Values based strategic planning
In episode 70 of Mission: Impact, Carol goes solo to discuss:
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Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 70 of the Mission Impact Podcast. To mark this milestone. I'm going solo. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Today I'm gonna talk about my favorite topic, strategic planning. It is the main thing that I do with organizations, and I often go on other people's podcasts to talk about it, but I don't always talk about it. So one thing I'd like to start with are what are the guiding principles that really undergird the way that I approach strategic planning?
The first is being collaborative. I really am looking for a way to help organizations create a shared understanding by bringing all of their stakeholders together in a meaningful way that brings their input, brings their voice into the process, and then enables a smaller group, usually the staff and board to collaborate to define what the organization's future is going to be. And that starts by, usually by looking back, taking stock of where you are currently, and then looking forward a couple years and saying, okay, given that our North star, our mission and our vision for what's different, what we want to be different in the world is this, what are the things that we need to focus on over the next couple years and put our energy towards, to move us closer to that?
I also take a strengths-based approach where I'm not looking to come in and assess them on all the things they're doing wrong that naturally will come up in the conversations. People will have ideas about what could be strengthened, areas for improvement, but really helping people recognize the strengths that they have as an organization.
What are the resources that they're building from? , Makes it a much more joyful and fun process, , to build on those strengths rather than only being focused on what needs to be fixed or what needs what, what, , needs to be addressed and through that participatory process. In addition to integrating that participation, I also want to focus on how we are bringing an equity lens?
How are we integrating the kind, the, the notion of equity into every step of the process? And with that, also bringing a cultural humility. There's a lot of talk about people building cultural competence, but I really appreciate the concept of cultural humility more. I think there's certainly some basic competence that people can build, but you're always, there's always gonna be blind spots.
There's always gonna be things that you don't know about a different culture, a different, whether it's at the, different individual. The organizational culture, the cultural context that organization is working with, the different cultures that are represented within the groups. And then with that equity lens, really making sure that, who's being represented in all of that, the gathering of information and the participation.
Create space for folks who don't have as much power, may not feel as comfortable speaking up to feel safe, feel so, feel safer in contributing their perspective, , into the process.
And building on that, I do wanna talk about a couple different misconceptions that I think people have about strategic planning.
And a few things that I've seen organizations get. Might be able to do better with, since I just talked about being strength-based, I was talking about getting wrong, but what they might, , think about or think about differently when they approach planning. And I think one of those major misconceptions, or maybe it's not even a misconception, maybe it was the conventional wisdom, some 10, 20, 30 years ago and, and is still in parts of the sector that the.
The board or the leadership team and the leadership team and the board is quite unquote the head of the organization. That's where strategy lives and I really see it as a partnership with the stakeholders of the organization. Definitely a partnership between board and staff to decide on what the future of the organization's gonna look like.
And that just because you sit at the board table, just because you are part of a leadership team, Anoint you somehow with a more strategic capacity than someone who works directly, at the front lines of your organization is more of an individual contributor. I really believe fundamentally that everyone can contribute to that bigger picture.
It may take some structure and some guided conversations, cuz I think it's not the natural place. Most people don't. naturally are in that strategic thinking mode, but you can bring people there through a series of guided conversations, which is the whole purpose of a strategic planning process and what a consultant can bring, to help people step into that strategic space and think longer term, bigger picture.
Fundamentally, when people have a part in creating the thing, they're much more likely to want to help move it forward. So that is essentially how you build buy-in. You build buy-in by having people at the table with you to create the plan. And then I think a big reason that folks choose not to do a strategic plan is that they may have been part of a process in the past that took a long time, took a lot of resources, and then was just a plan on the shelf.
Or perhaps today, more likely hidden in some folder on the computer and wasn't referenced again. It was, where's that Dropbox link to that document? , and nobody has it anymore, and, and it's not integrated into people's day-to-day work. And I did a workshop recently on strategic planning and I really appreciated some of the simple steps that participants talked about to mitigate this concern of how do we really integrate the plan into our work?
How do we implement, how do we do that failure to operationalize a plan is, is, can be just the biggest sticking point to many plans. And I think the first is probably the simplest, just having regular meetings about your progress on the plan. And there are a number of ways that that could, that could show up.
It could be a meeting specifically about the plan. It could be, an item on a, an agenda, , on at your regular meetings every, at a certain cadence. Maybe it's once a month, maybe it's not every, every. Meeting, but, but, at a, at a certain cadence that you agree on that makes sense for your organization.
And then, another suggestion that I thought was so important is, taking the time to celebrate, celebrate Progress, and celebrate those small wins. We're such an action oriented culture. We're such a move on to the next culture that we forget to take a breath and pat ourselves on the back and say, Look, we did this thing, we checked this thing off the list.
We've moved this, this, we've moved a little closer to this milestone. and let's celebrate in some way. I mean, the simplest way that I do this on a daily basis is that at the end of the day, the beginning of the day, I write a to-do list. At the end of the day, I write a to-do list. What did I do?
And for those implementations, really thinking about that, you've got your bigger plan, but thinking about, creating an implementation plan that's really with a shorter timeframe. your bigger picture plan, maybe at a three to five year timeframe. Three to five big goals that you're working towards, but then your implementation plan is either in three or six months or a year, whatever makes sense for your organization.
That really goes into who will do what by when. And I would add it's not just about measuring progress, it's also about having the time and space to consider what the goal means for the organizations. What are the implications? How are we interpreting? What adjustments do we make?
And there are four key questions when you put that thing on the agenda, when you put strategic planning on the agenda, or you wanna have a check-in meeting. Four key questions that I would offer you to use to frame that meeting would be, what have we done that we meant to do? In other words, what can we check off the list?
What, what progress have we made? What were things that we did that we did not plan to do, but we did and it had good results. The world is constantly changing and shifting. A new opportunity may have popped up. You took action on it. Celebrate that.
What did we plan to do? But we don't need to do it anymore. Things have shifted. We recognize that it doesn't, it no longer fits today's realities. What can we let go of? And is there anything we need to add to our plan given today's new realities? At each point we're saying, okay, where were we? Where have we come?
What's our current state? Where do we want to go and all the steps on where we want to go. Are they still fitting our current assessment of today's reality? And so those action steps that you may, may have set a year ago at that retreat, probably that's the part that's gonna get updated, on a continual basis because it will recognize that progress.
It will adjust to the new reality. And you'll have that living docent that we so often talk about and so infrequently actually implement. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. You can find the full transcript of this episode as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/show notes.
And I'd like to thank Isabelle Strauss Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of a hundred Ninjas for her production. And I would love it if you would take a minute or two to rate and review mission impact on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
It helps other people find the podcast and we definitely really appreciate it. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 69 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Jeanne Bell discuss:
Jeanne Bell is co-founder of JustOrg Design. She has consulted on nonprofit strategy and organizational change for over 20 years. Jeanne curates Nonprofit Quarterly's Leading Edge Program, recruiting and presenting nonprofit practitioners advancing more equitable nonprofit leadership practices. Previously, Jeanne led CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, one of the country's premier leadership and capacity-building organizations. While serving as CEO, Jeanne also chaired the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, a national association of nonprofit capacity builders and academics. She currently serves on the boards of Community Works and Borealis Philanthropy. She has a Masters in Nonprofit Management from the University of San Francisco. Jeanne loves living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Jeanne Bell. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Jeanne and I talk about how to integrate strategy and strategy implementation effectively into the structure of your organization. We explore how organizational systems, leadership, and structures can support or get in the way of implementing a strategy, why strategy isn’t just about what the organization does externally, and why having crisp and clear strategies help you be more agile, not less.
Welcome, Jean. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Jeanne Bell: Thank you. It's so great to be here.
Carol: I'd like to start out all my interviews with a question around what drew you to the work that you do. What would you say motivates you and what, what's your why?
Jeanne: My experience is that my why becomes clearer and clearer the older I get and the, and the early connections I can make to why that why was formed and how it was formed. I think I'm more conscious of them now in terms of the effect of my parents and the effect of growing up in San Francisco and the effect of doing a lot. Like class travel across class and different parts of my youth journey that I don't think I would've initially in my twenties or thirties associated with my why or my how, but now I do. But, I think the short answer is I, I grew up in a Jesuit tradition, my dad was in that. He obviously left, but was a teacher around a lot of teachers and, and around liberal arts. And by the time I got to Cal, I majored in ethnic studies and so there was something pulling me towards a justice lens and I immediately entered the nonprofit sector after college. And it just sort of organically unfolded from there. But I think the combination of growing up and growing up around. I don't wanna overstate it. I've had to unlearn a lot and learn a lot more, but, generally a justice orientation and a lot around education and teaching. And so I quickly found my way through nonprofits to capacity building and leadership development, which really feeds me. And now I do that pretty much exclusively in a justice framework.
Carol: Moving into that capacity building realm. if you then have the opportunity to combine that perspective of justice. And as you said, we're all having to unlearn a lot of things, a lot of unpack, a lot of assumptions that we might have come up with, but it enables you to combine that with that education perspective and helping people build their skills and their capacity to that ripple effect that that can have.
Jeanne: Exactly. I'm just, innately interested in organizational systems and processes and leadership and I'm committed to the end cause, but what feeds me in the day-to-day is helping the people who are working towards that.
Carol: That was for me an interesting thing that I had to realize that, cuz so many people are coming into the sector, it's because they're really passionate about a particular cause.. And what I started to learn over time was that a lot of what interested me was. What helps people be more effective as they try to work towards that? All the things that go into making an organization work well, making a group work well together. How they're creating their strategy, how they're creating, how they're making, doing decision making, all those kinds of things. And unfortunately, probably more from all the ways in which I saw it not working, yeah, that spurred a curiosity around.
Jeanne: Yeah, and I think what's especially exciting and also challenging now is that I think there's much more recognition, or at least there's a school of thought of which I'm a part, that the what we practice inside organizations really matters and that it's, it's difficult to be credible or even necessarily effective if we can't practice what it is that we're advocating for externally. So I think that. Mandate to leadership, development and capacity building, I think has emerged more crisply in the last, say 10 years or so, changed our work as leaders and capacity builders because the wall between the inside and the outside came down and, and the organization as a laboratory for personal practice, for interpersonal practice, for exploring how we can do the work differently and more consistently with our quote unquote external values and strategies. I raised the bar for all of us.
Carol: That's exactly where that rub between the mission organizations that I worked for that had really ambitious and, and wonderful missions for what they wanted, the change they wanted to see out there. But then we were not at all practicing those things internally or even sometimes the exact opposite. And, the disconnect between those two is what led me down the path that I've been on for sure. I'm curious to hear from you how you're seeing those two, those two perspectives come together a little bit more.
Jeanne: I've been thinking a lot in my work with clients, which includes a lot of work on strategy development. That kind of, the distinction between internal practice and external strategy is, is less and less sharp. And what I've been, honestly, I, what I've been encouraging my clients to do is not worry about that distinction and actually embrace that again, our internal practices should at least be in a through line to our external strategies, if not pretty much part and parcel of the same. I've been integrating different schools or different practices. I think people in our sector, particularly in the social justice space, really emphasize personal practice, the way in. I, I, I borrow from that and I agree with that, and I think it's important to have very crisp and clear-eyed, quote unquote, external strategies that understand the larger ecosystem and the financial resources and all those pieces. I, I pretty much call it all strategy and I think it's okay to have a list of organizational strategies, core strategies, whatever, 4, 6, 8 of 'em, where some of them may appear a little bit more internal or more about how we work. Internally, but to me, the likelihood that you're gonna be able to execute one of those bold external strategies without that internal practice is very low. So I'm not that interested anymore in sorting them out, but in looking at them as a set of strategies that, are interconnected and that make or interdependent, and make each other possible,
Carol: I'm thinking about all the processes that I've supported over the last couple years and The goals, strategies, initiative, whatever you wanna call them that emerged as the big areas to pay attention to and put focus or put energy into for the organization. They were a combination of something that moved the mission forward in a specific way. depending on where the organization was or what was happening and maybe it's lifecycle stage or whatnot. There might be more on the internal that they needed to really take care of To be able to be effective externally and sometimes, other way or an, even balance. But definitely it's interesting that you're saying traditionally there's, there's been a, and I, and I did get a question recently around that from a client. I guess I didn't realize where it came from, of this notion that strategy has to be all for the outside and well, no. to me at least, it's what are you paying attention to? What are you putting energy into? I mean, there's been a lot of shift towards the notion of emergent strategy. And, and, and sometimes I feel like that ends up being an excuse to just throw all strategy discussions out the window and say, well, we just can't do that. Mm-hmm. and I feel like there's some middle ground between. This is the document that we created. We can never change it once. It's, once we vote on it and, and, and agree that this is where we're going, this is the map. And, and there's no, I mean, even when you use a G P s it, and you take a wrong turn, it tells you to, it's recalculating like that should be built in or no framework at all. And I'm curious about what you've been experiencing.
Jeanne: I appreciate that a lot. And I think there is a little bit of recognition in the sector. Again, I tend to work more with organizations, even if they're service organizations who have some sort of change orientation. So I don't wanna blanket the whole sector. But I think there is some recognition that we do need to be crisp. I think the external environment, I mean, we, we can no longer keep talking about, Oh, this is particularly complex or particularly challenging, whether it's the loss of the Supreme Court or whatever. It just keeps happening, right? And so I, I think we, we recognize, or I'm seeing people recognize that actually strategy. is extremely important and, and understanding what we're trying to do to quote unquote win again, even if that's in service, right? Because service is also political. I think. I mean, taking care of people that have been structurally marginalized is, in my view, a political act, right? We can do that in a way that is quite neutral, or we can do that in a way. Cognizant of how it's connected to all the systems and structures. So I'm, I don't mean to only be talking about advocacy organizations, but I, I think in this context, we have to be clear-eyed that certain kinds of strategies have not worked. To me that means being clear on what you're attempting to do. I love your language around what we're paying attention to. That might sound soft to some people. I don't hear it as soft. I hear that as, This is the combination of ecosystem issues, cultural issues, whatever, whatever we're working on that we have to be so on top of in order to choose our four or five working strategies, they're adaptable. Of course they're agile, of course, they turn up and down. But I think the crispness is very important. And, and really what's there to be agile about if you're not crisp, right? I mean, there's nothing to even know that you're changing or testing if you don't define something. Right.
Carol: Can you give me an example? So cuz we're, we're talking a bit, right. High level here. I'm, I'm curious if you could, give an example or a story that might bring that to.
Jeanne: I’m thinking about and I don't wanna disclose, individual clients, but, but what I'm thinking about is, actually the Supreme Court is a great example, if you were in an organization that was thinking of the, classic legal approach to social change, You have had to think differently about that. if the Supreme Court was, was part of the solution, if getting things up to that level and changed that way was part of your solution. And I do have a client in that space. We're in a different environment, for quite some time now, potentially. And so that's what I mean about, that strategy has to now be unpacked and, and reconceived of in a very crisp way, it can't just be, we'll wait and see what happens here.
This is a different environment and, and what does our legal work, what does our advocacy work mean in this context? And what I find is that, Not just that example, but what I find is that what's happening is that we're in a larger context of systems and structures not delivering the way we historically thought they would or were. Right. And so that's an example to me of a macro issue that should be affecting the way nonprofits craft strategy. That's an example of something that to continue on as if that's not the macro context would be an example to me of weak strategy..
Carol: And you've used the word crisp several times. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that
Jeanne: is, is specific, right? I think a lot of times, again, strategy is written in very sort of neutral, ? Positive terms. And I think what, what I'm suggesting is that strategy actually has to be responsive and specific to the operating context, right? It has to be specific to the political reality, to our internal capacity, reality, to the financial realities, right? So I get excited more about strategies that are very specific to our environment, our capacities, our resources, right? Rather than just sort of global statements of. Right. Aspiration.
Carol: I think there's, there's room for both, right? But labeling, which, normally I don't try to get caught up on, on what we're labeling each thing, but, but just working with a, a client recently where, for each of their strategic pillars we, we had them do a, a vision statement, which was that, what, what do we, if we succeeded, what would the world look like? Sure. And, acknowledging we. you may never get there.. But then that, that at least says where we're aiming towards and then being able to get specific and more in the here and now of what we need to do, over the next couple years to, to get closer to what we've envisioned.
Jeanne: There are some things that, that, people who. in the more sort of radical part of social change are starting to open their minds to I would use abolition as an example,? Even if you are not an abolitionist organization, the work that's happened over the last 10 years and the continued violence perpetrated by police, even if you're not in the criminal justice reform space, I would argue that something like. That widening out and that that questioning of systems, that that's affecting you if you're in domestic violence, if you're in housing, if you're in, it's gotta be starting to sort of seep in that are working assumptions about these systems and structures may not be where we're gonna be as a culture or as a society in 10, 15, 20 years. So that's an example of something. You might say, well, our board's not ready to talk about abolition, and that's not even what we do. But there's a pressure coming about challenging those systems and structures that actually potentially affects, certainly NextGen thinkers,? People coming up. Young people have a very different set of assumptions. Your next program assistant or program director, may be coming in with. many different assumptions about how change is gonna happen,? And that's what I mean about are our strategies sensitive to these more, to these shifts, these seismic underlying shifts to systems and structures and policies, that all of our nonprofits really sit on top of.
Carol: I'm just thinking I definitely have. experienced and witnessed and then started myself that, that sense of really questioning all those underpinnings that's up for discussion and out in the open and, anything that starts in the margins and then it eventually moves more to the center. That's, it's more centered in conversations now, than any time in my career. I was going to college during the Reagan era and so it was all from the progressive point of view, like, How, how do we survive and what's possible? Now there's just a whole different kind of, why are we taking all, all of those things as givens. what's underneath that and, and how do we start questioning that? And, and so one of the things that I, that you're working on is also just looking at different ways to work internally with organizations around decision making, around structure, around strategy and. To really create, to try to build more equity and inclusion in how the organization operates. And I'm, if you could just say a little bit about that model and what you're learning as you're working with I, I think you're in the stage of working with some different pilots around that.
Jeanne: Well, thanks for asking. The process and, and, and software is called just org design and really it's responding to, to what we've just been talking about in many ways, which is that the strategy that I think is necessary, again, even for service organizations who are gonna be. honest about what's going on in the ecosystem that makes those services necessary. I'm not only talking about advocacy organizations, but I think it's, that's all of it. Strategy is inherently interdisciplinary, right? And, organizational strategy is inherently interdisciplinary. I, I think, and we are still working in very siloed departmental structures that assume that individual senior managers are taking those strategies, the real meaning and nuance and soul of those strategies in some consistent way into their silos, right? I think what we all experience is that that's not the. Right, that management teams actually spend a ton of time talking about HR challenges. At least the ones I've been on. They're not actually talking about how we stitch strategy together across multiple departments and silos. It's, it's very rare that that's what the, the driving And when you say, what are we paying attention to? Most management teams are paying attention to budget and hr, in my experience, they're not actually paying attention to how. Get a strategy to seep into everything we do, right? we need a different structural response to that rather than just saying, management teams are always putting out fires.
I think we have to recognize that we need to configure people around strategy. And so what just org designed does, is say, departments are fine. Project teams are fine, but they're insufficient and we need to have not committees, not task forces. Not every five year strategic planning, but recurring existing places that are cross-functional and interdisciplinary. To really explore and advance what we mean by these organizational strategies, what we're learning, how they're seeping into the work or not, how we're developing people to accelerate those strategies to really take that seriously. So in a nutshell, it, it. It calls for and supports configuring people around compelling strategies and empowering those people to make choices. Not the little ch, not the day-to-day choices that are people's individual jobs, but the kinds of choices that get deferred because we don't have strategy tables. The kinds of strat, the choices that get deferred until strategic planning. if even then to move those and accelerate those with this, these cross-functional groups that are really tending to strategy and who are
Carol: Some of the people that would be around those tables? Because I think one of the, the orthodoxies that is certainly being questioned is the idea that, Boards are the ones who have the strategic lens or leadership teams and or the executive director, that somehow by having ascended to that position or being appointed on that group, you suddenly are anointed with, with strategic talent and You can tell by the way I just said that, that I don't believe hasn't been your experience. Are you noticing different patterns? I actually, I actually find that, I find, it seems to me that people. at all levels struggle with being strategic. Mm-hmm. and, and, there's always, there's a lot of rhetoric about being strategic. But when it comes right down to it actually staying at that out of the day-to-day is really hard for folks.
Jeanne: It's incredibly hard and there's some debate going on about whether structure really matters. is it more about personal practice that that makes us, and I, I think structure. Is extremely important. And I, and I think leadership's job actually, is to use structure as a lever to help people become more strategic together. I saw a blog recently called Strategy is a Conversation by a guy named Andrew Blum, and I really agree with that. The words are just words. They're our best current articulation of what we're trying to do. as you've said, and what we're paying attention to. The only way they really matter is if people are in constant conversation about them. And, and the reality is, really almost ubiquitously, they're not. They're really not, strategies are not used as decision screens, as agenda drivers, as they're not, people are using job descriptions to evaluate people. Right. I mean, I, I feel like there's so much emphasis on job descriptions and titles and as if that is going to get us to, as you say, as if that's a proxy four. Strategic, activity or thinking or alignment, and I, that just is not my experience. The reality is that we need to be in daily, weekly, ongoing conversation about what these strategies actually mean and how they're playing out and are they making our work better. So I feel strongly that you are correct, that everybody who works at the organization should be able to understand these words. The reason that they don't is cuz there's no space to discuss them. Right. So who's at the table? My current pilot client, who's a smaller organization, only has about 25 staff. What they're doing is they've put everybody at one of their key tables, right? So, they wanna have, if they're gonna have a table around one of their core strategies, They are gonna have a cross section of people there, not only the people who are quote unquote, responsible for the delivery of that strategy, but somebody from communications, somebody from develop, from development, somebody from finance even who's helping to reimagine the budget to reflect those core strategies, not just these. Old departments. Right. We've been saying all this for a long time, right, Carol? That strategy needs to be agile. It needs to live and breathe. It has to come off the shelf. But we haven't done anything structurally to enable that. So
Carol: Can you, can you say a little bit more about how those tables work and how that does, how to, how they do or how you're seeing them enable people to, to really. I don't know. Work, work the strategy, if you will.
Jeanne: Yeah. Yeah. And we're early, actually just yesterday. Sure. I facilitated a, a, a table meet. We call them tables. Because they're not departments and they're not even teams. Right. I mean, again, we, those are other tools. Right. This is a place. To explore and advance strategy. Right? And so what I'm seeing in the, in the buildup to these, and I'm just using yesterday's meeting as an example that lives in my mind is people feeling a sense of relief. A sense of relief. In fact, we had a one word checkout and multiple people said, I feel relieved. I feel relieved that this space now exists where I can come and say, Wait a second. We're talking about centering a certain leadership, but I don't know how to make that happen over here. Right? I don't, I keep hearing everyone say that, but we're not doing that here or, and the development person saying, I, I don't know how to position that in the marketplace for resources. I'm sure it is fundable, but people have a space. It's not just with their direct supervisor, right? Who may or may not know, but with the group of people committed to advancing that work, how do we advance this work? How do we take it off the page and make it central to all of our work? Right?
Carol: And it may be that, they don't know, but they'll find a way . Right? I mean, the notion that someone knows someone there knows how to do all of this.
Jeanne: No, exactly. And, and I mean, I think this is where, honestly, this is where the collective wisdom really is valuable. It's not just performative. It's not just to get buy-in, all that. Right. Where we actually need a cross-functional group of people who are seeing the work relating to different stakeholders, and, and are able to come together and say, and get a 360 on this issue. how this strategy is actually playing out,
Carol: Right? Yeah. And, and two, frequently what I've seen in organizations where they bring those cross-functional groups together. The meetings, all they are are updates and they, and somehow they think that by everybody knowing what I'm doing, that somehow they'll be a through, somebody will figure out a through line on all of it. Yeah, yeah. No, this is, instead really, if I understand what you're saying. The issue, the strategy, the, whatever it is, in the, in the center. And then having lots of people to have a conversation about how we do, how do we make this real together? .
Jeanne: That's right. And I found myself as a facilitator, and this takes good facilitation and, and this is a skillset, right, that we need to build inside organizations that shouldn't only be consultants every two years or three years. And, and what I'm realizing, another thing I'm realizing as we roll this out, Carol, is that that's part of what we're doing is teaching people how to host good meetings, how to have strategic conversations, right? How not to. Fall back into project updates and departmental updates, right? We have staff meetings and other devices for that. This is a space not so, I mean, it is for information sharing, but to the extent that it's in service of an ambitious prompt. Like where are the gaps now between this language on the page and what we're doing in presenting to the world, right? That's an important prompt. it's not an indictment of anybody. These strategies are supposed to be pulling us towards our best work. Where are we? Right? And people having the space, the safe or brave space to talk about that. The other thing I wanna say about it is I think that in the move to share power more to distribute decision making, more to focus on race equity more. I think a lot of executives and senior leaders are giving spaces away rather than showing up to those spaces differently. And what just org design is saying is, I want you in the room. in a 25 person organization, the executive director often is the person. with the most, at least, certain kinds of visibility into the larger market, the ecosystem, the partnerships, right? So instead of that executive director saying, what, I, I know everyone hates the management team, and I, I've been hoarding power and blah, blah, blah. So here, create a pod called, strategic vision or something. No, I, what I want you to do is show up to that table differently. I want you to show up to that table. as a strategic collaborator and hopefully a mentor and as someone who can share information, but also hear feedback from other roles and have discussions. Right. So I, I say all that to say that I think this is also about how we hold power in organizations. As you say, it is about creating more equity and giving more people proximity to strategy, which is really giving people proximity to. right? And it's creating accountability for those leaders. So rather than sending a bunch of junior people off and hoping they come up with a valid recommendation, which is what we see so much, right? No. You create a different space. You invite them to the table and educate, edify, engage, and create that strategic capacity beyond your management
Carol: team. And when you're coaching leaders to help them show up differently as you're describing. What are some of the behaviors that they need to unleash?
Jeanne: Well, I think there's, we can frame these as caretaking or we can frame these as more nefarious. Right. But I, I think, and it's, it's a mixture of both, as . Right. But I think that executive directors, even in social justice spaces, even people who profess to be on the journey do struggle with not being the expert all the time and not quickly. and definitively correcting things that aren't right. , there's a, there's a, a 10 a tendency, I think in executives to be, and I was this too, to be activators to be No, no, no. It's not that it's this, right? No, no, no. I just met with them yesterday. It's not this, it's that Right. To try to constantly correct the record. And, and, and I think that's part of it is, let the conversation happen. But again, bring your knowledge. but I think there's a difference between bringing your knowledge and trying to get everything in line with how it should go. Right.
Carol: And that's, well, I would say the difference. Yeah. From, from groups that I've observed one of the simplest things would be for the leader at, whether they're executive director, co-director, or head of the department, or whatever it is, or, yep. Chair of the board or whatever. Just to not be the first person who talks
Jeanne: some real simple tactics there. Wait.
Carol: Yeah. Wait and listen. Wait. Because as soon as you've put your thing in, well, everyone's gonna glom onto it and I don't think, I don't. I think especially if you've been in a leadership role for a long time, you may forget what that position brings and the impact it has on the people around you. That's right. And, and you've gotten so used to them behaving that way. You think that you're acting as a peer when No, you're. That's right, that's right.
Jeanne: And really the truth is you don't know everything. you don't know everything about, you might know everything about, who's gonna be the next board chair. , there's things that no one else knows about the organization perhaps. But these conversations are about strategy. And if your strategies are truly compelling, if they are truly pulling the organization forward, there is a lot you don't know about how to get there. Right? And if you're telling me that there's nobody on your team who can participate in a conversation about that gap, about that, unknown, about that, what's next? Well then you have a hiring problem. I mean, then, then you haven't recruited people to where the work is going. And that may very well, sometimes be the case. Part of what happens when we, when we are willing to organize conversations around strategy, is we may realize that we haven't even recruited to those strategies or those strategies are evolving. And again, our departments are stuck in sort of functional definitions of success. Did we get the donor mailing out? Did we retain 30 per, what did that mailer say ? Right. Or does it reflect where the work is going? Right. That is not always, there isn't a place always to create that accountability. And that's the accountability I'm looking for is are we all moving towards where the work needs to be going? Right.
Carol: And I think that could be a recruiting issue, but I also think it can be, a, just a willingness. Develop folks. That's it. And I also think at least what I've observed is, and, and well, one, I wish I knew as much as I knew when I was 18 and 22, right? Because I knew everything then. and you were gonna forever, which I learned no less . But, but I, I also, but I've also heard a lot of folks and I've experienced this myself, of, they've been in a leadership role for X amount of time. They look out and they're like, no one's ready to be where I am forgetting. When they stepped into that role, whatever number of years ago that was, did they feel ready? That's right. Were they quote unquote ready and no, they've, they've, they're now benefiting from all that experience, all the mistakes they've made, all the wins they've had, and then somehow expecting the people that they're, that are not in those roles to somehow have that same experience. And if not, then they're not ready. That's it. That's right.
Jeanne: Well, and I, I, I said a few minutes ago that I think structure matters a lot. I mean, I, I actually believe that organizational design is now a leader, I think should be an explicit executive responsibility. Our traditional structures, they don't serve. Young people, very well. They are not promoting enough people of color. They are not inherently strategic. So to me, this is a leadership problem, right? And we can't just say, oh, I'm just gonna, tweak around the edges or create some task forces now. And then I think we have a structural problem, right? So obviously that's why, that's why I'm addressing this. And I think we have to get serious about what structure we should be accomplishing. And there's a few things I think it should accomplish. I think it should literally be accomplished, getting people proximate to. So, you don't necessarily have to use my process of tables, but if your structure has 70 or 80% or more of your people not proximate to strategy, then it's not a sufficient structure in my view. Right. It should be accomplishing leadership development. If you are not able to promote from within and promote diversity from within, then people are not getting, as you just said, what they need. Which is proximate to strategy, proximate to expertise, proximate to key relationships, internally and externally. And if your structure is not delivering that to people, then it's not working right. And certainly race equity and d e i in general, if your structure is not working for people of color, right? If it's not working for young people, if it's not working for trans people, that's on you . there's something not working. And so to me, we wanna sit down and say, okay, well here's this org chart. What is it accomplishing in terms of the goals I just said, right? Is it designed just because that's what I inherited? Is it designed for efficiency? Is it designed for functional expertise, as you said a few minutes ago? Just because I'm a good marketing officer, does that mean I should be. Respect, what is on the management team? Like what does that get us? Right? What is it delivering for us? So I, that's what I want to see people do is say, what is this structure delivering for us and what feedback are we getting at? Do people like this? Is this invigorating ? Right? Do our younger people like it? Do our people of color like it? Do we feel strategically aligned and is our structure helping us get there?
Carol: Yeah. And one thing with structures, I mean, I feel like over the years I, I, I can't think of an organization that hasn't had somebody say, oh, we're so siloed. Yeah. And the fix for that has to. Has been to reshuffle everyone into new teams, but my experience is usually they just end up in new silos. So how, what, with this idea of bringing multidisciplinary groups together around focused on a strategy, how often are you then thinking about, do we have the right tables? Do we continue with these tables as you're calling them? These, these groups, right. Or. Do we need a new set? Given our circumstances now, and this I can
Jeanne: only predict and hope. Okay. Because I don't have enough . I'm only a year in, but my, the way we're setting them up is with an assumption of evolution. Right. Okay. That this is our best understanding of the strategic conversations we need to be having now. , just as we've been talking about, we want strategies that are clear and, and discerning. We also want them to be agile, right? And we also may realize that certain people have come to a table and they've participated and it's been productive, but maybe their time is better used. , somewhere else. Again, it's not a job to be on the table, right? You're bringing your work and your perspective to a cross-functional conversation. It's possible that people will wanna step out of that at certain periods because something else is consuming them or, so we want the table space. We want tables to be permanent. There are always tables, but not the specific tables themselves, right? There should always be. cross-functional spaces that are dedicated to understanding and advancing strategy, but what they are and who's on them, I think will be more, more agile, more dynamic. And
Carol: how are, how are the groups finding the time and space to, to even dedicate to those? Because I think so. The unfortunate situation that too many organizations are in is that they feel like they're over, they're overwhelmed by what they're trying to do right now. That's so then to, to, to be doing something like this or doing it differently, really feels impossible.
Jeanne: Well, you've hit on one of our, one of our major resistance sort of threads. And of course what we're trying to do here is prove a negative, right? We cannot quantify the amount of conflict and waste of time. Mm-hmm. that exists because people are not strategically aligned. Right. In fact, probably, a great deal of what people are doing when they're not doing the work is trying to clear a path for the work or figure out if they're doing the right work or figure out why that. Project is happening when they thought they were doing this, and, and we can't even quantify it. It's so much the water we're swimming in. But the hypothesis of course is that investing a few hours, every two weeks or three weeks in resetting on what we are doing? Why are we doing it? How it manifests in our key bodies of work is going to pay. exponentially in that being smoother work between meetings. Right. Again, I think we put so much emphasis on one-on-one supervision and sort of traditional HR structures that and I don't care how great your supervisor is, they cannot approximate hearing. 10 people unpack, explore, advance strategy. I mean that, that's like a masterclass every couple of weeks. That's what we're looking for, right? It has to be pr, it has to save time. How we end up measuring that is something that I'm very interested in. Right? And it'll initially be qualitative, right? Asking the table participants has this. provided more clarity, more smoothness. Has it facilitated better collaboration? have you gotten in front of things that used to blow up a lot, that's the stuff we wanna see, right?
Carol: Yeah. I, I, I imagine that as, and soon this analogy won't work anymore because people won't remember having to actually turn a dial on a radio to get the signal to come in. Mm-hmm. But if you're just all static, if there's so much static in the organization, you're wasting a huge amount of time and effort just trying to. get a clear signal through all of that static. And, and I feel like when I'm, I'm typically working with groups that are a little bit more traditional, once every couple years. Big process. Mm-hmm. But the thing that they talk about as being energizing and exciting is how much they learn from other people. That's it. The kinds of conversations that they get to have in that, that they don't typically have, the connections that they see. By being in, in, in, in cross-functional groups and different groups through the whole process. So, to be able to build that into more of a regular pattern instead of just every three years for a, for a big momentous thing. I mean, there's probably a need for a little bit of both, but um, oh, certainly. Mm-hmm. Yeah, that, to, to be able to bring some of that in. to me. Yeah. I can, I can intuitively see the benefit and then it's mm-hmm. right, as you're saying, like, how, how do we help people? How do we start measuring it in a way that is compelling? Yeah, that's right. And
Jeanne: I, I mean, one other thing I would add, there's a beautiful free resource actually that you can find online. Came out last year called Turning Towards Each Other, a Conflict Workbook or and I, I think we are at a time where there is heightened conflict inside organizations, and one of the points that. Workbook makes it that some of that is actually conflict about strategy. It's not named that. Hmm. But it's actually people in conflict about what we're doing, why we're doing it, whether it's credible, whether it's consistent with what we're, if we're walking our talk. That's a lot of the conflict that's going on in organizations right now, and there isn't, again, one-on-one supervision is not gonna solve that. Right. We need a space to say, Hey, there's a gap. or I'm not feeling, this communication strategy is consistent with what we're saying over here. Like there needs to be a place that's cross-functional where we can explore that. And so another thing that we hope is, is, that this is not preventing conflict, but creating a productive space for people to debate how these strategies get expressed.
Carol: Yeah. So they can engage in it. I was listening to something recently about, different levels of conflict and, and when it gets to what the person termed high conflict, then people are just dug in and they're, they're in those polarizing my way or your way. I'm right. you're not right. But when you can. so then it's, it's probably the conflict that most people think of, and the one that they shy away from. And that feels very unproductive cuz it is unproductive. Right. But there is, there are, if you can create spaces for people to be able to. Not necessarily be in positions yet around one way or the other. Exactly. And explore it together. I think that's exactly, that's
Jeanne: the difference. I, when I was an executive director, I, it, it was a time at the organization where we were intentionally going through a lot of change. But, what happens in change management is what you just said, is that unless there are spaces for people to debate and, and vent a little bit about the strategic dissonance they're feeling people get put into camp. right? In people's minds. There's the people who get it. There's the people who don't get it. Oh, don't even go to her. She doesn't get it. she doesn't, well, get it. There's no space to get it, and then it be, as you say, then people get labeled as either old guard, new guard, get it, don't get it. And then there's, there's so little that's possible in terms of collaborative change work.
Carol: Yeah. Well, none of this is easy but inviting people in is just, just think about it and experiment with it a little bit. So I end each conversation with a random icebreaker question that I pull from a box. So one I'm gonna ask you is if you were stranded on a desert island and you could choose one person to keep you company, who would it be? The, so
Jeanne: This is supposed to be like a famous person. Doesn't matter. It could be anyone. I mean, obviously I would choose my partner . And I'm not just saying that in case they listen to this. But if you want a more sort of global answer that's not a personal relationship. I would pick A poet, and I was just thinking about the poet who I always bring up, it seems like in the last few months Natalie Diaz. Yeah. I would pick somebody who could keep the world magical through their language.
Carol: Mm. Okay. All right. Thank you. Well, what's coming up? We've been talking about what's emerging in your work, but what, what are you seeing over the next year or so? What, in terms of all this new work that you're, that you're doing and the, the Yeah. Projects you're working with. Yeah, I'm, you
Jeanne: Now, what I'm really excited about is different. Organizational profiles, right? So it's called just org design. So it's clearly designed with organizations who think of their work as in some way in service of justice. And so, that's the large catchment that we're in. But what I'm really interested in, Carol Carol, is different profiles of that. and we also think that tables may in fact work across organizations and, and really support coalitions and collaboration across organizations because this is a software that can track who's at that table, what choices are we making, what are the agendas for future meetings, which is such a lot of work. Keeps people from doing collaboration externally well too. So, I'm, we've got a pilot client who's more of an organizing group who I think may go in that direction where it's internal, but then can also create a bridge to some of their key partnerships. So, looking for different client profiles that are under the large umbrella of justice work but have different. Existing configurations and different kinds of strategies that will benefit from really well structured and, and software supported consistency around really centering strategy.
Carol: Yeah. Cuz I, there's only so much any one organization can do in any of these fields, right. So that's supporting those larger collaborative initiatives coalitions. It's where so much of the work is now happening, so that makes a lot of sense. Yeah. All right. Well thank you so much. It was great. Just enjoyed the conversation. I definitely could talk to you about this stuff all day, so we won't do that.
Jeanne: Thank you so much for this. I really appreciate it.
Carol: I appreciated Jeanne’s emphasis on the interconnection between your organization’s strategy for the external environment that supports your mission and the internal – that in fact – also supports your mission. That it is all interwoven and once amplifies the other and both sides and intentions are needed. I also appreciated her description of crisp strategy. There is a lot of emphasis on being emergent and agile in today’s environment – and rightly so. Yet by clearly defining and crisply setting your intentions, you know what you are pivoting from if you need to pivot. That the strategy is specific and clear – not vaguely neutral, not trying to offend anyone. And that they are specific within the capacity and financial realities of your situation – not just about wishful thinking. Without it you are not really pivoting and being agile – you are just spinning in circles.
Another point that I really appreciated was her description of the work she is doing to help organizations integrate their strategy into their day to day work through an interdisciplinary approach. When I am working with clients and in the process of discovery, when I interview and listen to staff, board and other key stakeholders – so often the issue of silos between departments comes up. And by creating spaces for cross-functional teams to discuss specific strategies and how to show up in their daily work, it can also become more real for everyone – instead of strategy just being something we do at a retreat every couple years. That departments or project teams are fine but insufficient. And creating spaces – or tables as she calls them – to talk about how day to day choices that are constantly being made reflect and integrate the larger strategy of the organization.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Jeanne Bell, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Natasha Devoise of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Why bother doing strategic planning?
In episode 60 of Mission: Impact, Carol goes solo to discuss:
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission Impact. Welcome to my 60th episode, and in this episode I'm gonna be focusing on the work that I do with organizations and talking about strategic planning. I came to strategic planning, probably naturally I started my interest in working with organizations and their organization development by being part of a strategic planning process at a local organization where I was a member. We used what's known as an appreciative inquiry process, but going through the whole process and being led by the consultant made me very curious about this whole approach.
Welcome to Mission: Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your host and nonprofit consultant.
On a personal level, I really enjoy planning. Used to love when it was back to school time and it was time to get those new planning notebooks for the school year. And now as a professional, I have probably way too many notebooks where that helped me with my daily, weekly, and monthly planning. And yearly I'm coming to, we're coming to the end of the year here. And I'm looking forward to spending a good chunk of time thinking through what this last year has brought for me and what does the next year look like and how can I get ready for that?
So that's all at the personal level, but why do strategic planning and why is it called strategic planning instead of just, there are other types of planning, but why strategic planning at the organizational level and there are, I think, a lot of things that people fear about strategic planning and I guess I wanna say that you don't need to fear it.
Unfortunately a lot of people have had some not great experiences with processes that they've been involved in before. But I think there's also, with some folks a little bit of hesitancy around a feeling that a plan is gonna hem you in, a plan is not gonna allow you to adjust and iterate as you need. A plan is gonna be constrictive and it doesn't allow for that creativity and emergence and doesn't. It really enables you to respond in the way that you want.
And so when I'm thinking about working with organizations and strategic planning, I wanna help them find that happy medium between a plan that does feel that way, That is very constrictive, that is very defined, and just having no plan. So just being able, just reacting in the moment to whatever is emerging. And I think for organizations, because they're really just made up of a network of people, a group of people who are all ideally working towards a similar goal, the mission of the organization.
To me, what a strategic planning process does is help the group realign around that mission and get clear about. What are they gonna be focusing on in the next three to five years? So, what are those three to five big goals that the organization needs to pay attention to over the next three to five year period? And that really helps get everyone moving in the same direction. So you don't have all of that. Working at cross purposes or confusion or not really knowing what to prioritize when you get to your desk every day. So some of the benefits that I see, finding that goldilocks spot of. just an, just enough structure and planning and direction and still not nailing it down, soak definitively over a, that three year period that there's no way to adjust and make a. Changes as, as needed.
And certainly anyone who's lived through the last three years knows that the best laid plans that's what, that's what happens to them. So I've heard folks talk about how at the beginning of the pandemic, they just had to throw out their strategic plan and react to what was happening there. I'm guessing. It's not like they started over in the pandemic to reimagine what their organization did. The mission was still going to be the same, but it was really about how you can make progress in that mission, in that moment, in the pandemic when everything was so different.
We all live in this. What is known as the, if you've heard the acronym, VUCA. Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, and Ambiguous. We all live in that world. I'm guessing that if we looked back in history, folks across time would have felt that they were living also in a VUCA world. Things that are pr make it particularly. So these days are just the speed at which things happen and the interconnectedness with which we live across our country. So with ambiguity and volatility. There can be a sense of let's just throw this whole planning process out. Let's not even bother. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of time. Why would we, why would we wanna do that? But some of the benefits that I've seen, organizations really come out of a planning process. Is through the structure of the deliberate conversations that you walk through with the group that really help people uncover their, their aspirations, their visions for the organization, what it could be, the impact it could have, as well as the assumptions they're making.
And so through that series of conversations, you're able to. That common ground of where people agree, where the energy is to set some direction. And for me, I essentially think of it as you're, you're setting your intentions. I go out on a walk every morning and I have to decide, am I turning left or am I turning right? You're setting your direction, you're, you're deciding where you're going to go. Of course, on my morning walk, I pretty much know the route and it's not too unexpected, and we can. Predict the future. That's not what the purpose of the, the whole process is. It's really to refine and, and help everyone get into alignment. I
've seen the benefits of boards getting reengaged with organizations, board members who maybe came into the organization at the beginning of a process and didn't feel like they could contribute a lot because they didn't know as much as they wanted to about the organization. Really feel like they'd learned so much through all the conversations with other board members and staff, through the strategic planning process. So, that education process, that process, that re-engagement process with board members can be such a key benefit.
Being able to lift up, being, being able to lift up and, and examine challenges that are going on inside the organization and giving people a safe and constructive place to have conversations about that so that it's not just a conversation out in the hallway, but it's being brought into the room and it's a focus. We're gonna pay attention to this. Not that you're gonna solve that problem necessarily in the strategic planning process itself, but more through the, all the conversations, it's gonna be lifted up and hopefully then prioritized to gather some attention over in that next period of time for the organization to continue to strengthen itself. So those are just some of the benefits that I see.
Oftentimes if an organization hasn't gone through planning in a while, it. A common complaint that isn't just about planning, but, but a common complaint in organizations is the, the sense of being siloed from each other board versus staff of different departments, not necessarily knowing what each other are doing. And through the planning process, you can really help integrate those, all those pieces. So I think of it as trying. lessen the noise that's happening and increase the signal. So if you're thinking about an old time radio where we're trying to dial in and, and get that station, you're, you're reducing the static and you're really dialing into that signal where everyone Says, Yes, I'm in agreement. This is the direction we need to go. This is what we need to focus on over the next couple years, and I understand how it really moves our mission forward.
So there's lots more that I could say about strategic planning. But I wanted to really focus on why today as many people are familiar with the Simon Sinek book “Start With Why.” I start every podcast interview with a question with my guests of what their why is. I wanted to dig into what is the why for possibly thinking about doing strategic planning. So we're coming to the end of the year. A lot of folks are starting to think about next year and perhaps are thinking about strategic planning. So if you're thinking about it those are just some of the benefits that I really see. Educating staff, educating board. Dialing up that signal so that everyone's in alignment around a common purpose.
And it also is a great way to help folks get to know each other. The last couple retreats that I did, I've been obviously doing all of the planning that I've been doing with organizations virtually. And then most recently, a couple in person sessions and both through the virtual and the in person folks talked about at the end of the process how they really appreciated getting to know each other better. So there are lots of different benefits. So I'd just invite you to consider thinking about how that might apply to your organization and think about what, what you could gain from it and why it might be important. So thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. Just by myself this time. And with our other episodes, with our guests I will put a link in the show notes to a resource that I think is particularly helpful. I have a resource of common mistakes that organizations make in strategic planning. So that's a free download that you can grab from the website. So we'll put that up and there'll also be a transcript of this episode in the show notes as well. If you enjoyed this episode, I'd love for you to share it on your favorite social media platform and tag me it's Grace Social Sector Consulting, or Carol Hamilton at LinkedIn or Mission Impact on LinkedIn. And we appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I also wanna thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as April Koester of a 100 Ninjas for her production support. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 51 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Thomas Anderson discuss:
Dr. Thomas E. Anderson, II is the founder of Teaiiano Leadership Solutions. He has over 20 years of experience leading high-performance teams in faith-based non-profits. As a coach, consultant, and workshop facilitator, Thomas helps founders, leaders, and managers to navigate the multi-loop (…and often elusive) process of vision development and realization. In fact, he measures results by how much he helps clients to move forward with their vision for the future. Thomas is a recurring presenter at Regent University's Annual Research Roundtables and has published academic articles in the Journal of Practical Consulting and Coaching (JPCC). Above all, Thomas enjoys being a devoted husband to his wife, Jamie, and dedicated father to his daughters, Arianna and Azalia.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Thomas Anderson. Thomas and I talk about how organizations can learn to see and listen, why more and more people are working with founders, and what foresight is and why it is important to organizations.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Thomas. Welcome to mission impact.
Thomas Anderson: Thank you, Carol. It's nice to be here today, talking with you.
Carol: I like to start each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do? What would you describe as your why?
Thomas: That's a great question. I started this work just to basically help visionaries to, I used to say, to change the world, but it's really to help visionaries to impact the world or to improve the condition of the world that we live in.
Carol: And. As you just said, you're a coach and consultant that really works with folks too, you focus on vision development. Why would you say that vision is so important for whether it's an organization, a team, an individual.
Thomas: that's a good question. And I have to caveat it by telling you a little bit about the backstory of how I got into this work. So I had every intention of graduating from undergrad and just going right into it. Nine to five corporate jobs staying there retiring, but the more and more I talk to people who are around me and the more opportunities that were coming my way, they were really related to people would come to me with their ideas or they would come to me with some type of creative, something that they wanted to do. Made everyone else who gave them feedback on it say, okay, I don't know about this. You might be crazy. Those kinds of responses kept coming to them. And so when I was just open to just the fact that, okay, you want to do something new at the time? I graduated right after the dot com bust. I was in a sense , either forced to go back to school or to try something new. And I was at the time trying something new. And so I saw, I say all that to say, I saw how it motivated vision has a very motivating it's a very motivating phenomenon within itself.
Carol: I work a lot with folks in the nonprofit sector and it's usually someone. Has a vision of, of how the world might be better or how they could have impact or how they could serve people or a gap that they perceive. They step into that. Sometimes the vision is very clear for the founder and not necessarily for everyone that they pull along with them. So you recently did some research into vision development and then its realization. Can you tell me a little bit about that research and what were the, what were the questions that you were trying to answer?
Thomas: Yes. Yes. I'd be happy to. And you just brought up something that I thought about earlier. There's a trend going on and I can, I can break it down like this. And this is what my research has shown just on a cursory level. More new businesses are popping up and even more so since the pandemic has happened. The number of new business applications doubled between 2007 and 2022, and they actually spiked between 2020 and the end of 2021. They have level back off to that doubling, but when you couple that with the fact that corporate longevity has decreased from 67 years , companies used to last on average on the S and P 67 years in 1920 to 15 years. And in 2012 you had this trend that businesses are getting younger. And the chances of working with a founder are higher. And so I started to think, what does that say? Or a visionary leadership vision and visionary leadership. And so what I started to do was to reconceptualize there was a call in the research from a couple of scholars to reconceptualize visionary leadership. And I started to think about the trend of businesses actually getting younger. And I said, okay I need to jump in here. And so I started to ask two questions. The first one was, can an organization learn. And then the second is if so, how do organizations practice? Seeing together now I've had a couple of discussions around my book topic, or I should call it a manuscript at this point because we're still in the process of the proposals and so forth and so on. But I'm even revising that question to look at a topic that came up in one of the sessions: can an organization learn to hear or learn to use the senses. And so what that looks like, going back to my original question, is how organizations learn how to detect and anticipate the future in such a way that they can choose which future they want to pursue. And also on the same token, be nimble enough to make changes along the way.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by an organization seeing or an organization hearing.
Thomas: Still, when it comes to seeing, basically when we talk about vision, we all know that it's future oriented and so. A term for that is the preferred future. And so which future the organization prefers, but visioning itself, starts with the ability to see. And you mentioned the founder earlier in, and that really comes into play here because founders take a journey through what they can see to be the preferred. But there's a lot of information there. That lies outside of the realm of visioning. It lies in the foresight realm of future-thinking, just picking up on trends that are happening or doing some type of horizon scanning or thinking about scenarios that could play out. And so all of that comes into play when talking about organizations. Learn to see together, not just the founder learning to see, but everyone, at some point being invited into the process through their feedback or through a whole group collaborative session, just in bringing all of that wisdom into one room and saying, okay, based on that, what do we want our company to be in this.
Carol: Yeah. And you talked about foresight also. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by that? Sure.
Thomas: So foresight it's not really pie in the sky. Like sometimes vision enforced that can be treated that way, but foresight is basically seeing or detecting what's coming up in the next. So just to, I guess, make a juxtaposition between foresight and strategic foresight and strategic planning, right? Strategic planning looks, and you're an expert at strategic planning. So I need to get this right. Strategic planning looks in the near future, right up to maybe three or five years of foresight. Beyond that it can, it usually starts at five years, but can look up to 50 to a hundred years not to say that people can predict the future. But, you're just picking up on all of these trends that are going on emerging trends, things that could turn into something later, we just don't know. But there are things that would impact or could possibly derail that perfect picture of the future that many organizations and the founders do hold.
Carol: it's so interesting when you're talking about the near term and the longer term for nonprofits with the, with there being so much oftentimes just. Way more to do than can possibly get done. The visions tend to be huge, even when the resources and the organization are, are really small. And so I find even getting organizations to think about the next three years or the next five years can be challenging for them to just take the time. To step back, what are some ways that smaller organizations can tap into what other people are doing around foresight? So they don't have to start from scratch when thinking about those trends.
Thomas: Hmm, that's a good question. I was talking to the president of a smaller organization. It wasn't a nonprofit, but I think the lesson for me in this was that there are certain organizations that are mission driven or are concerned with their teams as wellbeing. And I think that's good. The point of commonality, but what she told me is that she gets together with our team monthly and each team member gets a chance to be the CEO. And so in that meeting she selects someone or they volunteer. And what the first task that they have is to tell, in their own words, what the vision is. And so that's a good way for the leader to not have to always take center stage in communicating it, but also for someone to come forth through someone else's boys and for the leader to also see where that person is and what they see and see the organization from their vantage point.
Carol: That's a great point. I often, when I'm doing strategic planning with organizations and in that initial phase where I'm talking to everybody, one of the questions I often ask. Why does your organization exist? What's the purpose to get everyone to, to describe that mission? They're probably not going to be able to recite the mission statement, but do they at core, have a common understanding of what the purpose of the organization is and, and have that be a checkpoint in the process so that if there, if it's like really all over the place, then that's something that the organization needs to deal with. Yeah. So in your research you were looking at how organizations can see and now maybe how organizations can hear or, or use the other sentences that we have. What were some of the findings that you, that came out of? The work that you did?
Thomas: Great question. So I, going through the process, came up with 11 operating principles that were the focus for each chapter. Around organizational vision development and realization. And so I talked a little bit about this earlier, but vision is more than what meets the eye it's using your senses. It's really detecting and, and I came up with a lot of synonyms that I placed in, in the book. But one phenomenon really stuck out to me was picking up on weak signals on the horizon. And these are signals. Can often be missed, but they can inform the direction of the vision, the, what I call the iteration of the vision. That brings me to a second concept where I think Brenda Zimmerman, who was a consultant and a futurist, and she worked in chaos and complexity theory. She recommended it. Good enough vision, not necessarily wordsmithing it to the point of beyond recognition. She's had to get a vision to the point where it's good enough and then use it to be tested and, over the course of its life cycle, it'll change.
Carol: I love that idea of a good enough. Again, when I'm working with organizations, I'm also trying to get them to what's a good enough strategic plan and to remind them that, yeah, you're not trying to predict the future and These aren't w once it's done, it's also not a tablet that came from on high, right. It’s something that you all created. And so when you need to, you can also update it. So just reminding people that there's flexibility, even when you want to set some intentions and some direction, but yeah, what's good enough.
Thomas: Yeah. And it changes from a wallflower vision and to a working document.
Carol: Absolutely. What were some of the other findings that came out? Yeah,
Thomas: Sure. So there are two trends that in my opinion are upending the traditional idea of visionary leadership and even vision development. And one of those we talked about just now is good enough vision or emergency. The other is shared vision. And in founder-led companies, I'm finding that shared visioning doesn't happen as much with employees at the start as, and I was surprised. I did one quick survey and the customers. So founders would actually. Go through the process of shared visioning with customers using design thinking. I know you're very familiar with that process more than they would with their employees. Once the company had grown. And I found that to be fascinating.
Carol: Well, yeah, I guess there is the focus there on going to the customer, but then if only a few people are involved in that conversation, then there's a big gap of folks who are in the day-to-day and yeah. For nonprofits. Oftentimes, the founder, the CEO, and the board get involved in those conversations and staff get left out of it. And I really encourage groups to include, as many people as is, really practically possible to get involved in those strategic conversations, because everyone has something to share and a perspective and that frontline, actually, implementing a program, actually making things happen is so important. When you bring it back up to that bigger picture vision,
Thomas: And I think we're at a point and I think we're at a pivotal moment in just organizational life. And considering visionary leadership and what it was contextualized for in the late eighties and nineties and where we were as a country at that time. I think we're at a moment where the call even on a generational level is for more people to be involved and that's, I'm picking up on corporations and nonprofits. I work with faith-based nonprofits and I don't really see a difference. People are lacking time and the budget to do certain things, but there is something that I did come across in the literature. It was a book on visionary leadership by Burton. And he actually when I was reading. And also looking through the work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner the leadership challenge. And I had a conversation with Jim Kouzes also. And what I found was there's a backstory, even to leaders coming up with a vision because they spend time talking. To people walking through the halls and Jim Kouzes just put it like this, leaders pick up on the vision. That's latent in the hearts of the people. Those are the visions that really end up working on when you start to generalize them for the entire organization.
Carol: that shared leadership is so important because in a nonprofit organization there isn't just one person making the decision, right. It's always a group effort. Whether it's all volunteer all everyone on the board needing to come together and, and have a common shared, shared vision , between board and staff and I think that's one of the things that always can trip people up if they've come from the for-profit side and especially with smaller organizations where they've been in charge and been able to do things the way they wanted to, whether that was best practice or not, they had that ability.
And so to step into the nonprofit sector, whether it's faith-based or. Where it's much more of a matrix it's much more of a collective so that building that sense of shared leadership and shared vision is, is just so important. What would you say are some of the challenges that leaders face when trying to implement their vision and implement, and then build a shared collective vision?
Thomas: Yeah, there are two challenges that immediately come to mind. One is the adoption, like having the vision to be adopted by a critical mass of stakeholders, whether they be employees managers donors just getting that vision adopted. And what, Carol, there is an example of that. I've been unpacking some of these examples and reading through them several times. And so with the March of dimes, I actually read through their history and included it in the manuscript. And so over a period of more than 80 years, their vision. And their mission has evolved several times. And so on its website, its structures, its history, for instance, around the four areas of an evolving vision. So the first iteration, what I call it, the first iteration was curing polio and the era was 1938 to 1955. When the VI, the vaccine for polio became available in 55, they entered into another iteration and they called it. Eradicating birth defects. You could also call it eradicating congenital disabilities that ran until about the mid seventies. And then they entered another one healthy pregnancies and they were ensuring at this time that babies were strong and that moms were healthy. This is random too. And it overlapped into the current era that they're in, where they're tackling a crisis of premature birds. And, and I think that I, as far as I can tell, that's where their focus has landed. And so we, we see things like that with the division becoming , moving in cycles instead of straight.
Carol: each of those are certainly related and they've stayed in the same realm. But the particular challenges or particular eras have been different. Yeah, I mean, oftentimes we'll ask Organizations for some organizations, their mission is going to be perpetual, like healthcare institutions, a hospital. Others would love to see themselves out of business. , a homeless shelter, a food bank if we didn't have needs for that, we'd be a better society, right? Like folks don't want to have to have. The services available. But they see the need and so they build organizations to fit those needs. But yeah. So, so visions can, can iterate in, in a variety of different fashions.
Thomas: And that's a great point. It reminded me of the challenge that the March of Dimes faced in that first shifting from that first iteration to the second, whether the loss of sponsorship and they had to. Find creative ways to tell their donors who had pretty much devoted themselves to the mission. And that shared mission of eradicating polio. Tell them there are other problems that we need to address here. And to your point about they would have gone out of business. Had they not iterated that.
Carol: Which could, which would have been a in, in some ways a valid choice, right. Except that they were, they looked around and there were other related things that they could, that they had the infrastructure to tackle.
Thomas: Jim Henslin, he wrote a textbook on sociology. He put it this way. He said they could have gone out of business, but the bureaucracy. Made them continue. And so they said, okay, we have to come up with something else because there are jobs that stayed there we built so much Goodwill in this brand. And so they had to continue.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I think we'll, we'll actually , caution organizations against that, that, that they're not. Certainly they want to be in the nonprofit sector. You want to have a well-run organization. You want it to be well-managed, be effective, all of those things. But if it becomes only about. Perpetuating the organization versus really staying on mission. That's where there can be a little bit of a gap, but certainly there's a multitude of challenges that they could have tackled and then what they chose to tackle. It made sense in terms of where they were and how they were set up.
Thomas: For sure
Carol: I'm curious, what are the phases of iteration or other examples of that vision iteration that you see?
Thomas: They are pretty much four phases. That first phase deals with foresight. Just really detecting what's going on in, in and around an existing organization. Or if it's a startup around the startup, in the external environment. The second is the one we know just sitting down, writing the vision, creating it or co-creating it. And there's a micro phase in between there where the vision is emerging. It's just organically in different quote-unquote containers. It could be through values. , it could be through culture. It can, it can emerge through several different things. The third phase is where stakeholders have a choice and this choice is often taken for granted for founders. They can accept them, its division or stakeholders can reject it. And we're seeing a lot of rejection of organizational vision right now in the great reshuffling. The great. What is it? What is the other name for it? Great. Resignation resignation. I think I've gravitated to reshuffling more, but yeah, the great shoveling, the great resignation where people are voting with their feet, they're rejecting the vision by leaving. And if organizations don't get to the point of the end of founders, especially in leaders, don't get to the point where they accept, okay. People can accept the vision or they can reject it. Then sometimes it becomes impossible. And if folks reject it, it's always impossible to get to this fourth phase where they, and I didn't come up with this term, but it's called vision integration. Dr. Jeffrey Coles, he came up with the term and he did a lot of the research where people do two things. They use the vision to make decisions in their everyday work life and they use it. The vision to guide their behaviors and their actions during the.
Carol: it's so interesting with the whole great reshuffle or whatnot. I think it comes down to, for certainly in the nonprofit sector. What I've observed is often there's been a real gap between the vision that the organization has for the change that they want to make in the world, but then a real misalignment with how they actually act internally, how they treat each other, the culture that they've built and I think it's especially acute when it is a mission-driven organization and people they essentially have higher standards for a group. And so they, when they, when they see that gap, they're much more likely , to, to walk away. And I, I think certainly in the nonprofit sector folks just have gotten to the point and, and then I think with. I don't know, it's pandemic, you, you reminded me that we're, that our, all of our time is finite. That things become more urgent than they might've been. You might've put up with it in the past where folks just aren't willing to as much now.
Thomas: that's a great point. While you were sharing that, I thought about when you, you talked about sometimes there's a disconnect people can vision mission. And I don't know if I said this previously, but it's often something that can be taken for granted with when it's in place, but if it's not in place you feel, or, or employees can feel that disconnection between Where the organization, what the organization does and where their job fits in. And that vision often gives everyone a common direction. And then it's a good launching pad just for even those team meetings weekly to say, this is where we're going. This is everybody's part in it. And , the check-ins, it gives focus and direction to a lot of the work.
Carol: I think that's a piece that people forget to do on a regular basis. And, and one of the values that I see in, in going through a strategic planning process, I mean, sometimes what will come out. The other end won't necessarily be super different than what folks saw going into it. But it's like a rechecking and a confirmation that folks are on the same page. I often get a lot of feedback, wow. That's really helpful to know that other people are feeling the same way I am or seeing it the same way I am that validation. So, I'll often say if you come up with a whole bunch of goals in your plan that are brand new, I actually will be curious about that. Like, why is there such a departure from what was before? And oftentimes it's much more of a through line and it's about conforming or reconfirming or reintegrating that.
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Carol: So at the end of each podcast episode, I played a game or I asked you one random icebreaker question. So I'm curious, what's your favorite family tradition?
Thomas: Oh, goodness. That is random. Wow. I love that question. Let's see my favorite family. I wouldn't have to say there are several, but if I have to pick one, it would be going to Hershey park. Yeah.
Carol: And how's that tradition originating and the same way.
Thomas: What am I, that's a good question too. I think we are just random, and that's why I say yeah, I'm going to stay with the randomness because I think we were random at times and we like to just experiment, try new things, go places. And I think we just looked it up and we saw that they had a chill child-friendly rides and attractions, and we said, okay, let's go.
Carol: And you love chocolate. Well, I am, I'm always in agreement with that one, for sure. So that's something you do on a regular basis or when we can, at least once a year.
Carol: Well, I'm not, I'm not a rollercoaster person, so I stay away from us at the museum at the park, but I was lucky that my daughter loved them and my younger sister also loved them. So it was a big treat that my younger sister, auntie, would take my daughter to the amusement park. And they got, they had a great time, left me, left me behind, best stay out of the way.
Thomas: I discovered, and this is funny now, but I discovered that. I had vertigo on one of the rides at Hershey park. So my wife is the roller coaster person
Carol: Yeah. There you go. I definitely have vertigo. Vertigo is a real thing. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work? You talked about a manuscript.
Thomas: Yeah, I'm totally excited about that. So I'm working with beta readers right now to figure out what's missing what's resonating with them. And, and they're mostly scholars in visioning and organizational change so forth and so on. And so I'm hoping to have that type of yes, by the end of the year.
Carol: All right. Well, we'll look forward to it and let us know so we can let folks know when it moves to that next step. That'll be exciting. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Thomas: Thank you for having me.
Carol: I was struck by Thomas’ example of the CEO who has each of her staff be CEO for their monthly meeting and to articulate to the team what the organizational vision is. It is a great way to check in and find out whether folks are in alignment and really understand where you are trying to go. I also appreciated Thomas’ description of the ‘good enough vision.’ So many organizations can get caught up in trying to get it perfect. Whether it is their vision statement, their mission statement, their strategic plan. Having the attitude of we need to get it ‘good enough’ and then get moving can really help keep the momentum going. And the importance of visions being a shared vision. If you are a founder and you are the only person who really gets your vision, it will be a lot harder to realize it. You will be more effective if you create the vision with the people you are working with – whether everyone is a volunteer or you have a staff. It needs to be the vision of the group, not just the founder.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Thomas, his full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Keep making an impact!
In Episode 42 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Marla Bobowick discuss:
Marla Bobowick is an independent consultant based in Washington, DC, has served as a Senior Governance Consultant for BoardSource since 2008, and is also a Standards for Excellence® licensed consultant. She has more than 30 years of nonprofit experience and a history of creative problem solving. Specializing in nonprofit management and leadership, she has extensive experience with board governance, strategy, and publishing. She has worked with nonprofit organizations of all types and sizes, including regional healthcare and social service providers, educational institutions (independent schools and colleges and universities), family and other private foundations, and local and national offices of federated organizations and professional associations. Previously, Marla was Vice President of Products at BoardSource, where she oversaw publications, online products, and research. During her tenure at BoardSource, she was an active consultant and trainer, developed educational curriculum, managed regional capacity building projects, oversaw the global program, and coordinated the annual conference. While at BoardSource, Marla managed Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. She was also a member of the working group for The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards (BoardSource © 2005). She managed “Governance Futures: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Governance,” a multiyear research project that culminated in publication of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (John Wiley & Sons © 2005). She is co-author of Assessing Board Performance: A Practical Guide for College, University, System, and Foundation Boards (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges © 2018). Previously, Marla was an acquisitions editor at John Wiley & Sons, where she developed Wiley’s Nonprofit Law, Finance, and Management Series and the Association of Fundraising Professionals Fund Development Series. Marla holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Amherst College, a master’s degree in business administration and a certificate in nonprofit management from Case Western Reserve University. She is a past board chair of Maryland Nonprofits and a past board member Calvary Women’s Services.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Marla Bobowick. Marla and I talk about the misconceptions that people have about nonprofit boards and governance, why shared leadership and governance is important to strive for, and why boards needs to shift their focus from hindsight to foresight Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Welcome Marla, welcome to the podcast.
Marla Bobowick: Thanks for inviting me. This'll be fun.
Carol: So I like to start by asking folks what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Marla: I fell in love with the nonprofit sector by accident. I love being involved with people who are absolutely passionate about what they do and believe in it and get to live and act and work their values and passions. And I wanted to be surrounded by people like that. And my passion is the nonprofit sector and making it work better, which is a little wonky, but that's what I do. Yeah. The most people, when they think of the nonprofit sector, I think they, they think of that direct, direct service or, or, working on the front lines, but there's so many layers and I've often felt that I was a couple layers removed from, from those frontline folks, but it's all important work.
Carol: Your work focuses on nonprofit board governance, which is obviously very key. What would you say is the most common misconception about nonprofit boards?
Marla: Of course, I always think there's more than one answer to questions like this, which is, I think it's two extremes. It's either the board thinks they have all the power or they think they have none of the power and same from the CEO executive director point of view. And so. Undoing that misconception because I really believe in a notion of shared leadership and a governance partnership is forcing people to challenge a lot of their implicit or explicit assumptions.
Carol: And where do you think those two extremes come from?
Marla: I think it's sometimes the language that, that we in the sector that state laws say that the board is responsible for the mission. Well, they can't do that by themselves. They do it with the community that they serve. They do it with professional staff who are on the front lines. So there's language that says the board is responsible for it. Sometimes unfortunately it's more egregious, I pay for it. Therefore I get to decide what our priorities are. And I think executives over underestimate they either manipulate or overestimate how much power they have because they control information. And so board members sometimes feel excluded or executives don't want to give them too much information because they'll get in the weeds. And that creates a tension that is counterproductive.
Carol: Yeah. And I've definitely always wondered about that aspect and, and been in organizations where I've seen those dynamics playing out where it seems like in the, the, the way that conventionally nonprofit governance. Is taught and the models that people are using currently, there is a lot of power in, in that executive director role of, especially around controlling information and what information is shared, what information isn't shared that, can, can lead to some not great outcomes. So I'm curious about what your perspective is on that.
Marla: So I feel like I walk into a lot of boardrooms and there's this hope. Assumption that there's a nice, neat line in the middle of the sand. That's a bright line that says on one side is what the CEO and the staff do. And on the other side is what the board does. And when I walk in and say, the reality is it's a fuzzy line. It moves sometimes depending on the circumstances of the organization, either as it grows and changes over time or on the size and shape and nature of the organization. And the goal is to know where the line should be and agree on it for your organization at the moment in time. No, when you cross over and know when it's time to go back to your respective sides and that underlying that is the. Every decision you can make the case that should really be borders should really be, may be management and to say, What's the sequence of the discussions and conversations and decision making, as opposed to thinking it's all one or all the other, and realizing that almost everything really has to be done in partnership or together in some way. And it's the process about how do you do that? That is the way through the mass to see where the line is and what to do on terms of what's management and what's board work,
Carol: Can you give an example of what you mean by that?
Marla: So strategic planning is a pretty classic one, which is, again, it depends, the board has a role in it. I think of the board as bookends. They should be involved in the front end, the back end, but board members and the board in particular, can't do strategic planning by themselves. They need information from the CEO. They need information from the field. They need information from the frontline staff, from constituents and stakeholders. And it's gotta be an inclusive process. And often the executive and the staff are the ones that filter and synthesize and frame that information for the board on a regular basis. And together talk about what's the priority, what's the shift, what are our goals and what matters most? And some of those things about what matters most are going to be based on client needs. Others are going to be based on organization. so the client needs in terms of which programs, where should we grow, where should we shrink? How do we rethink what we do? Some of them are going to be on Operational issues about size staffing technology. Inevitably, every strategic plan has to improve operational excellence or systems. And that's really the purview of the staff and the CEO. But when you get to fundamental questions about sort of, are we really a hunger organization thinking of a food bank or are we really a poverty or anti-poverty organization? Those are philosophical conversations that have to be had by everybody.
Carol: Yeah, I definitely see when I'm doing strategic planning, I want to see it as a partnership between board and staff, because each is bringing different information, different perspectives and to really have buy-in for what those final strategic goals are going to be. Staff need to be involved in those conversations. So what would you say is the key to having healthy governance?
Marla: You need magic. So I'm a big fan of alliteration as a recovering book editor, but I think there's a combination of, I used to say, it's just, you need good. You need clarity, real clarity, and sharpness of focus on what you're doing. You need great communication and information sharing. I always say this is a little of the Goldilocks approach, the right amount, not too much information, not too little and at the right time. And I started to add to that list. You need real curiosity to break out of old habits and maybe COVID has brought this to the fore, but I also think it is just part and parcel of words in particular need to be with. Ask good questions and then work together to find the answers and executives who have a lot of the answers, and sometimes think it's their job to give answers all the time. Need to be curious about what's behind board members, questions, interests, responses, as opposed to being defensive. And the last one I would add as context, which is what does the organization need now? And in the future, knowing where you've come from. And the, I did this somewhere else. And you hear that a lot from board members, and you'll hear that a lot from executive directors to say what fits the culture, what aligns with the organization's culture and purpose and mission. So that it makes sense for this organization now and going forward. And I always say the end going forward, because board work is often hindsight and I wish there was more foresight with it.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean?
Marla: So board meetings often happen and you get lots of information and reports. That is all about what happened in the past. What happened last month, last quarter, last year, and not a lot about the, what you see coming up in the next 3, 6, 12, 18, 24 months. And so how do you use it? And that's, that's the reality of information sharing because there's nothing, there's no data on what's going to happen next, but how do you use the past to inform conversations about wow, we saw. But they need an X during the last six months. How do we pivot to make more of that available? What are we going to stop doing so that we can put more staff onto this program? And so I think it's that using the past to inform the present, as opposed to saying pat yourself on the back and say, Hey, we just did a great job on this, or, oh my God, we're having a panic. Because if something didn't work, we should beat ourselves up and slash the budget to say, let's really think about what. Coming ahead and short-term, and long-term.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's so important. Especially around the communications piece. Cause that could be so tricky of a kind, you want people to be informed. It's challenging to get people to read things ahead of time. So you end up with a lot of reports, but as you're saying, that's all looking backwards and so, how can. Boards, carve out the time to have some strategic conversations, get, sometimes I'll talk to folks about, what's a, what's a question that you can have a half an hour conversation about that isn't necessarily about making decisions today. But opening up so that you're thinking about possibilities for the future is right. None of us can predict the future, but by just having that discipline of trying to look ahead and notice name and notice trends, et cetera can, can help. And I think having some a couple of questions to frame that up really helps people have those conversations because otherwise it's like, okay, well, are we being strategic? We're supposed to be strategic. How are we doing?
Marla: One of the challenges is that people are so prone to asking, yes, no questions as opposed to open-ended questions. And there is a time when you need a yes, no. And up, down, vote on something. I think you learn more from the boards when you can ask them open-ended questions, which is what worked, what would work better? What would you do differently? What did we learn from this? Where there is no, yes, no answer. And you can then pull out the nuggets of information that can inform things. And so as opposed to saying, will you approve this or do you agree with this decision learning to ask open-ended questions creates more discussion. And I think the more board members are given a chance to have productive and constructive conversation and discourse in the boardroom and not be talked at or to. Is healthier. So one of the mantras, I think I can brag about board source on this podcast is that when we were aboard board source, our rule is staff. When we presented to the board you had five minutes of the hour-long agenda item. They had them on our board and came prepared, but they had the materials in advance. You framed the questions for discussion, and we gave the highlights and then it was a board discussion. And they would ask big questions and they would offer different points of view, but it wasn't. I gave the report for 20 minutes or half an hour that they already had read. And then ask them, do you agree with that?
Carol: Yeah, that's so important. And it's really like those almost as if the report is laying the groundwork or setting the stage for having that conversation rather than yeah. Being talked out and then going, oh, whoops. We ran out of time for any conversation about this. Yeah. So, what are some other things that you see get in the way of kind of, of good governance? You talked about those extremes of like either the board that you may have all the power and none of the power. What are some other things that get in the way of boards that are just being talked at by staff?
Marla: It’s people. Boards would be great if there was nobody on them, nobody staffing them. Right?
Carol: None of us, we have any work. If there weren't any people in home,
Marla: We get in our own way as execs and board members in terms of not listening in terms of having preconceived ideas in terms of. Presenting a defense or offense for something as opposed to a conversation. And so I think it's, and I think board members, on the one hand, there's this push for efficiency. We want to be efficient. So we're going to run through a bunch of conversations or meetings. Or we're going to try and cover so many things that then there's no time for conversations. So I feel like board members and execs put up their own barriers, they bring a lot of baggage or and preconceived ideas into their board work and their work together. That, to say, taking time out to pause And find a way to say what's how we should be as a board and spending time on board purpose and culture can overcome a lot of the usual frustrations that go around boards, but it takes time. And often people don't feel like they have time for what board, something many board members do. We'll say it is navel gazing. And many execs would say it's not going to make a difference. But taking time out to say, well, is this a good use of our time? What's the most important thing we talked about? What could we do differently at the next thing? I just came from a board meeting this weekend where we finally have turned around the board. We've restructured it. We've got new board members on and somebody complained about one of the agenda items. Like, all we do is talk about fundraising. So I said, what do you want to talk about next? And I think that was the first time that the board had ever been asked what's of interest to you. And I think that's a healthy conversation and let the board own some of it.
Carol: Yeah, I think so often when I talk to folks, the whole question of slowing down and taking a pause and stepping back and thinking about, well, why are we doing things the way we're doing them? Or, is this really serving us? Always comes up and then there is the pressure of, we just gotta get through this. We've got so many things on our agenda. Yeah, I, I, to me, when. When I was on board. And, and in charge of putting together the agenda, I was always fighting. Well, it was us fighting might be a strong word, but there was a struggle often between us having all these different things to talk about and then being saying, well, We're really not going to talk about any of them. If we just try to rush through it all we'll just end up having to come back to it anyway. So could we have fewer things on the agenda so that we could really dig into at least one of them?
Marla: Well, I think that's a silver lining for boards during the time of COVID, which is, many were meeting more often, less often, but they were all meeting differently than they used to. And I think it is forced. One of the most important conversations, which is what does the board need to talk about and why, and what do we not need to have as a board meeting on a board meeting agenda. So to hear a lot of reports that there's not a lot of conversation about is a waste of everyone's time. And yet it has value. I understand when you're in a board meeting, like people aren't thinking about the organization as board members on a day-to-day basis, and they want to know what's new and different, but finding a different way to convey that or a more engaging and interactive way to talk about what's happening at the organization so that when you are together with the board, with the average of whatever 15 people. You are using everyone's time to the highest value, which is what's. How can we add value to the organization and help the executive and help advance our mission? No. Be not a board, his book club. Let's just talk about what you did last month and how great it was, but you're not actually contributing anything of, of intellectual or strategic value.
Carol: So, what are some of the innovations that you've seen come out this past 18 months?
Marla: I have been surprised and shocked and pleased at being able to do some board assessment, evaluate self evaluation, work online with doing the typical online survey and then presenting the results, and creating it as a separate meeting. Whereas if we were always meeting in person, it was an all day retreat. There was a lot of drama and anxiety around, oh my God, what are we going to do per day? Is it worth it, but to kick off a conversation in an hour and a half or two at a zoom meeting and talk about it and then parlay it into full board discussion. So it's almost like deconstructing what were retreats? Definitely missed the in-person social networking that happens when board members are together. No one get this wrong, I'm all for meeting again in person. But I think the innovation of saying we can call an extra meeting for an hour and a half and use it as a listening to her, use it for a discussion that doesn't require action. Use it to dig into one topic. So I think that's the notion of focus. Out of it. I think there's just a lot. I think people have realized how much information you need and what's the best way to present it. Because I hear all the complaints and I haven't heard them lately. That board meetings are just a bunch of presentations. So when you work on zoom. You have to think about how much presentation, how many Hollywood squares can I see, how many, how much is too much PowerPoint. All of that is a test to be rethought. The strain honestly, though, is that it takes a lot more work to organize a meeting like that on zoom than to do it in person. It can take a lot. It can, it doesn't have to, but even as a consultant who does this all the time to plan and design interactive meetings, it takes more of a.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, it's been interesting to me where you talked about deconstructing the retreat. I've definitely seen the advantage of breaking up. I do a lot of strategic planning and break up those processes into a series of two hour or three hour meetings where you're really just doing one piece of it. You're starting out with that. Okay. So, I've, I've done all those conversations. I've done that assessment. I've got survey data, all of that. Let me share that with you. Let's make sure. But that's it that we're going to do today. We're not going to try to get to the very end in one day and have that marathon that people have had before. So I've really appreciated that, that focus that that can be brought.
Marla: I've done something similar with orientation and I did this before. COVID with an organization that is very small and. It's a national organization and people just can't afford to come together very often. And so a couple of years ago, we started a three-part session of orientation. One session about the state of the organization. One session about the work of the board in one session. Planning for the next year, board action planning that then feeds into organizational planning and budgeting. And we've been doing it in these three-part sessions now, I think for three or four years. And it really is like there, it compounds it, it gives people time to think about it. They tag it on to an existing board meeting, so they're not creating more stuff. It's worked really wonderfully and I've watched the board come along. And the conversation, even if the session, the content doesn't change much, the quality of the conversation has improved. And in the beginning they didn't talk a lot. And now there's much more back and forth. It's much less hearing me talk, but to have board member to board member conversation. So I think things like breaking things down have been, has been.
Carol: Yeah. And I'm even thinking, in terms of all those presentations what, what, might've all been written reports before, you could just record a brief, the, the staff or the, whatever the report is and have those go out beforehand. So you watch them while they're doing the dishes or listen to them while they're taking a walk, it doesn't have to all be written materials. So there's lots of different ways that you can deliver whatever information people need to have to have the conversation.
Marla: I'm trying to think of other innovations I've seen. And I think it just has to do with better reports. I've seen a, like little they're, more logistical and operational about better way board members are getting in the execs, I guess, are getting better at organizing board packets and materials and online handbooks and resources. And I think this is the nature of the pandemic, but I think it's a healthy thing. And I've seen other execs do this often when they're new, which is communication between board meetings. Assuming you're not meeting monthly, which I rarely recommend. But that, they're like, here's an update from the staff on what's happening on the ground because board members, especially during COVID and especially if you're doing frontline work, want to know what it’s like in the office or the quote office. What are you seeing? And so they don't have to be long emails, but a, like, here's three exciting things that happened this month. And yes, it takes some time from the exec to do that, but to be strategic about it and balance it between operational and strategic issues and need, and mission has, I think, helped some board members feel better connected. I've also seen some really savvy execs have coffee hour sort of, much more intentionally one-on-one with board members or an open house, like just call and ask questions, schedule time on a, like once a month basis for just whats. So people can ask questions because I think with all the uncertainty around, going back to work or direct service needs or increases or decreases in funding. It's just a way to ask questions without feeling like it's the formality of a full meal. Yeah, I love that.
Carol: There are lots of different ways to do that communication, that isn't all in the box of a board meeting, but what are the different ways that you can poke people in and not have it be onerous either on the board members part or on the staff part, but to keep those lines of communication open. So on each episode I'd like to play. A game where I ask one random icebreaker question. My question for you is what book have you read recently that you would recommend and why?
Marla: One of the things they did during the pandemic was a virtual book club with people I've been in book clubs with over the course of my life, and none of us are in the same city. So it's been a blast. My favorite book was Deacon King Kong by James McBride. I can see you smiling. Not everybody can do that on the podcast. So it is a historical novel, if you will. We'll about, I believe it was the sixties in New York city and it had the, the Italian mafia on the Irish cops and the black drug dealers. And The Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn, I can't even remember, but it had the best characters.
Carol: Character names for sure.
Marla: Absolutely the best names. And so it was incredibly relevant to the world today and issues of social justice and community. And yeah, just a blast to read. He's a wonderful writer. And we had some fun conversations about it, we were joking about that. So if you haven't read the book, the burning question in our head was what was the cheese that was left in the basement by that was left for the community in the basement of the boiler room.
Carol: I do remember it now. I do remember it. Yeah, there was just so it set in, in a, in a housing project. I can't remember what borough of New York and just all the intersections of community and. These characters. Oh my goodness. Yeah. So Donald has great characters, but the story moves too. So yeah. I love that.
Marla: I want it to be a movie.
Carol: Yes. I think it would make a great movie. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Marla: It was amazing in the middle of the pandemic. I worked on a think tank research project about the principles of trusteeship which I did with the association of governing boards of universities and colleges. It's always a mouthful to say that and it really focused on what are the principles of would that make a great board member? Not a great board because the board is made up of a bunch of people. And as I said earlier, one of the obstacles to governance is people. And so it was really fun and amazing to tap into the wisdom of a bunch of college and universities per professor presidents and foundation executives to say what they had seen and to do this in the middle of the pandemic. When you thought colleges didn't even know if they were going to be open that semester. Folks, hundreds of volunteers from AGB we're on focus groups. And so really walking away with this sort of, how do you speak to the individual? I think it has made me realize how important it is to say, it's not just what a good board should do, but it's like, what can you personally do and do better as a board member and. I feel like that's a mantra that comes out in conversation, but not as explicitly as this project brought it into focus. And so really helping people see what you are doing to help or get in the way of yourself or others. Be part of a great board.
Carol: Is there a report or some summary of findings for that?
Marla: It’s coming. There is a big purple book that we did that has nine principles. They fall into three big buckets. I was a PI. Now it's a mandola because that sounds far more sophisticated than a pie. It was at Thanksgiving when we came up with a pie that has an inner circle of three pieces, which is understood by the government. Think strategically and lead by example or lead with integrity. And so that is what you as an individual should do. And then each piece of that pie has components built within it that get at your role as a. As a fiduciary of the organization. So you've got to uphold that they get a, what role you play on the board as a member of a team. Like not everyone is the captain or the center or the goalie. I'm a soccer fan. And then there is the, what do you do outside of the board and board work? That you do as a volunteer. So when you have special expertise or you show up on campus for an event or whatever it is that you're doing, that is not board work, but you do because you love the organization or you're passionate, or because you're a board member, but you have something to add that is not a governance function. And I think so. Yes, it came out as a book that you can buy from AGB. There is an article that I wrote for trusteeship magazine that I believe is free to anyone on the AGB website, agb.org. And the title is what board members are you? So it's again, it's speaking to you. And then there's a whole bunch of stuff that AGB is rolling out, but it really was this process of self-reflection and trying to make it and put it in the language that is accessible and not jargon. And that isn't shaming people or giving them commandments, thou shall do this, but that's say, we know this is hard and we know it varies from organization to organization, but there are some fundamentals that we think everybody should be capable of doing, or you shouldn't be on the board.
Carol: Awesome. All right. Well, we'll look for that so that we can put a link in the show notes, so, awesome. Thank you so much. It was great having you in love to have this conversation.
Marla: Likewise, thanks for including me and keeping up the good governance work. All right. Thanks.
Carol: I appreciated Marla’s perspective on how the work of governance is not always crystal clear about whether an issue or decision is in the realm of strategy or management. Those are two categories that are somewhat arbitrary and there is a gray area between them. Clear communication and trust between the board and the executive director and senior leadership can go a long way to make it safe for each group to ask the questions it has, get the information it needs and feel supportive of each other instead of so wary about whether they are stepping on each other toes or getting in each other’s lanes. The models may make it look super distinctive but folks need to realize that sometimes it is not. I also appreciated the point that boards needs to spend more time looking forward than backward. Too often so much of board meetings is taken up with reports – updates on work done by committees, staff, task forces, etc. Instead of using the time that everyone is together to have a discussion about a key issue – whether it is one facing the organization today or one that folks see coming down the pike. As much as you can get reports to people in another format than shared verbally in a meeting – whether it is a written update, a short video or audio message – there are lots of options to consider.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Marla, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time.
In the special 1-year anniversary episode of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton discussed the following:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to mission impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. This is an exciting episode for me. I've been podcasting now for a year. So this is my one-year pot of nursery, and it's been so much fun doing this podcast. I've had a lot of great guests, wonderful conversations, and have really appreciated everything that I've learned from everybody that I've spoken to. And I launched the podcast back in August of 2020, but actually started doing interviews for it. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, starting in March. And so this has really been a pandemic project, although I will continue. I intend to continue on after that. Hopefully there will be an after at some point But I certainly have learned a lot.
I've learned, heard a lot about how the pandemic has impacted how folks do their work, how they approach their work. And it certainly had a lot of impact on how I approach my work. The default before the pandemic for strategic planning was of course, to have some in-person event where you did the planning of one day retreat, a one and a half day retreat. Where you brought the key stakeholders together, got them all in a room and had a series of conversations that helped them make decisions about the future of the organization. Other parts of the process certainly have been done online though.
Video conference, focus groups, listening sessions, interviews over the phone, et cetera, but that main crux of the process where you bring together the planning group has always by default, been done in person.
And of course we had to shift that overnight to working online. Now I had a head start because I'd been doing online events since the early two thousands, I in fact organized my first virtual conference in 2004 and had been producing a number of different online experiences over the course of those years. And so it was pretty easy for me to switch up how we were going to do strategic planning, but what's been so interesting to me over the course of this period.
As I've done over 10 different processes with 10 different organizations is actually to see the benefit of doing it online, doing it in a, in a remote setting. And most folks think, well, how can you really make good decisions if you're not all in the same room? And the thing that I've really noticed is that when you do that intensive retreat oftentimes right, when you get to the point of making a decision. With the group, they have hit cognitive load. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, four o'clock in the afternoon. They've been thinking hard all day processing lots of different information brainstorming and they are worn out. And that is the point in the agenda often. When you need the group to make some important decisions.
In the virtual environment, there's no need to have that intensive long eight hour experience. You can take that eight hours or 10 hours, whatever amount of time you might've had at that retreat. Pace it over a number of sessions, two hours here, three hours here, and with a contained set of goals that you're trying to accomplish in each one. Then beginning each the next one with, this is what we did last time, and this is where we are in the process.
But what I've seen is that groups really benefit from having a little bit of time to do one piece of the process and then process that integrated, to think more about it. Be able to kind of mull over the conversations that they had to then bring all of those new, all of that thinking into the next session. With a little more pacing over the period of time, I find that groups are able to get further quicker. In some ways it takes a little bit longer because you have a little bit of a gap between those two or three hour sessions, but in the same amount of meeting time, I'm able to get groups further with more clear and more refined goals than I might do if I were working with them in person.
Pacing also allows strategic planning or other leadership groups to do refinement between the large group planning sessions with time, for back and forth. So people really feel like their perspectives have been taken into consideration. And then with the pandemic, of course, everyone has thought it just has brought to the fore how unpredictable our world is. And can you really plan in this VUCA world volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and I can't remember what the, a stands for (ambiguity). And it was always unpredictable. It's just more obvious now.
I always tell folks that a plan is just a plan. It's not set in stone. They aren't tablets from on high. There's something that you created yourself, but the process itself brings clarity and alignment by creating an opportunity to talk together and explore issues together.
Another thing that I'm seeing a lot about recently with people writing about and considering whether they're going back to the office, whether they're going to stay remote, the method they might do, a blended version is talk about that you can't have culture unless you're all together in the same office. And the truth is that any organization always has called.
There's always an organizational culture, whether you've named it, whether you've explored it or not. It really more, a matter of, are you clear about it? Are you explicit about it? Are you, do you have a type of culture that you want to move towards? That that feels healthier, that you're trying to work. And just bringing everyone back into the office is kind of a de default. It's a default that allows that culture to kind of be there by accident. It allows folks to maybe not pay so much attention to it.
I think one of the blessings in disguise is actually working remotely. That we really have to pay more attention to what the expectations are? How are you working together? What are those guide rails in terms of how much flexibility folks have and their schedules and, and how they're doing their work, what are they expected to produce in a particular week, et cetera. And so it's, again, it may be more of. Are the managers in your organization? Do they have the sufficient training and tools for how to, to manage in this remote and. And so in-person can be such a, just a substitute for giving folks the tools and training that they need to really build that intentional culture and manage well within a remote or a blended context.
So this provides you with an opportunity to shift their culture in a positive direction and get everyone in gray involved and envisioning and working towards and creating that new future instead of just favoring the preferences of leadership and defaulting to. Whether you continue remote or go for a blended schedule, all you have to do is decide if you all have to go back to the office together. Think about what you've learned in this past year, past a year and a half. What do you want to keep? What do you want to let go? There's lots of opportunity there for being more intentional, more and more in clear and more explicit about the type of organization and how you want it to feel to work within your organization.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. Again, we're excited to be celebrating our one year anniversary and as with every episode you can find show notes and links and resources at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. And you'll also find transcripts for each episode.
I'd like to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as April coaster of a hundred ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review mission impact on apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. It helps others find the podcast and we appreciate it. Thanks a lot. And until next time.
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.