Boards, Baggage, and Leading in Adversity

Boards_Baggage_Adversity It was a difficult—some might say ugly—Board of Director’s meeting.  With the association “bleeding red ink” and its reserves almost depleted, the Board desperately wanted to hear a plan, any plan, for saving their organization.  The new, first-time CEO was fighting fires on every front—marginal cash-flow, overpriced office space, overworked staff, too many expensive outsourced services, and stagnating revenues.  In a borrowed meeting room, facing an anxious Board, the CEO’s turnaround plan was laid-out in excruciating detail.  Pro-forma financial and cash flow statements, clear, vivid graphs, detailed severance agreements, outlines for early termination of leases, cost cutting steps, and finally the potential sources of revenues including increases for dues, rising education program fees, and two new services with near certain potential to generate much-needed extra cash flow and revenue.  The case for cost reductions and revenue growth sufficient to save the Association from extinction were clearly presented.  The tension in the room was palpable and the debate about the much-needed change went on at considerable length.

It didn’t take long to realize that as good as the plans were, it would be the proposed dismissal of long-time staff that would ultimately derail the conversation.  Several influential, and out-spoken Board members were unwilling to allow termination of specific senior staff leaders.  By insisting these favored staffers be retained, they were severely hobbling any chance of financial recovery.  Surprisingly, the rest of the Board had no stomach for pushing back against their out-spoken brethren.  The vote in support of the turnaround plan went down to defeat.  With no clear alternative at the hand, various Board members engaged in an acrimonious debate– blaming each other broadly for the failures, ridiculing current and former staff–and in short order adjourned the meeting.

Frustrated, demoralized and without a clue as what to do next the new CEO left the Board meeting.  As she drove away, she noticed a member of the Board stopped along the roadway changing a flat tire.  She instinctively stopped to offer her help.  The two of them struggled with the task of changing the deflated tire. As they worked side-by-side, the new CEO shared her feelings about the Board meeting, the lengthy preparation, detailed presentations, challenging debates, and the exhausting, hard work of it all.  At a lull in the conversation the Board member glanced up and in almost a whisper quietly said, “You know, sometimes even your best just isn’t good enough.”

In that moment an important leadership lesson came to light.  You can do your best.  You can be all you can be.  Sometimes though, you still need to demand better of yourself and others.  And that’s what leadership is all about—being better, striving to overcome adversity, and pushing harder for extraordinary outcomes.  Leadership is about changing, adapting, being resilient, sharpening your skills, and working to be better, stronger, and smarter every day.  Make this your leadership mantra in 2016 — Change. Adapt. Overcome. Be Better. Be Stronger. Be Smarter.  Your followers are counting on it.

Happy Thanksgiving Day

birch_trees“I run from hate, I run from prejudice, I run from pessimists . . .” *

To our readers, colleagues, and friends throughout the United States may this Thanksgiving Day holiday bring you moments of reflection, renewed optimism and visions of hope shared amidst the companionship of good friends and loving family.

Our best wishes for a wonderful  2015 Thanksgiving Holiday!

* Source: “I Run To You” written by Tom Douglas, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood.

Leading Into Oblivion

Wired 4 Leadership|Leading Into Oblivion“Where were you when your greatest failure took place? Like many people, you were probably nowhere to be found. No really–think about it. While failures occur with surprising regularity, few are recognized as such until long after the senior management team, Board of Directors, staff, or member has left the room.”

The natural distance between decision-making and the delivery of outcomes leaves room for all sorts of misdirection and mischief. More troubling, there is oftentimes a huge disconnect between our decision-making methods and the assessments we deploy in measuring outcomes. All too often we seek wisdom in hindsight and deploy rationalizations to fit the moment. How often have you heard people say, “I knew that would never work?”

For the purposes of illustration let’s take the example of a nonprofit whose Board decides to spend half its cash reserves for a fast-track 12 month effort to emulate their richest and most successful trade show competitor as a way to improve its fortunes. Their competitor is one of the world’s largest and most successful industry shows with over 700,000 attendees worldwide at eight different global locations. Its annual revenues are well north of $350 million per year.

What would convince the Board of a modest sized nonprofit with a small industry show they could compete or even emulate such a behemoth? It’s hard to say definitively, but the concepts of hindsight bias and competitive escalation offer some insight. While society often recognizes and awards competitive behavior in people, in a group setting a discussion that dissolves into competitiveness often triggers impulsive decision-making behavior using faulty decision-making frameworks fraught with danger. When discussions become centered on what the group “always” or “never” does alarm bells should be going off in your head. Calling for a timeout may be the most prudent decision of all.

Calls for action based on risk-seeking such as “we’ve never tried this before” or suggestions the organization is “always too cautious” warn of competitive escalation. Group discussions stuck in the “always/never” model of debate often miscalculate and escalate their commitments before realizing later on, the enormity of the risks they have created for their organization.

While such conversations often start out innocently enough within just a matter of minutes the agreed upon targets of selling say 100 new memberships has escalated to selling 500, because they have “never” tried to sell this many before and who knows what’s possible unless we try. The foolhardiness seems obvious, but surprisingly groups will come to consensus around outrageous goals with little regard for precedent especially in the absence of hard data.

Many nonprofits require exhaustive preparation of “fiscal notes” before any decision is taken. Doing so makes certain all known and potential risks and costs are fully explored and identified. While the fiscal note policy can create some lag on decision cycles, the process also serves to protect the decision-makers and the organization from catastrophic risk and failure. Competitive behavior often compels people to only acknowledge information that confirms their position while ignoring that which undermines it. Increasing one’s commitment to a previous course of action demonstrates predictability, which is often viewed as a favorable attribute by others. In truth it’s way closer to being a “rookie mistake”.

So how did competitive escalation play out for our nonprofit group With the wind of a $1 million investment decision at their back staff  ran full speed toward the goal. New staff was hired, an advertising agency placed on retainer, contractors, event experts, a huge convention center commitment and even an in-house concierge service to ease pressure from the long work hours at headquarters were all put in place. But twelve months and a $1 million, the trade show that had been launched with such great expectations had resulted in a net gain of less than 50 new registrations. The effort was a colossal failure. Within weeks the ad agency, nonprofit CEO, and most of the newly hired staff were fired. The Chair of the Board stepped down due to the “pressures of business.”  With the harsh lessons of unrestrained competitive escalation weighing on its financial future, the organization merged and disappeared.

5 Strategies to Strengthen Member Value

5_Strategies_to_Strengthen_Member_ValueHow do you reverse a declining membership trend in a profession suffering through serious contraction? What if its members’ are passionate about their work and in it for love, not money–but annual income is low and the perception is dues are high?

When it comes to strategies to strengthen member value the short answer to this challenge is you can’t—at least not without making significant changes in how you go about assessing and communicating with sparkling clarity real member value. Defining ways to turn member’s passion into personal and professional aspirations is at the root of the member value conundrum. In this sense, form truly follows function. And that’s what’s missing from the conversation these days.

Continue reading 5 Strategies to Strengthen Member Value

5 Ways Consistent Leadership Wins

5 Ways Consistent Leadership Wins | Wired 4 LeadershipWhat’s the difference between being consistent and being predictable? When you’re talking leadership, there are five ways consistency wins every time. It is important you not confuse consistent leadership with predictable leadership. While some believe predictable leadership is the equivalent of good leadership, it isn’t even close. Sadly, much of what passes for decision-making and leadership is really nothing more than a patellar reflex to the challenges within organizations and society.

You know the reflex I’m talking about. A doctor with a small medical reflex hammer strikes the large tendon in the leg just below the your knee–producing a sudden involuntary extension of the leg.  This simple act–also known as the “knee-jerk” reaction–is far too common in political circles and hide-bound institutions. And of so little value in the world of leadership, especially in the 21st century.

In her TED X video presentation researcher and consultant Rosalinde Torres makes her case for what will make a great leader in the 21st century. She points out that “in a 21st-century world, which is more global, digitally enabled and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation, and where nothing big gets done without a complex matrix, relying on traditional development practices will stunt your growth as a leader.” She goes on to say that leaders in the 21st century are “women and men who are preparing themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday but also for the realities of today and all of those unknown possibilities of tomorrow.” It’s worth watching.

When what’s needed is critical analysis and clear thinking, we too often witness the immediate unthinking and emotional reactions to events. Nearly everything has become fodder for the patellar reflex.  Whether it’s a proposal for free access to community colleges, New York City’s proposed ban on expanded polystyrene containers, or establishing relations with Cuba, those opposing new proposals are often quick to defend things as they are. While that’s not totally wrong–a free and open debate is at the root of our democracy–too often these reactions overlook important shifting evidence and newly emerging ideas.

“Organization charts make great visuals but mean little if the critical work of the enterprise isn’t getting done.”

Sadly, this form of predictable leadership so often makes the problem worse. The world we live in is complex. So are its problems. Reverting to patterns of predictable leadership won’t help solve them. In fact, the unthinking and emotional response so prevalent among hide-bound leaders often overlooks the value and opportunity that might otherwise arise from new ideas.  Educating people about ways to recycle polystyrene or exploring ways to make higher education affordable serve a meaningful purpose in society.

Many people confuse predictable leadership with consistent leadership. In truth, they are two ends of a long continuum. Predictable leadership is reactionary. Consistent leadership is visionary. Here are five ways to use consistent leadership to your advantage:

Be A Thinking Leader – Consistent leadership leverages values that underlie decision-making across the enterprise. Candor. Transparency. Clarity. Trust. Agility. If you believe happy employees are more productive employees, you have no choice but to align your behavior and culture. Consistent leaders live those choices every day, making time for conversations that matter.

Feel The Future – When you lead an organization you are always at risk for criticism, activism by social movements, or regulatory scrutiny. Consistent leaders deploy pre-emptive strategies preparing for those days to come. Rather than being reactionary and defensive, consistent leaders are able to respond with heart and sensitivity to the concerns of those critical of their company or industry. We’ve all grown weary of rote apologies and insincere expressions of concern by corporations. Being ready for inevitable failures or crisis in your industry will serve you. Be ready.

Unearth The Value of Teams – None of us does this work alone. Patrick Lencioni, the best-selling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and a columnist for INC. magazine wrote earlier this year about his effort to accelerate the decision-making and responsiveness of his ten person headquarters staff. Whether you work with a small team or a large one, the need for leveraging their strengths and capabilities never goes away. Consistent leaders understand the importance of nurturing people to excel in their roles and creating the structures that allow them to do so. Organization charts are great visuals but mean little if the critical work of the enterprise isn’t getting done.

Grind It Out – Consistent leadership trains your teams to anticipate your questions, seek viable options, and bring you multiple “best solutions” to the challenges at hand. Strengthening your teams capacity to cradle uncertainty while seeking to sort out resolutions to conflict or conflicting ideas will pay huge dividends. One of the best things consistent leaders do is encourage and support those around them to be tenacious and persistent in addressing problems. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable rocket has failed to perform as expected on both take-offs and landing yet the engineers continue to chase solutions. They simply refuse to accept failure.

Be Your Best Self Leader – Among management and leadership theorists one consistent truth emerges. Consistent leaders who succeed know themselves. Self awareness,–recognizing the wake you bring to leadership, your emotional maturity and acknowledging both your strength and weaknesses goes a long way toward establishing the respect and trust of those essential to your success. Consistent leaders avoid undermining themselves by being predictable. Many leadership situations and circumstances seem familiar. Looking for the discrete differences will accelerate your own brand of consistent leadership and thoughtful decision-making.

Being a great, consistent leader is recognizing you don’t know it all. Having the courage and passion to grow your network and diversify the voices you listen to and the words you read helps immensely. Train yourself to think differently. As Steve Jobs reminds us, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice…have the courage to follow your heart.” Predictable or consistent? What’s your leadership style going to be tomorrow?





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