January 21, 2016
I’m learning with every step, becoming clearer, more curious, asking better questions that help others find more insight and clarity. Here I’ve tried to trace some of this development:
- As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College I learned to ask deep questions, to tell the truth, to be skeptical about making any assumptions, and to listen carefully to get past surface chatter.
- My scientific training (at Swarthmore and at Harvard) taught me about creating and refining models. A model is useful because it leaves almost everything out, but can be problematic for the same reason — because it leaves almost everything out. We create and evaluate imperfect models all the time, and knowing how to deconstruct them is critical.
- A summer working with the respected social scientists Robert Abelson and Philip Zimbardo on the manuscript for “Canvassing for Peace” gave me very practical experience developing strategy, testing its application on small sample sizes, responding to surprises, and implementing a revised and well grounded plan. It was also an opportunity for me to explore collaboration between academics and activists.
- Several years working with the American Friends Service Committee – first as a member of their Peace Education Staff and then as director of public relations (at AFSC this was called “Information Services”) taught me how to target and focus messages about controversial topics — keeping some edge, but building on shared values and concerns.
- Years of experience as a manager in a small rapidly growing software company, that during my tenure became a division of General Electric, taught me how to work effectively within complex organizations, collaborating with competing management segments. This job offered me a “sandbox” to learn about power, loyalty, innovation, and the importance of clearly defined mission and plan.
- Working as an independent consultant – designing and developing information systems for business and non-profit organizations,or focusing on usability and user interface – I honed my skills of listening, of change management, and of assessment and evaluation.
- Through all these years, I served on the boards of a variety of non-profit organizations – nurturing the Merriconeag Waldorf School (now called the Maine Coast Waldorf School) from a nursery and kindergarten into a K – 8 school with a million dollar building and significant organizational capacity, running a capital campaign for a Quaker study and conference center in Western Massachusetts, helping a local interfaith organization grow from a dream into a vibrant reality. I also had the opportunity to work with organizations that were seriously fractured, and learned what kinds of weaknesses most easily lead to failure, and how best to address these.
- Participation in the year long “Leadership Intensive” program offered by the Institute for Civic Leadership (now called “Lift 360”) gave me a chance to reflect on all these experiences, to explore models of collaborative facilitation and leadership, and to develop more connections within the greater Portland business and non-profit community.
- As a consultant to non-profits, I’ve honed my skills at facilitation, strategic planning, coaching, questioning, collaborating, and leading workshops and retreats.
- For three years, I was Recording Clerk of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends – taking minutes of week long gatherings at which as many as 500 Quakers from around New England conducted the society’s business. My task was to listen and record, with each formal minute approved as the meeting progressed. Often it was my job to suggest a minute that reflected the unity we had found, but also the matters that still required more work together. I was considered part of the session leadership, but viewed my role as a servant task. I found my gift of helping a community find its voice — both the voice of its agreement, but also of the discord or lack of clarity. It’s a gift to be able to articulate clearly the points of our disagreement.
- I’m a great listener, a reconciler, and a creative force skilled in consensus-based approaches. I was one of the authors of book chapter on the process of Quaker decision making, and have often been called upon to help divergent groups work together. Working within complex organizations, I know how to formulate great questions, and draft talking points that will help others facilitate constructive change.
- I’ve another life as a photographer of dance. While this might not appear to be parallel to the other experiences listed above, I do believe that deep engagement in a creative process – where even with best efforts things don’t always proceed as expected or as planned, and where agility can be as important as mastery – offers many lessons that are surprisingly applicable.
I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms. Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.
Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:
- As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness. Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing. I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.
I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation. But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation. I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role. I also asked for an initial work plan. What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar. Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.
- As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision. I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies. I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.
One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider. Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment. But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business. This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.
- As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another. My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.
One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes. I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.
After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students. However, that never happened.
When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired. A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission. Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage the whole team but require real effort. Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.
I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.
A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.
I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement. Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.
Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers. But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.
September 13, 2013
We need professional partners, and not just fee for service providers. And we need to be invested in the relationships, and active in providing information, helping to define problems, evaluating proposed solutions, etc.
This post began in response to a question about choosing an attorney for a new business or non-profit organization. Several other people had offered advice about paying attention to the attorney’s specialities, about the size and responsiveness of their organization, etc. I agreed with all of this, but suggested looking not just at the provider, but about the kind of relationship required.
Here’s what I wrote in that post:
I believe there’s more. Your relationship with your attorneys (there may be more than one!) must be a partnership. It’s not just a fee for service. Setting up the corporation, protecting trademarks, etc. is not that complex. But finding the right guidance moving forward, managing risk, defining business relationships . . . these can be complex and interesting.
I’d ask each potential attorney (or firm), “What will you want from me? What’s going to be my role in making this relationship work?” Listen carefully, to see if their response sounds like the foundation of a helpful and productive partnership.
I might note that the same questions are very relevant in interviewing potential consultants, advertising agencies, web developers . . . all your business partners.
Are you willing to nourish and value that relationship? Can you hear the guidance and advice that will be offered, and still remain an active partner in deciding how to proceed. Can you stake responsibility for steering your ship, even as you gather information and ideas from all of your “crew”?
September 11, 2013
The best way to shares our lives. or visions, our dreams, our fears . . . is by telling stories. And one of the best ways to do the same things about our organizations (profit or non-profit) is to tell stories. Opening ourselves to a story telling mindset is very adaptive.
Recently I was mentoring somebody who was very conflicted about whether to proceed on a certain path. He wasn’t clear that he wanted to reach that destination, and was equally unclear whether the words associated with the celebration of that path were words he could say with integrity.
I was in no position to offer advice. I couldn’t know which direction was preferable, and, besides, i was his “mentor” but not his guide. it would have been appropriate for me to even try to chart his course.
But I could offer the following process:
- Tell me a story about following that path and where it takes you.
- Then, tell me another story about standing back, and not following that path. Where does that leave you?
Note that neither of these were requests to analyze, measure, or weigh. He’d done that a lot already, and that process only added to the inner conflict. Instead, I was asking him to let stories flow — and, indeed, they did.
It quickly became clear that the words associated with the certification were a crucial concern. The destination might have been right, but the words were an obstacle.
Again, story telling was the way forward. I asked him to create a story of a certification process that had resonance, with words he could easily say and stand behind. Then, I suggested, he might explore how much freedom he would have to use his words and his process.
I never heard that story, and don’t know exactly what pathway opened up. But he was able to follow a solid path to that destination, and I do know that he found the clarity he sought.
Did it matter that I never heard the inward part of this story? Not at all! Some stories are meant to guide us, and not to inform the rest of the world.
The same kinds of stories can guide non-profit organization and even for-profit corporations as they plan program, product lines, service offerings, etc. I recall vividly one occasion where I was asked to help re-design some software — following guidelines that intuitively seemed quite wrong to me. I spent several days watching their staff using the current software as they talked on the phone with their customers or clients, and listening to both sides of each phone call. Finally I was able to blurt out a very simple version of what seemed like the iconic story behind each interaction. The staff was thrilled to hear it stated so simply, and found that the story we had exposed led directly to a greatly improved and simplified version of the software.
As I look forward to each dialog with a client or prospect, with a non-profit board member or concerned stakeholder, with a troubled director or an engaged staff member, the five words that are almost always at the tip of my tongue are, “Tell me a story, about . . .”
December 13, 2012
I didn’t have to look far to find these “scripts”. I’ve played each of them many times before in conversations with friends and colleagues, and expect that I’m in good company. Most of these are not scripts that nourish relationships, cultivate friendships, build self-image, or free up our positive creative energy. And yet how often do these scripts guide our behavior?
My suggestion — Try playing each of these scripts for a day. Rehearse your lines, and be prepared to deliver them with passion and energy. But stop short of speaking. Think twice, and experience how the “real” you can best come forward.
Have I left out one of your favorite — or least favorite — scripts. I’d love to hear from you. Post on this blog, or e-mail me.
- Woe is me — Let me tell you all that has befallen me this week, the people who have been so mean or thoughtless, those who I thought were my friends, but finally showed their true (selfish) colors.
- Gratitude — I’m so thankful for you as my good friend, and you’re part of a community surrounding me. Stuff keeps happening, but I’m glad that I’m not alone.
- Entertainment — I’m an entertaining speaker, and I’ve lots of new stories and jokes, so — hold on to your seat — let me sound off.
- Compassionate curiosity — It’s been quite a while since we’ve really talked, and I’d love to hear what’s happening with you. What’s happening with you now? What’s important? I’d like to know.
- Interview — I want to hear about you, but let me take control of the conversation. Are you ready for my first question (of twenty!)?
- Flirting time — I’d like to offer you much gratuitous praise — not that I really mean it, but can’t we enjoy flattering each other?
- Far from the personal — Let’s talk about politicians abroad, or movie stars, or scandals . . . anything that keeps us from revealing much about ourselves today.
- Not so hidden disinterest — I asked you how you are, and about your family, but please don’t say anything too challenging. Running into you has been a diversion from how I really wanted to spend my time.
- Saving the world — I know you’re compassionate about world hunger, torture, and other such tragic issues, but are you feeling enough guilt? Let me offer some concrete things that you can do, and a big dose of guilt for you to absorb if you’re not willing to take these on.
- Please set the pace — Glad to run into you. I’ll be relatively quiet, just wanting to hear from you.
- Our fortune is overwhelming — Let me tell you about my promotion, the fantastic job our daughter just got, the contest we won. I’ve so much good news to share with you that I really don’t have time to listen to your story today. Oh, yes, and I was sorry to hear your bad news.
- False pretense — Let me pretend I didn’t see you. I won’t say a word, but trust you won’t be offended.
December 12, 2012
I recently met with the organizer of a fledgling non-profit, that will help “new Americans” find best place in our society, offering mutual support, and drawing wisely upon existing resources.
Then, after some reflection, I wrote the following summary of our discussion (slightly edited here for publication). I share it here not for the specifics regarding this new organization, but as a possible model of the kind of thinking needed to give birth to a vital and well purposed group.
Vision — A world in which the phrase “new Americans” is not even necessary, as all are treated with such dignity and respect, and receive assistance fulfilling their potential, in an open society that values differences as well as strength, that supports varied cultural forms, and that is open to growth and change. [I’ve just listed my thoughts here, probably not in the most refined, and final, wording]
Mission — New Americans helping each other take their full place in the economic and cultural life of this society, sharing their strengths, receiving help and support, and maintaining their dignity and sense of self worth. In particular, supporting new Americans who have experienced torture and other trauma, as well as abuses from the systems in place that should have offered support and welcome.
Support committee — An informal group offering you (the presumed director) counsel and support, but that has no decision-making power or formal organizational role. This group could be a group that can be a sounding bound for you, a source of advise, a place to test out ideas without making them visible to the whole community.
Executive Board — The formal group holding the “vessel” that is your organization. This is a point of organizational grounding, financial accountability, legal integrity. But it’s not the place where program originates. Largely consisting of new Americans, it may also draw upon others who can offer expertise in law, finance, non-profit grants, publicity, development, and other such areas. With good fiscal sponsorship, this group may not be needed right away to handle the organizations’ grant income, etc. Still, the structure of self-government is important, and experiencing this mechanism of self-determination right away can be an important experience and inspiration.
Community Board — A representative group, that ideally has members from all the ethnic groups being served. This is the group that identifies and then evaluates program, insuring that it really meets the needs of the communities it is supposed to serve. You will need to find clarity about how this group should function, how decisions are to be made, etc.
We spent time discussing the names of these last three groups. I still support my original comments, but believe you could call them anything — as long as you define clear and appropriate roles for each group.
These words are clearly not definitive. And that’s precisely why I’m sharing them here. If I’m incorrectly reporting what was shared and generally agreed upon, or if in retrospect some of these ideas are questionable, this is a great time to correct and move forward.
December 12, 2012
I’ll be offering this week long workshop at the week long “Friends General Conference” gathering this summer. But I’d love to work with anybody about how Quaker-ish process might work in any secular setting.
“We’ll explore ways in which something akin to a Quakerlike process can be used for secular decision making, and how it brings clarity and community to the life of non-profit organizations and even to for-profit companies. What’s left of Quaker process without it’s emphasis on spiritual discernment? Come and find out!”
October 26, 2012
I’ve been aware of much work on personal communication styles — how we each can best receive support, advice, criticism, support, validation, etc. And, of course, there are various personality models that help us understand all these things.
But I’m aware of much less work characterizing organizations. Thus I set about to put together this simple model. I present it here as something in process, for discussion and validation only. Please add your commentary. And if you’rereading this through another blog or medium (such as a LinkedIn group discussion), please make sure that you post here any comments that you post there as well .
I characterize organizations along two dimensions:
Traditional . . . Visionary
Weighty . . . Agile
And the, for each quadrant, I’ve assigned a name:
A traditional organization, that has some agility but not vision, is Awkward.
A traditional organization, that is more weighty than agile, ia probably Stuck.
A visionary organization, that remains weighty, is truly Reaching.
And, finally, an organization that is both visionary and truly agile is truly Creative.
Although I suggest that this characterization is for organizations, it may better fit organizational segments, perhaps a department or work group.
How helpful is this model? Are the quadrant names appropriate and helpful? And how useful is this picture to you? Please comment.
October 12, 2012
How often we try to solve a problem in the terms first presented to us. Occasionally this works. But very often the statement of the problem is self-limiting, and tends to steer us away from finding a real solution. Or — and this is just as problematic — we may re–phrase a problem in limiting and perhaps misleading terms.
Not long ago I changed the e-mail address at which I receive notices from what had been a very active mailing list. Instantly, I noticed that incoming mail from that list had stopped. What was going on? Was there a spam filter? I realized that I’d changed the list settings before creating my new email account. Had the list sent mail to the momentarily non-existent email address, and then turned me off? What other scenarios could lead to such an email blockage. I worked diligently on this problem, sought the assistance of the list owner and of several list participants, but got nowhere. A whole weekend went by, but no solution appeared.
And then the email I wanted started to flow. It turned out that this once-active list had experienced a significant decline in traffic, and there had been absolutely no messages during the whole weekend. Come Monday there was a trickle of emails on the list — and they all came through to me just as they were supposed to.
In fact I had originally seen the problem as, “No emails coming through”. But then I had quickly rephrased it into a question that I thought would be more helpful — “What is blocking my emails?” And holding on to that paradigm had blinded me to the very simple solution — “There were no emails for anybody”.
Recently a colleague shared with me her concerns about the board of the small nonprofit that she directs. We immediately began talking about various training programs or board retreats that might make the board a more functional support for this nonprofit and for its director. It felt appropriate for us to talk about the possible agenda for such training, whether it should be for all board members or just those on the executive committee, etc. Our unspoken paradigm was that the board didn’t understand its best role, and so wasn’t behaving in the most productive manner. Bring about the required understanding or attitude and the problem would be fixed, we believed.
It took quite a while for us to step back and reformulate the problem, into the simple statement, that “The board is not serving the role needed by the organization and its director”. And with this understanding we could ask whether, in fact, the right people were serving on the board, whether the personal benefits they sought from board service were consistent with the organization’s situation, and whether there were any positive models of board service within the board’s recent history. Board training (in the conventional sense) remained one possible option, but not the only option.
Another organization that I’ve worked with found that they weren’t taken seriously when seeking large contributions. They struggled to produce clearer descriptions of their programs, that they were sure would excite potential major donors. The new materials were better, and did attract more small donations. But they didn’t solve the problem — major donors were still holding back. It turned out that the public financial statements were unclear and inadequate. This didn’t bother small contributors, but were a real concern to major donors. A new treasurer was able to produce much clearer financial reports, and larger contributions began to flow.
In each of these cases the relevant people heard a statement of the visible problem, but made assumptions as they translated it into a limiting reformulation. Letting go of those assumptions and asking anew what was the real problem turned out to be the key.
The moral here is simple: Our first question should always be, “What is the problem?”. And we need to answer that in the most primitive way, trying to state the problem as seen or experienced, rather than as transformed by some suggestive but often inaccurate assumptions or deductions.
October 4, 2012
M. C. Richards in her book, “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person” draws on the metaphor of the potter centering a piece of clay. The potter pushes against the clay but leaves space for it to move, until it is well centered on the wheel. At that point the potter can touch one point of the pot and the whole moving piece of clay will respond.
The potter must be careful — for if the clay gets off center a strong touch might pull it apart. Instead, the potter will carefully lead the pot back on center, and then continue working it. Of course there are limits to the strength of the clay, especially when it is wet and heavy. An understanding of this reality must moderate the potter’s touch.
Similarly, we need to re-center ourselves as we begin any meeting, or even any task. Left unchecked, we may drift or get pulled away from where we need to be. We may find that we’ve taken a wrong turn, or gotten off the trail and need to find it again. This is not a sign that we are imperfect or inexperienced, but simply that we are human. And when we are on center — everything is possible.
Things don’t always go well. Sometimes “centering down” seems impossible, as laundry lists of tasks and issues keep running through our minds. Undone tasks, complex relationships, or other matters may loom large, and not let themselves be pushed aside even for an hour. Withhold judgment, be prepared to let go, and wait. Let the center find you.
September 18, 2012
I’m just beginning to design two new “Skillbuilders” (workshops) for the Maine Association of nonprofits. Workshop design comes easy to me, and I’ve a track record of considerable success. Still, I’m expecting to learn significant lessons as we first experience these workshops being presented to live audiences. How can I maximize my learning from these pilot runs? And how can I organize my initial work so that these questions are clear?
My first rule is to always list the goals, and design the evaluation process, before completing the workshop design itself. Just the titles, in this case “Asking Great Questions” and “Crafting Your Elevator Speech”, are not enough.
For example, digging deeper into my “Asking Great Questions” agenda, I began to see such questions as:
• Who should be learning what about the process of creating, editing, and asking questions? (Who is our target audience?)
• What key ideas or understanding do we believe participants in the skillbuilder should take away? (What are we aiming to teach?)
• What experiences (not what lessons) will have make this happen?
• Are there important things that participants may need to un-learn? (What habits, or what blindness, are we trying to overcome?)
Working with such questions early in the workshop conception stage, I began to see that the kinds of questions that might fit into an employment interview are very different from those that we might want to ask of other stakeholders in our organization, of lawmakers or regulatory officials, of teachers or of researchers and guides whom we trust.
With each clarification of the goals comes new clarity about how to observe and measure whether we have achieved those goals. And, so, the evaluation process is built as the workshop is designed. Even more important, the questioning process informs the whole conception of the workshop.
In fact, I needed to create another set of questions, to evaluate my initial description of the Skillbuilder, before even developing the main workshop agenda:
• Who will the description attract, and are these the people I want in this skillbuilder?
• What expectations will the description create, and is this an expectation that I can and want to fulfill?
• The skillbuilder will be require very active participation, and will include little content that can be received passively. Will that be clear and a positive aspect of participant’s experience (or will there be comments about the lack of Powerpoint slides with detailed text guides)?
Thinking about this process led me to look back at the first outline I wrote for an earlier Skillbuilder I had developed with Deb Nelson. Along with my first rough draft outline, I had sent her a memo with a heading “Questions for Us”, and the following content:
• Our goals for the workshop
• What we have to tell or teach vs. participants learning from each other
• How we will know we have succeeded — Key evaluation question
• Possible pitfalls — What should not happen?
• Personal goals — Why we are doing this
Ask yourself these and similar questions as you prepare your presentations, your lectures, your workshops. Even when the answers seem to be obvious and so clear, write them down. Revise that draft copy. And let your questions be your guide.
September 7, 2012
Deb Nelson and I have been teaching a Skillbuilder (workshop) for the Maine Association of Nonprofits entitled “Finding and telling our stories: Bringing our mission and method to life”. It’s about helping people identify stories about their organization that are compelling, illustrative, and can be told in just a few words.
As part of this workshop, we ask participants, “What makes a great story?”. These are some of the answers that we hope to hear (and we usually do):
- The story has a compelling narrative
- It’s not obvious (e.g. you must keep listening)
- It’s accurate, true, really happened
- It can be told with authenticity and authority
- The imagery is vivid.
- It’s culturally relevant for the audience
- It fulfills the right goals for its audience
- It has a real beginning, middle, and end
- It’s suitably short
These are the kinds of stories that we want to tell in describing the work of our organizations — whether in fundraising for a non-profit, marketing a commercial service, or offering an innovative product. Compelling true short stories draw people in, create interest, and communicate most effectively.
September 6, 2012
Does something sound wrong with this title? Most of us want to trumpet our successes, and hide our mistakes. And yet it’s through important mistakes that we can learn the most important lessons.
With this thought in mind, here’s my “best” mistake. Mark (no, not his real name) had hired me before, as a consultant with two of his companies. And now he was CEO of an interesting multi-division firm, with lots of appeal. He brought me in first to rework systems in a smaller division, and then to work on the major corporate systems. I was doing a great job (or so I thought), even though I was running into resistance. Projects that create change always incite some resistance, so this was not a concern. But then Mark left the firm.
All of the sudden, I was alone, really reporting to nobody. Nobody owned the project that Mark had created. And, not surprisingly, I was asked to leave as well. It wasn’t because of my work, or my results. I was just an orphan, and nobody was a stakeholder in my success there.
What did I learn from this? Well, no longer after he left, Mark referred me to another firm, whose CEO, Peter, was a friend of his. Again, it was the CEO who wanted to hire me, and I was instrumental in his plans to bring the organization to another level. But I didn’t want to repeat the same boom and bust scenario again. So, this is what I set in place:
I insisted that Peter form a management team, to take supervisory responsibility for my work.
Each month, before I arrived for a week of week, they would set the agenda, identify goals, and develop detailed plans to insure that I was given the needed resources.
Then, after I finished my week of work, they would meet and review the results.
My work was valued, and so there were often conflicts about which projects were given to me. I could deflect all of these, pointing to the management team that was setting the agenda.
In short, I created a place for Arthur Fink the consultant in their management chart — even though I was never a full time (or even part time) employee. And even when Peter became the target of criticism for some of his decisions (or lack of decisions), I was well insulated from this political stuff.
Business, and the work of non-profit organizations, is all about relationships. But when your position of tied to one possibly frail connection based on one relationshp, everything is at risk. By creating groups or communities, and establishing relationships with them, one can be better informed and much better protected.
September 5, 2012
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”.”
- Work with staff and their managers to identify the skills on which training is needed. Communicate this clearly to the training group.
- 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.
- 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.
September 5, 2012
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.