Now I find myself four months away from having served nine years in the CEO position and I guess I’m in danger of becoming part of the woodwork myself. Consequently, I thought it would be a good time to consider what strategies the leader of any nonprofit organization can utilize to avoid becoming stale.
The challenge that we may face is that our organization might be humming along perfectly well. We might be steadily increasing service by whatever measure we use and so why would we mess with something if it isn’t broke?
Yet, leaders are like sharks. They stop moving and they can’t breathe and begin to suffocate. Leadership has to constantly evolve or else in a world that never stops changing it can do nothing else but start to stagnate. That is bad for the organization and bad for you as a person.
So, what are the strategies you can employ?
1. First you need to conduct a simple audit of where you are as a leader.
Do my staff feel challenged and stimulated by my leadership?
Do I have a cozy ‘identity’ in the community which has not changed significantly in years?
Am I enlarging the world that my organization is operating in?
Are we perceived as a forward looking organization prepared for the challenges of the next decade?
What are the real areas of challenge remaining for my organization?
What is the tangible legacy I want to leave behind me?
Hopefully thinking seriously about these questions will reveal an area for you to either concentrate or taken a new interest in.
2. Do the Opposite of what you are currently doing.
In my own situation, my focus as a leader has always been on the strategic and programmatic side of what a food bank can achieve in terms of shortening the line. I wanted to turn hunger into health. I’ve never been a trucks and facilities kind of guy.
What better way of forcing me out of my comfort zone than to move the organization into a capital campaign for a new facility? Sure I will already leave a legacy of a major pivot in the function and community perception of the organization – but the next CEO could screw that up in a year! A new facility will last. (Earthquakes, mudslides and forest fires permitting).
So, maybe this is a time for you to explore what is the yin to the yang of your current focus. If you are more interested in the mechanics of how the machine runs, then how can you unleash energy in the organization to enable that machine to take those you serve in a new direction.
3. Consider a new approach to your leadership
Yes there are plenty of seminars and conferences and billable by the hour consultants waiting to suggest to you the latest approach to leadership. It’s great to be open to this, it is also worth considering a more significant revamp of your leadership.
A few years back I took a year-long set of retreats called Courage to Lead, Run by Leading From Within and developed by Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D. and the Center for Courage & Renewal, the Courage to Lead retreat series model focuses neither on technique, nor on society’s needs, but on renewing the inner lives of leaders.It also helps provide you with a peer group of other nonprofit leaders. I found the series so rewarding that I invited all of our leadership team to attend, and they have been able to utilize the benefits.
This is just one example. You could find something else that would give you a new framework to operate within.
3. Take a Helicopter Perspective of the Issue your organization is engaged in.
We get so caught up in the day to day of our ‘mission’ and how to fund it that we often miss the bigger picture. Are we being truly effective? Are we caught up in competing with those who have similar missions? Are we doing what we are good at doing rather than what needs to be done? Presumably if you have been running your organization a while then maybe you can afford no to be so insecure about branching out and trying to convene discussions on a higher level where the day to day needs of your own organization become secondary. This will enable you to build new partnerships within the community and beyond, which will enable your organization to grow in the years to come. We did this with our leadership of the SB County Food Action Plan.
4. Take a Micro Perspective of the Issue you are Working On
Change the world by changing your understanding of it, and do this by connecting with those who you serve in a more intimate manner. Get to know the true situation of clients or those affected by your issue. Understand their needs, not your perception of them. I tried this in a small way with my yearly Food Security Challenge, when I live on food stamps for a month and meet clients and promote their situation. You could find some other way of getting into the same weeds you’ve been carefully avoiding these past few years. We all forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we need to be reminded.
5. Make a list of things that don’t work and systematically fix them
Every organization has programs or initiatives that seem to function despite themselves. They grind along and kind of get the job done, but you have the feeling that they could be done better with better results. One of our challenge areas has always been our Brown Bag senior nutrition program, providing groceries and produce to seniors in need. There are conflicting needs: for efficiency and standardization from operations, the need for long-term volunteers to do things their own way, the need for the USDA to ask for overbearing reporting! We actually brought in a knowledge philanthropist a few years back, a skilled project manager, who analyzed the problem and we implemented the recommendations. And yet the world refuses to stay fixed for long and here we are again. What are the thorny areas in your organization that you could take an interest in?
These are just some of the approaches you could take to reinvigorate your leadership and cast it in a new light. I will just say that all of this is secondary to the primary business of identifying and growing new leadership within the organization to replace yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Your energy and focus will ebb and flow. Sometimes we are giving 120% t the organization, and at other times it might be a less than dynamic 72%. As long as you think these are balancing out on a monthly basis, then you are probably in good shape.
Leadership is tiring in a way that people who do not have such a great responsibility do not always understand. You are just the person sitting behind the desk who other people have to be vaguely nice to and who smiles badly when a giant (sized) yet modest (monetary value) check is presented to the organization.
Good luck with whatever new changes to your leadership the new year brings.
Of course you can just let things go on and on as they are as regards your leadership, but remember how that turned out for Ned Stark!
Stanford Social Innovation Review is one of the best journals of its kind, talking about the evolving lines between non-profit organizations, business and government. Of course the kind of journal we are referring to deal with issues that are a lot easier to talk and theorize about then to actually achieve in a focused, sustainable way. And here at ‘From Hunger Into Health’ we’re dreamers and idealists, but also hard-nosed types who have to live by our wits, and where the first question out of our lips is: “Sounds great, but is it free?”
That’s why it’s always been great that SSIR holds a yearly conference at Stanford Alumni Center that focuses much more in the art of the practical. Real nonprofit leaders from around the world come together for a couple of days to hear some of the latest ideas and share their tales from the trenches.
This was my third year of attending. I always like to go as it is a nice stimulus. Of course my staff dread me attending, because it means I will return with EVEN MORE NEW IDEAS THAT I WILL EXPECT OTHERS TO EXECUTE. Not entirely true, as a lot of execution has to come from me too. I thought that this year it would be good to share some of my learnings on this blog, so saving you money and freeing up your time. I’ll do a number of posts in the coming few months. We start off with MAKING BETTER BOLDER DECISIONS, a lecture given by Stanford faculty member Chip Heath, which will be (surprise, surprise) drawn from his upcoming book.
Yes, wisdom can come from the mouth of someone called Chip, and Chip Heath is (with the assistance of his brother Dan) the author of the book ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard’ (Broadway Books) which made a pretty good fist at dealing with what is a daily subject here at Food Bank Central.
Chip started with some sobering statistics. (Actually he probably started with a joke, but i’ll spare you.)
60% of top business executives admit their bad decisions are as frequent as their good ones.
‘People’ decisions are the hardest and most important. Yet 40% of top level headhunting fails within 18 months.
The dropout rate amongst teachers is higher than that of students.
So how can we improve this challenging area? After all this is why they pay us the big bucks, to make decisions, right? The standard advice out there is to ‘trust your gut.’ But Chip points out that the human gut is not always particularly trustworthy. He put up a slide of a slice of the Cheesecake Factor Red Velvet Cheesecake, which has as many calories as three double cheeseburgers and a bag of Skittles.
So much for trusting the gut. (This brought back a tear of nostalgia from a Feeding America national summit a couple of years back, when we left the auditorium after a stirring discussion of good nutrition, only to find complimentary slices of Cheesecake Factory Peanut Butter Cheesecake waiting for us – hey, they were sponsors, what can you do?)
Ok, so the gut is in doubt. Other people say trust the experts, trust analysis. Ye 83% of mergers and acquisitions – which only occur after incredible degrees of expensive analysis – end up creating no financial value whatsoever. If you always said no to a merger or acquisition, you’d be right 5 times out of 6. Remember, ‘the experts are often wrong, but never in doubt.’ The average completely certain medical diagnosis is wrong 40% of the time. The average cost overrun on new plants is 56%
So, expertise is not getting us where we need to be, and the problem is compounded by the fact that with most decisions we don’t get enough specific feedback to know what was really a bad decision anyway.
Intuition, says Chip, is a machine for jumping to conclusions. It is a narrow perspective from which to view the world. It is also more about having an immediate reaction to an opportunity. He asked us to consider the concept of a ‘spotlight’, which is how we look at something that requires a decision. Spotlights are close up and good for highlighting info, but they tend to throw other options into the darkness. We need a process to help us move the spotlight around to be able to consider all aspects of a decision.
It was then that Chip hit us with his acronym. A couple of hundred note takers in the audience breathed a sigh of relief – at last a nice juicy acronym to add to our voluminous collections.
Reality test your assumptions
Add distance to the choice process
Prepare to be wrong.
The problem with decisions is that if we have two choices we are very likely to choose the clunker. If we have more options it will lead to a better rounded decision. The concept of reality-testing your assumptions is because we can’t help suffering from ‘confirmation bias,’ where we go out searching for information that confirms our initial view. The concept of ‘adding distance’ is there because we need perspective to get away from the short term anxiety that clouds a decision. Distance at time of choice is valuable. The final element is ‘prepare to be wrong.’ If we can move beyond seeing the success of our decision as the only possible result, then we can be more prepared for the different future that might show up.
Let’s look at these areas in a little more detail.
We tend to think choices are an ‘either/or’ thing. Chip called this the decision making process most commonly adopted by teenagers. It is expressed as a ‘whether or not,’ as apparently teens rarely consider that they have multiple options.
Professor Paul Nutt at Ohio State University made a study where he looked at key decisions that business and nonprofit organizations have made. His approach was to contact multiple decision makers and also those who were involved but outside the direct decision making process. He discovered that 71% of these crucial decisions (168 in total) were simple ‘whether or not’ choices with no third option considered. This means that organizations are operating like teenagers. So if you hear ‘should we do this or not’ then alarm bells should ring warning you that you have a narrow framing of the situation without adequate options to choose from. If you view the future as range of possibilities, then you have room to make a better decision.
He brought up the example of an organization called HopeLab. They wanted to design an activity monitor for teens to measure how physically active they were and to provide some kind of reward system. (the product is called Zamzee and check it out at www.Hopelab.org – interesting company and product).
To design this product, they considered 6 or 7 potential partners. Normally it would have been a straight horse race and they would have agonized over who to bet on. Picking partners based on how they impress you in a meeting can be dangerous. (Especially if you want to move beyond the gut situation).
So HopeLab thought: why not buy the horserace? They broke down the project to smaller stages and hired five of the companies to each do the first small part of the project to see how well they did and how HopeLab worked with the outside partner. This is not as onerous as it sounds, because you can typically eliminate a couple straight out of the gate as a result of them being bad to work with or not to have any real ideas, however impressive the binders were at their presentation.
This process is also an opportunity to really look at what you are trying to achieve. If a particular approach keeps coming up as important in multiple people’s work, then it would be good to include it in the finished product or service. In HopeLab’s case, two firms had brilliant ideas. They had the luxury of combining the best features from each and now had two proven partners to choose from. At this point they could make their choice or even run the race again with the next stage of the project.
Our kneejerk response might be that by doing this, we were making at least part of the project five times more expensive than it needed to be. The rebuttal to that would be that we are improving the actualization of the project in a way that is going to save us a lot more money further down the line when things get really expensive – far more than you spent when things were cheaper at the beginning. So instead of getting stuck on ‘either/or,’ maybe think ‘this AND that’ and you may be able to achieve more.
Reality Testing Assumptions
Reality testing is doing what it takes to get the data, and not just the data that confirms what your gut tells you. ‘Confirmation bias’ is a particular problem when there is ambiguity. We want to confirm what we believe. Data that supports us is always going to interest us more than that that which does not.
Clearly sometimes there is no data to draw on. It this case, there is a value to testing. So in the case of recruiting, people put way too much store on the interview, even though this is not the most predictive indicator to future job success. Another alternative is have people do work samples. Why predict if you can know? Most of us could, with a bit of thought, come up with some way of asking people to produce a sample or demonstration of their work no matter what job they were applying for.
The best defense is to force yourself to ask disturbing questions: Why are we not likely to finish this project on time? Why should we not start this program? Sometimes non-comfirming questions can be positive.
Another element that Chip brought in for us to consider in the decision-making framework was our own attitude. Specifically, that we should be always trying to assume positive intent on the part of other people we are dealing with. Often our first reaction is to assume negative intent. We are always listening out for criticism. If we assume positive intent, we will be amazed what happens, because we are always downplaying the positive. He produced statistics showing that when married couples keep a marriage diary, where they write down the things that make them happy, that 70% of relationships improve. This is because typically we dismiss the good stuff and focus on the negative.
Add Distance to the Process
The villain in the decision making process is short-term emotion – getting caught in the here and now and not looking at the long term implications of decisions. You don’t always have the luxury of sleeping on the decision. Chip brought up an amusing example of how we would advise our best friend if he/she was asking us whether they should call an unattached person they had admired or whether they should attempt to continue making a favorable impression in their shared work/study environment for longer so that their approach might be more likely to succeed. If the friend was agonizing, we would all say ”just call him/her’. That is probably the right recommendation. Yet when the decisions are ours, then our fears and anxieties can win out or slow things down. So, next time you face a tough decision, just ask: “What would I tell my best friend to do?” Distance helps us identify the core priorities. That is the approach you should take. Identify your core priorities and enshrine them in your decision making process.
Prepare to be wrong
I think this is a much overlooked stage of the decision-making process. Overconfidence can blind you to preparing for an environment where you decision doesn’t work out.
As part of the decision-making process, consider conducting a ‘premortem.’ Don’t just focus on your best picture of the future. Imagine your organization a year from now, and the new project has been a disaster. Ask those involved with and impacted by the decision what happened? If you move that spotlight to what could cause a bad result, you will be surprised how accurately people can tell you what and why things went wrong.
This not only keeps you ready for the range of possibilities that is the future, but also helps you make a better decision in the first place. The process isn’t all negative either because you should also conduct a ‘pre-parade.’ This is a consideration of what happens if you are wildly successful. Will you be prepared? Will you build expectation to deliver something where you can’t meet the huge demand or interest?
RETHINKING A DECISION
The final element of the decision-making process is to consider when do you rethink a decision? The need here is for tripwires. These are agreed markers of success (budgetary/timeline/project achievement) at key early stages, so you can be confident that things are starting off and continuing in the way that they need to, in order to lead to success.
Chip told us the story of rock band Van Halen and their infamous ‘no brown M&M’s’ rider. This has always been held up as an example of unbridled rock star excess. In fact the band were shrewd business people and by burying something like this in their detailed contract to perform at a venue, it acted as a tripwire to see whether the venue had read the stipulations of the contract in detail. If there were brown M&M’s in the dressing room, then this raised the alarm for a detailed check into more life or death issues such as electrical safety.
Having a process is the answer with decision making, according to research. Systematically ask questions both of the matter to be decided and also your own attitudes to it. Your decision-making can never be perfect – but it can be better.
Is there a life after food banking? Apparently so. Mari Ellen Loijens worked in development for Second Harvest Foodbank in Santa Clara and San Mateo County from 2000 to 2004, and is now the Chief Philanthropic Development and Information Officer for the Silicon Valley Foundation.
Of course it is every fundraising professional’s secret fantasy to then go on to work at a foundation and give it away rather than have beg for it. (Without appreciating the challenges that go with such a responsibility). So what’s the difference between your time in the food bank looking out, and outside the food bank looking in?
When I was at the food bank, the needs were constantly growing. There was no single year where we had to feed less people than the year before, and I had a strong sense of urgency about the growing need. Now that I’m outside, it seems like it’s endless and I’m more anxious for real solutions to the issue. It’s sort of like being an emergency room doctor, and your concern is how to bandage all the wounds for those who need immediate assistance. Then when you walk outside the emergency room, you think, “How can we avoid the people going there in the first place?”
That’s a question a lot of food bankers are asking themselves. Like me, they’ve seen the capacity of food banks grow with their success at fund raising and their ability to bring more food in to their service area. This has created more ongoing demand, so it’s kind of a spiral. How do you think that food banks could get out of this demand spiral and move towards a long-term solution?
We really need to look at some policy changes. We are a very wealthy nation and the notion that we have so many people who turn to others for such a basic need is troubling. Clearly there is something wrong with a system in which many children go to school hungry.
Food banks and other nonprofits are always very reluctant about stepping into these waters, because they worry about offending donors whose political slant may lead them to believe that we are just ‘enabling’ people. How can we navigate these waters?
I think that the problem is that we focus too narrowly on just food. If you only think, “I need to feed people,” and you think, “That’s my only issue,” then we’re back to the doctor in the emergency room who would be saying: “I’m trying to get people to stop bleeding, and it’s so expensive to keep using up all these wound dressings. So the solution is that we need more money for more wound dressings.” It’s a symptom he’s dealing with, not the cause. In the same way, hunger is the not cause, it is the symptom of a greater problem in our system. This comes down to something like minimum wage. Do we have a living wage? Are people able to earn enough where they live in order to take care of something as basic as food and shelter? We have got to move beyond pushing for increased SNAP (food stamp) benefits and into the bigger issues like: How do we make sure people, who are able, can earn enough money to feed themselves and their families?
So, are you saying that hunger is a symptom of the condition of poverty, or of something else?
I think poverty itself is also a symptom. I’m not a socialist or a communist. I don’t believe that everyone should make the same money, but I do believe that Americans, if asked, would say it’s wrong to have a system which forces people to constantly be in abject poverty and unable to get out of it, even if they are working hard, perhaps at multiple jobs. At some point, we are going to have to make decisions about how we pay for our beliefs and values. In the same way we are asked to make tough decisions now about taxes and how we want to pay for the things that we believe our country needs, such as roads or to provide the fire and police services that we want. In the same way, we have to ask ourselves the question: if we think it’s wrong for a child in a developing country to make a dollar a day sewing t-shirts, how are we going to provide an adequate minimum wage so that people in America who work a whole day can feed themselves and provide at the most basic level for their families?
And so how do you see the situation in America now?
I think we have an unspoken social contract in this country which prevents people from moving up out of poverty, and much of that is as a result of not have a living wage in most places. We also do not have systems in place that update the minimum wage as the cost of living modifies in an area. The systems that we do have reward the wealthy and do not help the poor. This means we have to really look at our whole social contract as a country and our value system and say, “Have we set in place laws that support the values that we claim are American?”
This is the point in the conversation where people begin to squabble about the meaning of the ‘American Dream.’ I see an unspoken fear in many donors I talk to. I would preface my comments by pointing out that these donors are caring and generous people who sincerely want to ‘pay it back’ and provide some level of support for those in need within their communities. However, they may have a voice deep within them, that reminds them how hard they had to struggle and sacrifice to get where they are, so why should they make it easy for someone else? They often don’t see the incredible daily sacrifices and struggles of those in poverty who can find no success story on the back of their struggle.
This is why food banks have been so successful, because there is a lot of interest in ameliorating the symptoms but a deep fear of taking the plunge to actually deal with the causes. Either donors are concerned that they will be heavily taxed and lose what they worked for, or they fear that the fabric of American society will change and everyone will expect things to be provided for them without working for them. Consequently they see America losing its ‘can do’ spirit of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. The type of change that is required to actually deal with a problem is too scary. The same thing is true for issues of immigration, health care and the rest of the sad litany. This means we have to stand around with our hands tied or else harken back to some previous time in our country’s history where these problems were better hidden.
I think a new consensus for action needs to arise that returns the much-loved but threadbare teddy bears of left and right political philosophy to the nursery shelf, and for us to admit that we have grown out of them. They’ll always have a fond place in our heart they were both great in key moments at getting us to the point we are now at as a nation, but now they are getting in the way as our nation enters maturity. These security blankets are getting under foot and gridlocking our ability to do what we do best as Americans – which is to fix something in a no-nonsense straight-forward way.
I know from over a decade of working to assist either the homeless or the struggling, that the amount of people sitting on their gluteus maximus and freeloading their way from society (amongst poor people, anyway) is absolutely tiny, just as the amount of people defrauding SNAP benefits is a minuscule amount in relation to the total. Are we going to allow an obsession with preventing the enabling of a few who don’t want to help themselves hold us back from making huge achievements as a country for the vast majority of Americans who work so incredibly hard?
Can you imagine what greatness we could achieve as a nation if we weren’t all so consumed with fear about being able to get affordable medical help, or that we will be living in abject poverty as senior citizens? Modern free market economies are driven by so much advertising and marketing, that are showing people all the things they need to have in their lives to be happy. These forces provide a huge encouragement for people to produce more and earn more. If we can provide a counter-balancing support safety net for all Americans, it won’t extinguish this desire for more – which is equally part of the American temperament. The two can complement each other perfectly well. It’s not exactly a shining city on a hill, but it’s a workable system where we can all move forward at our own pace and to our own ability.
Forgive me for that. As a food banker, if you see a pile of pallets, then your natural inclination is to climb on top of them and start spouting off…
That’s quite all right, Erik. Keep breathing. Seriously, though, I think food banks need to get get braver about legislation. You need to move past the daily problem of feeding people, and start to collaborate with others that can focus on solutions and really start to ask the difficult questions of, “What’s the issue?” Yet for reasons that you mentioned, like when you referred to SNAP fraud, I think food banks are very afraid sometimes of moving in that area, because if you did a survey of people you feed and even one person said, “Well because I don’t feel like working.” That’s a terrible, terrible fear of food banks. Suddenly, no one might want to fund their food bank, because there is one person whose is working the system. So essentially, we are ready to punish and live in fear of that one person. Well, there is always going to be someone working the system. There are people who go to emergency rooms, because they don’t feel like paying for a doctor. We absolutely can’t set up systems to deal with that one person. We look at the big issues in our country like educations reform and how healthcare reform and you hear about those things all the time. I would love to hear our country talk about poverty reform. How we are going to help make a sweep of changes that would impact the base line of our country and help bring people who are essentially stuck because it’s impossible to move on or move out.
So, who do you think are the right people to lead this movement or does it need to come from a ground swell at a local level?
I think both. That is how the civil rights movement happened. You start with that real grass roots movement from people who are experiencing the issues and people who support those people. Then at some point you get the attention of people in a power position with legislation to be able to move those issues forward.
You mentioned that food banks are timid on the public policy front. What else do you think food banks could do to make this happen?
Well, I really like the ideas espoused in your blog about how your food bank is working on regarding entering the preventative healthcare arena. I do think that when you start to see yourself as part of a wider system rather than just an individual issue, then you are able to address bigger issues that have bigger impact. Poverty is not the root cause. People became poor for a reason. The fact that they are poor is not the issue. The fact that they became poor and can’t get out of being poor is the issue.
This requires food banks to build broad coalitions with other social service agencies in their service areas, some who may be member agencies and some who may not.
That is a challenge, because there is often reluctance for everyone to sit down and have a substantive dialogue about how do we move things forward? The subtext from non profit leaders can often be: “I don’t really want to be in a room with them. I don’t want to compete with them.”
Hey, you’ve been in some of the same rooms as me!
That’s the truth about a lot of nonprofits is they’re just completely uncomfortable with the idea of competition, and if I had the answer to this issue, I’d probably be able to save the world.
Well, we’re non profits. Competition is way too business-like and vulgar for us, right?
Yes, you’re very sensitive souls. But, it has to start with non profits admitting it is an issue. Then I think, speaking as a funder, that there is a clear role for funders in facilitating this issue. I think it’s all power dynamics. The one with the power has the obligation. Foundations really have the obligation to reach out to the nonprofits and say, “I really want to know and I really want to understand what’s going on. Why is this collaboration and conversation not working for you? Where they don’t have to sit in front of their competitor and say what their fears are. We can ask who would you want to collaborate with and how, on what terms?” I think having an honest dialogue is what moves things forward. This sort of thing needs to occur one on one or in small groups. Large gatherings can neutralize everyone’s desire to make anything happen.
I think what you say about the competition angle is very interesting, because it’s kind of taboo to talk about nonprofits competing. To be a good non profit citizen, you can only talk in the language of shared impact and collaboration. It might be very liberating for people to also have a conversation about competition and to say it is absolutely all right. I presume there is fear that we would be acknowledging duplication of service if we acknowledged competition. Certainly something for people to consider starting a discussion about in their service area.
How do you think food banks and other human services and nonprofit should be thinking about evolving their funding streams over the next few years?
I think if you are looking for systems change, at some point that goes against the grain for sustainability, right? You want to be working towards your services not being needed anymore. The ideal is that you want to be able to talk about what system changes are you creating, so that you should have to provide fewer and fewer services every year? That should be the big boast. “Last year we fed 200,000 people, but this year, thanks to our hard work, we only have to feed 150,000.”
But every nonprofit organization in the world is afraid to do that, because then they assume that the funders will come back and say, “Oh, you need less money this year.” And so the organization declines.
I think that there is a new generation of funders that have a very different way of thinking, and that what people really want to see are problems solved. People are tired of the same problems staying around for generations and generations. You’re right, though. Every nonprofit I know like to boast about how they did even more; served even more. It is a treadmill. But this new generation of funders comes from a very different way of thinking that would say: “No, no, no. The metric I care about is not how many people you serve, but that you made systemic changes so you will have to feed fewer people moving forward.“ It is a way for your organization to evolve to be truer to its mission.
Mari Ellen, thanks so much for your ideas and for your work supporting non profits.
“The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. The most significant contribution leaders make is not simply to today’s bottom line; it is to the long-term development of people and institutions so they can adapt, change, prosper, and grow.”
Source: The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes & Posner (2007)
That’s easy enough to spout off about in a quote, but harder to make happen in life, because leadership can be such an amorphous thing. Also you don’t need to have the word ‘Manager,’ ‘Director,’ or ‘Coordinator,’ in your title to be leading people in a nonprofit organization in 2012.
Our organization, for one, is on a journey to a place where literally every employee – whether warehouse, programs, development etc – will be a leader of a team of dedicated community leaders (mega volunteers) who operate with many of the expectations and responsibilities of actual paid employees. This enables each staff member to multiply their impact in support of our mission and within the community. (More of this concept in a future post).
My concern today is the development of emerging leaders within our organizations. Have we forged pathways for their dedication and passion to take them right to the top? Or are they going to reach a certain level and then become frustrated by a regime where the Glorious Supreme Leader is there for decades.
When I entered the food banking world 4 years ago (coming in as Executive Director, having been ED of a member organization for 6 years), I was surprised to discover how many of my peers had been in their positions for a Very Long Time. Some 2010 statistics from Feeding America show the average length of time an ED has been in place as being nearly 13 years. Between 3 and 5 years are the average for most other food bank jobs listed. Only one other job makes double digits in average tenure is for Associate Executive Director at 10 years. (Hang in there. The boss is bound to be caught freebasing mac and cheese sooner or later!) A variety of surveys across the broader nonprofit spectrum suggest about 5-6 years is the norm for someone in the top.
Why this disparity with Foodbanks? Are we as EDs and CEO’s hooked into some secret Divine Right Of Kings/Queens? Or are there other factors at work? It has been said that the first job of the leader is not to put his/her feet on the desk and reflect on their meteoric rise, but to begin to assiduously develop the next generation of leaders.
This week’s post is really an investigation of how we can achieve this.
All this may not have occurred to me if not for something that happened at the Network Executive Director Forum in Atlanta in early 2011. It was moderated (we’re all such sensitive souls we needed a moderator) by a lady called Jeannie Duck, a notable management consultant, previously with the Boston Consulting Group (and therefore a fully paid-up member of the ‘Non-Profit Industrial Complex’). Jeannie is also author of the excellent book ‘Change Monster,’ that looks at how organizations can successfully manage change.
At one point during the ED forum, Jeannie put out the idea that maybe some of the ED’s had been in their jobs too long, and that they could be hogging the leadership, and should consider whether it was time to pass on some of their power. The room went frosty faster than a wet lettuce leaf in a quick-chill freezer. She had obviously hit a nerve and there was quite a lot of muted grumbling afterward. As a relatively new ED, I was struck by the comment but also by the reaction, and it has sat with me until now.
Fellow Mad Men devotees will have seen Peggy Olsen realize recently that she was never going to reach the heights in her current job, and that the only way to move on up, would be to move on out from SCDP. Those who are in a hurry to make it to the top or who feel stifled in their current job will always have to make this decision.
I hope that within our organization, I can work to create a situation where the need to leave is mitigated as much as reasonably possible. Our vision (To End Hunger and transform the Health of Santa Barbara County through Good Nutrition) is probably large enough to stave off boredom. There is also a realization that we can never succeed locally without fighting for policy changes at the national level and finding a way to help people out of poverty at the local level. This means that that there is always going to be a lot of room for bright, talented leaders to take on these challenges.
Since I began work at our Foodbank four years ago, no manager has left of their own volition – which I would like to think speaks to more than a crappy job market. I hope that people feel there is room for them to grow. There have been rapid promotions too. When I arrived, our Development Director was at the front desk running volunteers and food drives, our Agency Director was saddled with invoicing, and our Program Director was still working in a cupcake store.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Joe Schoeningh who recently retired as ED with the Orange County Foodbank in California. He said: “I’ve been with the food bank since it was founded in 1983. I served originally on the board of directors from that time until about ’95 and then I transitioned in to becoming a part of the staff here working as a volunteer coordinator and then later as the assistant director until I became the director of probably 10 or 11 years ago.” Joe flouts the ageist assumptions that ‘emerging leaders’ have to be people with over-developed texting thumbs. Retirement is no barrier to his desire to support the work of the food bank, as he will be continuing with a responsibility for ‘Special Projects’ such as growing their purchased food program.
Joe believes that the emergence of new leaders starts with hiring process “and we have typically taken in young people who are energetic, enthusiastic and feel that the non-profit world is where they want to be. They get the concept of what we do and they jump on the opportunities for advancement every time we post a job internally. It has been our culture to try to promote from within whenever we can.”
They have also grown the organization – true of so many food banks – which has created more space for advancement.
At the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County we want to find and develop new leadership wherever we can find it. If it is of use, I reproduce a letter below that I have started to share with new hires. It is also offered to managers to inform their hiring considerations:
Advice for Emerging Leaders at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County
1. We’re not really interested in telling you what to do. We have more effective things to do with our time. We want you to be coming forward with your thought-through ideas about how to move the organization forward towards achieving our mission. How will your plan help us achieve the goals in our strategic plan? We want to say ‘Yes’ to your every suggestion, you just just have to help us make that possible.
2. You need to be able to communicate successfully in all media to be able to sell your ideas, both internally and externally. That means you might need to pitch the same idea differently in North County than in South, or differently to internal or external stakeholders. You need to be aware of their ‘listening’ more than your ‘speaking.’
3. The desire for continuous improvement has to be in your blood, because ‘good enough’ is never good enough. You have to be curious about what innovations and best practices are out there, locally and nationally both from those doing similar things to you, and others doing completely different things.
4. You have to be a coalition builder, able to step outside your day-to-day contacts to identify those stakeholders in the community who can invigorate what we are doing. We know it is hard work and easier to do everything yourself, but you can’t really solve things this way. Find out who out there has shared interests and objectives. Could we give up a little of our power or self-importance to partner in a meaningful way?
5. It doesn’t matter whether you are in the development department or not, a large part of your job is resource acquisition for our organization. Money, people, food, services – it is all out there, and you are coming into contact with it every day. Be mindful of tapping into it and directing it through the organization. You’re doing the person a favor by introducing them to our wonderful work.
6. You have to be able to inspire and lead all different kinds of people. Not just staff members, but community volunteers, interns, those who are much younger or older than you. This is a different kind of leadership from the old top down stuff.
7. Find your mentors wherever you can, inside the organization and without. There are people who will be inspired by your energy and ideas, and will want to advise you how best to make them work. Someone who is telling you all the time how things can’t be done is not a mentor. Someone prepared to take a stand for your excellence is a mentor
8. We believe our mission demands a certain urgency in its execution. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible for you to have an obscene amount of fun with large parts of your ‘job.’
So obviously I have reached the age where I feel it is my right to issue a pompous letter in the style of Polonius in Hamlet (and we all know what happened to him behind the curtain), but hopefully there is something of use in it. Maybe someone a new employee will be emboldened to take a chance and move the organization forward in an unexpected fashion.
Nervous now about my own tenuous grasp on leadership, I decided to talk to an expert. Daphne Logan is Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Feeding America, and if you have met her, you will know she gives the lie to the truism that good food banking and snappy dressing are antithetical.
Daphne made clear that this leadership development is not a luxury:
“In the nonprofit sector, we’re going to have a leader deficit. We’ve been talking about this in the sector for a long time, and in less than 10 years we’re going to see it. So we need to really examine the talent that we already have and try to retain that talent, or we’ll be in trouble. Everybody is talking about that, not just Feeding America or food banks, but all your larger nonprofits.” (CEO Succession Plan Template)
How can you avoid a crisis in leadership succession. Here are some good practical steps:
1. Ensure that the sitting CEO understands the importance of this task and makes it a priority. At both G. E. and Procter & Gamble, managers of every rank are graded in performance reviews on whether they’ve retained and advanced their most talented employees.
2. Focus on an organization’s future needs, not its past accomplishments. In today’s changing business landscape, companies need leaders with strengths and talents that differ from those of the previous CEO— no matter how successful he or she was.
3. Encourage differences of opinion. Give rising stars room to disagree with management decisions. Squelching those who challenge the status quo will drive out promising leaders and leave behind a crop of “yes-men and women” who are unlikely to make good CEOs.
4. Provide broad exposure. Allow rising stars to rotate jobs, changing responsibilities every 3–5 years. Be sure these managers are around long enough to see the results of their work (good or bad), but not so long that they will get stale. Let them shadow more senior managers (e.g., for a week at a time) to see how decisions actually get made.
5. Provide access to the board. Let up-and-comers make presentations to the board of directors. Managers get a sense of what matters to directors, and directors get to see the talent in the pipeline.
All of this brings me full circle back to the original question. Are we leadership hogs? Let’s face it, many of us think we’re as vital to our organizations as Steve Jobs was. We would not rank ourselves with this world-class ‘disrupter,’ but deep in the recesses of our egos, don’t we think the baby that we have nurtured and helped grow really needs us to continue its successful evolution?
Nonprofits don’t tend to let go of leaders when things are going well, unless the leader has done something really naughty. This could mean the current leader will be content to ride this success, without putting into place the new initiatives that will be needed to avoid stagnation and take this success to the next level. Maybe when things are going badly for a nonprofit or a business, this can be the equivalent of the ‘chaparral fire’ where the landscape needs to burn to regenerate itself. It is a chance for fresh ideas to come in, for a new direction.
Does Daphne Logan at Feeding America think it’s a problem that we’re all hanging around so long? “Not really. We do have a number of founders, but they’re moving. They’re retiring. People in any leadership position have to self-aware and honest. End of story. You have to ask yourself whether you are still providing the leadership that your organization, your food bank, your community needs. Have you found a way to keep invigorated? It’s like you don’t want to go to a website and always see the old stuff on it. You need to keep it fresh. Stagnation is not an option.”
I have to admit that I have learned most from some of the food bank ED’s who have served the longest. These people are still inspiring me in their search for new ways to achieve their mission and their ability to enlist willing support to make it happen.
I do think I have got a good few years of meaningful life left in my leadership, but I hope that I have the courage to step aside from my own organization when I have taken it to the limit of where it can go with my involvement.
That would open the door to fresh opportunities for me and for the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. A consultant we worked with referred to parting ways with people who were not adding enough to the organization as “freeing up their future.” This is not just a positive spin to make us feel better about firing someone. I think it can apply to us as leaders too.
I think that the reality is that we cannot truly succeed at our jobs until we watch from the outside as our organization sails on to further greatness without us.
Here I am, the self-styled “King O’ The Yams.’ Standing on the prow of the Titanic, Leo was “King of the World.” Well I’m sitting on a pile of boxes of yams in a drafty warehouse, and so I’m ‘King O’ The Yams.’ Hopefully I can keep my head above the ice water at least…
“From Hunger to Health” is the blog of Erik Talkin, CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. We distributed over 11 million lbs of food last year (of which half was fresh produce) to Santa Barbara County through our own programs and through our network of 290 member agencies and programs. We are proud members of Feeding America, the nationwide network of food banks.
This blog serves both as a call to action and a clearing house of information, but most of all it is the story of how one organization on the inside of the ‘hunger business’ is trying to redefine what a food bank can achieve in transforming the health of our communities through good nutrition. At the top of the page are drag down menus providing access to a number of pages of content on key topics of interest.
For too long, food banks have been looked at as a band aid on a problem that will never go away, or worse, as organizations that unwittingly serve to disempower those individuals that they seek to help.
Maybe it’s time we got out of the hunger business and into the health business. Hopefully this blog will help others to navigate a similar journey. It’s fun, it’s exciting – and just ask my friend below – we can’t be stopped!