Vision is overrated.

1 09 2010

Vision. Vision. Vision.

Everyone talks about making sure your board has a vision. To paraphrase Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady — words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…don’t talk of Vision, Show me!

Whatever happened to implementation???

Look, I’m not saying the first step isn’t important – it is! Without vision, you stagnate. If you don’t know where you’re going, you waste time spinning wheels.

But once you know what you want to become, it takes decisions and details; process and payments; learning the laws and following them; checks and balances; good management and good manners. And all the while, staying focused on the vision.

But JUST having a vision isn’t enough. Nonprofit leadership is fostering that vision, planning to make it reality, inspiring everyone to get on board, and then, well, making it happen.

Vision AND Implementation. It takes both. As consultants, we do our clients a disservice if we stop at the first step.

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I’m not saying please, I’m not being reasonable, I’m making the decision

13 08 2010

Ever read or hear a statement that just begs to be quoted? When it happens to me, I may not know when I’ll use it, but it’s just so appropriate to something that I have to write it down. I may be watching TV or a movie with my husband, or reading a novel. It may be in a nonfiction book or a random sentence in a magazine.

This time, it was a line in an early episode of the FOX drama, Bones. Dr. Walker, head of the fictitious Jeffersonian Institute, was finally fed up. He had already explained, many times, the priorities of a case to his extremely intelligent and all-too-eager-to-argue staff.  He had other constituents to serve; he knew what had to be done, and he had to ensure their completion.

“I’m not saying please, I’m not being reasonable, I’m making the decision,” he declared, and walked out of the room.

Harsh. However, in a situation when someone has to stop the wheels from spinning, the executive makes that decision. Definitely, concretely, and in no uncertain terms. There may be fallout, but the job of the executive is to make the hard decisions and anticipate and mitigate any negative effects.

It’s not fun to be the dictator, but as Dr. Walker (or the show’s writers) illustrated, it is sometimes part of the job.

What hard decisions have you had to make on behalf of your organization? What might have happened if you hadn’t stepped up and taken charge?





Anyone Know Why We’re Meeting?

7 02 2010

Cheating the Meeting Reaper: Avoiding Death by Meeting III

Congratulations! You’ve limited your meeting attendees to those who need to be there.

Now, how are you going to keep from wasting their time?

Your valuable volunteers are smart. They can come up with great ideas and engage in really substantive conversations that result in good policy. That only works though, if they’ve been given time to think about the subject. If your attendees have advance time to think about the subject, they come up with more in-depth questions and analyses that will help you come up with a better decision.

So, the best way is to prep for the meeting by:

  1. Limiting the meeting focus to no more than 1-3 topics
  2. Making sure that everyone has all the materials they’ll need in advance.
  3. Creating a timed agenda

Declare in advance the purpose of the meeting and the subjects that will be dealt with. Your volunteers should know that if the topic is not on the agenda, it will not be entertained. Harsh? Not as harsh as seeing 15 people around a table spending time on subjects they’re unprepared for, and which are really not their purview.

Similarly, if you want to have a focused meeting, attendees should be given the courtesy of having their materials in advance. No more sending out last month’s minutes the same day as this month’s meeting. No more handing out financial statements at the start of the finance committee’s report. No more handing out background on new policies at the moment the discussion begins. There’s no reason for meeting time to be spent on clarifications; with advance notice, all the initial questions for clarification can be asked of the committee chair before the meeting.

Be fair to your volunteers — and fair to your organization. Your smart, enthusiastic volunteers deserve to be given the tools to do what needs to be done. Hampering their efforts only hinders your organization.

Finally, once you know that all the materials will be in the hands of attendees in advance, you can create an agenda that shepherds the meeting towards focused discussion. That’s the timed agenda. [See Sample Meeting Agenda.]

Think about your own time management. Consider the effect of having an appointment you have to get to. When you’re at your desk, knowing that you have an appointment coming up focuses your mind and helps you avoid distractions. The same thing happens when you have a timed agenda.

If committee reports should only take 10 minutes, these reports will be brief and on topic. Details are in the written, advance reports. There is more compliance when the Board President says, “We have a lot to cover, let’s send that topic back to committee.”  Do emergent situations happen? Of course. But they should be the exception, not the rule. The timed agenda makes sure that the 90 minute meeting spends 60 minutes on important, policy-making decisions, instead of having those decisions left for the last 15 minutes.

The result?  Your attendees know what to expect when they come to the meeting. They know they’ll be able to engage in substantive discussions about important topics.

Most importantly, you end up with satisfied, productive volunteers, eager to tackle the big challenges.

Next: Keeping the Meeting on Track

My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I are presenting more detail on meeting management at the International Association of Fundraising Professionals meeting in Baltimore, on April 11, 2010. Join us!






Why Am I Here?

21 12 2009

Cheating the Meeting Reaper: Avoiding Death by Meeting II

Meeting attendees sit around a table, still doodling on their pads. They’re wondering why they were invited. Is there a diplomatic way to depart? You’ve already planned this as an important meeting, so there must be some other problem. One strong possibility is that you didn’t think about the invitation list.

Once you’ve decided that you need a meeting, the next step is to consider who should be there. This is just as important as the agenda. Having the right people at your meeting makes it much more productive, your staff is happier, and your volunteers are more enthusiastic.

Time is your most valuable asset. In any service business, and especially nonprofits, payroll is your most costly expense. Every hour a person spends in a meeting is an hour that is not being spent elsewhere. If you ask staff to step away from their work and come to a meeting, it should be worthwhile. Otherwise, you are wasting your agency’s resources.

Volunteers are also agency resources. Consider your Board of Directors. Of course, the entire Board should be at full board meetings. But committee meetings and ad hoc meetings are a different story. Inviting an important board member to a meeting to which he has little to contribute is a sure way to diminish his enthusiasm. Caring about the mission may not change, but if he sits there wondering if it is worth his time, he may think twice about coming to the next meeting.

Make sure that every person invited to a meeting is invited for a reason, and you know what that reason is.

Decisionmaker – someone who has to be fully informed to make a good decision on behalf of your agency
Opinionmaker – someone who has insight and opinions that will be beneficial to the decisionmakers
Information provider – someone who has factual information or experience that will be beneficial to the decisionmakers

I’ve been in organizations where everyone was invited to every meeting. Needless to say, after a while, they started coming late or leaving early….if they came at all. It’s like crying “WOLF!” Sooner or later the villagers stop coming to the aid of the little shepherd, and even the people who should be at your meetings will not be there. You’ve lost your willing workers.

Who should be at a meeting? People who will have to make a decision based on the discussion, and people who have information to contribute to the discussion. That’s it. Don’t leave out someone with extensive front line experience just because he’s a lowly staff member. Conversely, don’t invite someone just because she believes she should be there. There may be extenuating circumstances, but carefully consider the pros and cons.

True, an important board member may be offended not to be invited to a committee meeting; yet that same board member may stifle discussion, have the reputation of not being discrete, or have a hard time thinking beyond personal self-interest. Not inviting him may create ill will, even if the discussion is more robust. Similarly, inviting a really great person but whose input is minimal is also wasteful. Inviting a valuable board member to a meeting where she will have minimal input risks losing her enthusiasm.

In these cases, finesse the situation. Plan the meeting with the people you need, and if these upper echelon individuals might be offended to not be included, take them into your confidence. Let them know that you are having this meeting, but didn’t want to waste their time since there are other things that only they can do. They may still want to come, but at least they are the ones who made that decision.

Good luck! As a leader, you have to husband the resources of the organizations, and use them wisely. When it comes to attendees at a meeting, the most important thing to remember is that extraneous people is wasteful of time and talent.

In the words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men go aft agley”  Since  plans can and do go awry, you still have a few more tools available. Timed agendas and meeting management techniques will help corral overbearing speakers and keep the meeting moving. More on these in subsequent posts.

Note – My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I will be presenting Cheating the Meeting Reaper at the 47th annual international conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, April 2010. Join us!





Is This Meeting Really Necessary?

23 10 2009

Cheating the Meeting Reaper: Avoiding Death by Meeting I

It’s a universal experience: sitting in a meeting, wondering when it will end, and too polite to just leave. Of course, that’s just putting it mildly. For most of us, there comes a time when we are mentally screaming, “Get me out of here!”

If we’ve all had this experience, why are there still meetings like that? I contend it’s because nobody has taught the leaders how to run a meeting, and participants how to participate.  It’s not their fault if they’ve never been given the right tools! So herewith I start a quick overview of meeting management. Feel free to add your own thoughts. Subsequent posts will include input from several sources, including my own experience on both sides of the gavel.

So let’s cover:

  • Do you need a meeting?
  • Who should be at the meeting?
  • Building and timing an agenda.
  • Prepping the participants.
  • Managing the meeting.
  • After the Meeting.

First of all, do you really need a meeting? That’s right, meeting management implies that you’re having a meeting. So the very first question should be, ‘is this meeting necessary?’ Every meeting should have some purpose that will move your organization forward in some way. Make sure you are clear on the purpose of the meeting, and make sure that every participant knows that purpose. Otherwise, why take your staff away from other work?

There are 3 main reasons for calling a meeting:

  • Inform
  • Discuss
  • Decide

Inform: Many people say meetings should not be held just to keep people informed. I disagree. If important information has to be internalized, emails are just not enough. Paradoxically, this is particularly true in an information rich environment. When everyone receives 60+ emails a day ‘just FYI,’ something has to be done to make truly important information stand out. If there is information that you need everyone to hear and understand, a quick meeting is a good way to convey its importance.

Discuss: If you have an issue that needs the input and reactions of several people, it’s most efficient to get everyone together. Distribute the data and concerns via email, then follow it up with a working meeting. We each have our own best ways of taking in information and processing an issue.  Straight email correspondence just doesn’t convey the nuances of people’s reactions. We’ll cover how to follow up this meeting at a later time, but right now, let’s just say that this is a good reason to have a meeting.

Decide: If several people have to buy-in to a decision, then it’s important that they have the opportunity to participate in the process. This is a good time for a meeting. Decisionmaking meetings should follow information and/or discussion meetings, and may sometimes be conducted in the same session. However, it’s important there be enough time for everyone to digest the information before being asked to make a decision.

Add up the hourly rate of everyone at a meeting, and consider what you’ve spent by bringing them together.  Now consider how much you’ve lost if it wasn’t necessary. If you don’t have a concrete reason that is important to the organization, don’t meet!

Note – My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I will be presenting Cheating the Meeting Reaper at the 47th annual international conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, April 2010. Join us!





WELCOMING YOUR INTERIM EXECUTIVE: 6 critical steps toward making it work

26 07 2009

Interim Executive, Acting Exec, Temporary Exec…whatever you call us, we have this in common. We’re not expected to be here very long, and we have a lot to do in that time. If all you need is a placeholder, you wouldn’t spend the dollars for a professional. So it’s on the Interim Executive’s shoulders to make a difference quickly.

Your mileage may vary, but I find there are a few initial steps that have to happen to launch a successful interim situation. Read the rest of this entry »





WHY AN INTERIM EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR?

19 07 2009

I’m working as an Interim Executive Director again! It’s for a great nonprofit organization, with a truly committed board and staff. The past three weeks have been incredibly intense: being an interim means that the usual getting-to-know you period has to be shortened, as I try my best to get a quick grasp of the organization, its mission, its priorities, the personalities, and how things are done, in order to be effective in the short time I might be at this organization.

Despite the intensity, I’m getting nothing but support from the people here. As I told my husband, it’s like the Verizon commercial with the lone cell phone user surrounded by Verizon personnel: I’ve got people. The Board is working hard at finding a permanent replacement for the previous Executive Director, but they took an important step in hiring an Interim while they conduct the search.

In fact, the situation reminds me of a post I put up on another blog (the Nonprofit Watercooler). Prosaically titled, “Why Hire an Interim Exec or Director,” it walks through the benefits of having someone at the helm while you seek a new hire.

Since I still firmly hold to everything that was in that original article, this time I’m just going to point you to that post. Meanwhile, I’m working on another article about  how the actual benefit of having an Interim may depend on the quality of the support s/he gets from the Board of Directors and staff. So next week, I’ll share some steps to getting that Interim Executive relationship – and perhaps any new Executive Director’s work – off to a grand start.

Meanwhile, enjoy!