about you or get in touch?
Beth: People can find Fermata Consulting on LinkedIn, F, E, R, M, A, T, A, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would say LinkedIn is probably your best bet.
Carol: We'll put those links in the show.
Beth: That would be terrific. I'm always happy to hear from folks who I don't know, who have questions about the work I do. Feel free to reach out and shoot me an email and I'm happy to be back in touch.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you being on.
Beth: Sure, I'm looking forward to hearing all of your podcasts, not just this one.
Episode 03: Today we’re talking to Moira Edwards.
We talked about:
• how technology supports the work of nonprofits and associations.
• Moira explains the three levels of IT infrastructure that leaders need to consider and how an organization typically would apportion the budget to support those three levels
• the concept of the peace time and the war time CEOs come into play as organizations manage the quick shifts forced onto them by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moira Edwards is the President of Ellipsis Partners and focuses on the impact of technology on organizational strategy. As head of Ellipsis Partners, she helps associations and nonprofits make smart technology decisions to create member value and support critical business operations.
Peace time vs War time CEO: https://hbr.org/2011/04/peacetime-ceos-vs-wartime-ceos
Mission: Impact is sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Carol: Welcome Moira. It's great to have you on the podcast
Carol: Just to get us started, tell folks a little bit about what drew you into the work that you do, and how you got to where you are now.
Moira: You know what gets scary as you get older? How much this spans decades rather than years; but I’ve always been an analyst of some sort, right out of college my first jobs were about finding problems and digging into them to find sometimes a software solution, sometimes a statistical model as a solution. Actually, the first job I had in the U.S. after I came here from Ireland, I was at the Federal Aviation Administration and I worked on the Land and Hold Short Operations Program. So what's fascinating about that is if you imagine any air course that has multiple runways, some of them intersect and the Land and Hold Short Program was that the larger aircraft would use the entire length of one runway and the middle of smaller complex Sesnas and things would land on a different runway and hold short of the intersecting runway. So what I did was I gathered all of the stopping distances for the little tiny aircraft and calculated what length of runway they would need in order to stop and safely land and hold short.
After that, I went to work for my first association and that was providing help-desk support to people who are using members who are using software that the association has actually developed. During that time is when it became really clear to me that technology is about people really, and truly. For our members to get value from the technology that we offered, it had to not just work for them, but it had to work for everyone involved in delivering it. So the developers have to say, ‘yeah, that software works’ and the people who offered support and the people who did the training and the people who mocked this, everybody all have to say; ‘yeah, that works well.’ We have this concept of an elegant solution that, when we were developing a new iteration of the software, we didn't want it to be like this old Victorian house with staircases to nowhere and lots of additions cobbled on that. We want it to be this really elegant, seamless solution that people could use. So I think I still do that.
I still try to help associations and nonprofits make really good decisions about technology and understanding what everybody wants to do. The members of staff, understanding the systems, fitting it with the organizations and their strategies and their capabilities, and making sure that the technology would work for the future and bringing it all together into a decision and a solution that everybody goes: ‘yes.’ You can almost hear the CyberKnife. Everybody goes, yeah, that works. So that's what I do. It's been an evolution along that path for 30 years and I get to do what I love. I consider myself so fortunate.
Carol: Well, I love your analogy of the old Victorian house versus the modern house with the essential elements really there, because I find that not just in technology and the technology infrastructure that organizations need to do their work well, but also in so many things that nonprofits do, they end up adding. It's like this Victorian house that's had lots of different additions built to it and no one ever stopped to say, ‘what are we actually going to get rid of and stop doing, before we add something new on,’ and I've gone over this, she's talked to me about those staircases to know where they’re forgetting to take it into a dead end in the software or in the process. It's very choppy and I think that sense of bringing it all together and understanding how the technology supports the overall goal, and also keeping up with technology because it changes, and if you don't change with it, to some extent you do that cost and stagnate and are kind-of trapped by it. So it's about recognizing all these cool new things coming out and figuring out how to use them. For many organizations, I would guess that some kind of technology investment is going to be one of their biggest investments in terms of infrastructure, some of their bigger projects, when you're helping leaders think about and move through one of those projects, what are some of the key things that they need to keep in mind?
Moira: When we think about how leaders use technology or work with technology. Sometimes I think it's really scary for many of those in a leadership position. I mean, in many ways, technology is as essential to achieving their vision as people as money. Right. It's just one of the things you've got to factor in. I think that for many leaders, they're thinking ‘I have this vision, I need to take a risk and I should, but I don't know how to use technology to do that.’ So one of the things we do is try and make this a little easier to understand.
We divide technology into three levels and the foundation, the basic level is technology is operations. So this is all about, ‘do things work? Can I send an email? Can I open a document and work on this? Do I have a laptop? Do I have a secure connection? Do I have the basic skills to run the organization and to do my work.’ that technology is operations, it’s foundational. It's about keeping the lights on and that's where your managed services provider is an absolute godsend, because this is very much a foundational operational support that you get from your managed services provider. There are certainly things you can outsource and, as a leader, you don't have to pay as much attention to it. Apart from the security aspects, you just need to make sure your managed service provider, the people who provide your desktop support, who would be your call center? They would probably provide your email solutions, they're probably the people who have put your servers out into the cloud. They're the people who crawl under desks and figure out what's going on under there. These days, most organizations do not have a server in a closet in the office anymore. They have a managed services provider who's taken over all of that for them, and it's great. As Reggie Henry says, no association or nonprofit should have a server on premise anymore. It should all be out in the cloud and managed by people who do this for a living. You can outsource a lot of technology operations these days.
The next level, if you're a leader and you're trying to think about the next level up is technology as service. At this level, you're serving your staff. Do they have the software they need to do their jobs in terms of running membership and offering events and doing learning. These would be where your enterprise-level systems come in, your AMS, your LMS, and you're also serving your members. Can they come to your website and do what they need to do easily and efficiently or is everybody doing a work-around, do you remember having to call in to get something done? Do your staff keep having to export things to Excel in order to get things done? If that's the case, then your technology as a service is maybe not working so well, but you can conceptualize that. Okay, I'm serving people and again, this is important to do, and you need to invest money in us because this is what makes you different to your members. This is why they come to you rather than any other organization, this is how they know they experience it as good service.
Carol: You used a couple acronyms and I just want to make sure people know what they are. AMS and LMS.
Moira: AMS is an “Association Management System.” So that's going to be a membership database, and it's also going to be the place where you run your e-commerce, maybe you run your login for your website. It's a pretty central ERP - enterprise, relationship, platform.
Carol: If an organization isn't an association, what would that typically be called for a non-association, nonprofit, that'd be IT customer-relation management or CRM, or some kind of donor relation management system something like that, and who you're serving as well, so that central database that holds all your essential information about the people you serve, the people you work with.
Moira: Exactly, that core operational database. You want to get that right, the elements of your learning management system. If you're offering any learning to your members, to your constituents, you might have a learning management system (LMS). Again, how do they experience your organization? Whether your LMS is smooth, easy to log into, easy to access, easy to see where you are in their learning progress, then they're going to have a positive experience with your organization.
So when we think about leadership having a vision moving forward, that really comes into that top level, which is [that] technology is innovation. So if you think about [it], we've got a foundational level of technologies [and] operations, making things work with a middle level of technology, a service really making things smooth and work[ing] well.
Technology is innovation where we sometimes think about taking risks, because here's where you might develop your own software to offer to members. Here's where you might really use design thinking to figure out what they need and how you can solve their problems. So at this technology's innovation level, you're really thinking about how you could serve your members or your constituents, your donors, your grantees in ways that they have not taught you that serves them before. That's where maybe there's some risk, but it's a smaller investment that perhaps might be 10% of your IT budget and it's also where you experiment, where you use the agile methodology or fail fast to go out. You try out something new, you get some feedback and you do a more interwoven approach to technology development so that each individual experiment is not a huge risk. That's how, as a leader, you can think about technology in different ways and decide where to devote your attention, where to devote your budget. Does that make sense?
Carol: Makes a lot of sense. When I did some research a couple years ago, just looking at how associations were approaching innovation, I saw when at most it was interesting and that most organizations really saw the field as not very innovative, but saw their own organization as very innovative and one of the three top projects that folks mentioned, that when [asked] what innovative thing are you doing now? Most often it had to do with technology, and then the other one that was kind of related, was doing some type of learning online. We're recording this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of organizations are having to make a quick shift in terms of how they're working, how they're delivering services. Technology is undergirding everything that's able to move forward, but all those assumptions that you talked about in terms of those three tiers are coming into play in terms of, if an organization has never had a culture around remote work or any of those things, or not had the the technology to support it makes that shift particularly hard. I'm observing lots of steep learning curves with people in terms of different technologies that some of us have been using for a long time, but for others are brand new. So what would you say can help organizations as they're kind of confronted with this sudden shift that's happening right now?
Moira: Well, one of the things that you and I have talked about is how do you stay strategic? How do you keep yourself focused on the long-term when you're surrounded by short-term chaos and stress? I think that's a useful lens through which to see this because we are so frantic and I know [that] at times I'm panicked by it, everything that we're trying to deal with.
I'm going to point back to a blog post that was written by a guy called Ben Horowitz in 2014 but HBR, Harvard Business Review had picked it up and talked a bit about it around then. It's this concept of there being a war-time CEO and a peace-time CEO, and I know separate to whatever has ever been done. That's been used in the media right now at the time.
What's really useful about this concept is that a peacetime CEO is the transformation leader that we've all come to admire and established as the norm in leadership thinking. We are developing goals, we are creating strategic plans, and we're moving the organization forward in a very thoughtful, collaborative way with lots of emotional intelligence. That's your peace-time, transformational CEO. In contrast, the war time CEO is autocratic, decisive, commanding, and makes decisions. In fact, it can also be just the person we need in a time of crisis. The idea though, in this post is that we actually as leaders, need to be able to move between the two styles. So those of us that are running organizations and having to make that transition to a different way of working extremely quickly, we're out there being decisive right in the face of all of this movement, our events being canceled, having to change our revenue projections, having to readjust our budgets.
So we're being wartime CEOs and managing and responding and getting things done. I think what I would say to anyone in this position is that we need to craft ourselves a little piece of peacetime in the middle of all of that. So for me, that means just spending the time that I used to spend commuting sitting with some coffee, watching the morning sunrise, and letting some of this busyness subside and reading, maybe some interesting books, or just journaling out some thoughts about new directions, new ways to take advantage of what's happening and capitalize on what's changing rather than being overwhelmed by us.
So I think putting that little bit of peace in the morning has been very helpful, and turning off the news for that hour as well so that I'm not tracking the numbers of cases and infections as we are every morning. Another thing that I'm doing and I'm seeing others doing is carving out some time for learning for me and for my staff, because there's travel that I'm not doing, there are meetings I'm not going to because of the stay-at-home orders. So there are gaps of time in my schedule that I didn’t know were going to be there and using that time for some learning is a way to crack my brain open and keep us open.
When a part of me is just responding, and somebody can be reactive during a time of rapid change. Another thing I'm doing, or I'm starting to do, I would say is so I'm having a lot more check-ins with people like I'm at home and people I haven't talked to in months, we're suddenly having zoom calls and phone calls and people say, ‘how are you and what are you doing, and how are you coping?’ So in some ways we're having the same conversations over and over, but these are great opportunities to ask interesting questions of all these people. So sometimes I'll say to them, ‘so what has surprised you about the past few weeks that you didn't think would happen,’ or I might say ‘what has changed in your life that you think will not change back when this is all over’ or I might say, ‘what do you think the new normal would be like for you, for your organization, for the world?’ Having those conversations is also another way to keep my brain from just getting stuck in a reactive mode and thinking, keeping a vision of the future, and that could be a very different future coming up and thinking about how then we can, how are we going to act in that new chair, right?
Carol: Yeah, for me, it's been when I'm noticing myself getting hyped up where I used to be able to sit and read a book for hours. I haven't been able to do that in the last month. So it's much more, tapping into [a] meditative movement, so yoga and walking outside and talking to people while I'm walking outside and taking bike rides and all the things we're still allowed to do to just keep all of that energy moving through my body, to stay grounded.
I love those questions that you're asking. So I'm curious for you, what have you been surprised by in the last couple of weeks and what do you see as the new normal?
Moira: I think the thing that has surprised me is that this feels different to my normal way of working from home, and I think the element here is one around choice, and I think that's going to be an interesting conversation for us, in the coming weeks and months is around choice. First of all, when I work from home, I choose to, [and] now I'm somewhat forced. So that's got a different feel to us, but also what I notice is that when I'm in an office and I have my door open and people come and talk with me, I have very little choice in that matter. I mean, I can maybe close my door if I want no disruptions, I can keep it closed all the time when I'm onsite with organizations and I'm part of the office environment.
At first, I love it. I love the chance to chat to everyone, then after awhile, I realized that I don't have as much control over my schedule as they do. [Now] I'm working from home, and I think in this environment where we're all working remotely, people are going to have a lot more control over their workday because you're going to have to book time on their calendars and maybe you're going to use a tool like Slack or even a text to send them a quick question. They can answer that from anywhere.
I think we are going to come to expect more and more control and choice about when we work and how we work. I don't think that's a bad thing because I think one of the things that we find problematic about the workplace is the distraction where there's the distraction from the open offices and the noise around you, or the distraction of people dropping by, or whatever it is. I think having more control over when I focus on when I'm just available to be disrupted, it's actually great. I think people are going to push back against going into an environment where they can be so easily disrupted.
Carol: At the same time, one thing that I think people miss from when you're working remotely all the time is that sense of the serendipitous bumping into somebody, having a conversation at the water cooler, walking down the stairs that the fact that some companies have now built common stairs to force people to actually walk up and down and interact with each other. So I'm curious what you're seeing in terms of how people are building in some of that as they do remote work and how they might think about it if they haven't yet.
Moira: So I did a section for ASC, the technology conference many years ago, actually at this stage maybe six years ago, and it was about managing virtual workers and the remote workforce. When we did a survey of nonprofit folx and we found that the thing that mitigated a drop in creativity was relationships. If the organization found a way to foster relationships, then people found a way to be creative and have casual conversations. So maybe it doesn't work. Like when I think about Melissa Meyer and bringing everybody back into Yahoo, it's a huge organization. So maybe it's harder than larger organizations, but certainly in smaller organizations. There are ways to foster those relationships.
Yesterday, I was doing an online session and afterwards we had a virtual happy hour. So these are very common during the pandemic. Now people are gathering on zoom and having some sort of virtual coffee hour, a happier, conversational time. It was so powerful. I think it depends how many people are on screen. We have six or seven people at one time and it was. As good a conversation as I have ever had sitting around a table, chatting with people. I felt connected. Some of these people I knew relatively well, others not so well. I felt like I knew everyone in that conversation better afterwards. I would feel much more comfortable now whether it's picking up a phone, shooting a quick email, or using something like a sign to send them a good question because I feel like I know them better and I know how they would respond. So I think that's the thing to focus on in the long-term is building relationships and that comfort with each other so we can have those casual interactions with whatever means there is. Does that make sense?
Carol: Totally makes sense. I'm thinking of a parallel situation. I'm a member of a congregation and of course our services have gone online and we've had virtual or - I actually don't like the word virtual cause it's real, it's just online. Online coffee hours through Zoom, and what I've loved about it is that after everyone's in there and you've got the 50 people or even more on screen, they've randomly assigned us into small groups. So I've talked to people that I would never talk to in Coffee Hour. If it's a new person, great, it's easy to go say hello to them; but if that person's been a member for a long time, and you've never gotten around to actually saying hello. This is the easy way to actually get to know [them].
So it's been a great thing and a wonderful equalizer and community builder. It's been amazing.
Moira: Absolutely, and my meditation class has gone online now. That is so lovely to see a screen full of like 40 people on video with their eyes closed. That is supremely vulnerable,
it really is, it's lovely. What's so interesting, I was talking with the teacher and I was telling her what a great job she's doing. She's like, ‘yeah, I didn't know I would enjoy it so much.’ She is absolutely able to be present and really talk personally with us, whether it's a group or one on one with individual people during the session in a way that I didn't think was possible using an online medium. So I agree with you completely. Relationships and connection are very possible using technology today.
Carol: Yeah. I have had to immediately move to facilitating a number of long, multi-hour sessions from an in-person that were going to be an in-person and now moving them online, and for the one that was going to be a day long, I cut it in half. Because I just don't believe that you should inflict an eight-hour Zoom meeting on anybody. We had a really, really productive conversation and then the first group, they were a lot of people who didn't really know each other well, and just taking the time to - [and] we would have done this in person regardless, but taking the time to check in and then being able to use the small groups to move them around and you're really able to do so much with today's technology.
So wanting to shift into, again in this environment, a lot of organizations, their first reaction was to cancel all their events. How can, as they think a little longer term, like you're saying, keep that, while you're reacting, taking a moment to pause and taking that longer view, how might they approach actually moving some of those events online, especially if this goes on longer than initially anticipated.
Moira: I think it's a combination of being intentional and experimental. The intentional part is stopping and thinking a bit about what is important about your online event. So we worked with one organization where the most important thing, funnily enough, were the coffee breaks, because their attendees did not get a chance typically to meet, they kind-of came from two different fields. So the sessions were great. They would talk about the meat of the science that they were talking about, but the coffee breaks is where they would have the conversations. It's like these relationships we'll be talking about. So when they go online, what's really important to them is a way for people to chat. So breakout rooms and Zooms are our ideal for that. So understanding what are the critical things that make your event unique? Why do people come to your events? Having some focus groups, taking some time to gather requirements from your attendees, your members, your constituents from your staff, and can understand at least five high-level things about what you want to do, but you can then go and look at different platforms. Whether it's Zoom or video, you use your Learning Management System, cause they have a lot of interesting features, or maybe you go to one of the conference-capturing platforms with lots of different ways that you can do this, and you make sure that what you're choosing will support those critical needs. Then the experimental side is to really be open with your members and maybe you do an actual experiment, if you can, to try it out.
Maybe you think of it as a practice run, but the people will really accept what you're doing. If you're upfront, I've got the fact that this is an experiment rather than delivering value. So maybe there might be, either a no-fee or a reduced-fee, if you can swing it, because if you charge the full amount, he was going to expect the sole value. So how can you make this experimental, can you try a plea event with one of your committees? It's a real event, but we are planning to learn from it and by calling it an experiment you set expectations lower, people give you buy-in because they're willing to contribute to the success of this experiment. I’ve found that some sort of pilot or experimental SES really helps before you do the full offering, because don't forget you've gotten really good at doing your in-person events. You've had so many chances to perfect that, you have to go back and approach this with a fresh mind.
Carol: Yeah, and I think you might actually find that through those experiments, you learn some interesting things that you want to keep doing, even in the future or that there might be all sorts of unexpected benefits from going online. Not to say that face-to-face events won't happen again in the future, they certainly will, but I think the impact might be that things have to meet a much higher threshold to warrant a face-to-face event than they did before this, because people will realize that it is possible to do a lot of what we've traditionally done in face-to-face events online, and in some ways there's the pet peeve I've always had with conferences is the coffee hour, if you can figure out how you can reiterate that,
but I've often questioned, why did I bother getting on a plane to go and sit and listen to panels where there was no interaction, if you're not doing anything to facilitate, any kind of experiential learning and not to say that that's not possible online, it is also with planning, but if you're not doing that in your conferences, there's never been a reason for anyone to fly, except for all the extra things that happen in between all the things that you plan. It'll be interesting to see the longer-term impact.
Moira: That's so interesting because the great thing about a conference is [that] you meet people you would not have met. Otherwise you form relationships with people or you strengthen relationships because you're sitting, you're eating, you're drinking, you're having experiences together and you're sharing knowledge and experiences and time with people.
When we do surveys for our clients and they talk about ‘why do you join,’ the top reasons are often the information, the resources, the education. So people are definitely there for the topic and the speakers, but what makes them come back is the experience. And that experience is from how they felt and who they chatted with on the coffee hour and what that led to when they came back. I think you're absolutely right.
Carol: And so, with those experiments of trying to do some of this online, I think being really intentional, as you said, about what those main things that people are looking for are and how might we, not necessarily replicate, I mean, it's not going to be replicating, it's going to be different, but how do we foster those same or similar experiences, as people come together.
Moira: Right, because your online event is not just about putting a speaker or a panel in front of you, it's the interaction afterwards. So the educational session that we had yesterday, for AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions - which is this nonprofit that I'm on the board of. We had a speaker, she gave an amazing presentation sharing slides, then when the slides were over, but we stopped the screen share.
So the screen was full of the videos of the participants. We had a conversation, which was amazing, like a really good question-and-answer, give-and-take, back-and-forth. Then you went into a happy hour for anybody who was left, which is even more connective and informative. So we can share [and] we can make this technology support that, which is important within our virtual events.
Carol: Yeah, and same as before, it's always a tool, right. It's a tool to get other objectives done. So what I heard you saying before was [that] it's so key to figure out what those objectives are, what those requirements are. And maybe it provides an opportunity if you're going to be doing this differently, to have a different kind of engagement beforehand with members that you might not have had in a long time, if you've been doing a similar event year after year, to dig into what it is that they really need and what they’re looking for. What do they need now that's different?
Moira: This provides a huge opportunity and many of our constituents would have been resistant to some of the online technology, but now they're sitting at home, they're using zoom for their work calls, they are using zoom to have birthday celebrations with their kids and grandkids. So suddenly they've realized that this isn't that hard, or maybe the tools have actually come a long way towards not making it hard anymore. So there's less resistance. I think that we will experience our constituents going online because they now know what it's like.
Carol: So many people are familiar with the term early adopter and it's from - and I'm forgetting the guy's name, but I'll put it in the show notes - the innovation curve and part of the innovation curve. There’s a big gap between the early adopters and the early majority and something like this just pushes a lot of people over that chasm suddenly. It goes back to your original thing of choice of, in this instance, there's no choice around working from home. If you have the kind of job that's possible to do working from home, so then to use all these technologies that they may have said, ‘oh, I don't want to learn that.’ Or ‘that would never work,’ or ‘I could never facilitate that way.’ Or, ‘I could never have a meeting that way, it would never be the same.’ Suddenly it's like, ‘okay, well, are you just not going to ever talk to anyone again?’ Probably not.
So, seeing as we're coming to the end here, I like to play a little bit of a game at the end. I have a box of icebreaker questions, so I've chosen three and I'm going to ask you one of them. So, if you could meet any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Moira: Oh, wow. I’ll tell you that sometimes these icebreaker questions, I find them difficult ‘cause I need about a second or two to think about them. Because a number of images of people have come to mind. I would have to say that it would be the Buddha. That would be the historical seeker I would love to meet because, of all of the different people in history who have changed history, given us great insights, I think the Buddha is probably going to be the calmest one. I would just like to experience that. I'd just like to be close to that and see what that felt like. I don't even know that I would necessarily talk to him, I would just like to see what radiates from that.
Carol: Just bathe in that calm, open presence as the enlightenment. Yeah, I’ve been doing more meditations recently and did one recently that talked about imagining that very calming presence, whether it's a relative, or an ancestor, or a spiritual figure. Then at the end being reminded, well you imagined that, so you have it within you. I thought that was a really interesting way to think about it.
Moira: That is, yeah, that's really nice.
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you, what's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Moira: Absolutely. I was sitting here today and I'm looking out my window. So from the little world that I'm occupying right now, which is my home, one of the things I'm excited about others are the leaves coming on the trees. And the days are getting longer because, in this world, in some ways we're stuck in place. It's lovely to look out the window and see spring and growth and life continue. So that makes me very happy and excited for the rest of the year.
From a work perspective, there are some experiments we want to try within Ellipse’s partners. As we look at the world and we're trying to keep ourselves open about how to do things differently in this changed environment. We're looking to try some experiments to connect people together, to share knowledge, because I really see that working. So that's a little exciting. We're figuring out what that will look like and creating new ideas is always fun.
I mentioned the AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions. I am so excited by that group. It's a group that formed, some of us had just met on a regular basis to talk about technology and life. So I'm one of the founders, but now we have expanded that and we want to bring the knowledge, the connection, the insights to the greater group of women who are working to promote and advance technology in their nonprofit organization.
We just became officially incorporated. We're going to file now for our 501C3 status.
Moira: We will now have the foundation too, the paperwork, the credentials to actually offer more education, more connection, more ability to advance women in the technology community and that's very exciting.
Carol: Awesome. Well, how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Moira: Sure, the nonprofit that I talked about, AWTC, our website is awtc.tech. We use a cool ending, so I'd love you to check that out for us, for Ellipsis partners, our website is ellipsispartners.com E-L-L-I-P-S-I-S Partners dot com. Since I'm Moira Edwards, my email is email@example.com, and would welcome a connection with any of your listeners, it would be lovely to chat further, about anything we talked about today.
Carol: All right, well thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on. I enjoyed our conversation.
Moira: I did too. Thanks, Carol.
Episode 02: Today we’re talking to Kathy Patrick.
We talked about:
• what it takes to influence decision makers.
• the concrete steps leaders can take to create a plan, identify who is key to your organization and how to start building a relationship with them before you need their help.
• Why it is so important to remember that key decision makers are human first and not fixate on their title and role.
Kathy Patrick, of Strategic Sense, LLC, helps progressive non-profit leaders build influence and create powerful relationships with all types of decision makers, so they can increase the impact and reach of their organizations, attract more resources to their work, and free up time to do the creative, visionary work they were meant to do.
Mission: Impact is sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Carol: welcome, Kathy. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
Kathy: It’s great to be here, thanks.
Carol: I just want to start out by asking you what drew you to the work that you do? How did you kind of get where you are? What was your journey?
Kathy: Hmm journey…. Well, I started out in advocacy work and my first big leadership role was running a statewide women's rights organization in Wisconsin. I had two main jobs. They were basically “make good policies happen” and “keep harmful policies from happening”. Then I came to Washington to work at a national women's employment organization, which is where you and I met. Part of my job there was the same thing only at the federal level, but the other part was to help the 1200 or so direct service programs in our national network. They would call with what seemed like policy problems, but in fact they were about something much deeper and they were struggling with all sorts of decisions that were getting made, funding decisions, policy decisions, you name it, but they were all getting made without their input. They were finding out about potential threats and opportunities at the last minute, or sometimes too late to even do anything about it. The result was that they were just constantly in reactive mode, they were feeling powerless, frustrated, exhausted, and demoralized. That's when I realized that what all these problems had in common was that folks just didn't have enough influence with the decision-makers, and until they changed that they weren't going to get different results.
So we started creating training programs to help leaders improve their access and influence, and it worked. They started getting a seat at some of the key tables and helping to guide the thinking there; and that meant more and better opportunities, and fewer disasters started coming their way. When I started my consulting business, I moved out of the employment universe and started working with all different kinds of nonprofits on healthcare, and nutrition, and housing, and a bunch of other issues. I also found that in fact, no matter what you're working on, there is a uniform truth for all nonprofit leaders which is: when you have strong influential relationships with the key decision-makers in your world, you consistently get more opportunities coming your way and have fewer instances of having to deal with the impact of harmful decisions. That means that leaders get to spend more time doing that creative visionary work they were meant to do, which is why we all got into this in the first place right? We want to solve big problems and make a big impact, and that's pretty hard to do when you're being yanked around by decisions that you don't have a lot of control over. So at this point, what I’m all about is helping non-profit leaders create that influence so that they can do what they were really put here to do.
Carol: So in terms of creating that influence and building those relationships, and getting out of that reactive mode, what are some of the key steps that organizations can start taking to start building that influence with decision-makers that you're, that you talk about?
Kathy: Well you know, the good news is it's actually pretty simple. It's not necessarily easy, but it's pretty simple. There's about five and a half steps to getting that done, but the other thing that I would say is that this is perhaps counter-intuitively maybe one of the best possible times to be thinking about either starting that work or doing more of it because, it's really all about figuring out how you can help those decision-makers solve the problems they're working on. I've got some steps that I'll walk us through on how to do that, but the reality is that a lot of times, one of the first steps in figuring out how you're going to build a relationship with a decision-maker is to figure out, well, what are what's important to them?
What problems are they working on? What keeps them up at night? So right now, while we're all in pandemic mode - and we'll probably be there for the foreseeable future, some interesting things are happening, routines are blown out of the water, no decision making processes routine right now, and all of the usual plodding, bureaucratic approaches to things are not really happening. Instead what's happening is that everybody is totally focused on the immediate problems at hand that are coming out of all of the disruption that's occurring. So it's actually pretty easy to figure out what problems people are working on, ‘cause we're all kind of working on the same things. So that actually makes everybody's job a little bit easier if a bit more chaotic.
So basic steps to this are to first of all, just pick a decision-maker or two, and not 20 decision-makers, but like one or two that are really good.
Carol: What would be an example of who might that be like for an organization that you've worked with before, what, who are the key, some of the key people that they might need to be reaching out to?
Kathy: Sure. So you know, the first thing that people always think about with that are like elected officials and that's great. You know, you could, you could think in terms of your city council or your County board, or your state legislature, or members of your state legislature, maybe a key committee chair, somebody who might be in charge of a policy or funding that you would care about, something like that. It would also be administrative bodies. So again, I'm just thinking pandemic terms and all of the problems that are rolling out of that. So it might be a County health department or a city employment agency, or a city housing department, those kinds of administrative creatures. It can also be funders, it could be grantmakers, foundations, corporate partners you have, or corporate partners you wish you had, there are a lot of interesting corporate nonprofit partnerships that are happening right now to tackle some of these problems. So really the way I always put it to two new clients is any decision-maker who has the ability to make a decision that will impact your organization's wellbeing or the wellbeing of the people you serve is potentially a legitimate relationship building target, but those are the kinds of categories that they typically fall into.
Carol: Yeah. and it's interesting. Cause you know, so often people, when they think about this work, they think primarily about government related folks, and I was working in a network that was trying to make change in a large watershed, and one of the things that they were trying to do is employ influence, you know, they were working at the municipal level, so pretty local, but then also with individual landowners and, you know, some of those landowners have large tracts of land, they might be corporate related or whatnot, and, you know everyone's going to the legislative folks trying to get their bit in and I said: well, what if you were to, cause this was about like how you do things, right? How you do things on the ground and changing practice, changing how people do their work. So I was like, there are so many associations for every single one of these fields and there are probably three people who make decisions about what that entire field gets trained on. If you could get to those people, and get them to get trained on sustainable practices for whatever you're trying to do, you can influence huge amounts of people, but it's not on people's radar that there are all these other groups they could influence beyond government folks.
Kathy: Exactly, and I used to use the word advocacy and I stopped using that word because people's brains immediately go to elected officials and they shut out all the other possibilities. So I decided I could either explain 150 times that no, advocacy is much bigger than that, or I could just talk about it differently. I went with talking about it in a different way. ‘Cause when I thought about it more, I realized that it really is all about influencing people's thinking and their decision making process, whatever that that is, but that ultimately what you want to do is be engaged in a collaborative problem-solving relationship with them, and when you get to that point, you've kind of hit the Holy Grail of influence, right? Who do you listen to more in life, as a human being than somebody who's helping you solve a problem?
Carol: Yeah, and I think that's often the challenge again, going back to that word advocacy. It's so - and I'm not an expert in this, but when I've seen it, when I've seen what I perceive as it being done badly, it's all about a one way conversation. “We have these talking points, we're going to tell you what to do.” and you know, if you've ever tried to tell your cat or your child or anybody, what to do, you know how well that works. So I'd love to know more about how you move it towards that collaborative problem-solving.
Kathy: Right. Well, the front, yeah. I mean, I just have to pick up on what you just said ‘cause it's so true, and it drives me crazy and unfortunately there's a bunch of advocacy experts out there that are not helping with this. You know, how many nonprofit leaders who are part of a larger organization of some sort, whether it's a national association or a network or whatever, and you come to Washington for your Hill day, every year, and what do they tell you? You have to have an ass, don't go into your meeting with your elected official without an answer, and there's a certain amount of legitimacy to that in that you don't want to just go in there and blabber, but the worst possible way to initiate a relationship is “Hi, nice to meet you. I want something from you.” No, that doesn't work too well either.
It would be a really bad dating strategy and it's a pretty bad relationship building strategy with decision-makers. So the thing is that relationship building takes an investment over time, and so the idea that you're going to walk into a meeting and start telling somebody what you do, and therefore they should help you with something is almost guaranteed to fail, and so the best time to be developing a relationship is long before you actually need them to do something for you, and also to approach it again with that collaborative problem-solving mindset, that we're peers, we each have an angle on a particular problem. We can help each other solve it. and if you can be a collaborative partner in that way, you're going to go a long way toward having them know who you are, trust you, appreciate your abilities and expertise, and appreciate the contributions the organization can make.
They're also going to start to trust you, and the thing that we forget to talk about a lot of times is that relationships are built on trust. So if they don't have some reason to know, like, and trust that you're going to have an uphill battle if you want to influence them in any way. So how do you do that? Well, basically you make a plan and so, like I said, start by picking one or two, because one of the mistakes people make is they start to think about this and they go, Oh my goodness. Well, if I think about all the decision-makers who could have an impact on my organization and the people I serve, that's a lot of people. Then they make a list of 20 or 50 or a hundred people, and then they get overwhelmed and freak out and don't do anything. So that does not generally work as a strategy.
So what makes sense is, pick a couple, and particularly right now, I'm pretty sure that every nonprofit leader out there has a couple of decision-makers who are kind of on their radar right now that they really like to be engaging with more effectively and take a little minute to write down a few bullet points here and there to just sort of keep your thinking focused, make a few notes to yourself about why they're important. Why did I pick them? How can they affect my organization? How can they affect the people we serve? and also take a minute to take some notes on what your ideal collaborative relationship with them would look like? ‘cause if you don't have some idea of where you're trying to go, it's going to be much harder to get there, and similarly, It requires a little bit of brutal honesty. and this is kind of step two, which is to assess where you are now in your relationship with that person and compared to the ideal that you described.
So if my ideal relationship with a County commissioner is that, you know, there are five things that come across in their jurisdiction and decision making realm that I know on an annual basis are going to have a big impact on my organization, and I need them to ultimately do two things. I need them to give me a heads up, if something new is going to come along, that could either help me or hurt me, and I want to be able to be in on the conversations early enough that I cannot just be coming in at the end, saying, I want you to vote yes or no, but to be saying, I want to help shape the plan that you create, because the work that we do directly intersects with that, and we could help each other out here. So if that's kind of my ideal and what I want that to be looking like, and where I am now in my relationship is they kind of know who I am and they've sort of heard of my organization and they sorta know what we do, but a lot of times when they describe it, they get it wrong.
Well, you know, I've got a ways to go to get to my ideal, but at least I know where I am. You know, and if I'm further along, if we do have a more solid relationship and they maybe come to my events, they know who we are. They've maybe volunteered at our organization. A couple of times they've met our clients, they have a pretty solid idea of who we are and what we do, but they don't necessarily see us as central too the problem they're working on. Well, that's a much shorter trip for me to get to my ideal, and it also gives me some idea of what my main tasks are. So once you have that sense, you can start to build that roadmap between where you are now and what your ideal is, and the biggest question to ask yourself at that point is how can I add value or help solve a problem they're working on right now?
Now, before people get worked up here, this does not mean that you should go out and start a whole new initiative, unless that makes sense for you for some reason, but instead look at what you're already doing. How have you been adapting your operations and services for greater impact in this country, politically chaotic and upheaval time, and how does that help the problem? Obviously, always look at how you can continue to adapt and improve, but basically start with what you're already doing. It's really a matter of how does understanding, how does this intersect with what that decision-makers are working on and what they're focused on. Once you've made some notes to yourself, lay that out. What you've done is you've begun to go down the road of thinking about the world from the decision-maker’s perspective. One of the biggest mistakes that almost everybody makes when trying to engage a decision-maker is they'll go in and it's, you know, a chorus of Me, me, Me me me me! This is what we do, this is what we're about, this is how many people we serve, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. and that's all great. There will be a time and a place to share that information, but it's one of those where you mentioned kids and cats, right? I sometimes think that when we're talking, what they're thinking to themselves is your lips are moving, but all I hear is “blah, blah, blah”. and that's kinda how the decision-makers are going to react, If you're not framing what you do in terms of something they really care about and getting to know them as a person. Cause I think that's the thing that people forget too. They hear it, they see the word decision-maker or that big title of senator, county commissioner, municipal councilperson, whatever, and they forget that there's a person in there. They're people first, and so you know, don’t forget everything you know already about relating to people, verses relating to that title.
I had a client in Connecticut who had an elected official that they needed to, to get on board with something they were trying to make happen and they just couldn't figure out how to connect with her. She was not responding to them, and they had reason to believe that she would be, generally an ally given her political leanings and so they thought, well, if we could just engage with her, we think we could probably get her to play, but we can't figure out how to get her to talk to us. So finally they did some research and found out that well, in addition to whatever else she did for a living, she raised goats as a hobby and she had a little dairy goat farm. So my client went out and visited the dairy goat farm and hung out for a day and just chatted with her about her goats, and it broke everything wide open. All of a sudden, now she was taking his phone calls, she was sending him pictures of the goats and he was a completely different interaction because he approached her as a human being and expressed interest in something she cared about. Now, in that case, it wasn't at all about the thing they were working on. It was like, hey, I took the time to come up here and hang with you and your goats, and that really made a difference to her.
So, you know, it was a, that's a really good point, Carol. and I think that people often will forget that. and related to that, I think is something that, is, is part of the inner game thing that can be such a struggle for folks, particularly if they're leading a smaller organization or one that has had some tough times engaging with decision-makers and have not felt like they've come out too well in that process. There's a tendency to kind of go to decision-makers as a supplicant now and kind of saying, “Oh great Poobah decision-maker person, we hope that you will smile upon us and not kill us and be nice to us and maybe do something for us” and that does not play well. It’s actually incredibly counterproductive, and what they're much more likely to respond to is if you approach them as a peer and someone who has value to bring, who has problem solving abilities, who is going to be able to be a partner in something that matters, and-
Carol: How do you help people step into that? feeling like they're their peer and that they can engage in the conversation in that way?
Kathy: Well, that's an interesting question, it kind of depends on what's in the way in the first place.
Carol: What are some of the things that are typical that get in the way?
Kathy: Well, lived experience, as I mentioned with smaller nonprofits in particular, if their experience has been, for example with funders that they've been kind of yanked around by the funders and felt like no matter what we do, you know, they only pick their friends and they never pick us and the whole system's rigged and then they have unreasonable expectations and they have bad deadlines and they begin to work up a whole story about how this is the enemy and this decision-maker is not my friend and they are going to be mean to me, I just know it, and so if you start with that story, you're pretty much doomed from the beginning, and so one of the things that is really helpful, and this is why I always say to folks at the very beginning, describe what your ideal collaborative relationship with that decision-maker would look like and start part of the inner game transformation is to start to tell yourself a new story about, okay, well then if my ideal collaborative relationship is, like the example I was using earlier with a County board member that, you know, this is what they're doing for me, well why are they doing that? Well, how am I showing up so that they want to treat me that way? Well, I'm coming in as a problem solving partner who has good ideas and who can work together with them to fix this. and I envisioned myself literally sitting at a table with them where we are, well, maybe this is a bad visual, right.
At the moment, since nobody's sitting across the table from anybody, but you know, maybe we're sitting across the zoom table from one another, or we're on the phone together or whatever, and we're talking together about, well, what about this idea? Well, have you tried this? What if we wait a minute, I see this problem over here and this problem over there, and I think this is how they intersect, and maybe there's a way that we could do X to solve both of those at once, whatever it is. If you start imagining yourself in that kind of a role where you're relating to them as a peer that you imagine actually having the conversation, and I had encouraged folks to even - I know people hate role-plays when they're formal, but you know, like talk to your dog and pretend it's the decision-maker, you know, whatever your roleplay version is, but to actually practice those conversations until you get comfortable talking to them that way.
Carol: Thinking about that, you know, cause I could imagine, you know, a situation you're describing where there are certainly power differentials there and, you know, lived experience, but what does that, the person who is looking to build that relationship with the decision-maker. What do they have that the decision-maker doesn't have, they may have perspective about a community, connections to community that the decision-maker would be valuable. There's all sorts of things, all sorts of assets that that person has, if they just start to think about it, and certainly in what you were describing. I mean, I could imagine that, you know, some of that anger and frustration and disappointment could be really valid and it gets in the way of building that relationship. So, you know, so it's both, right.
Kathy: Yeah, and you actually made me think of about half a dozen things there, but I'm going to tackle the last one first, cause it's a little bit of an elephant sitting on the table here that we didn't raise, which is that, you know, when we talk, whenever you start talking about power and influence, you can't really talk about power and influence without acknowledging, systemic racism, sexism, all kinds of economic inequalities of all kinds, you know, cultural biases, there's all kinds of stuff that, you know, there are, there are reasons that entire communities of people have been systematically disenfranchised. So I don't want to pretend that those aren't real and those aren't there. You can’t just wave a magic wand and say, aha, I shall just, you know, make the decision-maker, not the product of all of those realities and systems. It definitely doesn't work that way, or we would have all just done that, and that would be a really awesome magic wand.
The lived experience is incredibly important, but it's also critical not to let that be the determinant of how you operate moving forward, and it may be that there will be some decision-makers who are so fatally biased in one way or another against some aspect of what you or your organization represents that they will not be a good target for relationship building,
Not everyone is. I actually had to have a conversation with a client recently where he was just beating his head against the wall with a particular decision-maker, and I finally had to say to him, you know what, she just doesn't like you, and we don't know why somewhere along the way she decided she didn't like you, and I don't think that's going to change. We need somebody else to build that relationship, who else can we get? So we actually picked somebody else who was part of that coalition, who didn't have baggage with her, and they were able to very quickly establish a decent connection and go forward. So, you know, there also is the reality that sometimes somebody just doesn't like you and there's not always something you can do about it.
Carol: So what are some of the ways that you would have people kind of, you talked about. You know, they start out, they list a huge number of people, it gets overwhelming and they get stuck. I was with a group recently, it was around, you know, what partnerships could they get involved in, and within about 15 minutes of brainstorming, we had a list of about a hundred organizations. When clearly this tiny little volunteer led organization was not going to be establishing partnerships with a hundred organizations, so I had them kind of do a matrix of what's easy and what's impactful, and try to have them focus on those. How do you have people prioritize those, you know, and narrow it down so that it is manageable.
Kathy: Yeah, any of those kinds of tricks work pretty well, I'll sometimes have folks pick like a low, medium high rating for two different axes, and one will be, you know, how much, and in the case of partnership, actually, the thing that you suggest is probably what I would use in the case of a decision-maker role. It's more of- and you might even have three categories. You might have an immediacy category where you know, that in the next six to twelve months, this decision-maker is going to be making a decision that has a dramatic impact on us. So it's both high impact and immediacy, so that would move them to the top of the priority list. The other factor that is relevant is that everybody's got relationships with some decision-makers, they might not be really well developed relationships, but for the most part, if you're functioning, if your organization is still in existence, you as a leader have managed to build some productive relationships with decision-makers or you'd probably be gone by now. So a lot of times when things are feeling kind of overwhelming and you maybe don't have necessarily that immediacy or obvious high impact. Sometimes the best thing to do is say, well, where have we got a pretty good relationship already? but we feel like it could be so much better, and that may be a good one to tackle particularly right now, because again, everybody's bandwidth is a little limited right now. So, depending on the situation that you're in, you might want to say, you know, we've had this decision maker who likes us well enough. They don't totally get what we do, but we're pretty well aligned with what they're working on. Let's see! and so alignment is another piece. If your work is really well aligned with a problem they're working on, that's a really good priority selector as well. So all of those really go back to what's important and what's easy, which is pretty much what you flagged to begin with. Those are just different ways of talking about it.
Carol: Sure, sure, It's interesting. You worked a lot with direct service providers and I feel like oftentimes in our sector there's been kind of a false dichotomy where direct service and influencing have kind of been pit pitted against each other that, you know, where folks who do direct service are often told, well, you know, move further up, you know, you're just throwing the fish back into the sea, go back and see why they're coming out. But to me, it's, you know, there are people in need and there are systems that need to be addressed, so it's both. So I'm curious that you specialize really in working with direct service providers. How do you see how they can bring actually particular value to influencing decision-makers and systems?
Kathy: Well, one, this goes back to something you mentioned earlier, when I said you named like six things that I wanted to tackle in this. One of the huge, huge assets that direct service providers have, that other groups don't have, that classic advocacy organizations and associations and so on really don't have, is they- the direct service nonprofits have a direct connection to the members of the community that they are serving. They have a clarity of understanding what the actual problems on the ground look like and how they're impacting real people's lives, and they're also actively engaged in addressing those needs. So for the most part, they can fill in with a clarity that few other organizations can do, the actual human face of the problem, and for most decision-makers, that's a critical piece of the puzzle. If it's just, you know, chess pieces on a board that they're moving around or other abstract concepts that they're making decisions on data and graphs. You know, and that's all important, we need those too, because data driven decision making is a thing for a reason. So you want to be able to come with data and information like that as well, but to be able to talk about the people who are actually being served and the things that they're struggling with is not only valuable in putting a human face on the problem. It helps the decision-maker understand the problem in a new and different way. The other thing that tends to also happens is that talk about finding personal connections with decision-makers, as human beings for most direct service organizations, whatever they're working on, whether they're serving people with cancer or they're helping people with complicated housing issues as renters or whatever it is or employment services, whatever they're working on.
Chances are someone in that decision-maker’s family has dealt with something connected to that problem. and they will often volunteer that information, you know, I've been in meetings with decision-makers and clients where the client would be talking about, well, you know, here's an example of someone we help and they would describe the person's situation and the decision-maker will pipe up and say, Oh, my aunt had that problem, my cousin had that problem. You know, I have a friend who dealt with that and all of a sudden, first of all, they've handed you information that is absolute gold because now you know how to connect to them on a personal level, but also they're busy making that connection on their own. and so that's a huge value add that the direct service nonprofits can bring. The other thing is that in my experience for the most part, direct service nonprofit leaders are fully well aware that this is the systemic problems and issues and the policy failures that caused the need for their services in the first place. They've chosen because that's where their passion and purpose is to address those problems directly through direct service but that doesn't mean they're not aware of the systems issues and the policy issues that are part of the reason why we have to have those services at all, but what they are able to do is make that bridge between policy and reality on the ground in a way that many others are not. So I would say it's actually an asset; the thing that can sometimes be challenging for direct service nonprofit leaders, is that even more than other 501C3 leaders, they may have to help their boards understand why they are engaging, especially elected officials. That it is not only okay, but important and necessary work, and that can sometimes take a little education, but it helps a lot if you don't call it advocacy, actually because C3 boards, especially direct service C3 boards tend to have a bit of a knee jerk anti- advocacy reaction simply because they don't understand, really what it is and how it works and what the rules are and that not only is it not a problem to do that, but it really should be an essential part of every nonprofit’s mission and part of their strategic plan.
Carol: So I want to shift gears a little bit. You hold a fourth level black belt, and I didn't know that there were levels of black belt. So I now know something new and now, let me make sure I'm pronouncing it right. Jujitsu, Is that right?
Carol: So how has learning that martial art helped you with the work that you do with organizations?
Kathy: Well, what it does is it makes me a way better teacher and coach. I taught Jujitsu and practical self-defense for about 15 years and we would get lots and lots of people who had never practiced a martial art in their life, and it was brand new to them, and you know, it's a constant reminder to me that you don't need to know a lot to be able to be effective. So that was what I really took from that teaching process is that, you know, it takes many, many years to reach even the first level of black belt and then many more years to progress beyond that, and by the time you get there, you know a lot about a lot of different things, but if somebody just wants to know how to defend themselves from a common attack, you know, I can teach somebody in a day what they need to know and give them enough practice at it, to be able to feel like, okay, if something sketchy happens, I might actually be okay. At least I have better tools now than I did when I started, when I walked in the door and so it helps me stay focused on making sure that not everybody needs to become a black belt in anything to be effective at it. They just need to have a decent toolkit that they can access readily, and that feels comfortable to them and that if they've got that, they're good to go and that's true with the kind of work with influencing decision-makers too. You don't need to know a hundred thousand skills, you just need to know a handful and practice them regularly.
Carol: So one thing I do at the end of each episode is play a little game where I ask one semi-random icebreaker question. So given what we just were talking about, I've got one for you. If you could arm wrestle any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Kathy: Oh my goodness, I wish I'd had time to prepare. That's such a fun question. Wow. Any historical figure. Gee, let's see… do they have to be alive or no?
Carol: No, it doesn't matter.
Kathy: Doesn't matter. Oh dear. You've stumped me completely. I hope-
Kathy: No. Well, the first, the first one that came to mind was RBG but that wouldn't be a fair fight cause I'd flatten her, but on the other hand, if we could arm wrestle our brains, then you know, she'd flatten me.
Carol: All right. Well, there you go. That's your answer.
Kathy: Okay, fun.
Carol: So, how can people find out more about the work that you do and get in touch?
Kathy: Well, I've got a couple of things here that I'd like to share with folks. I've got a - since we didn't get through all the steps, cause we were busy talking about a lot of things. I've got a free worksheet with all the steps listed out for your listeners to help them build their influence with a few key decision-makers that they can start on right now and if they just go to https://strategykeys.com/engagenow they can get their free copy of that worksheet and I hope folks will download that. The other thing that I'm excited about is I'll be launching a new masterclass on building your team of super allies sometime early summer exact date. Not yet known, but if you go to collect your worksheet, there'll also be an opportunity to get on the waitlist for that master class, and that will also be a free masterclass. So I want to just give folks a chance to get their feet wet with that a little bit and learn some more of the techniques and have a chance to get their questions answered as well.
Carol: All right, that sounds awesome. Thank you so much, it was great having you on the podcast and good luck with all your clients and influencing.
Kathy: All right. Well, yes, influencing not advocacy, there we go. Thanks for having me. It's great talking with you always, and I hope we get to do this often.
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.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.