So many nonprofit leaders get into this sector because they are good at filling needs. They get so good at doing that they draw other people into their orbit. Because they’ve been good at doing, they just keep “doing” and think this is what nonprofit work is about.
For example, the latest leadership research in the “Nonprofit Sector Leadership Report” indicates that 19 percent of people said their nonprofit had a strategic plan, but the plan wasn’t in writing. They knew where they were heading; they were just keeping it in their heads.
I wish we’d asked, “How’s that working for you?”
A Visit to a Construction Site
In leadership, as in life, strengths can become weaknesses. For many leaders, the strength of “doing” creates great impact. People praise them for all the good they are accomplishing. But sooner or later, these leaders start feeling like they are always behind the eight ball—not nearly as effective as they could be.
In the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey shares a story of taking his kids to a construction site. It was not much more than a big hole in the ground. He also brought the land developer with the plans. The developer was able to describe the shopping mall that would be built in the hole. He had the blueprints to show exactly where stores would be, where the doors would be and which locations were still open.
This visit to the construction site showed Covey’s kids the principle that all things have two creations. Everything is first created mentally. Effective leaders always begin with the end in mind. Only then is the thing created physically.
Can you imagine if the developer just had the plans in his head like 19 percent of nonprofit leaders say they do? He would go straight to building, and the entire worksite would be a mess. Even if all the correct tools and materials magically arrived, one craftsman would be doing one thing according to what was in his or her head, and another according to what was in his or her head.
I remember one time at a training, an attendee said, “Wow. That explains the confusion at our board meetings.”
As leaders, we get kudos for doing. So much that many skip right past the first creation and into the second.
But as the research shows, this is creating havoc in nonprofits. In the study, participants were asked if they agreed there were systems in place for everyone associated with the nonprofit to clearly share the nonprofit’s vision or “brand.” More than half of those without a written strategic plan disagreed. But 77 percent of those with a written strategic plan agreed that the common vision bound the various constituents together.
A written strategic plan can be similar to the developer’s blueprints. While generally not as detailed, they help people get the plans out of their head and out in the open. Then people can see and respond, and everyone can start working together building the same structure.
2 Ways to Look at a Starting Point
In my experience coaching leaders, I think many are addicted to “doing.” Doing is what brought them into leadership. Doing creates a positive feedback loop reinforcing the importance of getting stuff done.
So any attempt at stopping to plan can feel like cheating. Stopping feels like it’s taking time away from the real work of “doing.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Getting Off the Dance Floor
In a couple recent episodes of the “Concord Leaders Podcast,” an interesting pattern developed: leaders seeing themselves as architects. One example is the episode with Susie Burdick, executive director of the Kids Discovery Museum on Bainbridge Island in Washington. She read a book that gave her the language of “getting up in the balcony.” The author said that leaders are so often on the dance floor in the middle of the dance, they forget to go up on the balcony and see how the dance was going.
We’re so addicted to doing, getting off the dance floor can seem counterproductive. What will people think if they see us move away from the action? We worry that it may look almost lazy.
But as Susie shares that building a habit of periodically getting “off the dance floor” by walking around the museum observing interactions, has made her a far more effective leader. She’s now able to support staff better, know patrons more authentically and respond to warning signs before they get out of hand.
Another way to begin with the end in mind came up in the episode with Julie Capaldi, president of the United Way of Pickens County. After a couple years of high-employee turnover, she realized she could design the work culture. She decided she wanted to create a workplace that people wanted to “run” to work and only “walk” home—a place people were eager to be, and a team that builds each other up. Since then, some of her staff members have stayed with her for over 16 years.
Most leaders don’t consciously work on that aspect of leading.
Committing to Both Creations
As you can see from both Susie and Julie, doing the first creation takes courage. Taking a step back can seem risky. Leaders fear they will come across as not being “committed” to getting the work done. But it is actually riskier to just skip to doing.
And “creating a strategic plan” can either be so overwhelming or be so fraught with past bad experiences that it seems easier to skip. But you do not have to create a strategic plan to begin with the end in mind. Sometimes the first creation can be done in even smaller, intentional steps. Both Susie and Julie created phrases they can share with their board and their staff. Wording that helps everyone understand why what looks like stepping back really is leading forward.
What about you? Are you so busy doing that you’ve lost sight of your direction? Why not put some time on the calendar this month to get up off the dance floor? You’ll likely find your effectiveness and leadership influence grows each time you do.