An Alternative to Hierarchical Leadership

English: From Left: Spc. Christopher Hickey, S...

These guys need a chain of command.  Your family probably doesn’t.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every now and again someone goes on television to talk about how her husband is the head of her household and she loves that because it’s the only thing that makes sense. After all we only have one President, and the military works in a hierarchy so obviously that’s just how leadership works.

Normally I see these stories and roll my eyes or make yakking noises in the privacy of my own home. If I’m feeling really worked up, I treat my partner to a monologue on why comparing the management of a family to the management of the world’s largest economy is ridiculous.

I did all those things this time as well, but after I calmed down a bit it occurred to me that while some families choose a “decider” on purpose, others do so because uncertainty is almost as uncomfortable as conflict and designating someone to make all the decisions is a quick and easy way to minimize the discomfort caused by disagreements.

If you chose to run your family that way because it makes everyone happy, knock yourself out.*

If, however, you are defaulting to letting the loudest person in your house make decisions because you believe that’s the only way to avoid knock-down, drag-out fights that result in doing what the loudest person wants anyway, consider this alternative. Continue reading

3 Things Nonprofit Consultants Can’t Do

Moving truck

Image by TheMuuj via Flickr

Hiring a nonprofit consultant is like hiring movers. Once you’ve had the experience of high-quality, professional help, it is  impossible to imagine how you ever did all that heavy-lifting on your own.

And yet, just like movers don’t unpack for you–or come back two weeks later to unload the dishwasher, there are some kinds of work your consultant can’t do for you.

Here are three big ones: Continue reading

Urgent vs. Important: A cautionary tale

Pied Piper with Children

Image via Wikipedia

This story is about me and the work I failed to do.

It is a bummer.  I’m sorry about that.  I’m not to the part where things turn around yet.

I’ve decided to share this now, rather than wait until I’m out of the hole, so that you (and your organization or project)  might learn from my mistakes and be able to avoid this dangerous, yet common trap.

Three years ago I was hired to manage a robotics program.  The program was pretty new, had seed support from one large donor and had just received a grant from another organization to hire a staff person to manage and “grow” the program.

The work I did managing the program was frankly, amazing.  The growth?  not so much.

Now the grant period is over.  I developed a plan to raise the funds we need to continue with a full time staff person but since we’ve shown little growth in the past three years, the board has decided the staff position is not a good investment.

Looking at the situation from the outside, they have made a wise decision.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  From the board’s point of view it’s clear the problem was lack of staff leadership.  This perspective is not without merit, and yet, as the staff person doing the job day the situation was a bit more complicated.

Every day I had two choices:

  1. Do the detailed, managerial work that must be done  to ensure the program runs smoothly tomorrow.
  2. Inspire others (in this case,volunteers) to develop and execute plans to reach more supporters, better connect industry with schools, and make sure the community knew about the good work that is getting done.

My failure?  I chose #1 almost every day.  I spent my days putting out the fires right in front of me.  I used the praise I received for excellent management to soothe my fears about the lack of growth and lack of connection.  I let myself believe the instruction “the volunteers must lead this effort” meant that the volunteers were ultimately responsible for our success or failure to grow the program.  I was really, really wrong about that, and now I will accept the consequences.

Avoid the Urgent Trap

There is no way for me to rewind time and do things differently (this time), but  there may be time for you.

If you find yourself avoiding the important, difficult aspects of your work in favor of the urgent, day to day details, take these steps immediately.

Hire someone right now (or find a good volunteer) to do the parts of your job that are routine.  If a task can be done via a good written procedure, then write the procedure and never spend your time on the task again.  This is not to say the detail/managerial work isn’t valuable–its absolutely critical.  But it is also never-ending.  Until some (or all) of that work is off your plate you will continue to be distracted from the leadership and development work for which you are ultimately responsible.

Don’t confuse being responsible for an outcome and being the person who should do it. This was my biggest failing.  Rather than figuring out why volunteers were not doing what I needed them to do and finding a way for them to be successful, I either did the work I wanted them to do on my own, or let the work go undone.  Both of these solutions were detrimental.  By doing the work I was able to do, I filled up my time with work that made me feel busy but wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to go (see point # 1).  Then, I had no time or energy left to work with volunteers to approach the growth and leadership dilemmas in new ways.

Don’t be afraid to sound the alarm.  I knew six months into this job that what we were doing wasn’t working.  I made some attempts to reorganize our work or to tell people one on one that we needed to try something else–but mostly I stuck my fingers in the dam and masked issues as well as I could.  Unfortunately, I succeeded.  If I had treated the volunteers and the organization’s leaders as partners who could work with me to find a path that worked, rather than grouchy parents who would judge me for not being successful, we might be in a different place right now.

Your Turn

This is where the uplifting, “look what we’ve learned, isn’t life in nonprofit work amazing” message goes.  I’m still working that part out.  In the meantime, tell us in the comments what you are going to do today to keep from ending up in this hole with me.

What if you didn’t need permission?


Truck stuck in the mud

Image via Wikipedia


I’ve been stuck.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but my forward momentum on several fronts has slowed or stopped in the last month or so.

I’ve tried a lot of “getting unstuck” methods.  I’ve pushed really hard, I’ve stopped pushing all together.  I’ve waited, I’ve looked at issues from new angles.  I’ve pretended I wasn’t stuck, I’ve explored what people in other lines of work and from other cultures do when they are stuck.  I’ve seen a glimmer of hope here and there but mostly it was still just me, in the mud, starting to worry that maybe this was as far as I was meant to go.

Until Friday.

On Friday, I met with a local executive coach who is connected with my MFA Master Teacher.  I expected to learn more about the local arts scene and (hopefully) get connected with people who could help me get back to full-time theatre work.

That is not what happened.  In fact, he didn’t bring up the name of a single person who could help me find a new job.  Instead, he argued I had a great job already and the “thing*” standing between me and keeping it could be solved in less than a week.

It wasn’t a pleasant conversation, and his solution to the thing* wasn’t exactly right–but he absolutely nailed one important thing.

I’ve been waiting for permission.

This was a huge revelation to me.  I don’t think of myself as a “wait for instructions” kind of person.   I’ve always seen myself as a leader–as someone who sees what needs to be done and does it, for the benefit of the group.

In a lot of ways that is true.  And yet, I’ve known for three years what needed to happen for my program to thrive–but because no one gave me their blessing to lead the charge, I’ve been waiting.

It just seemed polite.

Now I am done waiting.  I have a plan.  I have co-conspirators.  I’ve never been so excited to go to work in the morning.

Things are looking up 🙂

Your Turn

What’s blocking your path?  How would things be different if you could stop waiting?

*sorry about the lack of specificity here.  The secret plan involves launching a thing and I don’t want to spill the beans yet 🙂