I do ask lots of questions, but sometimes I also do provide answers! Here’s are some of the answers I provided to the Linked In “Answers” forums:I
As a nonprofit consultant, which assessment tool(s) do you recommend when trying to understand and evaluate where the organization’s biggest problems lie?

The starting point is not a set of “tools” or automated programs, or report. It’s my own ears, listening to staff, board, and critical stakeholders reporting their understanding of the organization and its issues. And it’s the probing questions I ask, to elicit these comments. Once I’ve identified some core issues, various reports and tools may be relevant. And if the issues are primarily with finances, I may involve other consultants who work more intensively in that area.

Think about getting a good physical exam. After a few simple preliminaries (height, weight, pulse, blood pressure, etc.), the doctor will ask how I’m feeling, will look VERY carefully at my posture, demeanor, coordination, etc., will feel my skin for temperature and moisture, etc. More detailed tests may follow, but they are never the starting point.

How do you personally evaluate speakers you hear?

Great speakers have me engaged. They present memorable images, powerful questions, great metaphors. I don’t have to “evaluate” their performance. Their message stays with me, guides me, informs me. I notice that.

How successful is your donor newsletter at raising money?

I’d be surprised if most donor newsletters succeed at raising money — since that’s not what they are supposed to do. They keep donors and prospects in touch with the organization, cultivate them as stakeholders. Then, when the “ask” comes, the donors or prospects want to support the vital organization that they are so clearly in touch with.

What is your favorite way for nonprofits without alumni to get email addresses?

Just be very careful that you understand “opt in”. An e-mail sent without permission, and without explanation, casts a very bad first impression.

What is the biggest mistake you see new, first time EDs make when working with their Board?

The most common mistake I see new executive directors make is to regard their board as more a burden than an asset. Indeed, it takes work to maintain a board, but a board is a resource to help keep an organization on track, connected, and grounded.

How do you find web developers/designers that are willing to offer Pro Bono services to a NFP?

In most communities, you’ll find an organization that brings together web developers and designers to share skills and insights with each other. Try to identify that group (or those groups) in your area, and ask them to circulate a request from your nonprofit. Be clear what the request is, and include a short statement about why it makes a difference. But do be careful that the skill set you get pro bono is the skill set that you need. A web developer MAY not be the best web designer or web marketing consultant. Interview your pro bono workers just as you would any contractor.

What’s the best accounting software for nonprofits?

One early responder to this question asks, “Why do you think it would be different from any profit making business? ” In many many ways, the needs are the same. But many non-profits need fund accounting, as they keep track of many different grants, contracts, etc. There are packages designed for this, and I’m aware of several add-ons for Quickbooks to provide fund accounting functionality. How important is this for your nonprofit? For many, it’s not important at all. But it makes sense to have on your board at least one person who really understands these issues, and can help guide the organization. As with any software choice, the REAL cost is not the cost of the package — It’s the cost of working with it daily, of putting up with unexpected quirks or lapses in support, and — worst case — of replacing it if a wrong choice was made.

Chartered affiliate organization must file state filing and register for the DOJ and FTB, yet Central Org won’t sign documents, claims it’s unnecessary. Central org does not include chapters in 990 or file a group exemption.

Speak to a lawyer in your state. Informal advice on forums such as this can be valuable in many ways. But it’s no substitute for good professional legal advice. I’m amazed how often people don’t go to the source — and here the source is somebody with the precise legal knowledge.

What is your best tip for leading effective online small group coaching programs?

The key to any individual or group coaching is clarifying goals. Often that’s the full agenda, and its’ repeated again and again. “What are we trying to do?” “Where do we want to be?”. Individual (1-1) coaching may be a useful adjunct to group work. But be careful that people don’t try to use this to point towards others as the source of a problem. The only place that belongs is in the whole group, stated in the most positive way. Yes — accountability is important. I’d suggest that the last part of each session be on “confirming agreements”, and that the first part be on “agreement check in”. I agree that “homework” can be a negative word, even though the concept is great. I might call it “preparation”.”

  1. Work with staff and their managers to identify the skills on which training is needed. Communicate this clearly to the training group.
  2. Allow enough time and space for the training to really work. Often going off site is helpful. In any case, staff should be totally free to be present with the training.
  3. Insure that staff will be able to use the skills they have learned right away. I used to run a technical training department, and was amazed how often staff were sent for training on a new piece of software, but didn’t get to work with it for six months or more. By that time, the value of the training has long been lost.

Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are the ten points they list:  (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)

Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.

* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.

* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.

* Have transferable skills.

* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.

* Have more than one solution to a problem.

* Be a good listener.

* Be a team player.

* Be able to market.

* Gain client trust.

* Remember who’s the star.

And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:

* Be comfortable telling the truth.  Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise.  A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.

* Be tactful and affirming.  Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive.  A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.

* Know how to ask great questions.  Great consultants ask great questions.  It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.

* Be willing to play together.  You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table.  Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well.  A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.

* Have lots of integrity.  Confidences need to be respected.  Promises need to be kept.  A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.

* Admit mistakes.  Great consultants aren’t always right.  What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.

* Love simplicity.  Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand.  A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.

* Enjoy the work.  Great consultants have fun.  Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children.  Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.

Telling my story . . .

April 16, 2012

It’s all about Spirit

January 10, 2012

Jodi Flynn (of Luma Coaching) and I have been meeting to share our understanding of the coaching process, of how to facilitate constructive change, and of how we ourselves have gotten more “on track”.

The agenda for our most recent intensive was, “How do I know my goals and actions are in alignment with my authentic self, or my authentic path?” Business coach Mandy Schumaker had posted this question, and we both felt that it was an important starting point for any transformative process.

Jodi was well prepared, with a brilliant list of “red light” and “green light” indicators, that could help us identify when we’re on or off that path. Read her blog entry for more about this very helpful set of questions, and how they might be applied.

What I want to report here concerns that “ah ha” moment, when one of us exclaimed, “It’s all about Spirit”. Both of us have had the experience of feeling actions, writing, images coming through us rather than from us, so it should not have been surprising to hear this affirmation of personal faith.

But what followed was much more radical. I asked Jodi whether this applies to all her clients, and not just those who consider themselves believers of some sort. Without hesitation, Jodi replied, “Absolutely!” She explained that the words may be different, God or Christ or Buddha language may not fit, but that sense that we all connect with some higher power not under our conscious control is primary and universal. It can be a challenge to acknowledge this truth, while not proselytizing a particular expression of it, but we both affirmed that this is possible and necessary.

“What about clients who have much more mundane concerns?”, I asked. “How can I be more effective at work, more engaged in home life, more successful in promoting my own business?” Again, Jodi’s clear response, with which I concur, was that to access our greatest potential we have to look within and whether we acknowledge it or not, that is the process of accessing spirit.

“Spirit” may not be the right word for you, if it bring up old baggage, negative experiences with religion, dogma with which you disagree. Perhaps you’ve a better word for that guiding force, that source, that positive constructive energy that can lead us towards centered grounded action. And your coaching work may appear to stay far from notions of spirit or whatever. But the affirmation that came out of our sharing was that Spirit really is at the center.


I recently met  with Jodi Flynn (of Luma Coaching) to explore the basis of our coaching work — and that meant talking about how to catalyze change.  Thanks to Jodi for much of the content I’ve included in this short post.

Most of us (and so most of our clients), are change averse.  Even when we can imagine or understand the benefits of some change in our lives, our organizations, or our relationships, something holds us back.  As coaches, we want to open our clients to constructive change. What helps this happen?

We shared several models:

  • Comparative pain:  We may help our clients realize or understand that the real pain of the status quo is greater than the imagined pain of the change they may be contemplating.
  • Pain, perseverance, and gain:  Every change involves pain.  Things seem harder to do at first, or situations are more awkward.  This lasts for a period of perseverance, but then we’re no longer held back.  And — the real benefit — after a while there’s a gain over where we were at the beginning.  Helping clients acknowledge this rhythm, and project the actual pain, perseverance, and gain, may open them to change.  Also, it may be possible to find strategies that control the amount of pain, the or the perseverance period required.
  • Fear may increase when we look it in the face.  By painting a detailed model of the life we want, the way we want to work, the quality of a relationship, or whatever is the desired subject of change, the positive vision can become so compelling that resistance to change begins to diminish.
  • We may not look for change in the parts of our lives that we experience as fixed.  In other words, we may not name the need for change until the possibility of change feels  real.  I offered the example of a married couple, who might declare, “Well, we get along okay.”  Seeing no alternative to their current lives, they accept when seems immobile.  But upon visiting a marriage counselor, and finding ways to identify issues and work with them, they may revise their assessment to “We never realized how problematic or empty our relationship was!”.
  • Empowerment may be the key.  When we experience ourselves as the victim of circumstance, as conflicted because of the woes of our lives, as powerless to change our situation, we’ve little energy to invest in change.  When we can experience ourselves as responsible, as in a synergistic relationship with the world around us, we become empowered to change our situation.  And even though some outside circumstances of our lives may really be fixed and not easily changeable, we can change the way we carry ourselves and relate to that fixed world.  So … helping clients understand how they can choose that relationship can open them to change.  Jodi spoke of a model leading us from being victim to just being in conflict, then being responsible, becoming of service, acting in reconciliation, existing in synergy, and finally becoming non-judgmental so that we can act much more easily on our own behalf instead of in reaction to the provocation of others or of circumstances.  Being able to place ourselves in this spectrum helps us become open to change.

Whether we seek to improve our personal lives, become more effective within their work organizations. develop teams and groups that can better create solutions to social or business problems, nourish relationships or simply build confidence, change is required.  How we embrace change, or transform our resistance to it, determines how we will succeed.  And understanding models, such as those I’ve shared above, is key to helping people make that transformation.

Blog posts such as this often invite just minor comments of appreciation or disagreement. But I do hope that this one will start a more vital discussion. What has helped you overcome your resistance to change? And how might coaching, counseling, or other assistance have helped in that process?

Making big mistakes

October 13, 2011

I still remember that deadly class period in Junior High School — social dance class.  After reminding us to stand up tall, lead firmly, look your partner right in the eye, smile, start with the right foot, listen to the music, be aware of other couples on the dance floor, point your feet straight forward, hope that your teeth were brushed and that your breath is okay, and more pointers that I’ve surely forgotten, she gave us one last piece of deadly advice:

 “If you take little steps, you’ll make only little mistakes”.

That was horrible advice for the dance floor and for life, for me in Junior High, and for every later period of my life.  Even as I first heard those words, I knew they were a motto for the life I didn’t want to live. Read the rest of this entry »

Lots of people will parody the work of consultants — suggesting that we’ll contract for a study of whether to do a study studying why a study might be helpful. But forget that foolishness.  A good consultant will work with their client(s) to identify clear goals, important questions, kinds of knowledge that must be transmitted or answers that must be obtained.

I believe we need to teach good “clienting” just as we learn good consulting. My best clients work with me to define goals, they welcome surprises, and allow space to make changes based on what they learn. They know that they’re getting value from my work. Or, if they don’t, they initiate a meeting or other process to set things straight.

Yes, of course there are times when I can see an issue that I believe should be addressed, and the client does not.  It’s my challenge to suggest a project that will, in the end, provide value for the client.  I may or may not convince the client that the need is real, and that sufficient budget should be allocated to address it.

Let me stop here, and ask you what teaching good “clienting” should mean, what needs to be taught.

Here’s a proposal I made to a group of entrepreneurs, who wanted to re-vitalize their meetings, and provide more value to each other:

I’d suggest that at each meeting we function as a Board of Advisors for one member business or business to be. We’d have that business make a brief presentation about goals, organization, status, and some critical decisions that they are facing. The group could then ask questions, and, finally, offer some advice.

A few notes about this process, what’s required, and what might go wrong:

  • We’d all have to respect confidentiality — that’s what’s shared in the meeting room stays there.
  • It’s always temping to listen little and speak quickly. This process demands a process of listening carefully, then asking questions that really are about clarifying and understanding. Only after that it advice appropriate.
  • I deliberately said board of ADVISORS and not of DIRECTORS. Assume that we have no power, except the power of good ideas.
  • From experience, I can tell you that the discussion needs to be carefully moderated, and by somebody who is not going to be a main contributor. The moderator needs to slow the group down, allow for good sharing, keep the discussion on topic, and counteract the presence of any egos that may be present in the room.
  • The advice we come up with may be worth the price paid (and no more!). It’s important to be modest about our knowledge and skill — even as we work with integrity and energy.
  • The whole endeavor also requires committed subjects, who are really trying to develop their business, who want to tell themselves and their advisers the truth, and who are open to change.

I should note that I’m happy to work with groups (profit or non-profit) interested in trying this process.

This is not new!  I’ve been doing such user interface review work for some time, but have now “packaged” it as a service, and sent out the following  news release explaining what I do.

Portland consultant offers “User Interface Review” service

Insight and Clarity, a consulting and coaching firm in Portland Maine, has introduced a new “User Interface Review” service, to help technology developers create products that are easy to use and hard to misuse.

Arthur Fink, owner of Insight and Clarity, explains that, “Most developers intend their products to be ‘user friendly’, but seldom does anybody spend enough time watching users trying to befriend the product”.  Fink sees himself as a cyber-age anthropologist, observing business cultures to see what tasks are being done, what tools are used. how these tools are used, and — perhaps most important — where users encounter stress, frustration, boredom, fear, or angst.  The result of this observation will be a strategy for revision or re-design, or, in some cases, a total blueprint for a new user experience.

In working on the redesign of a point of sale computer system for Subway restaurants, Fink spent many hours shadowing Subway associates at several Maine locations, and he worked for a few hours actually running the computer cash register.  “What appeared to be a fairly simple job turned out to actually be quite complex, and I learned so much about the difficulty of doing that job with inadequate technology,” Fink said.

Fink’s graduate degree in computer science from Harvard, along with studies there in social relations, linguistics, and cognitive psychology all appear to be strong credentials for his current work.  But Fink points to his years of experience visiting factories as a consultant and learning how to ask probing and provocative questions as his most important education.

Fink has been an independent consultant since 1982, working in such diverse areas as improving management structure for telecommuting programs, training system developers in user interface design, actually building database systems for a variety of industries, and helping senior managers improve communications within their organizations.  He’s currently working on the design and implementation of a hospital messaging system, and is writing a book whose working title is, “Asking Great Questions”.

Fink has been a featured speaker at conferences in the U.S., Canada, Holland, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland, and has spoken four times at Pecha Kucha gatherings in Portland, Maine.

Contact Arthur Fink at  arthur@InsightAndClarity.com  or  207.615.5722.

It’s glib and irresponsible to just blame conservative Republicans or Tea Party activists for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and of so many other innocent people.  Indeed, the young man who committed this crime was clearly disturbed, and there’s no reason to believe that this crime was simply an expression of a conscious but zealous idealism.  And, certainly, none of Giffords critics intended or sought such action, or would have urged anybody to start shooting.

But to dismiss our responsibility is also glib and dangerous.  This tragic story exposes some disturbing flaws in American society. Read the rest of this entry »

Our professional group had a wonderful “bingo” game last month, that really helped us all meet each other.  Here’s how to set it up:

1. Get each person to write about three phrases that might characterize them. At least one should be obscure, and one very generic. For example, I might list the following for myself:

* Used the computer language ‘spitball’ in graduate school

* Asks lots of questions, and advertises that fact

* Once ran ‘computer assertiveness training’ workshops

2. Put together boards with a grid of 4 x 6 = 16 such phrases. 3. Hand these out.

3. Participants have to talk to each other, finding names to put in each box on their bingo sheet.

On Becoming a Consultant

January 5, 2011

I’ve often been asked for advice on making the transition from practitioner to consultant.  Here are a few of the points that I emphasize:

  • You don’t have to have answers, and certainly don’t have to have them right up front!
  • Ask insightful questions, listen, listen more. Let the clients voice what they need, the visions they carry, the kinds of support that will help them make needed changes. More change will happen when they name it themselves. And when the client’s management sees that real change follows your visits, you’ll be a hero.
  • You may have lots of information, see things very quickly, and could impress people by coming in swinging. In the long run, this works against you.
  • It’s fine not to know things!  Tell the truth, and say, “I don’t know” . . . but will find out, or lead your client to other resources.  Little lies fester, and always come back against you.
  • Not all money is green!  If you’ve serious questions about the integrity of an organization, about how they treat customers or behave in the markeplace — stay away.
  • Choose clients with whom who can succeed.  If you don’t believe your candid advice is really wanted, or expect that they are not ready to change in any significant way, it not a profitable engagement.
  • Define the evaluation criteria at the start of each engagement, so that you and the client can periodically assess your real progress.

Executive Scavenger Hunt

January 5, 2011

A member of the Organization Development Network asked, “I am facilitating a program for executives on the topic ofTransformational Leadership’.   What questions do you think should be asked to really get the heads spinning?”

In trying to respond to this query, I asked myself what might get executives to look beyond the surface view of their organizations.  Too often we see what we want, and not other things that don’t fit our paradigms.  What games might get them to look further — based on what they already know?  And then I had it — a scavenger hunt!

Divide the executives up into teams of two or three, and ask each team to identify where in the organization they might find:

  • Ecstasy
  • Greed
  • Delight
  • Fear
  • Contentment
  • Pride
  • Exasperation
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Eenergy
  • Team spirit
  • Anger
  • Powerlessness
  • Ingenuity
  • Community

(or your own list, in this spirit)

Normally, executives don’t talk about these things. But ask them where these things might be found, and a new degree of honesty and courage may arise. That would be my hope.

Need I point out that most of these scavenger items are about individual feelings, that can lead to healthy or to destructive behavior.  Too often, I believe that managers think of their organization as a whole, and not of the individuals who make it up, and whose personal experience feeds right into an organizational culture.

Transformational leadership involves blending the best that indivuals can offer into an organized, coherent, creative, and profitable endeavor.  It means knowing all the stakeholders (and those who should be stakeholders, but, for whatever reason, are not), having a strong vision, creating a climate of trust, integrity, and creativity, and being able to model the values that should guide the whole organization.

On choosing a consultant

January 4, 2011

In an on-line discussion about guidelines for choosing a consultant, I suggested the following:

  • Start with a statement of your problem, that is as specific as possible. But be clear that you’re stating the problem, and not your sense of what a solution might be.
  • See how it feels to talk with your prospective consultant about that problem. Do their questions make you think, broaden your concept of how a solution might be found?
  • Don’t attempt to get a free solution from those discussions. Actually with a good consultant, you will learn something in each encounter, but the goal is to test the working relationship and not to move towards solutions.
  • Be very clear about fees, retainers, confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, ownership of new intellectual property, etc. If you and your consultant have trouble with these, that’s a red flag.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for references, and to speak with them.
  • The consultant must have the body of knowledge you require, feel like a comfortable partner, communicate his or her professionalism, and acknowledge your role in the consulting process.
  • Agree on evaluation criteria at the start of the engagement. (e.g. “So, at the end of phase one, we’ll look forward to having a feature list for the product we’ll be building, and a detailed definition of the market segment to whom it will be directed.”)
  • Enter into the consulting agreement only if you respect, trust, and look forward to working with this consultant.

On Elevator Speeches

December 27, 2010

On one of the LinkedIn groups, somebody asked about the relevance of elevator speeches.  It became an involved discussion, mostly criticizing the canned theatrical speeches that are becoming so common.

Into that mix, I offered the following:

Forget the words “speech” or “pitch”.

We need quick easy short ways to say what we do, without sounding like a speech, without intimidating. What we say should interest, perhaps excite, should invite questions, and should be very non-technical.

One of mine: “Have you heard of user friendly computers? Well, I help put the ‘user’ and ‘friendly’ into those products”.

Another: “I ask questions. Good questions. People learn from the experience of answering them. It’s kind of like coaching, but I don’t like that name.”

Or: “I inject doses of creativity into work groups that are bored with dull mediocrity”.

All of these are deliberately incomplete. They all invite responses. And they all feel very natural from me.

Of course, elevator speeches don’t tell our whole story.  they can’t,  and they shouldn’t.  But they may provoke discussion that leads to an understanding of our story.

I hope that mine plant healthy seeds, that will nourish and grow.

More important than my “elevator speech” is my pair of “elevator ears”.  Perhaps I’ll write another blog post about how to turn any moment into a listening moment.

 

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