Monday, August 31, 2009

Succeeding Long-Tenured Staff

IT'S HARD TO LEAVE AUGUST WITHOUT ONE last post. This one is based on a news article about the director of a nonprofit theater leaving his post after four months. The poor fellow decided to call it quits and return home due, as he told his board, to family illness. OK, I guess I'll buy that since the newspaper article is all I know about this story. You just have to wish him and the theater he left better luck the next time around. But, gosh, the theater did a national search and plucked him from 100 candidates. The board president is having to put the best spin on it, as she did in the article, but it sure must feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under her.

But there was an interesting comment in the article that got me to thinking. It said that this fellow had succeeded a long time director. That's given me some blogging grist. If any of you have been in the situation of following a long-time anyone, you know it can be a dicey gig. It happened to me once -- my predecessor had been in her position 25 years and she was well-respected in our little city. She'd raised her kids and nursed her husband through illness and into the next life while directing our local history museum, and I think she was now ready to move on for herself.

It can be a lot ot live up to, these long-tenured and much-beloved predecessors. As the new kid on the block, you're not only expected to fill their shoes, but make big strides with them. And folks will pretty much fall into two camps: those who think you won't measure up and those who are looking for change. Either way, it's considerable pressure.

I've heard it said that it's sometimes much easier to come into a mess, because you've got nowhere to go but up and anything you do will be an improvement over what was. When you come into a stable organization that still has plenty of upward trajectory left you've got to make sure that you keep it moving upward while always acknowledging who got it to where you inherited it. That can be a tough lesson for some of us to learn.

I don't suppose we'll ever know if the theater director's reason for leaving so soon after he arrived was the real deal or a polite excuse. No matter. It was an expensive decision for all parties.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Making a Place for Retired Staff Leadership

YESTERDAY AND TODAY I'M ATTENDING ONLINE sessions from the 2009 American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) conference that's being held in Indianapolis. In addition to about a dozen sessions, AASLH also has a blog and Twitter feed going. We were told in our first online session that the attendance from the online component (about 250+ of us) was making the total conference attendance a record-breaker. Impressive.

A conference blog post relating to a session on leadership succession talked about the trend of retiring staff to stick around as paid staff or volunteers to work on special projects of interest to them or to fundraise. Here's the observation by conference-goer Barbara Walden of the session she attended:
As the economy has taken a turn in our least favorite direction, a number of long time museum professionals are opting out for early retirement. Although their positions are coming to a close, a number are choosing to continue their involvement with the organizations but in a variety of roles (as a board member, consultant, fundraiser, etc.). This decision is based both on the retiree’s passion for their profession and the newly found freedom to focus on raising funds for the long term sustainability of the organization.
Is this or will it be a growing trend? Certainly, there are numerous examples of retiring directors who receive emeritus status that can bring an office and support staff, as well as access to collections, libraries, studios and other facilities, files and staff to pursue research, writing, artistic creation or fundraising. In the last five or six years, I know of one colleague who has chosen to do this and I admit I was surprised (OK, a bit aghast) when he told me. But as more and more boomer leaders plot their "retirement" paths, I have no doubt that the possibility of their continuing involvement in their institutions is an increasingly likely scenario.

This is a trend that deserves some serious attention. No matter the personalities or the structures of these relationships, directors emeriti can pose delicate triangulations of power with their successors and boards. These power triangulations also occur with their successors and staff/donors/the media/the public. The same holds true for any longtime staff who choose to remain in some "official" capacity after retirement.

Because this is an official capacity we're talking about, it makes sense to me that emeritus status needs to come with a written job description that establishes parameters of integration with staff, the board, and stakeholders, and articulates institutional expectations. I don't think this is too much to ask, even of a venerable or beloved leader.

As for board service, I remain uneasy with the prospect of former staff serving on the boards that once oversaw them, because I believe it blurs the lines of authority that must exist between the governing board and its staff. (Guess I've seen/heard too many examples of valuable board seats being take up with ineffective or naysaying former staff -- former staff can carry a heck of a lot of baggage, not all of it good.) I also believe that you can't get anything from former staff serving in a governing capacity that you couldn't get from them in a non-governing capacity, so why risk the inevitable power trip?

Photo: Day 195: Passing the torch from Steve Moraco

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One Piece of Advice...

IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO GIVE one piece of advice to your board chair, what would it be?

Would it be...

...despite the fact that a board chair's opinion and advice may carry more weight than that of other board members, it's just as important for the chairperson to know when to zip the lip and facilitate discussion to encourage everyone's participation, or

...that modeling behavior speaks as loud (or louder) than words, or

...leadership is at its most powerful when shared, or

...big picture thinking is a critical skill for coaxing an organization toward achievements it might have thought impossible, or

...diversity is a strength because it is challenging, or.....

What's the one piece of advice you'd pass along today?

Photo: good advice from hellojenuine

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Short Video About Tasting and Savoring Your Mission

THIS VIDEO EXPLORES SOME MORE ways to make your mission statements more compelling. If your organization's got a flat mission statement, I hope you'll be energized to rethink it with an eye to adding layers of color, texture and vibe!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taste that Mission Statement!

IT HIT ME THIS MORNING -- MISSION STATEMENTS ARE LIKE good wines or craft beers; they're meant to be savored.

A lot of care goes into making truly wonderful things and that's no less true for the noble statement of purpose. Yet so many mission statements are nothing more than cookie cutter iterations that lack true craftmanship and, ultimately, true meaning. If you can't get jazzed about your organization's mission statement, who do you think will?

How can you break out of the old mold? Let the tasting and the savoring begin!

Try this and see if it helps: make some copies of your mission statement and give it to staff and to some of your board members and volunteers. Ask them to carry it around with them for a day and use it as a comparison to what's really happening at your institution.

Does the statement capture and mirror the enjoyment, the learning, the level of activity, the sense of wonder and discovery, the intensity and the humanity of what's going on? What are the adjectives or phrases that describe the reality?

Encourage folks to write all over that mission statement, or crumple it up and start afresh. Embolden your staff, your volunteers, your board members to make creative and emotional connections to your institution's core principles and values. Then widely share what you've come up with.

You've just tasted your mission. Now savor it. Where will it lead you next?

Photo: words, words, words on paper from kay ef

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits

A NEW REPORT BY THE BRIDGESPAN GROUP analyzes the breadth of the "evolving nonprofit leadership deficit" in this country and notes that the need is especially acute among human service and arts organizations.
In the face of anticipated baby boomer retirements, many of those surveyed cited a need to fill roles with increasing management complexity, and they foresee challenges in finding candidates who are both qualified for the roles and who are cultural fits with their organizations.
That sounds familiar. Also among the findings:

Message No. 1: The leadership deficit in nonprofit organizations remains large, and the gap includes “new–to-the-organization” positions as well as vacancies due to baby boomer retirements (a trend that may have slowed with the downturn, but certainly not abated).

Message No. 2: Functional skills matter (and are transferable across sectors or domains).

Message No. 3: Cultural fit is the deal breaker.

Message 4: Job boards, networks, and search professionals most effectively connect talent to jobs.

This is a report to share with appropriate board committees, HR departments, and department heads in your organization. Whether or not your organization is currently involved in a search, the insights and advice you'll find in "Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits" will help you prepare for future searches as well as guide strengthening your current leadership.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Developing the Leadership Within

THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF MUSEUMS' 2009 Emerging Museum Professionals survey gives us a sense of how the museum field is meeting the needs of its future leaders. The survey rates the importance of nine professional development resources to this group and its related satisfaction with access to each of them. The resulting "gap" between importance and satisfaction thus becomes the point of the story.

The biggest gap is the ability of young professionals to access leadership opportunities within their own institutions. It's a gap that has grown significantly from the time the last survey was done just two years ago. Back in 2007, 55% of survey respondents ranked finding leadership within one's institution as very/somewhat important. That stands at 73% today.

But as far as these folks are concerned, they simply aren't being given the opportunities to challenge their leadership abilities. Why is that, especially when most museums are understaffed (and becoming more so)?

I think there are at least two factors at work. The first is that there is a long-standing general lack of really meaningful professional development planning in museums, large and small, that helps individuals set professional goals by working with supervisors (and others across the institution) to build capacity. The annual "evaluation" that so many of us have been involved with is more often about
containment than it is about development.

The second factor is, I think, a mindset that talent development requires heaps of money and time. And when institutional leaders aren't getting the professional development they need, they're most likely not going to turn around and offer opportunities to younger or subordinate staff. But, in the context of this survey, we're not talking about sending folks off to conferences, workshops and seminars; we're talking about in-house skill-building.

So, that leaves time. And making time to develop in-house leadership opportunities for all staff who want those opportunities does require a special institutional commitment that may require a radical shift in how people work or a few relatively simple tweaks that can open doors to new learning. The cross-functional team is a perfect example. Combining staff from various parts of an institution to work together on a project is not only an opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas, it's an opportunity to cross-train. Shadowing staff is another tried and true learning experience. Attending leadership or board meetings is another. And these just scratch the surface.

Developing leadership within the institution has its best chance of success when commitment to it flows from the top, but it can certainly bubble up in any number of ways at all levels. There are thousands of people who want to be challenged in their work; let's not turn a deaf ear to them.

Photo: office worker from bolandrotor

Monday, August 10, 2009

Read This Before Your Next Meeting

ONE OF THE CONTRIBUTING FACTORS TO MY decision to leave full-time nonprofit organizational life was the amount of time I spent in meetings. Board meetings, staff meetings, committee meetings, community name it (and you know it, I'm sure). A day at the office wasn't complete without one....or two....or....

Given the fact that nonprofits are all about people means that there's a ton of communication that must take place in order to nurture and maintain them, and service the constituents who need them. In the communication quiver is one arrow that gets readily used: the meeting.

Trying to contain meeting virus is a serious management tool. With so much written about it, it’s a wonder that many organizations still haven’t been able to master it very well or at all. Here’s one more bit of advice – by Harvard Business blogger Gina Trapini, Extreme Ways to Shorten and Reduce Meetings. Among her suggestions:

  • Start and end on time. Basic stuff, but it’s amazing how many meetings don’t start on time. And when they don't start on time, they almost always run over. Have you noticed that by the end of these late-starters there are but a handful of people? What's the point of that?
  • Meet standing up – a surefire way to keep meeting time to a minimum.
  • Post a countdown clock so everyone can see the time…and the time left to get through the agenda.
  • Keep agendas short. Ah, yes...that means weeding out all those reports of past events and putting the most critical stuff at the beginning of the meeting.

I like the idea of posting written meeting expectations in offices and meeting spaces (as in the photo above), and including it in board member and committee chair orientation packets. I think it's a great idea to go over meeting expectations with boards, staffs and committees, too. As your groups master the expectations, you may be able to raise the bar of expectations.

For those of you who are interested in what the rules say in the photo:

Before a meeting...

1. Clarify the purpose

2. Make sure you've got the right people and everyone is prepared

3. Prepare outcomes and agenda in advance

4. For problem-solving and decision-making prepare an assessment ahead of time and present your recommendation

5. Create a "strawman" in advance to give people a place to start from

During a meeting...

1. Start with a review of the outcomes and agenda

Clarify the decision-making process upfront

2. Share responsibility for keeping the meeting focused and on track -- anyone can call a "process check"

3. Document all key decisions and agreements

Keep a running list of issues

4. Solicit comments from those who haven't spoken much

After a meeting (or at the end of the meeting)....

1. Review key decisions/agreements to make sure everyone leaves with the same understanding

2. Assign next steps with due dates

Photo: Conference room wall from ginatrapani

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Throw in an Egg Salad Sandwich While You're At It

THIS QUOTE FROM MAUREEN DOWD'S NY TIMES COLUMN (August 2, 2009) is a sentiment I’ve seen before regarding the interview process:

Carol Smith of Elle says she doesn’t hire anyone without taking them out to a meal first because it’s “like a little microcosm of life. How they order, what they order. How are they going to give instructions to a waiter? Are they sending back the meal eight times?

Employers are encouraged to go the extra step when hiring their top people. What’s the equivalent for “hiring” nonprofit board members? As I’ve written in previous posts here and here, the recruitment process of new board members deserves a nonprofit’s utmost attention starting from the first hello. Being a board member is serious business and these days a helluva lot is riding on the ability to provide logic and clarity to decision-making in what’s more like a pinball game than a measured exercise of the public trust.

I’m thinking that the board recruitment process ought to include a meal. There’s so much more you can discover about what a person thinks about your organization (and the nonprofit ethic in general) when the conversation can take place over a tuna melt, a bowl of pasta or a beer. It’s an opportunity to share the stories that reflect and reinforce the organization’s values. It’s an opportunity to understand if those values resonate with your candidate.

Photo: flickr

Monday, August 3, 2009

Know Thy Audience

Take a look at this interactive graph of how people spend their time over the course of a day (NY Times, July 31, 2009). You can sort the data by age group, gender, race, education, employment and family size. This annual survey helps economists figure out the value of time of the unemployed.

What intrigues me, though, is when, over the course of a day, people say they engage in certain activities. Of particular interest for cultural nonprofits are the socializing, volunteering, other leisure, computing and phone call activities. The first thing I thought about was whether access to cultural organizations aligns with the availability of survey respondents.

Could your organization conduct a similar study in your community, or at the least among your current stakeholders to get a better handle on this alignment? Would this exercise result in your organization doing a better job of offering programming and information when people say they might be most able or receptive to participation?

How many of your organizations have done this type of research? Has such new-found knowledge caused your organization to rethink its access to the public? What have been the results?

Photo: Human Graphing - 20 by nep