Two Leadership Gems from the Military

Two Leadership Gems from the Military

It’s human nature to group people and stick a label on them. We segment out individuals who are donors as being different from other people. We talk about ‘donor relations’ as if that’s distinct from building a relationship with everyone, regardless of who they are. Too often, though, we forget that this is just shorthand for real people.

Recently, Harvard Business Review blogger John Michel did an excellent job of explaining the positive impact of focusing on people and not their roles, in his post A Military Leader’s Approach to Dealing with Complexity.  It made me revisit a post of my own, C’mon People It’s Not Donor Relations, and consider implications for board leaders.

Donor relations are people relations. Just like employee relations are people relations, volunteer relations are people relations, and board relations are people relations. Any time we interact with another individual we are in relationship with that person.

Michel’s post includes two gems that strongly correlate with board leadership, and the impact of the relationship between people who serve on nonprofit boards and people who are on the frontline of delivering the nonprofit’s mission.

, if you focus on people instead of their roles, it promotes their inclusion when you craft your vision.

Or, as Michel writes:

Making inclusivity a priority will increase ownership, enhance motivation, improve information sharing, and result in leaders making wiser, more informed choices.”

We’re all aware of trustees who operate in an ivory tower and create strategic plans without involving the people who are actually charged with executing that plan. Remembering that employees are people with their own ideas and thoughts makes it easier to bring them into the process.

Build your vision in pencil, instead of ink, so you can be flexible enough to hear and incorporate the ideas of staff and increase the buy-in of everyone involved. Increased buy-in leads to increased success.

, remember that every single interaction has an impact. Every spoken or written word and every non-verbal communication becomes a part of the whole image of who you are. Relationships are a result of both conscious communications AND unconscious communications.  Every time a member of the board speaks to the person on the frontline, that conversation has an impact. All the more so when the communication is nonverbal. That’s when the leader is less conscious of what she is ‘saying.’

As Michel writes:

“Effective leaders understand that every interaction is a potentially powerful means of nurturing a relationship, eliminating an obstruction to progress, or reinforcing trust.”

John Michel based his observations on his experience in the military, relaying the impact of interpersonal relationships when confronting complexity.  The situations and scale may differ but the principle is the same. People matter. Relationships matter.

Building relationships is a fundamental tool to make sure that when you lead, others will follow.

Have you seen the impact of leaders who build relationships? Or the impact of those who don’t build relationships? Let me know!

And I’d love to have a conversation about how your strategic planning can successfully include staff, board, volunteers and community.  Contact me at

How Good is Your Executive Director?

Does the quality of the Executive Director make a difference?

You bet it does.  Or, at least in the corporate world, a great CEO seems to have an outsized impact on the strength of the corporation.

Walter Frick, reviewing work by professors Quigley and Hambrick at Penn State and University of Georgia, makes the case that in corporate America, when business is more dynamic and less predictable, the CEO has a disproportionate effect on the success of the corporation. They looked at data spanning more than 60 years – the equivalent of 18,000 firm-years, that is, the combined years that the firms had been in existence – and found that the effect of the CEO almost doubled from 1950-2009.

What does this mean for the nonprofit world?  Look carefully at this quote from Frick:

“an increase in business dynamism has amplified the impact of CEOs over time, but that effect is at its highest in companies where industry and economic constraints still limit the firm’s options.”

Picture of KamehamehaWhile I wouldn’t make one-to-one comparisons between for-profit and nonprofit organizations, you can’t deny that by its very nature, the nonprofit world is continually under economic constraints, with limited options, facing increased competition for support, higher needs, and declining resources. How well you manage these constraints is a function of the Executive Director and the Executive-Board partnership.

One of the most important functions of a Board of Directors is to hire, evaluate and, if necessary, replace the Executive Director.  The quality of the partnership between the Executive and the board has an enormous effect on whether the board’s vision is achieved, or whether the board and Executive spend most of their time on minutiae.

Hiring well, and putting in place a sound evaluation system based on relevant criteria, can make a huge difference in the future of your organization. And, if there is any similarity to the for-profit world, it is even more important in uncertain times.

Consider it an investment in the future of your agency.

For more hallmarks of transformational boards, or to find out more about achieving nonprofit Standards for Excellence™, get in touch. Let’s have a conversation.

Susan Detwiler

How is Improv Comedy Like Appreciative Inquiry?

For years, the words Appreciative Inquiry seeped into my consciousness.

It began at a two-day national development seminar, and most recently at a five-day conference for lay leaders, nonprofit professionals and clergy. By this time, it appeared everywhere, either explicitly or implicitly; there seemed to be a whole track of sessions that demonstrated appreciative inquiry in different settings.

On a very simple level, Appreciative Inquiry begins with:

  1. appreciating and valuing what is;
  2. envisioning what might be;
  3. engaging in dialogue about what should be; and
  4. innovating to create what will be.

So what does Improv Comedy have to do with Appreciative Inquiry? Good question. Two main rules of Improv Comedy are “Yes, and…” and “your main focus is on your partner.

First, whatever is thrown at you, you have to accept it and build on it. Man talking into a bananaFor example, if someone picks up a banana and uses it to call you on the phone, you can’t say, “you idiot, that’s a banana!” You have to go with the flow, answer the phone, and say, “Hey! I was just about to call you – your Mom’s here and wants to know what you did with her gold-plated antique chamber pot she inherited from your Dad’s Aunt Phoebe in Alaska!” The point is, you have to accept what has been handed to you, and figure out what to do with it.

Second, with every sentence being a potential surprise, you have to focus closely on your partner, listen to whatever is being said and try to understand where she’s going with it.

In a nonprofit setting, if a board member says, “our students aren’t showing up for tutoring,” the response is “yes, and let’s figure out the ideal situation.” If you can envision an ideal situation, then you can work towards that ideal. If you say, “yes, but they’re dealing with issues at home, the buses aren’t running at the right time, their parents don’t push them….” you’re not adding to the conversation. You’re focusing on problems and seeming defensive, instead of hearing that the board member cares about the situation and inviting him to a shared vision of a better future.

“Yes, and…”

acknowledges that the comment was made,

appreciates that it is a concern,

inquires into what would be better.

And starts a dialogue about creating a better future.

How are Committees Like Mothers-in-Law?

They both get a bum rap!

“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen

“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” Milton Berle

Then there’s this rubber stamp I was given, that said, “Great idea! Assign a committee to foul it up!”

There is an image of nonprofit board committees as the place where ideas go to die a slow and lingering death; where process overcomes inspiration; where group-think strangles innovation.

But if you’re running an organization, it’s really hard to get anything done if you can’t segment off a group of people to work on specific jobs. How do you get people to work on these jobs? You invite them. Nicely.

The problem with committees is that word: “commit.”

That’s especially true in today’s society. Sometimes I feel so rushed and overwhelmed, that the thought of taking on another commitment sends me screaming in the other direction –NOOOoooooo!!!!! You mean, I have to come to meetings and be obligated for two whole years???

But if someone said to me, “Hey, Janet has this great idea; Joe and I are going to help her make it happen. Can you join us?” my answer is probably going to at least lead to a query for more information.

Asking someone to join the Finance Committee might be deadly. Asking someone to help figure out the best way to maximize the dollars we have available for our mission…? Well, that’s intriguing.

Being offered an idea for engaging new supporters and telling them to give the idea to a committee is disheartening. Being asked to explore the idea with others and generate ways to make it work is an invitation.

Committees aren’t inherently bad. It’s how we ask people to serve that creates the deadly atmosphere surrounding them.

Invite people to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Let’s change the conversation.

Do, Delegate, Discard: Make Time for New Resolutions

“I resolve to do more (fill in the blank)…… in the coming year.”

Congratulations! But what are going to do less of?

A simple and powerful tool for any manager, Do, Delegate, Discard is especially helpful to Executive Directors who are the lynchpin between the Board of Directors and the staff. It makes you focus on making the most of your time, and helps you make best use of the talent around you.

First, write down everything you are responsible for. Everything. That includes bringing in office snacks, managing the $5000 library fund donor and organizing the annual gala. Making thank you calls to major donors, reviewing the copier contract, meeting board members for coffee and writing the copy for the eight page monthly newsletter. Writing the development and communications plan, keeping the FAQs up-to-date, hiring, evaluating and firing staff and developing the employee handbook. Whatever it is, write it down.

Now, make three columns next to the list: Do, Delegate, Discard.

For each item on the list, decide if it’s something ONLY YOU CAN DO, something you can DELEGATE TO SOMEONE ELSE, or something that doesn’t have to be done, i.e., DISCARD.

Caution! Even if you think that only you can do it right, that doesn’t mean that only you can do it. This is where perfectionists stumble. Consider – an Executive Director earning $80,000 a year (plus benefits), and ostensibly working 40 hours per week (ha), is earning $48/hour. Does it really make sense for you to be the author of every article for the newsletter or to maintain the FAQs? Or should you be focusing on staff development, major donors and board interactions? If you honestly believe that only you can do the job, then mark the DO column. These items should be where your organization will derive the greatest benefit from your time.

Control freaks stumble when they contemplate handing off to a subordinate.  Delegating is scary, but successful delegation ultimately pays off. Staff get the chance to shine and the satisfaction of being responsible for jobs well done. So into the DELEGATE column put reviewing the copier contract, keeping FAQs up-to-date, managing and writing the newsletter, reviewing lower level staff, drafting new handbook pages. It may mean time to train your staff, but developing your staff is ultimately what will make you – and your organization – even more productive.

Superwomen and Supermen stumble on DISCARD. There is a subconscious fear that you will be thought less of if you don’t do every. single. thing. But DISCARD may be the most powerful action you can take. It forces you to stop and think about why a job is done at all.  Maybe the 8 page monthly newsletter should drop to 4 pages, or bimonthly, or not even exist. What purpose does it serve; would something else serve that purpose even better? Should stewarding the library fund donor be woven into the general donor stewardship program? Are all the board reports needed? Can you move to consent agendas? Should you drop the gala that nets $20,000 but has hidden labor costs of $50,000?

Deceptively simple, Do, Delegate, Discard is a powerful tool for managing your time, and empowering your staff. It’s a great way to begin the new year, and make room for all those NEW resolutions.

Living in a Bubble

I’ve been living in a bubble.  I attended a seminar by an attorney who works with nonprofits, talking to other attorneys about the world of nonprofits.

Her talk was a shocking reminder of just how widespread misconceptions about board service are.  I’m becoming used to standing on a soap box and expounding with great assurance about the relationships between boards and executives. But every time I hear a professional presenting outdated ideas about board service, I am still shocked.

boy in a bubbleWhat she did was no different from so many other professionals, who know their fields very well, but are less informed about trends in governance. In this case, she launched immediately into the legal duties of care, loyalty and obedience, without setting the stage of what the whole point of a board is. She declared that board retreats could be done maybe every two years, or three if that’s when the full board has turned over, and used the word boring to describe board meetings. She referenced the never-changing agenda of “minutes, financial report, directors report, old business, new business,” and said that sometimes there just isn’t anything going on that’s important for the board to talk about.

There is so much I’ve learned from these professionals. An attorney describing the validity of term limits in ways that other attorneys can understand them; the legal ins-and-outs of confidentiality. But I cringe at the depiction of board service that they’ve conveyed. No one in their right mind would want to be on a board, if they thought that board service was as they describe.

So I have a new challenge. Apparently, I’ve been living in a bubble, where I communicate regularly with like-minded individuals. We see board service as a noble investment in our communities while being fully engaged with others who also see value in the mission, ensuring that nonprofit organizations have the resources with which to continue their work.

The challenge is, how do I—how do WE—get the word out to other professionals, so instead of undermining our work, they are also missionaries for the role of boards and board service?

And, since I’m living in a bubble, what misconceptions do I have, that I need to be disabused of, so I can reciprocate in my work, and provide an accurate picture of their field?

Any ideas?