Influential leadership with Hugh Ballou
In episode 59 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Hugh Ballou discuss:
Hugh Ballou works with visionary leaders and their teams to develop a purpose-driven high-performance culture that significantly increases productivity, profits, and job satisfaction. through dramatically decreasing confusion, conflicts, and under-functioning. With 40 years as musical conductor, Ballou uses the leadership skills utilized daily by the conductor in teaching relevant leadership skills creating a culture that responds to the nuances of the leader as a skilled orchestra responds to the musical director while allowing each person to excel in their personal discipline while empowering the culture.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Hugh Ballou. Hugh and I talk about what defines leadership and why moving from idea to action is so critical and too rare, how influence is key to leadership, especially nonprofit leadership, how communication flows within organizations are so important, and why they are too often ineffective.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Hugh. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Hugh Ballou: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Carol: So I like to start to give people some context and just ask you what, what drew you to the work that you do, and what would you say motivates you? What would you say is your why?
Hugh: I am a leader because I influence people and I enjoy helping people who are visionary create the skill set and the tactics to be able to influence other people because out of every a hundred people have an idea, only three people do something about it. And so I really like working with non-profit leaders cuz they have such great programs and ideas, but they need what I have to be able to accomplish their work and completely fulfill their mission rather than getting stuck partway.
Carol: . So you, as you said, specialize in working with leaders and particularly non-profit leaders. And there are lots of books about leadership. There are lots of people who talk about leadership. How would you define leadership? What does the word mean to you?
Hugh: Well, I spent 40 years as a musical conductor. And people perceive the conductor to be a dictator. That doesn't work very well in today's world. you got a bunch of union players in an orchestra, you paid 'em for two hours, they're gonna leave in two hours. Whether you've accomplished what you wanna accomplish or not, they're not very sensitive. Like, Oh, I need two more minutes. No, you've paid us for two hours. We're going. So we're not a dictator because we got this little white stick. You can't really make people do anything. What you can do is influence people to function at a higher level. So leaders have a position of influence and we influence people to work in the vision that we've defined. So a transformational leader transforms ideas into reality. Transformer leader is the whole methodology of transformational leadership is focused on the culture of building high performance.
Carol: You talked about influence. What, what are some ways, what do you see as being effective in influencing the group that you're trying to lead?
Hugh: If I'm in front of an orchestra and it's not, I'm not getting what I want, then I need to go look in the mirror and work on myself. If I'm at a board meeting as a non-profit executive, and it's not going well. Well, maybe I haven't been really clear on where we're going. I haven't been very clear on everybody's role and responsibility, and I have not been very clear about how I expect them to step into this place of performing. And so I've created a look for, for look, performing culture. Just by my lack of preparedness, my lack of understanding, how to motivate and engage people. And right there if I'm prepared, I'm on time. I'm enthusiastic, I'm an expert at what I'm doing because I've studied it and I've worked on myself, then people will respond in kind. It's the reciprocity of what we do as leaders.
Carol: . And you talked about vision within that and. Sometimes an organization could be led by an or with a, by a leader that has a really strong vision. But it seems to me that reciprocity that you were talking about, of helping everyone see themselves as part of that vision, building a shared vision is, is also so important. How have you seen that work in organizations?
Hugh: Well, that's essential. Here's an example. Now leaders have the vision period, but leaders don't do it alone. And leaders wanna get other people to ratify that vision and then come back up with a plan of how to get to that vision. So your vision is the idea that what about, what are you doing? Center vision. Transforms leaders, transforming organizations, transforming lives. So we, it's a transformational process. We do this in our, our mission through, through coaching, through planning, strategic planning, through, leadership empowerment, through board development, et cetera. So We do it because we've got a team behind us and I created the vision. I've had others that have created parts of that to apply it. So we send the vision out and then people come back and they might have some modification of how it sounds because it's gotta be really clear to everyone. So we, we, we'd accept those modifications so it's clearer and. We've been to namby pamby and it needs to be more profound in the language. So we negotiate those changes and then it's up to everybody. So you're in strategic planning. If you, if you write a strategy and you give it to the board, you've completely cut 'em off at the knees. They cannot engage because it's your plan, not their plan. So we guide the planning process. They participate, and once they start creating these, these parts of the plan, they own it. And what goes on in the culture that we orchestrate, That's my word. I'm a conductor. We orchestrate that system. There's a whole shift in the culture because we've co created the plan based on the leader's.
Carol: I think that co-creation process is so important when I'm working with clients non-profit organizations, and it's usually the board and staff working on that strategic plan and, and vision. And, sometimes they'll want me to write it at the end, right? And I like literally no, you. This is your plan. You need to, you need to craft it. I can help, I can guide, I can provide feedback but it's gotta be yours. So that piece is so important. You've mentioned being a conductor a couple times. What would you say having been a music director, having been a conductor, what, what has that taught you about leadership?
Hugh: People respond and we can create problems. We can make problems worse, or we can make it very clear so people know how to respond. And so the culture is a reflection of the leader.
Carol: . And that culture piece is so important. I've noticed that recently there's been so much conversation about folks going back to the office. Sometimes people trip and say they're going back to work. Well, we've all been at work for the last. Two and a half years. That we're going back to the office because we need to have culture. Forgetting that when you have a group of people, you always have culture. What are some things that you've seen leaders be able to do to really build effective cultures?
Hugh: Well, and many leaders in this time, we were separated for two years plus. Didn't miss the Olympics, they just went virtual, but they really created systems. No matter where people are, we could be engaged. So my teams, I guess your teams too are pretty much in different continents all the time. They have people all over the world. And so it really amplified our presence. It's so, the culture piece is that relationship piece. Now, in a musical ensemble, like other ensembles, there's a very clear culture. If I wanna say something to the violin, I talked to the concertmaster, and I said, They need the bowing to do this. The concertmaster turns around, interprets it in violin talk. There's a certain language they use and I don't just say, Hey, you over there do this. No, there's a very clear protocol there. And it's a very clear protocol that you start the rehearsal with the concertmaster right on the lick of the hour cuz there's somebody from the union there. So you start now and you end now. So it's my job to get the work done in the time allotted. So this is a very clear culture and nobody criticizes the conductor. People raise the bar on their performance and they try to do it. The culture respects the leader, which is the conductor, they play as the leader intends. If they don't respect, they play exactly as they direct, which could be choppy. Which could be fragmented. So there's a, there's a relationship piece that defines the culture. And they respond to the person because I treat them as individuals and respect the individuals. So the culture is the center vision, is my brand. It's the synergy of the common vision. So if we go through that exercise like we talked about a minute ago, of, of defining not only the, the milestones that you want to achieve, your ultimate long term objectives and your short term goals, and those milestones along the way. Then we've got this, this energy, which really sets the bar for the culture cuz now we're working together and we see how we can tag team on things. So it helps you prevent these things called silos where some people are working independently and not connecting with the community. Lack of communication is the biggest problem. And most nonprofits I've seen in 34 years of doing this and nobody. Why it's there cuz we haven't created the messaging and then we haven't created the relationship. Because sending an email doesn't cut it. Seven percent of the message is in the words. Seven. And so what about all the rest of it? So you make sure that they understand it. So part of culture is creating that respect for one another and the relationship underneath what we do. We aren't what we do, we are beings, and so we look at the tactical stuff and skip over this human being part of it, which is so critical to a leader.
Carol: , absolutely. And building those relationships. , I feel like every organization that I've ever worked with talks about, communication challenges or silos. And, too often I've seen the, the recipe or the, the solution to that being a restructuring or reorganizing, which really only, it shuffles the deck for a little bit and then people reorganize back into new silos. So I, paying attention to how, how do we bring people together in a cross-cutting way? Or if there's a really, if there's a very clear protocol on, as you had gave that example of I'm gonna talk to the concert master and they'll talk to their folks, that the message chain, but most, most groups are, the non-profits are, are relatively small, small teams, informal. They don't necessarily have a lot of really strong protocols, but they can still, even with a small team, get siloed if they're not figuring out ways to have the information or go across functions and share information in a useful way. What are some ways that you've seen leaders be able to set up some of those cross-cutting mechanisms to really help with those communication challenges?
Hugh: When you have, like we have boards that come together and board meetings, you don't work at board meetings. You report on what's happened and you structure the next happening. So you work between meetings and the biggest mistake is we try to dig into the work in the meeting when we really need to spend time talking about what we're doing. And that's where you start fostering. Cuz I'm working on this, somebody else is working on this, somebody else is working on. Different, but there's an interdependence in all of that. And so if we start talking about what we're doing and say, Okay, here's what I could use from the communications committee. Here's what I need from the finance committee. I'm doing marketing. So we start, Bridging those gaps by saying, This is what I need. And by the way, I've created this data, which the two of these committees will find helpful to other committees. I wanna send this to you cuz it'll save you duplicating the work. And so thinking about the reciprocity of how we work together intentionally. And then when we have committee meetings, We never think about the specific messages that need to be communicated, others. So I insist that when we end meetings, any kinda meeting, there's an exercise. What's a message that somebody needs to know? Specific message for somebody who wasn't here, and you start thinking about, Oh, Soso needs to, oh, so and so, and then, okay, then who's gonna tell 'em? How will they tell 'em, or when will they tell 'em, we need to happen before the next meeting because there's some stuff here they need to know so they can show up at the next meeting. Or it's their responsibility to find out, well, how are they gonna find out? And unless we create the message and then send it out. So having somebody that's the communication clearing house, somebody. Y better if it's a staff person, but sometimes there's some really good volunteers that do that work and are better and want to step up. So what do other people need to know that weren't in the room? And then how will they know that? So being intentional if you do that in every meeting and insist on that, that does a lot to start closing that.
Carol: . Well the other thing that made that, as you were talking, sometimes meetings would just be one update after another and, and people aren't necessarily asking the question of how do all these things relate? And there may be somebody in the room who thinks that way, so brings it up. But thinking about and asking the question intentionally about what are the dependencies? How could we, What, what does one project have to do with another, could, could bring that and, and also help people stay awake while they listen to all those updates. Cause that's another thing. I know I can, if I'm in a meeting, that's all that I sometimes will, will get distracted and so I'm not following where the opportunities are for intersection.
Hugh: And there's, there's a, there's a rest. There's also how much people can take in one sitting, right? So we tend to want to dump all the information at the meeting when in fact, when you send out the deliverables for a meeting, I suggest deliverables are not on agenda. So we talk about stuff. So what? Let's get something done. So if you shift your paradigm from agenda to deliverables, we're gonna accomplish abc. People go, Oh, that's just semantics. No, it's a paradigm shift. We're not gonna be guilty of activity. We're gonna be charged with and, and driving. Results and people like that. And so if you say, Okay, two days before meetings at seven, here's another thing people know they're supposed to be on time and we say stupid things like be on time. Well, they know that. So instead of saying, We're gonna start a meeting at seven o'clock, You could say to them, Okay, we normally start at seven. We need to get more done this time, so we're gonna start early. So please be ready to go at 6:59. And people go, Why do I come in? Well, if you come at seven, you'll be late. And we're starting. So that gives them a specific time because seven o'clock is sort of, Oh, it's around. And we know we're a little bit late. They're gonna wait for us. No, we're starting at 6:59. So our job is to start on time. So the communications start with. We're gonna start at 6:59. We're gonna be through at 8 27. So we have to state that commitment. But if we're specific and we say two days before we're, we're gonna talk about fundraising. So we're gonna, we're gonna, our deliverable is to, to define five. Strategies for increasing our revenue by 25%. That's very clear. So we've defined five strategies. Now we have that as the number one deliverable. Now my job is to go backwards from that and figure out, we brainstorm, we sort common ideas, we prioritize the ideas, then we make a plan, and then we assign it to a committee to do the details. And so our off limits are, What we're not gonna do is the details of those plans, cuz you can't do all that work and do the details of the plan in the same. And we shouldn't. It's not a work meeting. So we've defined the brainstorming work, so we define what we're gonna do there. So the other communication piece is what meeting is it? Okay. It's brainstorming. All ideas go, it's sorting, it's focus, and then it's planning. So there's three different activities, and we need to be clear on what we expect people to do. Two days before we send that deliverable. We may have one or two others, but we're gonna do this so people know when we leave, we're gonna have completed these, this, this item, and then we send them any relevant information so they can come prepared. So it's like a conveyor belt. It's going, We get on the conveyor belt, we do the meeting, and we get off. And so we've helped. Get smart enough to have the data to make the decision, so we don't download a bunch of stuff at the same time and expect people to process it, think of the questions and make decisions. That's just not good.
Carol: , I really appreciate the reframing of an agenda to a set of deliverables and being really clear about that. Sometimes I've seen items on the list of things to talk about if we're gonna discuss this today, or we're gonna have a brainstorm, we're not making any decisions today and be clear about that. Right. Be clear about what stage of that conveyor belt you're on. But the way that you framed it in terms of we're gonna do x for this result, I. For me it would be more motivating to then do all that prep than I might otherwise leave until 6:45 before the seven o'clock meeting to feel like I can show up and, and be helpful.
Hugh: I use storyboards. I use regular paper cut, regular paper in half from the printer, and then I spray a board. It's it's report boards from the office supply, and then everybody has markers and they, everybody's working, so they're not looking at the back of my head when I'm writing on a chart pad, the energy of the room dies and you take one minute, one minute, one minute, you've wasted 15 to 20 minutes in a board meeting for people looking at the back of your head. So if you took that 15 minutes and used it for people, they can, they can write simultaneously and we put the ideas up. They're active, they're creative, they're participating. That changes the culture more than anything. So people say, Oh, that's silly. You should use Sharped. That's the industry standard, Well, that's also the industry problem. And so if people are engaged, you don't have time to sleep. Plus, if you send them the data, then we're gonna process it. And then up in the B top I'll say, Here's the question we're answering or brainstorming around. And I'll brainstorm and they'll say, We're gonna take these cards off the board. We're gonna move 'em over here, and we're gonna group 'em by topic. And so it's sorting it, and then we're gonna move those over into 1, 2, 3. It's a plan. Some things, like you said, we're not making a decision. It's information. Only. People need to relax and just be able to receive the information, so it's our job. To communicate what we're doing and we don't do that very well.
Carol: . Most folks don't think, Another trick that I've seen a colleague use: have them finish the sentence. By the end of this meeting, we will have achieved X and, and be really clear about what those outcomes are. And I use that all the time to just. Get that end state, what, what's the, where are we aiming, where are we aiming for just in this 45 minutes, what's gonna be useful? Where are we gonna get?
Hugh: You form the culture. You rehearse the, like seven, seven guys jump over a wall and ask our race and they change the tires, fill the cast and whatever else. Adjustments in their back over the wall in 13 seconds. And they rehearse that and everybody has a role of responsibility. 13.1 seconds. Driver's gonna lose a spot in the race. And so we need to have that fine tuned. So the other defining piece of a culture I call guiding principles. When we do, you do strategy, we do core values. And core values are essential in that we have to be aligned. And if people aren't aligned with the core values, anything gonna work out. So personal core values or organizational core values and. Those are static, usually. Integrity, honesty, fairness. So that we, I take those another step that's essential. Then they quickly become useless because it's static and people have different ideas of what that means. So we shape those in what we call them. Guiding principles so that shapes how we make decisions. Like one non-profit that I worked with had had a school that didn't teach standardized testing in Virginia, and their students went on to college, made the honor roll because they learned how to learn. They didn't just learn how to regurgitate in a test. And so their number one guiding principle was, we will not accept money from any donor that wants to change how we educate children. E. Guideline for making decisions. So they were aligned around that principle. So we don't think about the principles to apply those values to the decision making.
Carol: , absolutely. I mean, I think naming those values is just a first step. And then having that conversation about, well, what do you mean by integrity? What do you mean by respect? What does, how do you know? How am I gonna know whether I'm being respected? How, how do I receive that? How do I show that to me? And then the other piece around the guiding principles creating some set of. These are the decisions, these are the things that we're gonna map anything against for a decision. So that, so that we're having some consistency around how we're, evaluating new opportunities or new challenges is so important. . So one thing I love to do at the end of every podcast episode is I have a box of random, well, they're not random cuz there's a box of icebreaker questions. But I've got a couple here, a couple here, and I'm gonna grab one for you and I'm gonna ask, the question I'm gonna ask is, what's the last thing you bought for under $50 and you love and use?
Hugh: A burr, a manual burr grinder for my coffee beans. I'm a coffee snob and you have to have a burr grinder. So all of the granules are the same size, so you extract the majority of the flavor. So it's a little hand crank and I'm gonna use it tomorrow. I'm traveling and I have an electric one for home, but it's a little crank one. And it's essential because we all know hotel coffee is terrible.
Carol: Well, I will have to look that up because I also am a fellow coffee snob, but I don't often grind my own. So I'll have to try that and see if that's a new innovation. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Hugh: Emerging is, I just finished a leadership symposium where I live in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had people from around the region come and attend. I had 12 faculty members that
were just out of the box. Brilliant. And if you wanna be a good leader, you surround yourself with better people. And I could, I certainly have done that. So I'm excited about the next chapter, getting people in. We have this community for non-profit leaders and how we get together. It's a free community off of social media, so we don't have all that to mess with. And we talk about leadership and we talk about how to help each other. So in the south we say none of us is as smart as all of us. And that is true, even though we have our own language.
Carol: All right, well you send us a link to that and we'll make sure to put it in the show notes so people can find it. Thank you so much. It's been great to talk to you.
Hugh: You're a great interviewer. Thank you so much. It was my joy to be with you today.
Carol: I appreciated Hugh’s points about defining what deliverables you need from a meeting. I saw a study on LinkedIn recently from Korn Ferry that found that employees spend an average of 18 hours per week in meetings whether in person or virtual and managers spent 22 hours. That is close or more than half of their hours at work. The same study found that a third of those meetings could have been skipped. The study estimated $100 million a year for a single large organization. That is likely large in for profit terms – thousands of employees.
So which meetings on your calendar could be an email, or a short video created using a platform like Loom? And which need to be redesigned.
A key step is to define the purpose of the meeting. Why are you getting together? What are you hoping to accomplish? How are you communicating the purpose? Are folks clear what the expectations are for the meeting? Are you brainstorming? Narrowing options? Making a decision? Looking for intersections across different functions work streams?
Be clear about what your goals are and use the mad lib I learned from a colleage – by the end of this meeting, we will have [Fill in the blank].
This is all especially important for those regular team meetings or other regularly occurring meetings – check in on those – do they have a clear purpose? Does the purpose need to be reconsidered? Nonprofits run lean operations generally. So your Time, money and energy is precious. Taking a critical look at your meeting schedule is a good place to start.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Hugh, his full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
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I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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