Sunday, November 18, 2012

Public History in New York: My Take on What's Facing Us Now


As a presenter at the recent Conversations In the Disciplines: The Present and Future of Public History in New York State, a convening of public historians and students sponsored by the History Department at SUNY Albany, I had the opportunity to consider some of the broad issues facing history museums and historical societies in our state.  Some of my comments seemed to hit a nerve with the audience, so I thought I'd share them here with the hope that you'll want to weigh in.


I'm just back from a very brief visit and presentation at the Seminar for Historical Administration, a 3-week immersion for history museum leaders co-sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, Colonial Williamsburg, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and others.  Institutions as large as The Henry Ford and as small as the local history museum in Wasilla, Alaska, participated in the seminar this year.  It was clear that by the time I was scheduled to speak to the group about vision and mission, the themes of relevancy and community impact had become two constant threads throughout their 2 ½ weeks of discussion.

My short time at the Seminar for Historical Administration reinforced my ongoing observation that local history organizations (no matter where they are located across NYS or the country) have a genuine desire to engage more fully with the public in ever more meaningful ways, but often lack of knowledge, the skills or the tools to do it consistently or at all.  

As John Durel, the coordinator of the Seminar for Historical Administration said, "History and historical organizations are everywhere, yet they are invisible to most."   I happen to agree with his assessment.

And it leads me to what I believe are three wide-angle issues for public historians and history organizations in our state:

The first is that apart from scattered studies and anecdotal evidence, the history museum field lacks solid research about how it impacts its communities.  There is no data anywhere of which I am aware that connects visits to or programming at history museums with increased social studies test scores in grades K-12. 

There is no data correlating the history museum participation by young people and their choice of career.  Again, what we believe we know is that many people working in history museums had a memorable exposure to a museum at a young age that eventually allowed them to think that they could, in fact, work in these places. 

Furthermore, there is no data that the work of history museums makes for communities that are better overall stewards of their past (whether that be through an increase in historic preservation activity; general citizen knowledge about the history of a place; or citizen advocacy for funding for history-based projects or programs).

Secondly, it’s hard to ignore the irony of the fact that the vast majority of New York state’s history and heritage organizations are incorporated by the State Education Department, thus making them full-fledged members of the University of the State of NY family, yet it is only through their own diligent efforts that they are seen as educational resources by classroom teachers. 

There’s a huge disconnect that exists between the State Education Department and the integration of history museums in history education.  It has become ever wider and more frustrating in light of the state’s move toward adopting Common Core standards and frameworks for the Social Studies, as schools grapple with dwindling internal resources, and as fewer teachers teaching social studies have direct knowledge about the history of the community in which the school is located.

Probably, the most glaring example of this disconnect is the fact that the Regents regulations for heritage organizations require that educational programming be created in collaboration with teachers and support classroom curricula. Yet, museum and historical society resources are not officially integrated into curriculum frameworks and standards.

Lastly, most history institutions operate on a scarcity model, which in effect, hampers the ability of these organizations to do truly relevant, impactful public history work.  It’s “a mindset that is colored by the belief that growth is difficult to achieve because there are never resources to do the job.  Over time, scarcity thinking develops a momentum of its own, which can limit organizational vision, encourage small-bore thinking, and promote complacency and defeatism, thus allowing us to make excuses for poor or no performance.”

The three issues I’ve chosen are all intertwined and need to be addressed by the field in a comprehensive way…..and they won’t be fully resolved for a number of years – perhaps even in a generation.  But I’m hopeful that we can begin to make important headway on them and others today.


Friday, November 2, 2012

The Creative Power of Five

FOR MORE THAN A YEAR I'VE BEEN COLLABORATING WITH FOUR COLLEAGUES, each of us an independent consultant in the cultural/NGO sector, all of us looking to hone the business end of our work.  We've SWOT'd and career planned together, mapped and graphed our work, and brainstormed solutions to each other's challenges.  We're branching out now with a workshop program encouraging others to take a similar career evaluation journey.  (Our next one is coming up in Burlington, VT next week!)

We've also produced a pithy little newsletter together, called "Take 5".  It's our intent is to bring readers bite-sized ideas to get your creative professional juices flowing.  Our inaugural issue suggested readers think about planning execution before launching into planning, explore a trend called 'flawsomeness', try an activity to think differently about your audience, and most presciently, get your organization's (or your own) disaster planning in order.

Subscribe now to Take 5 at: http://eepurl.com/qDpC1

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Courage Factor

IN PREPARATION FOR A NEW BOOK on history museum leadership that I am co-writing with my colleague Joan Baldwin, we are knee-deep in interviewing leaders across the country.  Our leaders not only head organizations, some of them lead departments (or are departments of one) and others are exerting leadership in other capacities at their museums.  Their ages range from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties -- newly minted to veteran museum professionals. 

Joan's discovered in some of her interviews that a key element of leadership is courage.  I was fascinated because it hadn't bubbled up in my interviews, at least not in so many words.  

So, I decided to ask about it in my next interview.

My interviewee agreed.  It first takes courage to decide to be the leader of an institution; to trust in one's abilities to lead others; to articulate a vision even when it might be tough to imagine a future.  It also takes courage to make decisions that have the potential for far-reaching impact, sometimes without fully knowing how they'll turn out.

Then I decided to look for evidence of courage in the interviews I'd already completed.  What do you know?  There it was, again and again.  These leaders are experimenting with mostly untested ideas to make their institutions more in tune with their communities, honing their skills by taking on difficult new responsibilities, reveling in giving authority to others.  And that's just the start of a long list of courageous acts.

All are breaking some kind of new ground for their institution and themselves, and ultimately for their profession.  Pretty courageous, don't you think?


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Strategic Execution

I'M GOING TO CHANGE MY APPROACH TO CLIENTS who come to me for strategic planning services.  Instead of me assuming that the process of building a plan is the most important part of planning (and of utmost importance to the client), I'm going to start by questioning the organization's ability and commitment to executing the plan once it's finally adopted.  My experience has been -- and I know this goes for other planning consultants, too -- the wheels fall off the plan when the organization actually has to implement what it says it wants to do.  Even when we spend hours creating detailed work plans it never ceases to amaze me that they are poorly used or not used at all.

It's often not for lack of desire that organizations fail to follow through on implementation.  How many of you have heard or said, "We think this is important, but...." followed by the list of what stands in the way of execution.  Top responses:  no time, no money, no interest; stuff changed.  What??!!  Didn't you just create a plan to address all of that?  Where was everyone during those conversations -- zoning out with a mental latte?

A lot of the time it's because there's no infrastructure to turn goals and strategies and all the rest into real actions -- even when the most basic tasks are identified.  Committees aren't in place or aren't active; boards and staff slip back into old routines and outcomes; comfortable cycles of activity aren't shaken up, rearranged or questioned.  Red tape isn't cut.  People aren't reassigned.  Or let go.

But peel back that onion a little further and what you generally find is a lack of foundational commitment from leadership to repurpose every aspect of operations in service to the plan.  If the board and staff aren't wholeheartedly ready to execute, a strategic plan just a bunch of words, a hollow gesture in service to no one.  We're talking sustained commitment here, not just for a meeting or a month, but for every day, for months -- and years -- on end.

So, I'm changing my approach to the planning conversation by talking about execution first.  If there's remedial work to be done, we'll address it at the beginning and we'll keep reminding ourselves about it (and planning for it) as we move through the process.

How have you managed the risk of execution failure?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Marathon that is Board Service

OKAY, I'VE BEEN OVERTAKEN BY THE 2012 OLYMPICS, hence the title for this post.  As I watched the men's marathon today I couldn't help draw some parallels between the long race and my own relatively new service on a nonprofit board.  People who know me know that I'd have trouble running up and down my driveway, but this comparison helps me grasp what I've been feeling lately about living up to my board's expectations even when it was hard for me to do so.

Respect:  The first parallel has to do with why any one of us decides to join a board.  Jason Karp writes about marathoning, "Tackling 26.2 miles is a long way to run. Respect the distance and prepare for it. Confidence comes from being prepared."  Most of us take on board work because we believe we bring some talent to the table -- we have a passion for the cause, our knowledge and skills complement and strengthen those offered by others, and/or we provide access to needed networks and funds.  We agree to occupy a seat that brings with it a variety of challenges along with great emotional and intellectual rewards.  We need to respect the fact that, once we say yes to board service, we're in the race for several years.  Are we prepared for it?

Training:  Serving a board term well requires unflagging commitment.  It's not just about showing up for meetings and events -- it's about showing up prepared and ready to participate.  It's about taking leadership when given it; exerting leadership when there's a void.  It's about turning others on to the work of the organization with our enthusiasm and engagement.  It's about making time to hone our skills and knowledge so we can bring our A-game over and over again.

Pacing:  Some of us start our board service by quickly establishing ourselves and our expertise.  We want to make a mark and leave no doubt that the nominating committee was brilliant for recruiting us.  Or we're given an assignment right out of the starting gate that requires immediate attention.  It may not sink in until much later that we're running a marathon, not a sprint, and that pacing and strategy are the keys to longevity and impact in the boardroom.  

The energy of a board may seem slow moving to the sprinter.  It's a deliberative body that needs time, information, and a good bit of care to achieve its best results.  While they clearly must perform in the present, boards must keep one eye focused on a distant horizon.  Board members who fail to understand this will burn themselves out too quickly or quit the race out of frustration. 

The board service marathon is not for the faint of heart.  Not if you're in it to win it.

Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdm/366676021/

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Board Wants vs. Organization Needs

DOES YOUR BOARD HAVE THE TENDENCY to solve the problems it wants to deal with, rather than the ones that exist?  


This question, written as a statement in Ben Davis' recent coverage of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art's flight of board members in the wake of staff change, accusations of the dumbing down of exhibitions, and financial tightrope walking, has haunted me since reading it.


Haunted me because I think that many boards (not just high-powered ones) pay far greater attention to symptoms than root problems, precisely because they're not as messy or as intellectually challenging.  And if you've got a board that minds the clock, root problems can rarely be tackled sufficiently in the space of a one or two-hour board meeting without considerable pre-meeting work.


If you've got a board chair who's fond of advancing personal interpretations of your organization's mission or has the boardroom equivalent of attention deficit syndrome, then it's every hand on deck to keep the entire group focused and operating at the big picture level.  Not an easy task; often not done well.


We routinely choose board members based on their personal interests and preferences and we reinforce that with committee assignments and activities, which can result in breeding distinct allegiances to particular programs and people.  Is it any wonder then, when solutions must be found to long-standing or seemingly intractable problems, few are willing to kill (metaphorically speaking) their sacred cows?


And what about our collective nonrprofit penchant for sugar-coating or downright ignoring poor performance and bad news.  Is it really that unfathomable that a nonprofit can't pay its bills, can't attract audience, can't deliver on mission?


Some boards can paper over symptoms with money, which without the attendant examination of policies, procedures and decision-making, is usually just a bandaid.  Less well-heeled boards may use other types of bandaids, such as furloughing staff, reducing hours of operation, amping up fundraising events, sliding into non-mission related programming.   


Could this, in part, explain why there seems to be a slow boil underway between CEO's and their boards?  




Image:  Spannung / tension from cool_colonia4711




Sunday, June 3, 2012

Emergency or Poor Planning?

I'M A NEW BOARD MEMBER.  I figured after all these years of working with and for boards, and writing about them, too, it might be useful to experience nonprofit life from the other side of the table.  In five short months, the pressures of the duties of care, loyalty and obedience have firmly taken hold.   

At a recent board meeting, staff members presented two unbudgeted funding requests for approval.  Both were completely out-of-the-blue, so far as I could tell -- at least I wasn't aware of them.  Just minutes earlier, the board had reviewed and approved the year-to-date operating statement, which already contains an vague amount "to be raised" to cover capital projects beyond normal maintenance.  Acknowledging that these proposals were outside of the approved budget, the staff pressed their cases for the urgency of the two expenditures.

Many board members -- myself included -- sat in disbelief that they were being asked to find $50K out of very thin financial air, right then and there.  But the board's utter respect for the staff and the director threw it into a tense and rapid-fire discussion as members groped to figure out where to come up with the funds.  Should we 'borrow' funds from the organization's own reserves?  Should we try to mount a fundraising effort just as we are gearing up for the big annual fundraising event?  What could be done on short notice since we'd just been told that both these projects needed to be done ASAP?

Talk about the proverbial deer in the headlights reaction -- this was it times 15!  Finally -- and it took quite a few uncomfortable minutes to get there -- it was decided to mount a special appeal and combine the results with those of the traditional 'annual appeal', with the hope that the two would total the $50K needed. I wondered, isn't the annual appeal income already earmarked in the budget?  What other budgeted need will go unfunded now because of this decision?  I'm new -- I kept my mouth shut.  

I was stunned and confused....and a little angry.  What had just happened?  Neither project just cropped up overnight -- both of them had been in need of remedy for years, so why weren't they part of the original budget the board approved five months ago?    I felt I'd been ambushed by the staff and in a way that pushed the board into a decision-making corner with too little information and no sound plan to cover the costs.  We were taking a flier on raising funds from a brand new appeal and robbing the income from an established appeal later in the year.

The director gave her blessing.  There was an audible sigh of relief around the table -- we're off the hook...for now.

So, here are some of my takeaways:

There are true emergencies in organization life, and then there's just poor planning.   To cast issues as emergencies or "must be done now's", when they've been deteriorating or non-functioning for years is to walk a very thin 'boy who cried wolf' line (or maybe it's Chicken Little -- you tell me).  It puts emotion into what should otherwise be a reasoned decision.  It may loosen the wallets of some board members, but a what long-term expense?  Fundraising by threat or fear is not much fun.

Staff should never throw unbudgeted requests at a board without 1) preparing board members in advance either through committee deliberations and/or in a pre-meeting materials; and 2) presenting a concrete plan for how they might be funded. It's not okay to say "we might be able to raise $xxx by partnering with another organization, but I haven't investigated the potential of that."  (In my example, I don't know how many board members had been apprised in advance of the meeting about these projects -- perhaps more than I know, but judging from the reaction, I don't think too many).

An organization that doesn't create a fund development plan to support its annual budget will be forever caught on the hamster wheel of fortune:  trying to stay one step ahead of real emergencies, poor financial decision-making, and exhausted donors (trustees and staff will be exhausted, too).


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Visioning Your Work

THIS WEEK, THREE COLLEAGUES AND I HAD THE CHANCE TO PRESENT a session at the NYS Museums in Conversation Conference about how we are working together to shape the next steps in our careers.  We began by explaining how the four of us came together: we and one other were actually brought together by one person because 1) she knew that all of us are at career crossroads of one sort or another; 2) when she asked, none of us admitted to having a personal/career strategic plan (yet we're all rabid proponents of organizational planning!); and 3) we all knew one another to varying degrees and she thought we'd make a good group.  We've dubbed our group The Gang of Five.  

Since last summer, each member of "The Gang" has reflected on his/her career path and shared those thoughts with the others.  We spent time doing SWOTs on each other (very productive) and we've questioned each others' motives and decisions, offered advice and solutions, commiserated and supported each other.  Every one of us has had some sort of shift or refocus in thinking about our work because of our participation in The Gang.

Knowing that being able to change our perspectives on our work, even if ever so slightly, can open new ways of thinking about what we want to do or how we want to do it, we asked our audience to think about their visions for their work by creating collages of random images we had assembled.  What came next was astonishing for some.

One participant had clearly delineated work from his personal life in his arrangement of the images he chose.  He told us his family was just as important as his work, but these two elements of his life didn't intersect at all in his collage.

Another person exclaimed as she showed her collage, "I guess I'm an art educator!"  (She confided to me later that she had recently left her management job, because it lacked the creativity she had so beautifully captured in her collage.)

Many participants chose tranquil images of nature -- the antithesis of the often chaotic, short-handed work environments of today's cultural institutions.  Pictures of sharks and tigers made it into the collages of a couple of arts administrators signifying the realities of their work environments.

While not for everyone -- and clearly there were a number of people in our session for whom this exercise did not resonate -- being able to uncover a hidden desire for one's career (if even only to take a peek) -- can start a process of rethinking the relationship of work to the rest of one's life.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Authentic Strategic Planning

DESPITE TONS OF READILY AVAILABLE ADVICE ABOUT THE WHYS AND HOWS OF STRATEGIC PLANNING, many organizations still engage in planning because someone else told them to do it.  That someone could be a funder, a consultant, a staff leader, a program partner, a board member -- anyone, really, who has the audacity or ignorance to say "money/audience/visibility will come if you have a plan".   
Fact is, many of these folks don't particularly care if the plan functions or not, just so long as there's a piece of paper or swell looking PowerPoint to show for it. 

The bottom line is if planning doesn't well up from some deep, shared core organizational values, it will be a hollow effort that will ultimately be tossed aside for someone else's shiny, new imperative.  (Did you just hear the thud of the last plan hit the bottom of the trash can?  Or, as the illustration above suggests, it miraculously tumbles like a house of cards, never to be seen again.)

The lack of authenticity underpinning a planning process driven by fear will be palpable:  it's developed by one person or one small team, it will be devoid of broad and thoughtful input (and thus not be particularly critical), resulting in a lack of real strategy or insight.  These are fake plans.  They're meant to placate those wanting to see some organizational direction (any direction); some sense of control; some tidy package that exclaims "we know where we're going and how to get there!"

Fake plans last about a nanosecond.  Like fireworks, they burn brightly, but quickly fade.  They make little or no lasting impression, except for the bad taste they leave behind.  Even more concerning, an inauthentic planning process could actually take an organization way off course, squandering resources and alienating supporters.

So, before embarking on plan creation, spend some time examining the motives for doing it.  If the motives aren't coming from an authentic, internal, and shared desire to advance the mission in benefit for others then take a few steps back from the edge.

Here's a quick list, drawn from a variety of sources, that may help start an authentic conversation within your organization about planning.  Will a planning process and resulting plan allow your organization:

  • to recommit to an existing mission?
  • to enhance performance?
  • to impress funders?
  • to help save a sinking ship?
  • to redirect a basically healthy organization?  


Articulate your organizational needs and wants first.  And don't fake it.

Image:  house_of_cards from ZowieZ

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Powerful Force of a Big Idea

NOBODY CREATED A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION FROM A SMALL IDEA, PERIOD.  Just think about it:  what museum, artists' cooperative, hospital, school or community garden didn't begin with someone saying "what if?"....and then taking action.  Founders dream dreams and work tirelessly to make them reality.  Those of us who come after founders have dreams, too.  We work tirelessly to take our organizations to the next level by continually trying to raise the impact bar.

Big ideas are critical fuel for the nonprofit engine.  They ignite imaginations, attract people (both as workers and as audiences), connect otherwise free-floating dots, and when they fully advance mission impact, they open pocketbooks.  Yet, why is it that many organizations continue to focus on the narrow, the small bore, their finite piece of nonprofit real estate?  Why do so many organizations continue to silo their staff and volunteers, thus removing the spontaneous opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas?  Why do so many of us remain content with accidental idea-generation rather than making a business of it?  When was the last time you were at a board meeting where 'big ideas' was an agenda item?

Are ideas so abstract and untethered that we struggle to even see a possible way to learn from them?  Do we believe that time spent on idea generation is a luxury, not a necessity?

What so many people fail to understand is that big ideas -- well, any sized ideas, really -- 1) can come from ANYWHERE and 2) are absolutely FREE.  It's what a person or organization chooses to do with that idea that could ultimately take resources, but what and how many resources are also our choices.  

So the very best ideas are ones that can be scaled up or down depending on the size of an organization or the resources available.  Understanding that means you can't close yourself off to any possibility just be saying "we're too small" or "we can't...".

As nonprofit leaders, what we can't do is fear the big (or medium or small) idea.  Nonprofit leaders must be willing to readily engage ideas from across a range of sectors knowing that the potential to adapt and remix them is everywhere.  We don't have to be imaginative or creative to understand this basic fact.

For most of us, opening up to ideas (and generating them) takes a spark and some practice.   Here are some 'ideas' about how to do that:
  • Gather a cross-section of your organization's staff, board members, volunteers  and/or external stakeholders together to create some "what if?" scenarios using your organization's vision and mission as guides.
  • Use visual images, music, or the written word as sparks for generating new ways of looking and thinking about your organization's work.  Did one of your audience members or clients write you a particularly passionate letter/email that could spark a deeper discussion?
  • Take yourself and your staff/board/volunteers out of usual spaces and routines to pave the way for making new or different connections.  What could you learn about your organization from a visit to the local bowling alley or mini golf course?  Would the owner of the business in your community that is known for over-the-top customer service share her insights?
  • Ask your counterparts from across the nonprofit sector to join you in conversations about "what if?", "why not?", and "could we?"
  • Get outside the four walls of your organization (mentally and physically) to learn about what's sparking other organizations.  Make a point of talking with a counterpart at an organization that has sparked your attention.  Spend 30-60 minutes every month doing this.
  • Share what you're discovering with your staff/board/volunteers and encourage them to share what's sparking their imaginations.
  • Make a date with yourself to do some or all of these activities.
How do you generate ideas and turn them into powerful forces for upping your organization's game?

Image:  "Make Big Ideas Happen" from vaughnfender via Flickr 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

How's Your Leadership Cred These Days?

The Great Recession is dragging into year four and there's no question it has left most nonprofits staggering as they try to find some equilibrium under the weight of constricted philanthropy, slashed government funding, and the high stakes competition of foundation and corporate support.  Some institutions are finding gold in big name programs or capital projects, while many struggle to manage the spiraling costs of their "if we build it, they will come" aftermaths.

Event attendance remains predictably unpredictable.   Yet, core audiences in need of programs and services grow.  While the flurry of staff restructuring (read layoffs and furloughs) may now be subsiding, the reality for many (most) nonprofits is that who ever is left is trying to do a lot more with a whole lot less.

So that brings me to the point of today's post:  as the staff or board leader of your nonprofit, how has your credibility held up in the eyes of your staff, volunteers and stakeholders as you've navigated your organization through the last 36+ months?  If they were to grade you on 
  • your openness and communication during tough times; 
  • your ability to continue to move everyone forward, even a little, everyday; 
  • your willingness to be on the lookout for opportunity rather than digging your bunker deeper; or 
  • your empathy and humor under big stress
what kind of a grade do you think they would give you?  Do they respect you more for the collective hell you've been through or do you think they might be more likely counting the days until you step down (if you're counting the days, that might be a clue).

Crisis or challenge -- call it what you will -- can bring out the worst and the best in nonprofit organizations and their leadership.  It can magnify the organizational weaknesses of under-skilled people, poor or no planning, long standing biases, or lack of articulated value that in better times, more flush times, could be overlooked or ignored.  However crisis can also galvanize organizations by refocusing them on core mission and values.  It can tone strategic thinking muscles that got flabby from lack of regular use. 

Former three-term NYC mayor Ed Koch routinely asked constituents, "How am I doing?".  He got great press and undoubtedly some political points for asking the question.  As your organization's leader, how comfortable are you with asking it?  And what would you do with the answers knowing that your leadership cred is on the line?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Organizational Change: The First 90 Days

THERE'S A DISCUSSION GOING ON OVER AT the Strategic Planning for Nonprofits group on LinkedIn about leadership and change management.  So far, the topic is pretty broad and most of the posters are encouraging ways to focus it.  Until now.  One poster, a military officer, weighed in saying that the first 90 days is the most critical for new leadership to make change.  If you let the opportunity go by the boards, you're stuck with what you've inherited.  He writes:
The First 90 Days are critical and in most cases can make or break a true leader in the end. The First 90 Days of assuming a leadership position are the times that you are going to affect any real change in the organization, otherwise you have got what you got for the rest of your term.   -- Corey Brown
You may be familiar with the "honeymoon" period of a new job.  It could last 6 weeks, 6 months, or a year.  It's the time period when an organization is most forgiving of its new leader.  And it's the time period when it might be the most open to change.   The honeymoon period, however, is more about your employer and less about you.

For you, the 90-day time frame for change-making is imperative.  Organizational change -- large or small -- is fueled by a sense of urgency.  Your nonprofit hired you because, hopefully, it's looking for change along with your skills and charming personality.  Those first 90 days are your time frame to identify new strategic directions and related personnel, programmatic and procedural strengths and weaknesses.  It's only three months and you've got a learning curve, which you must climb swiftly.  How do you prioritize your organization's needs so that you don't waste your firepower?

Knowing that mission/vision/impact sets the pace for everything the organization does, I'd start with an institution-wide deep dive into mission and vision/impact.  I'd next push those discussions forward into if-then actions:  if we are the organization gets kids turned on to art, then what does our board look like?  then who develops our programs?  then how do we promote what we do?  then where are the voices of kids and families in the decisions we make?  

This cascade of questions -- all flowing from mission/vision/impact -- can not only provide pathways for change, they can also underscore the urgency to make change....or to up your organization's existing game.  And it can help to prioritize what must happen next.

I've seen new leaders make change for change sake and sometimes that's enough to send the message that something's different -- better -- afoot.  I've done that, too.  But coasting on surface change only lasts so long; if systemic change or fine tuning isn't happening concurrently all you end up with is the same old issues covered in a shiny dress.  That'll catch up with you eventually.
I'd love to hear how you approached change-making/change management when you took on your last job.  How superficial; how deep?  What was the pay off?

Image:  Directions from markddpatterns via flickr

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Career Full of Happy Accidents

WHAT'S BEEN THE ROLE OF SERENDIPITY IN YOUR CAREER PATH?  I'm knee-deep in trying to map out new segments of my own career path and, because of that, I was recently asked to write about personal career planning.  So I did what any author who's looking for some inspiration would do -- I reached out to the cultural nonprofit community via LinkedIn for some input.  And here's where serendipity comes in.

The second response to my question was about the importance of serendipity -- those accidental opportunities -- to the enrichment of a career. "Too much planning can limit your options," wrote the responder.  Happy accidents can't be planned and that's the point.  I, too, have been the beneficiary of serendipitous career moves that, looking back on them, were completely unknown to me at the time, but in hindsight emerge as important turning points to my career development.  I certainly didn't plan them to be what they ultimately became.

Interestingly, my dictionary defines serendipity as "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident", which implies that there is some innate or acquired ability to sense discovery, to be open to the not yet known, or maybe to be able to generate or attract opportunities.  To me, artists of all types are great examples of people with aptitudes for serendipity, as are many entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders.  To be a cut above, they've honed their abilities to search for, discover, and invite happy accidents.

How can you create a personal career plan that keeps you moving toward some fairly specific goals while recognizing the importance of being able to expand, strengthen, or magnify your ability to make happy accidents happen or simply to be in the right place at the right time? 

Related article:  Building a Nonprofit Career Path, Bridgestar.org

Image:  Fork in the Road from Jessi Joy via Flickr