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