Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘executive director’

The Thing About Nonprofit Leadership

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on April 13, 2017 at 9:49 am

One of the honors of my professional life, in addition to leading nonprofits and working toward social justice, is teaching at the Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University. The students are so earnest and bright! Every semester, and sometimes every week, a student tells a story and I answer, “that was a leadership decision.”

  • A donor wants to control the programming; that’s a leadership decision.
  • A Board member wants you to co-mingle grant money; that’s a leadership decision- and a teachable moment.
  • A parent challenges a procedure; that’s a leadership decision.

How you react is the difference between an agency that flourishes and one that struggles.

Donors, community leaders and others may want your agency to go in a way that is contrary to your agency’s agreed upon strategic direction. (Saying no to those requests, alone, is worth the investment in a strategic plan.) They may want you to do something with their gift that is against your values. Their values may be contrary to your organizational values. They may not want you to go in the direction that the Board has set.

That is the beauty of a strategic plan. In addition to aligning the work of an agency and getting everyone on the same page working toward the same goals, it allows the CEO to say no. Or, if the opportunity is so fabulous that no is not the right answer, to bring the idea to the Board for their consideration. That, too, is a leadership decision.

It’s easy to say yes. Someone brings you something, you say yes. They go away happy. No, on the other hand, engenders the completely opposite reaction. It’s hard to say no. It’s also critical to your and your agency’s success.

Those are not even, or by a long shot, the only decisions you will make or the only people to whom you will say no. Here’s some more:

  • A funder wants you to apply for a new grant. It’s a lot of money but it’s not exactly what your agency does. Do you say no? (Yes, you do.) Can you? (You can.) Do you follow the money? (No.)
  • A staff member does something that is against the spirit of a policy (or the law) but not technically the letter of that policy (or the law).
  • The Executive Board regularly makes decisions in lieu of the full Board, which very well may be codified in your by-laws. (I recommend that clause is only used in the case of emergency.) That, too, is a leadership decision and while it’s not your decision as the CEO, it’s totally your problem. Fix it.

Your Board members will be as aware of their role as the person who trained them, which may have been no one. If you want your Board to speak with one voice, to understand their role and the expectations of that role, to understand your role, and the responsibilities within each, you will have to train them.

You will get the Board you build; some might say (have said) you will get the Board you deserve. The nonprofit Board structure is an illustration in opposites. CEOs serve at the pleasure of their Board. Our Boards are intended to be representative of the community we serve. We want and need a diverse mix of Board members, with a diverse set of experiences, and a diverse set of skills, who have the time, talent and treasure to help us move our missions forward. It is also true that nonprofit CEOs – many of whom have spent our lives in this field and have advanced degrees, decades of experience working on the issues our agency exits to address, and significant knowledge of board process, nonprofit governance and the law – may be reporting to a group of people who have none of the above.

It’s why building your Board is so critical. You can get a lot done on sheer willpower and many nonprofit CEOs have, but your agency will be unstoppable when your Board is trained to their role and fulfilling that role.

Everyone has different goals and often different priorities. It’s why it’s so important to define both for an agency.

That’s the thing about leadership, whatever you allow, whatever you promote, whatever you support, overtly or implicitly, intentionally or accidentally, you own.

The other thing is this: you also own the decisions the people who report to you make. How you react afterward? That’s all you!

We all know that any day could be the day we quit or get fired. There’s still a job to do – and you’re in the chair. Decide wisely.

What’s your experience with leadership decisions? Do you have a story you can share?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience.  Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email.  A rising tide raises all boats.

For My Executive Director Friends: Three More Things to Stop Doing

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on October 11, 2015 at 10:53 am

As I mentioned in my original post, the fascinating thing about being a consultant and people paying you to make recommendations is that they generally listen to your suggestions. They don’t always implement them but they at least consider them. Friends, on the other hand, call when they’re trying to figure things out, but do they listen? Not so much!

As such, for my many friends who serve in executive leadership roles in nonprofits, here are a few more things that you should stop doing. I hope that in doing so you will find the role more rewarding and also less frustrating.

  1. Postponing your own paycheck

Just to be crystal clear, I’m not talking about unpaid executive directors. I’m talking about executive directors who usually get paid but are not paying themselves this week (or possibly this month or this quarter). I totally understand how it seems reasonable to you to pay your team but not pay yourself. I get that there isn’t enough money in the bank. I get that it’s a cash flow issue. I get that it feels like the right thing to do, but it’s not.

I have been in the room when Board members are told that their execs have made this choice and they are, for the most part, not generally amused. They do not feel it’s honorable. They do not feel it’s noble. They think it’s nuts, dangerous for the agency and a liability for them. And they’re right.

If you truly do not have the cash to pay yourself, work with your Board to come up with a plan. Do not make the decision on your own to forgo your own paycheck in the hopes of saving your agency. It’s not fair or reasonable for your family. It’s outside the bounds of the labor laws. It’s also not your decision to make.

This is an issue to take to your Board. Don’t spring it on them at the last minute. And do not feel like it’s all on you. Nonprofits are run on a shared leadership model. Share the information and work with your Board to come up with a solution.

  1. Personally guarantee anything

You should not personally guarantee a loan for your agency. You should not personally secure an agency credit card, a line of credit or put anything you own up as collateral. You lead but do not own your agency.

This is not your company. Even if it was, companies put systems in place to protect their owners. This is your baby and it is your responsibility but not yours alone. You report to a Board and that Board can – and likely will -make a decision with which you don’t agree. You could quit or get fired tomorrow. If either of those eventualities occur, you will be still be liable for whatever you personally guaranteed.

Don’t do it. Work with your Board and your lending institution to find a solution to secure the resources you need.

  1. Owning the Work of the Board

If you are frustrated with your board, the answer may be looking back at you in the mirror. If they aren’t doing what you want, it may be because you’re doing it. Stop.

The work of the board gets done by committees. If you do not have committees, I encourage you to work to introduce them. Please click over to read Board Work via Board Committees.

In the absence of committees or even in the presence of them, you may still be doing their job. The easiest way to tell if you are is to consider who speaks the most at Board meetings. If it’s you, there’s your answer. Yes, I can hear you yelling at me through your computer but it’s still true.

If they don’t do it and you do, you’ll keep doing it. You have to give it back.

How? By saying to each committee chair “I just learned that the Chairs of each committee should be leading the committee meetings and giving the committee reports at Board meetings. Would you be willing to do so? I’m happy to sit with you prior to the meeting and go over the report and help brainstorm the answers to expected questions.” “Oh, you don’t want to or won’t be there?”

Yes I know this is where you step into the breach. Resist.

“Ok, who should we ask to report instead?”

You can set committee chairs up to succeed. You can call and ask them to set a committee meeting. You can even suggest times, dates and write the agenda. You can send out the invitations. You can prep them to chair the meeting. You can whisper in their ear during the meeting and even type up the minutes afterward. But you can’t lead the committee meeting or report out on it at the board meeting.

If you have tried and failed to give back the work of the committee to its chair, you then can go to the Board Chair and/or the other Officers and ask for advice. Like this “Committee X hasn’t been meeting and /or seems to be having a hard time achieving their goals. Would you mind checking in with them and nudging them along?” “Oh, you have and nothing has changed? How would you like to handle that?”

While it is your Board to help develop, it’s not your Board to run or to manage. It’s not your committee and it’s not your meeting. It’s a Board meeting. The Board members should be talking; you should be there to listen, answer questions, present your report, and offer recommendations, support and guidance. You should not be the person in the room talking the most. If you are, they are not. We want them to lead. That may mean you have to let them.

Set your board members up to succeed and they will help you lead your agency to heights you can’t even imagine today. Your agency will be stronger for it. As an added bonus, you’ll be less frustrated.

The CEO role is gratifying and it’s inspiring. It’s also hard and it’s lonely. Sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be. Stopping the above practices can make your difficult job not only a little less difficult, but also a little more rewarding.

What advice do you give your friends in leadership roles? What else would you add to my list? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Is This Your Board, Too?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on September 1, 2015 at 2:11 pm

I talk all the time about the need for a strategic plan. How strategic plans align the work of an organization. How without one, people are working on a variety of things that may or may not be aligned, or worse are at cross purposes. How executives get evaluated based on the plan’s execution. Finally, one of my girlfriends said: “I wish I could get them to plan! What am I supposed to do if my Board Chair hates strategic planning?”

There it is! I have long known, and not liked, that there are some Chairs who hate planning, and worse – some (entire) boards who just want to be told what to do. Despite the executive’s best efforts to the contrary, it’s where they are. The exec may have tried (in vain) to introduce improved board process, to guide and support a committee to develop the board, to train up, to motivate and to encourage a planning process. Yet, the Chair and possibly the full board are having none of it.

A strategic planning process is when “the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.” (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives)

In the absence of a plan, execs spend their days putting out fires, but not necessarily moving their organization forward. Forward towards what you – and they – maybe thinking? What would forward even look like to a group of people who haven’t set a direction?

One of the roles of a board is to Set the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction of an agency. To the boards out there that hate planning -and I’ve served on, worked for and with several of you – if you decline to fulfill your strategy setting responsibilities, your exec will only be able to maintain the status quo. There will be no growth. There will be no more impact than there is today. Your agency will be stagnant. It may even go backwards since many funders consider the strategic plan as part of their grant allocation decisions.

Leadership abhors a vacuum, and stagnant is not stimulating so it is likely at some point that your exec will tire of maintaining the status quo and will elect, instead, the not ideal option of setting the strategy of the organization herself. For the execs: If you have a Chair who hates planning, please remember the Chair is just one (powerful) person. The Board is a group of people that moves with one voice. I’m not suggesting you flat out defy your Chair, but I am suggesting you lobby other board members to build consensus that a strategic plan is needed. I also encourage you to remember that Officers generally only serve for a set period of time. While “waiting it out” is not an ideal strategy, it is a strategy and all things – good and bad – come to an end eventually. If you get the opportunity while you are waiting, I encourage you to begin to work with the nominating committee to seek a new chair that has an affinity for strategy.

If you have to set strategy on your own, do it in the most transparent manner you possibly can. Ask for permission, feedback, and in-put. Ask for a vote. Include the plan in every report you write and take every opportunity you have to continue to create buy in. Feed your plan into the work the committees are doing. If you have no committees, ask that a committee be set up to work on the Board portions of the plan and then recommend a Committee Chair who understands planning or at least can be coached toward understanding. Remind, remind, remind. We all know that execs that get too far in front of their boards tend to get fired; bring your Board along with you, even if they don’t want to be on that particular journey.

There also is the option of looking for a new leadership position. Any day really could be the day you quit or get fired. You may outgrow your board. You may outgrow your position. It may be time for bigger and better. If it is, leave well. Document everything you can, plan out as much as possible, make sure your agency can thrive in your absence or at least continue on that path it’s on.

The measure of a good leader is what happens once that leader is gone.

What have you done with Boards that won’t plan? What do you suggest? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Raising your Profile; Building your Credibility

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on October 30, 2014 at 11:23 am

I was running a Club in Texas, when I was offered the Executive Director position for the Boys & Girls Clubs in Akron Ohio.  I knew the President of the Akron Community Foundation and not another soul in town.  Thankfully, my Board had a plan.

One Board member, who isn’t the mayor of Akron but could have been because he knows everyone, started setting up lunch meetings.  We went to lunch with every community leader in town.  We told them of our struggles; we told them about our kids and what they needed to be successful; we told them our plan to ensure they were, indeed, successful – and that our Club was as well. After 6 months, I, too, knew everyone in town.

What’s the lesson for your organization? There’s actually a few:

  •          Who is on your Board and who do they know?
  •          Will they introduce you?
  •          Do you have a story?
  •          Can you tell it in a way that engages people?
  •          Who picks up the tab?

Now you might thing that it was silly of me to include the question of who pays for lunch on my list of lessons, but I cannot tell you the number of people who have asked.  It matters.  The question of what is a good use of agency resources is a blog for another day, but for today, it’s worth having the discussion and being clear about the answer before you ask board members to set meetings.

Once you do, start having lunch, coffee and breakfast! Get to know people in your community and let them get to know you.  Program officers of foundations are incredibly generous with their time and are interested in learning about your organization. Community leaders, by definition, care about the community.  Go talk to them.  You will be pleasantly surprised by the number of people who say yes to your request for a meeting.

Profile building can and is partially done over lunch, but it only starts at lunch. It doesn’t end there.  To build your profile, you also have to build your credibility and the credibility of your program. Obviously, it won’t be enough to talk about your program if your program isn’t providing excellent services.  Impactful programming is critical.  Benchmark similar organizations, find and implement best practices and monitor and communicate your impact.

Speak in the community.  Most service groups have a speaker at every meeting.  Recruit and train a Public Speaking Team to present at service group meetings and in the community.  It is a wonderful opportunity to get your message out there.  You can also blog about the issues that impact your clients, write op-ed pieces and meet with local politicians.

Is there a Leadership group in your city? Leadership Akron was an incredible experience for me. It contributed to my professional development and knowledge about the city in ways that I could not have replicated on my own.  It also provided incredible resources for my organization. Now that I live in Columbus, I am a member of the Leadership Columbus Alumni group.  Consider participating in your local group.  Most leadership programs offer scholarships for nonprofit senior leaders; do it.  It will be an incredible investment of your time and resources that will pay off in spades.

Figure out the “must attend” event in town, and attend.  When you do, walk around and greet everyone, introduce yourself to people you haven’t been able to get in front of and ask if you can call them for a meeting.  Again, you’ll be surprised at the number of people that say yes.

Finally, join groups that coalesce around the issues you care about.  Most communities have nonprofit executive director groups, monthly or weekly educational forums, and leadership organizations.  Find one and get involved. If there isn’t a group, start one.  We invited all the leaders of agencies that offered after school programming in Akron to a meeting.  Akron had almost 2 dozen after school programs, yet there was no on-going discussions about programming, best practices or service gaps. The discussion that started at that first meeting continued and our group later became the After School Council of Greater Akron.

You can do it!  Profile raising, like everything else that is worth doing, takes time – lots of time.  Spending the time will pay off in spades, for your organization, its mission and the community it serves!

Please let me know how it goes. As always, if you have other ideas for profile building, or suggestions for blog topics, please share and consider hitting the follow button. A rising tide raises all boats.

Revising your By-laws?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on August 25, 2014 at 10:23 am

Boards of Directors should review – and consider if they need to revise – their organization’s by-laws (in Ohio called Code of Regulations) on a regular basis.

When was the last time you looked at yours? Go ahead; pull them out. I’ll wait.

You’re back? Good! Let’s begin.

Does your board meet as scheduled? Most by-laws state that boards will meet, at a minimum, quarterly. My understanding is it is fine if you meet more often. It’s not fine if you meet less often. (This would be a good time to remind you that I am not a lawyer.) If you are only meeting quarterly, I encourage you to meet more often. It’s like the nonprofit version of that old commercial- miss a meeting, you miss a lot.

Do you have the right number of board members? Most initial by-laws are written with three members, though three members are rarely enough to appropriately govern an agency. If your by-laws say three members, I encourage you to consider revising them. I like a range.

For more detailed information on the number of board members, the frequency of meetings or the structuring of by-laws, I encourage you to read How Many Board Members Meeting How Often and Creating a New Nonprofit.

I offer a few more questions for your consideration as related to your by-laws:

Are new members added as stated? Do you follow the process to elect officers and re-elect renewing members?

Do you have a process to remove board members?

Do the committees listed reflect the committees you have? Are those the committees you need?

Do you have dissolution and indemnification statements?

Do you have things in there that should be elsewhere? Conflicts of Interest policies usually stand alone. So do Financial Policies.

Which governance model do you follow? Is that in there? Does it need to be?

What title do your by-laws offer to both your executive leader and the president of the board? Are those the titles you use?

Titles have evolved during my career. It used to be that the senior executive was called the executive director and the leader of the board was called the president.

It is my understanding that the YMCA was the first large organization to challenge that notion. The YM, once upon a time, had branch directors who were expected to raise money in their communities but were having trouble getting in to see business leaders. They attributed it to their titles. As such, the Y changed the branch managers’ titles to be executive directors so that they were held in higher regard and could more easily get into higher-level offices. (I do not know if the YM has called their executive leaders President & CEO all along or if they changed their titles accordingly)

Once they made the change, and some other agencies followed suit, it became very difficult for everyone else to figure out who is an executive director, meaning the executive leader of the organization, or who is the executive director, meaning the senior staff of a branch, unit or facility.

Sometimes I can’t tell either. Once, while I was working with a board to help them select their new executive, I couldn’t figure out if an applicant, who had the title executive director, was actually the executive leader of her organization. I had to ask five different questions to figure it out. (She wasn’t, in case you were wondering.)

So what should you call your executive leader? There are still plenty of executive leaders called executive directors. There are, more than ever, especially in larger organizations, executive leaders that are called President & CEO. Up until recently, I never thought it was that big of a deal. It’s the same job, after all.

What changed my mind? A board I served was considering changing the name of our executive leader when we hosted an event in conjunction with three other agencies. Of the four executive leaders in the room, our executive was the only one with the title executive director. When each of the other leaders was introduced as President & CEO and she was introduced as Executive Director, it became very obvious that we need a title change.

If we as nonprofit leaders want to be taken seriously as the “real” leaders that we are, running “real” corporations, like we do, then we are more likely to be granted that respect when we have the same title, or a better title, as the person to whom we are speaking.

Of course once you change your executive leader’s title to be president you then have to change that the President of the Board’s title to be Chair and the Vice President to be Vice Chair.

They’re the same jobs, but as I’ve said before, any process, or in this case title, that is getting in the way of meeting your goal is a bad process. This one, luckily, is easily rectified, especially if you were revising your by-laws anyway.

A final word on by-laws: It is important that you follow your by-laws. Yet, the funny thing about by-laws is that there is no governing body that will be monitoring if you do. Of course, if you have significant quorum issues, those issues will end up reflected in your audit and any violation of the law is likely to end up in court or the newspaper. For the most part, outside of criminal activity, a civil violation or a hit on your audit, boards are on their own. As such it is important that boards police themselves. The easiest way to do that is to follow your by-laws, review them annually and revise them, as needed, which usually comes out to every 3-5 years.

It’s also critical – and much more difficult – to ensure that you are upholding your governance responsibilities; your executive is appropriately leading your organization, which is meeting its mission, providing excellent service and living its values.

All that starts with the board. And the board starts with its by-laws.

What’s been your experience in agencies following their by-laws? Do you have any funny, or appalling, stories to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Aligning Values and Decisions

In Leadership, Organizational Development on February 6, 2014 at 3:16 pm

For a long time now, whenever I say “No, I can’t do that” I’ve taken to following it up with “and I don’t want to.” It’s the distinction between what’s not possible and what’s not acceptable to me. Both are usually true yet the second piece is more important for me to illustrate. We each communicate our values every day, some of us more intentionally than others.

The most obvious sign of a leader is their ability to engage and inspire. The second most obvious sign is their ability to say no. (Leaders also need the ability to say yes, which is a post for another day.)

When I was younger, I sometimes said yes when I wanted to say no, or meant to say no, or even sometimes when I thought I had said no but not in a way or a manner than people heard as no. Resentment is the emotion that I now know is about my having allowed something that was unacceptable to me. I used to think of it as my being taken advantage of … until I realized it was me. It happened whenever I said yes, but meant no. It happened until I learn to be more intentional about a lot of things, my values included.

I had to learn to be more clear in my mind about what my values were and how those values got infused in my work. I had to be more deliberate about communicating those values to my team. I also had to make sure I worked at an organization whose values were aligned with my own. Once I got all that, I became a lot less resentful. Life is about making new mistakes.

I learned that lesson the hard way, a long time ago when discussing a pregnant teen and if she should continue to be allowed to come to the program (and the father too if he came, which we didn’t know at the time). If she was allowed, what message might the other kids receive? If she wasn’t allowed, what message would we be sending to her? What were our organizational values? Were they aligned with our personal values?

We went round and round with the staff, with the program committee and with ourselves. The committee came down to the idea that no, she couldn’t come to our program because it’s not who we were as an agency and that I needed to stand up in the community and say that. At that minute, I realized that “No, that wasn’t who I was and that I couldn’t and wasn’t willing to defend that position.”

Somehow, that was enough. The teen continued to come to the program and we worked with her and created systems to ensure we didn’t glorify her pregnancy but instead demonstrated how difficult it was going to be, and also how we could help.

Leaders say no. No, you can’t serve on our board because your heart isn’t in it. (This is said by board leadership, not the executive.) No, you can’t continue to serve on my team, because you’re not moving our goals forward. No, we can’t continue to partner with your agency because our values aren’t aligned. No, that donation will not be in my agency’s best interest. No, we cannot go down that path; it’s not who we are.

That means you have to know who you are, who you want to be and what values are important to you, your organization and its future. You have to have look through that lens every day in myriad situations. What you allow sends a message as to what you value.

My school district allows kids to play sports with a D average. Studies have repeatedly shown that kids who play sports or are engaged in quality after school or extracurricular activities are less likely to do illegal or unsafe things. While that’s true, would it be so much to ask for a C average? And what’s the message that this policy (from a district that is consistently among highest rated in the state) sends to the athletes?

We, as leaders, need to consider every decision we make against the lens of our values, who we want to be and in consideration of the message that decision will send. Allowing kids to play sports with a D average sends the message that mediocrity is fine, and that sports are more important than grades.

Do I honestly think that was their intended message? No, I don’t. I think they didn’t think about the message.

Not calling your kids out (students, client kids or actual kids) when they do something that is unacceptable to you, your values or the rules of your program or house, reinforces that it’s ok, which then teaches that rule following is optional – and also that your authority is questionable.

There will always be rules we want to break but we need to be clear about why we are breaking them and teach our kids how to discern those rules from other rules.

It’s not any different with staff. For all the new managers out there: address something that’s unacceptable to you when you see it, and every time you see it. If you don’t, what is unacceptable to you will become the status quo.

Every decision leaders make sends a message about what they value and what they believe to be true, whether they intend it or not. How much more could we accomplish if we were intentional about our values and our goals, how they are implemented, and what is and is not acceptable to us?

What’s been your experience in aligning values and decisions? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

The Role of the Nonprofit CEO

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on May 18, 2013 at 11:56 am

I coach a lot of new CEOs, and quite a few not so new CEOs.  Leading an organization is a big job that looks much easier than it is.  In fact, like all leadership done well, it looks like nothing.

I’ve always said that if you asked a cross section of my staff over the years what I did when I was a CEO, they would tell you they didn’t really know all the details, but I went to lunch a lot.  And I did.  And while I was at lunch, I built the profile of the organization, raised significant money, and helped build our board to be the board of choice in our community.  You can do a lot at lunch.

What do nonprofit CEOs really do?

The CEO assists in building the board, both initially through encouraging an appropriate prospecting, vetting, and orientation process and on-going though Board education and evaluation.  Please note that I said “through encouraging” and not “by doing.”  It is the CEO’s role to support good board process, and the board development committee’s role to lead the process.

The CEO is the chief fund raiser, the chief cheerleader, and the leader in building a culture of philanthropy.  The development staff raises money independently and also supports the CEO and the board to fulfill their fund raising roles. As discussed in greater detail in the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives  “Resource development functions most effectively in a culture of servant leadership and philanthropy among the board and leadership team, as well as an agency-wide commitment.  A community cannot and will not invest in an agency without the investment of the board and staff.  Development staff cannot raise money without the support of the CEO. CEOs cannot raise money without the support of the board. Resource development is a group effort, with everyone giving, and everyone moving toward the goal of a sustainable organization.”

The CEO is the face of the organization.  That means that everything they do, whether at work, at the store or elsewhere – both good and bad – will reflect on the organization.

The public pieces aren’t the sum total of the role, there’s internal work to be done as well.  That includes policy and plan development, staff leadership and system development, and program assessment, development, implementation, and evaluation.

It is your job to engage, inspire and ensure that your team in fulfilling their role and moving forward your mission. That means you have to set and hold people accountable to high standards; live, infuse and model your organization’s values; and make sure every day that your mission and your clients are paramount. It’s very easy to begin to think that donors, community leaders, politicians or the Board are the ones we exist to serve, yet they are not. Our agencies exist to serve our clients.

Finally- and this is what most people miss most- strategic thinking and planning will help you align your organization and change your community.

Good leaders get out of the trenches.  Crisis management is an option when necessary- and we all know it is occasionally necessary- but it cannot become the CEO’s default leadership style.  Good CEOs find the time to think, to assess, to challenge and to wonder if there isn’t a better way.

CEOs also encourage and support their board to do a strategic plan and then implement that plan.  “Strategic planning is a process in which the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.”   (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives )

At the end of the day, the job of the CEO is to ensure the organization is still standing tomorrow, and preferably thriving!  They understand the organization is the vehicle, but the focus is the mission and the clients.  CEOs inspire and engage everyone with whom they come into contact to work for the betterment of their clients and their community.

And you thought we just went to lunch.

As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

The One Question All Leaders Should Ask

In Leadership on April 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm

At least once a week, I wish I could go back in time and apologize to a board or staff member for something I previously did.  I see my younger self in every client, every case and every workshop.  I’ve been working in this field for over 20 years and I’ve learned a lot of lessons in that time, many of them the hard way.

The thing I’d like to apologize for this week is not ending every meeting with every staff member I’ve ever supervised with this question: “Do you have what you need to be successful?”

9 words, only one of which is more than one syllable, and it’s huge!

Imagine the doors that one question opens.  It allows staff to ask for more information.  It allows me to confirm staff have the information, the tools and the resources they need.  It’s the question that opens the door to them coming back, and to me feeling confident they won’t have to.

It’s the question that allows them to say: “No, actually….  I don’t understand this assignment.” “I need more information.” “I need more stuff.” “I need more staff.” “I need more time.”

If you ask the question and you get an honest answer, you still may not be able to provide what your team member is requesting.  Even if that’s the case, they will feel heard, and you will know what they feel like they need to be successful, in case you didn’t know before.  In either case, it’s an educate-able moment to explain and perhaps negotiate a resolution everyone can understand, even if they don’t love.

Now I’m quite confident that even if I had asked the question, and even if I had gotten the answer yes, things might have still gone awry.  But I’m also confident it would have happened less often.

I didn’t know to ask.  When I was a new manager, I didn’t understand that there were people who wouldn’t tell me they didn’t understand the instructions.  They would walk away and try to do what I wanted, without really understanding what I wanted.  As you might imagine, it didn’t always end well.

I move fast.  You move fast.  Sometimes I, maybe like you, have talked in half information, which for most staff is just enough to start, but not always enough to successfully finish an assignment.  And I, maybe like you, have had staff that were intimidated to come and ask for clarification.  And I’m sure that I, maybe like you, have lost my patience when I thought I had explained what I needed, yet not gotten what I wanted.

What if I would have asked the question?  What if my people would have answered honestly?

Now let’s be clear: This one question alone won’t change the culture of an office.  It won’t fill the gap created by a lack of systems; it won’t magically transform a bad hire into a star, or turn a bad manager into a good one.

What it will do is build confidence on both sides of the table, build rapport, build a tradition of team work, and an expectation that your team can ask for what they need, and that you will try to get it for them.  It says “I trust you. I am here for you. I believe in you.”

9 words, only one of which is more than one syllable, and it’s huge!

What’s been your experience?  Have you ever asked this question?  Has anyone ever asked you?  As always, I welcome your experience and insight.

Building the Board of Directors

In Non Profit Boards on September 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Everything flows from a strong Board of Directors. That strength is developed by the Board Development Committee and the CEO.  The Board Development Committee perpetuates, educates and evaluates the Board, and is the most powerful committee of the Board. It is the only committee that you (should) have to be invited to join.

The most important thing a Board does is hire a visionary and talented nonprofit leader. I believe you need that talented nonprofit leader to (among many other things) build the board, and you need the board to (among other things) hire, support and evaluate the leader. It’s a bit like two sides of the same coin.

Strong CEOs build strong boards. As discussed in greater detail in the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives “the CEO’s role in board development is to understand the work of the board and its processes, and support the implementation of each. CEOs play a primary role in building the board. As such, they have the opportunity to assemble a board that can take the organization to new heights.’ ‘The CEO assists in building the board to which she will ultimately report and also makes recommendations, staffs board committees, and supports the board’s success. CEOs do not have the authority to add board members.

In the case of board development, CEOs should also:

  • Support the recruitment of potential board members; arrange and attend meetings with prospective board members and the board or committee chair, share the agency’s vision, mission, and board processes, including time, giving and getting expectations, and assess the capacity of the prospective member to fit on the team;
  • Manage the board development process, including spreadsheet of terms of office;
  • Ensure board training and evaluation.”

I didn’t understand that building the board was my job when I was hired to lead my first agency. I thought that since I reported to the Board, I should stay out of it. Boy, was I wrong! In addition to giving up the power to influence who would become the future leaders of my organizations, and as such, my future bosses, I also passed on the chance to educate my board about their governance responsibilities. I failed to use my position to strengthen the board and through them to strengthen my agency.

When I finally clued in (later in my career and leading a different agency) and began to participate in Board Development efforts, my agency benefited in spades;  we created a vision that improved services to children, and the number of children receiving those services, we merged with another organization, did a capital campaign, built a new building, and renovated two more buildings. And the board of directors became the board of choice in the community.

Now that I am a consultant, I field calls from CEOs and Board members alike looking for board governance assistance and using words like “under-engaged, overstepping, self-serving, and in-fighting.” The solution is board development. Board development is an intentional process that includes strategic prospecting, recruiting, and orienting for new board members and educating, evaluating and recognizing our current board members, coupled with a strategic plan (that is being followed) and the introduction of generative discussions.

CEO’s get a lot done by sheer will. They can, have and will continue to move mountains with limited resources, less staff than they need and unprecedented numbers of service requests. But…and it’s big but….if they also work to build the boards our agencies need, we could do more – much more.

Strong boards coupled with strong leadership can impact a community in a way the neither could do alone; and that impacts the issue, moves the needle and changes the world. Isn’t that why we all do this work…to change the world?

What’s been your experience? How have you built your Board and what impact have you seen because of it?

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