Confession of a Control-Freak Consultant

Things fall through the cracks. They just do. Not often. But they do.

Sometimes it’s because we have too much on our plates. Sometimes, an emergency or a rush job came up, and our mind is focused on that.  But sometimes, everything is going along smoothly, and things still fall through the cracks, because everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.

As a recovering control freak, I used to be the one who made sure that everything got done. To me, the path of least resistance was for me to do it.

But as a consultant, that’s the very worst thing I could do. My job is to let YOU do it; it’s YOUR job to take responsibility and figure out how to do it yourself, so eventually, you don’t need me.

So what do I do? I make sure you end your meetings affirming who is doing what, by when.

Whether it’s a nine month long strategic planning project, a one day planning retreat, or any meeting in which a decision is made, they all end the same way:

Who is doing what? By when? How will you know it’s done?

I was working with one multi-faceted organization whose executive director had announced he was retiring in two years. Despite general dismay, after four months the board had not yet formulated a plan for finding his successor.  I was asked to get them started.

At a full day retreat, we spent the morning envisioning the future of the organization and the CEO qualities that would help that future become reality. Then, over lunch, I let it ‘slip’ about being a recovering control freak. Through general laughter, I told them that the way I managed it was by making sure THEY knew what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it.

That afternoon, we mapped out how they would go about finding a successor: what research they would need, what data they would want, what the board, staff, and other constituents would need. Then, about an hour before adjourning,  I reminded them of my ‘recovering control freak’ statement, and asked:

“Now that you’ve decided what you’re going to do, who is going to be responsible for making sure it gets done?

“You don’t have to be the one that does it, but you’re the one who stays on top of it, and makes sure it’s accomplished.

“Who’s job is it?”

Then, when that person self-identified, the next question was,

“Great! By when? When will this goal be completed?”

and then,

“When will you have that first committee meeting? When will you have the first progress report to the board?”

Those milestones were entered into the plan, and the Board Chair keeps track of who is doing what.  The milestones give the entire board an opportunity to reflect on whether the progress needs to be speeded up or the goals amended.

By coaching the Board and Staff on building their own accountability into their plans, I satisfy my control freak tendencies, and enable the excellent members of the leadership team to step up.

A win-win result all around.

Are Old Tapes Hindering Group Progress?

Are Old Tapes Hindering Group Progress?

It’s common parlance to refer to ‘the same old tape we play over in our heads.’ The phrase comes from the time (remember it?) when we used cassettes and 8-tracks to replay the same songs over and over again. It is a fitting metaphor for the implication, since the phrase actually references an old technology.

The same way those old tapes we play in our heads recall old situations and old behaviors.

Every time we encounter a person we’ve known for a long time, old tapes start playing. We know what the person believes and thinks, and how they will behave. There isn’t any need to ask questions, since we assume we already know the answers they’ll give. Our response to their behaviors falls into patterns, as do their responses to ours. It’s a great shortcut.

But what if that old tape is no longer current? Stretching the metaphor further, what if there’s a great new cover for the song? The theme song for the original show One Day at a Time, “This is It,” was performed by Polly Cutter in a bouncy, upbeat genre, very fitting to the 1970’s – 1980’s period. The new version of the same theme song, now sung by Gloria Estefan, is updated to fit the times. The Latin beat is different, while the underlying bones of the song are the same.

When we encounter someone we’ve known for a long time, the old tapes may no longer reflect who that person is now. They are still the same person, but they’ve learned and experienced new things. They’ve developed new ways of thinking. Their responses to situations are different.

If we don’t take the time to get to know who they are now, we continue playing the old tapes, and they respond with their own old tapes.

This has strategic implications for boards and group dynamics.

When board members or participants in a group think they know each other very well, what’s really happening is that they know what the old tapes sound like. They make assumptions about what the others around the room believe, think, feel and know, based on those old tapes. As a result, some topics of conversation are avoided or ignored, or they are cyclical rehashes of old arguments, originally recorded years ago.


These tapes tether the group to the past, and hinder building a new future together. Interrupting those narratives takes conscious effort, but it’s worth making that effort. Genuinely knowing the others around the table helps create trust, crucial in building consensus around decisions. The new knowledge about each other opens up participants to new ideas.

Questions interrupt the narratives we tell ourselves.

Questions are key to learning new things about others.

Asking questions elicits new knowledge that may contradict or augment those old tapes. In groups that meet regularly, such as boards, it helps to begin each meeting with a question that gives each participant the time to share something new. In groups that meet infrequently, or in retreats, more time is needed. Old tapes have had plenty of time to become habit so set aside time specifically for getting to know each other.

What can you learn about each other that may surprise you? What can you learn that will change your assumptions about each other?

Questions interrupt the narratives we tell ourselves.

Questions alter the tapes we play.

Questions open us up to new possibilities.

Facilitated meetings make it easier to ask these questions. For more tips about changing group culture, building an engaged board, and strategic planning, follow me at, or reach me at

Only One Resolution

Only One Resolution

Is this a familiar scenario? You follow up on every obligation to your boss, or your board chair, or your spouse. But when you vow to do something for yourself, it keeps moving to the bottom of the list.

Promises to others are easy to keep. You want to help. They’re relying on you. You see and feel the disappointment on their faces when you don’t deliver. That’s true whether it’s a work obligation or a promise to your family.

But when you make a promise to yourself, somehow it doesn’t happen. That promise to make time to plan the future stays just that – a promise. That vow to take an hour a week to keep up on best practices in board governance falls by the wayside. Somehow these promises keep being put off. We’ll get to them “when I have time.”

After all, it’s not going to affect anyone else. Or is it?

You may think you’re only disappointing yourself, but what about everyone who relies on you to be at your best? What about all the people whom your newly gained knowledge or deep thinking will help?

That time you spend on self-discovery or professional development are obligations to others, as well as to yourself. It is part of the fabric of our world that what we do for ourselves affects those around us.

Of course, we can resolve to make obligations to our own self-improvement as high a priority as obligations to others. But if this resolution is like most others, by February it will be broken.

Instead, make a more fundamental resolution. Resolve to find the system that will lead you to making that time for self-improvement.

People go where systems lead them.  Great baseball players know that merely resolving to randomize their pitches doesn’t work. But giving themselves a trigger – like pitching a curve ball every time they glance up and see a ‘3’ on the scoreboard clock – they’ve created a system to randomize the pitches.

People go where systems lead them. By creating a system that works for you, you’re creating a condition for success.

  • It may be finding an accountability partner; finding someone whom you respect who will hold you accountable for the promises you make to yourself.
  • It may be finding a trigger that prompts you to take time whenever that trigger occurs – like immediately following a regularly scheduled call.
  • It may be scheduling, far in advance, a series of half-day trips.

Instead of resolving to improve yourself, resolve to create that system that will lead to that self-improvement.

Happy New Year!  May we all go from strength to strength in 2017!

Photo credit: By Desde mes de diciembre – Canal 1 Posadas Misiones, Public Domain,

Star Trek, Nonprofits and Ideals

Star Trek, Nonprofits and Ideals

I grew up on Star Trek – not just the show, but the idealistic vision of a future in which a United Federation of Planets could boldly go where no one has gone before, seeking out new life forms and new civilizations. Conquest was wrong. Help was right. People got along.

I once had a conversation with my son about the original Star Trek, and how it differed from subsequent versions. In the original Star Trek, each show was a parable, a small morality tale, in which we were being taught about right and wrong. True, the writers were sometimes (often?) heavy handed with their messages. Nevertheless, through the interplay of the emotional Kirk, the logical Spock, and the pragmatic and sometimes cynical Bones or other characters, we saw different sides and different approaches to the same situation. Usually, the resolution came about through some combination of the first two, aided by the actions or intervention of the other characters.

I wonder how many nonprofit executives and philanthropists received their initial grounding in the possibilities of a better world through watching Star Trek. Is the idealism that surrounds so much of our work the product not just of faith and parenting, but also those small glimpses into a better world?  Like M&Ms coated in sugar candy, the ideals were coated in action, costumes, and amusing interplay between characters whom we came to know and predict. We thought we were just watching a fun show, but we were being molded.

In retrospect, I suspect that I was affected by Star Trek; not just by the shows themselves, but by the implicit approval given to those messages by my parents as we watched together.

Looking around the table at board and staff meetings, do you know what has molded your colleagues? We now have four generations working and serving together. What television shows, books or movies formed their ideals? What are their cultural touchpoints? Through what lenses do they view the world?

A good board is not homogeneous. Each member brings their own history and ideals. What would it make possible if you were to create time to explore these cultural references together? What bonding might occur? Might understanding and then trust increase as the conversations unfolded?

Business can occur mechanically, or it can occur in an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie. Would could you accomplish if you took the time to learn about each other before embarking on the future?

Note: portions of this post were originally posted May 22, 2009.

Even full plates can be rearranged: 5 questions to evaluate a change in plans

Even full plates can be rearranged: 5 questions to evaluate a change in plans

Sometimes in life, we have a really full plate of things that we’re focusing on and need to deal with. And it’s at that moment, that something happens that demands that we switch focus, so that we need to move things around. From this we learn that the items on the plate are always movable–we just need to realize that we can move them.”  Rabbi Elisa Koppel

Although Rabbi Koppel was writing about life events, the lesson is also pretty valid for work. The lesson is even valid for things we view as solidly in place for the next 3 years, like a strategic plan. Circumstances change as the world changes, and we have to rearrange the things on our plate to accommodate these changes.

A lot of talk right now focuses on how a single election can change the trajectory of the country. But changes abound in the world regardless of whether it’s an election year. We see it in the rapidly changing social media landscape, which transforms how people take in information and make decisions. We see it in the swiftly changing transportation industry, in which car ownership is no longer a non-negotiable rite of passage, and people share rides with strangers instead of warning against hitchhiking. We see it in the gig economy becoming the norm for a generation.

The cascade effect of all these changes is real.

What does that mean for your organization? That’s up to you. The world may have changed, but that doesn’t mean that your vision has changed.

Your vision remains how you want the world to be because you exist.

But the world moves too quickly, and things change too rapidly, for a five year strategic plan to be viable. Even 3 years may be too long.

That’s why we build expansion joints into the plans; specific times to reevaluate. Circumstances change all the time, but we don’t always pay attention. Or our plates are so full of the ‘stuff’ that has to get done, that we don’t pick up our heads to look around at what might be different now.

Putting calculated milestones into our plans make us stop and reevaluate the progress. These are specified times when we check to see whether the plans and assumptions are still valid.

Yet even with the calculated milestones, it may feel as if you’re in a groove and you just want to keep going, despite the new information.

That’s when it’s important to remember that “the items on the plate are always movable – we just need to realize that we can move them.”

5 Questions for making decisions

How do you get out of the groove? Here are five questions to ask yourself and the others around the table.

  1. “What is our vision? Do we all still agree on the vision of where we’re heading?”

Now that we have new circumstances:

  1. “What does staying in our current groove make possible, in our quest toward that vision?
  1. “What does changing our direction make possible, in our quest toward that vision?”
  1. “What is the downside if we stay in our groove, relative to our vision?”
  1. “What is the downside if we change our direction, relative to our vision?”

These five questions are the beginning of looking objectively at the effect of new circumstances on our current plans. Instead of appealing to legacy or history or prior investments or a single person’s passion, these questions allow you to evaluate the proposals relative to the same point—the vision you are aiming for.

And isn’t your vision really why you exist?

The things on your plate are movable. All you need is the will to move them.