Tag Archives: Leadership

Leadership at Amazon

Amazon has published a set of leadership principles. Great! Many organizations do that. But they have people, long-term managers, whose job is to see that new hires understand those principles and that the organization actually follows them.

The principles are easy to read but harder to apply. They are contrary to practices in many, if not most organizations.  For example, the customer comes before profitability.  Most companies follow the dictum of Milton Friedman that the sole purpose of a corporation is to increase profits.

Obviously, Amazon understands that the higher purpose of a corporation is to add value. Then profits come as a fallout of that value.

Another principle is ownership. Leaders are owners. They think long-term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They take ownership of issues and results.

Most of the other principles flow from these.

Dave Anderson, one of those Amazon leaders, has written an article, both humorous and sad, about outrageous responses to interview questions about these principles. Then he demonstrates an answer he loves. He posted it both on Scarlet Ink and on Linkedin. Go read it. You will be glad you did.

The Thinker

Do You Really Want to Update Your #Nonprofit Strategic Plan?

It seems that about every three years nonprofits get an itch to update their strategic plan.

But do they realize what they are asking?

They are asking to scan the external environment for changes that impact their approach to achieving their vision. Then they review their current strategies to see if they are accomplishing their mission efficiently and effectively.

But this is worthless unless they put into place some Strategic Actions that are innovative and substantial.

Strategies without strategic actions are just paper weights.

Strategic actions that are not innovative are just the same old thing. Innovative means new and different. Not just what you are doing now.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
– Attributed to Einstein, Mark Twain, an old Chinese proverb, and Benjamin Franklin

But most, if not all, nonprofits are already over-busy and over-scheduled. How do you fit in something new? You start by taking out your eraser and deleting something you are doing now. Hopefully, that will the be the least effective activity…or the least efficient. You may have to delete your favorite activity, or as author guides say, “Kill your darlings for the greater good.” This is really tough.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
– Stephen King, stolen from William Faulkner,  Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G. K. Chesterton, “the great master Chekov”, and originally from Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Strategic actions that are substantial are those that have an impact. If they don’t have an impact, they must either be killed or not started. Why do them? Your vision is the reason why your nonprofit exists. Having an impact is another way of saying they are effective.

There are many good things to do, but not all of them advance you towards your vision. Doing good things that do not move you towards your vision is a common problem. See the Stephen King quote above.

The impact, however, does not have to happen immediately. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, uses the image of a flywheel that gets many small pushes, but builds up tremendous momentum over time.

So, before you embark on a strategic plan, think about some of the changes you must make and your willingness to make them.

Overview of The Big Picture

The Big Picture – Redux

My prior post, The Big Picture, described the high level view of nonprofit strategic planning and management. Overview of The Big PictureIt showed that all nonprofits start with the recognition of a problem and a vision of the world where the problem is resolved. The mission is the commitment to achieve the vision. The vision and mission are why the nonprofit exists and should never rarely change.

The strategies are the broad actions the nonprofit will take to accomplish the mission; how they will achieve the vision. Strategies should be reviewed every 3 to 5 years or when there is a significant change in the environment.

The actions are the detailed plans for the next couple of years. These are what they will do to execute the strategies.

Managing the Nonprofit

The Logic Model, described in this post, is the basis for detailed management…and it’s often mandatory for grant applications.

A logic model is used to describe the whole process, starting with stating the problem, then the resources to be applied to the problem, the activities to be performed (including dosage, frequency, and duration) and the specificLogic Model  outputs of the activities.

There is usually an accompanying narrative  that describes the problem in more detail and giving proof that the problem really exists and indicating the severity of the problem. The narrative may also discuss the root causes of the problem.

The Resources-Activities-Outputs columns represent the efficiency of the organization in addressing the problem. Typically, these activities and outputs are focused on addressing the root causes.

The last three columns detail the outcomes. This is the “So what?” describing the change in the external environment  as a result of the activities and the outputs. This tells of the effectiveness of the activities and outputs.

 Managing the Efficiency

So how do we manage the efficiency? The first step is to make sure that you have a Delegation of Authority in place. This authorizes budgeted expenses and allows for variance approvals.

Where does the budget come from? The board issues guidelines that represent their criteria for evaluating the budget. The budget funds the activities shown in the logic model using the resources they are willing to provide. The board should pay close attention to the measures of efficiency, usually expressed as ratios. Ratios such as dollars per student or clients per employee, or classes per month.

The staff prepares the budget and, if done according to the guidelines, the board approves it.

Monthly Report

This budget is the baseline for the next year. Every month the board receives a report that shows 1.) the performance relative to the planned actions (budget) for the prior month, 2) the performance relative to the planned actions for the year-to-date, and 3 )the projected performance relative to budget for the full year. See the post on the Financial Ladder.Projected Year End Variances

This report provides a roadmap for drilling down into the details to assess performance and to direct future actions. Note what the report does NOT include: 1.) references to last year. Last year is not the baseline. The budget is the baseline. Last year should have been considered when developing the budget. 2.) nor does it report how much budget remains. That is irrelevant when you have a baseline budget and projections on how it will be spent.

This report also provides the basis for projecting future cash needs.

Managing the Effectiveness

Managing effectiveness is a more difficult problem, but ultimately, it is the more important. The logic model has three columns under Outcomes. A near-term, a mid-term, and a long-term.

Near-term effectiveness is the easiest to measure. This is the immediate impact of our activities. This can be measured by observing clients; their awareness, knowledge, skills, behavior, practices, motivations, etc. You can just ask them, using surveys. We can tell right away if our activities have an impact. These measures often focus on root causes.

Mid-term effectiveness is a little more difficult. The real impact may take three to five years measure. We want to actually observe the changes in attitudes and behaviors. This can tell us if our near-term outcomes are really persisting, or are they just transitory. For example, does our middle-school reading intervention actually improve high school graduation rates. These measures have a middle-ground focus between root causes and the problem/vision.

Long-term effectiveness is quite difficult to measure. This is the achievement of the vision. (Remember the start of this post?) The real impact may be years away. It may be the impact of elementary school reading interventions on high school graduation rates. It may be a decrease in joblessness from GED training.

Quite often this happens long after the founder has passed from the scene. It may be Martin Luther Kings dream. It may be landing on the moon well after JFK’s death. It may be finding a cure for polio years after FDR died. But it is still the dream, the vision, and why we exist.


The Thinker

5 Critical Questions for Leaders

This summarizes Bill Hybels’ August 2011 presentation at the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit. This summary comes from notes taken by Matthew Sherman and posted on his Website. Click here.

Bill Hybels discussed five critical questions a leader should ask himself or herself regarding their organizational leadership.

1. What is your current challenge level at work?

Hybels warned about being under-challenged and dangerously over-challenged for too long. If leaders allow themselves to be under-challenged, they will suffer from atrophy; physically, mentally, and spiritually. If an employee (especially an upcoming leader) is allowed to be under-challenged for too long a time, they will eventually leave.

Being dangerously over-challenged for too long a time  will eventually lead to burnout. There are periods where being over-challenged is inevitable, but it’s important to gear down as soon as possible. He told a nearly tragic story from early in WCCC’s history where an employee attempted suicide.

2. What is the plan to deal with the challenging people in your organization?

Hybels introduced three other questions to address the critical question.

  • How do you handle bad attitudes? Hybels said WCCC addresses a bad attitude as soon as it is seen to have become a trend. Once the attitude has been seen as a trend, the employee is addressed (“So what’s going on with your attitude lately?”, “Is there something going on that we can help with?”). After the employee has been addressed, they are given a 30-day pass. If the employee’s attitude has not been resolved after that period of time, further action is taken. A bad attitude can be poison for an organization. He also recommended if an organization does not have a method of dealing with an employee’s bad attitude, one should be discussed and developed.
  • How do you handle under-performers? Again, Hybels said WCCC addresses an under performer as soon as it is seen to have become a trend. As before, the employee is addressed and a solution to the situation is attempted to be reached. Willow Creek gives an under performer three months to correct the situation. In his experience, most people who have traditionally been a good performer and slide into underperforming have a personal issue that needs to be resolved, which is why more time is given to resolve the situation. Again, Hybels recommended if an organization does not have a method of dealing with an employee’s under performance, one should be discussed and developed.
  • How do you handle replacing a person who once fulfilled their role, but can’t keep up with the growth of the organization (the organization’s needs have surpassed the employee’s talents)? This is the hardest kind of challenging employee. This is a person who does not have any negative issues (attitudes or under performance), with the exception that expectations for the job tasks they have performed well on in the past have risen to the point they can no longer perform their job adequately. Willow Creek addresses this sort of issue and tries to resolve the problem over a six- to 12-month period. WCCC will do their best to relocate or accommodate the employee, but they will ultimately handle the issue if necessary. Even at the cost of a, “generous severance” package.

He described an exercise where department heads would draw a horizontal line and list their staff members in order of “keep” priority. The scenario presented was, in the event of a layoff of 50% of your employees, in what order would you list the employees of your department in order of importance to the team (highest importance on the left)? “The point of the exercise”, Hybels says, “is not to be cruel. It should first force management to think about the reality of a possible downsize due to economic situations, and second force them to think about the strengths and weaknesses of those on their teams.” If an employee is weak, why? How can these team members be encouraged in the areas they are weak in?

My Note:
The authors of Strengthfinders would disagree with this last statement. Should you focus on building strengths or repairing weaknesses? Their research shows that you are further ahead if you focus on building strengths, without totally ignoring weakness.

3. Are you naming, facing, and resolving the problems that exist in your organization?

Hybels asked if there were problems that were keeping the organization from achieving their goals. What are those problems? Are the leaders in the organization admitting that these problems exist? Are the leaders taking action to address and resolve the problems?

Hybels presented another exercise WCCC has used to address problems within the organization.

He presented a bell curve where the bottom left quadrant represented an idea or goal that was just starting (accelerating), the top left quadrant represented an idea or goal that had taken off and was rapidly growing (booming), the top right quadrant represented an idea or goal that had become old and worn out (declining), and the bottom right quadrant represented an idea or goal that had completely fallen off the radar (tanking).

The task of organizational leadership is to honestly and accurately assess the different ideas, goals, and missions of the organization and place them on the continuum. If goals were declining, or even tanking, what could be done to renew and revive those goals? Hybels said Willow Creek had made the commitment to never let a goal fall into the “tanking” quadrant. If it is a goal the organization wants to continue, the goal would have to be revitalized and renewed through planning and new implementation to return it to the “accelerating” quadrant.

4. When was the last time you examined the core of what your organization is about?

He presented a blank list with 5 spaces and asked, “What are five words that describe what your organization is about?”

Hybels stated that he and his team had spent months working on the five words for WCCC, but they were continuing to work on it. He challenged the audience to continually return to their organizations’ purpose to think about and renew the organization’s vision, mission, and goals.

My Note:
If your organization’s vision and mission are changing, you need to rethink your entire organization and why it exists. They should never change.

5. Have you had your leadership bell rung recently?

Has anything you’ve read, seen, or heard made an impact on your leadership lately? Are you making excuses instead of creating bold, new solutions?

“A leader who is not continually growing and learning cannot remain a leader for long.”

Hybels ended on a positive note, “Make your next five years your best five years.”