Talent Demonstrated Not Time Served

When it comes to staff hires or promotions and volunteer elections and appointments, it's long overdue that we shift emphasis from time served to talent demonstrated.

Marking time alone is not qualification. It's what was contributed and accomplished in the time served that matters more.  Yet, too often the mere fact that one has been present for a number of years is seen as necessary and sufficient for hiring, appointment, or advancement.  Organizing around talent means:
  • Creating job descriptions that specify the talents and qualities successful candidates will possess.
  • Asking application and interview questions that focus more on accomplishments realized and talents demonstrated.
  • Matching talents and skills to position requirements rather than automatic succession to the next job in a hierarchy.
  • Evaluating and cultivating strengths demonstrated and looking for ways to help people manage around their shortcomings (Gallup's strengths-based framework)
There's an old Broadway song that says "time heals everything."  While that may be true for broken hearts and grief, it offers little solace when it comes to cultivating human resources.

Clarify Intention To Focus Attention

Recently, still groggy after a long flight to Europe and a fitful sleep because of the time change, I dragged myself to the hotel gym when I woke up at 4 a.m. and plunked my half-awake body on the elliptical, punched in 30 minutes, and hit start.

Good for me, right?

Not really ... unless simply showing up and putting in some time was my intention.  Yes, getting up and doing exercise was better than not doing that, but merely showing up is rarely the right definition of success (see Gallup, employee engagement).

Fortunately that realization came to me about five minutes into my workout as I was thinking about my ever-declining metabolism and the less than healthy meal I had on the plane.

I jacked up the intensity level on the elliptical and started doing high intensity interval training (HIIT), short bursts of difficult resistance followed by brief periods of rest.  Now I was truly working out, burning more calories, challenging my muscles, ramping up my heart rate … all of which were confirmed by the dashboard metrics the elliptical displayed.

It's too easy to just show up, to go through the motions, to confuse lots of busyness with doing good business.  In many of my keynotes and workshops I discuss how we must clarify our intention in order to focus our attention on what matters most.  Leaders who can do this in (and for) their organizations help ensure a more effective use of resources.

I'm increasingly convinced that what plagues many individuals and organizations is not an Attention Deficit Disorder.  Instead of being afflicted with A.D.D., in reality we suffer from I.D.D., an Intention Deficit Disorder.  And that results in a lot of people doing a lot of work that doesn't necessarily produce the desired results.

Here's my simple prescription that might cure of this ailment at either the individual or organizational level:  Before you get in action … make sure you focus your attention … on what matters most given your intention.

Seven Questions to Move Things Forward

If a picture is worth a thousand words, some words combine to create very valuable picture in the form of questions, ones that consistently help a group get unstuck and make decisions leading to better results.

While the seven I offer below from my facilitation experience may not have the sheen of Peter Drucker's The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, each one has proven invaluable time and time again in helping people accomplish more.
  1. What is it that we believe we are here to do today?
  2. What holds us back from what we know needs to be done, and how can we eliminate or minimize how it constrains us?
  3. What are the most important results we need to achieve (for this effort)?
  4. What other perspectives or opinions might enhance our discussions and/or with whom do we need to share what we talked about today?
  5. What is most important for us to discuss, but people might be unwilling or unlikely to bring up?
  6. Where do we have agreement about what needs to be done, and how can we build on that to get in action and move forward?
  7. What is the most significant commitment to act that we can all make with conviction right now?
I generally try to surface participants' responses in a transparent way with each individual sharing his/her own perspective.  In some limited cases though, the only way the answers can comfortably be shared is if the process is anonymous.   In those instances, I distribute index cards and have participants write their responses.  I then verbalize each one to the group. Some of the questions certainly could be surveyed anonymously in advance.

While anonymous input surfaces the content for further conversation (a critical short-term win), the fact remains that people didn't feel comfortable sharing their opinions outright (a critical long-term need)To address this I almost always engage the group in a discussion of that reality by posing an additional question when the timing seems right:  What would need to change in order for everyone to feel comfortable owning and freely sharing their opinions instead of having to contribute them without attribution?

What other questions have you found really help a group with its work?


Looking to enhance your facilitation skills (or know someone who is)?
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Wrong Turn or Right Path?

It is easy to forget about the importance of feedback in the moment. Perhaps nowhere is this as useful as when you have made a tentative decision and are seeking confirmation that it is the right one … as I was once while driving to a retreat center outside of New Orleans.

Even for a seasoned traveler like myself, driving to new destinations is a bit unsettling, particularly ones located somewhat off the beaten path. After crossing the Ponchartrain causeway, a 20-mile stretch of bridge where all you can see no matter where you look is endless water, I was seeking a particular highway.

Thankfully, a road sign indicated that the exit I needed was the very next right. It was when I reached the exit that things began to unravel a bit. Though this turnoff was indeed the very next right, it offered no signage confirming that it was the Interstate I was seeking. Still, I trusted my gut instinct and took the exit.

As I rounded the corner I looked for the Interstate sign one typically finds letting you know you are on a new road. It was nowhere in sight. “No big deal,” I told myself. “It probably is just a bit farther down the road.”

But it wasn’t. And after a few miles my mind began playing the “should we turn back?” script that usually fills your consciousness at this point. I also began to chastise myself for not asking how far from the exit I would need to go to reach my next turn. Just when I was about to turn around, the next road I needed to take appeared.

While I assume full responsibility for the angst and anxiety I allowed myself to experience during this excursion, it could all have been prevented if that silly Interstate sign had been present after I made my exit.

How frequently in our professional efforts do we find ourselves in similar situations? We have some directions and a vague sense of where we are going. We follow the guideposts provided until we reach that juncture where we have to rely on our own judgment and instinct. And after making the “tough call” we often begin to wonder if we’ve done the right thing.

Organizations could do a better job anticipating these moments and providing process checkpoints where initial decisions and commitments can be reviewed for their appropriateness and impact. 

Individual leaders can support their colleagues by touching base early on when new projects are being completed and the direction being taken is not always done with 100% confidence. 

When the project is complex, when its end results will have critical implications for the organization, or when the individuals responsible are fairly new to the work they are doing, the need for immediate feedback and possible course correction is magnified.

From the membership standpoint, we should be more attuned to the somewhat tentative feelings individuals might have lingering after they make the decision to join our organizations or get involved. “Is this really the right place for me?” is not a question completely answered just because someone pays their dues.

Where and when might your organization benefit if some uncertain moments received a quicker confirmation?

Overcoming Resistance

How do you overcome or conquer resistance to change?

No matter the audience, profession, or industry this has been one of the most common questions I've encountered this year.

Resources that offer insight are abundant.  My sampling of them finds that they tend to focus on how to overcome objections or conquer the resistance.  Anecdotally most, but not all, seem to frame the issue as a win-lose proposition and offer counsel on how to ensure your proposed changes win against those who oppose them.

I once drew heavily on these resources when responding to this frequent query, but lately I've found the framing less helpful and its possible answers too limiting.  Renovating my current home helped reshape my thinking.  Bear with me while I explain.  

I live in a late 1890s home in Chatham Arch (come visit!), a historic district in downtown Indianapolis.  A variety of municipal codes and historic covenants determine the appropriateness of both new construction and changes to the exteriors and ground of existing properties.

Historic district guidelines aren't intended to stop change from happening. They are meant to ensure that any changes implemented preserve what is considered to be essential or appropriate character of the neighborhood and its individual properties.  While many options are available for most changes, I don't have carte blanche to just do anything to the exterior of my home as it stands in relationship with the rest of the neighborhood.  What I do has an effect on my neighbors, as well as the overall character and appearance of our neighborhood, something which affords us a premium on our property values.

That's why my house seemingly has more than one front door.  The "front door" closest to the street is the original door, one that now opens into my master bedroom instead of the original living room.  That door can never be removed because it preserves the clear sense from the street of my home's history.  Subsequent entrance doors and the porch come from a 1950s addition. Would I like to replace the old unused front door with a wall or window? You bet.  But I live with it as it is because I respect what the guidelines intend to preserve.
How might your conversations change with those you identify as change resistors if you instead thought of them as conservationists or preservationists, individuals committed to preserving something they believe matters a great deal?  

What might you learn if you inquired about the meaning they associate with whatever they don't want changed?  What are they concerned might be lost if the proposed changes are implemented?

When I have adopted this mindset in my conversations with "resistors," I've found the discussion feels more welcomed and far less adversarial.  I have heard stories about what people care about and what they don't want to see lost.  And in many cases, I've been able to separate the meaning of what they want to preserve from the form with which they associate it … offering alternatives to how we might incorporate their insights and improve on a proposed change.

Progress and preservation can be complementary if only we take the time to consider both perspectives.  Changing minds sometimes requires honoring hearts.

Additional resource
The language we use and the frames we adopt dramatically influence the choices we make.  I have found How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey useful in helping me think about alternative language and frames. PDF summary here.

You might also like these posts:
Disrupting the Status Quo
Things Feel Different in the Passenger Seat
Loyalty: Do you understand the tie that binds?



Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Lately I feel like I live in a new community named Good Intentions. It is a rapidly growing community with more and more people moving in every day. Most folks living here are a fairly happy lot. They smile during meetings, volunteer to take on responsibilities, and generally seem like the types of folks who would be good neighbors. 

But they're not. 

I think I even know a few folks who serve on the Good Intentions City Council. They say they are going to write you a thank you note for a gift or they indicate they'll get that document to you in the next day or so. I believe they really mean those things when they say them to me, but yet they don't. And in the seemingly busy bee neighborhoods where Good Intentions residents live that lack of follow-through doesn't stand out much because on the block are doing it as well. 

Doing what you might ask? 

Simple. Confusing making the commitment with honoring the commitment. It's as if they believe that by saying they are going to do something it actually is being done simultaneously. Oh to live in a world which really did operate like that. 

But until that time, it would serve all of us well if everyone in the land of Good Intentions bought into a time-share in the neighborhood of Good Actions. In that neighborhood people promise only that which they can deliver and they take great pride in delivering on their promise. They want to be known for being good as their word, so they consistently make good on what they say. They understand as Thomas Paine eloquently noted long ago, "Character is much easier kept than character recovered." 

If we don't want to be someone who has to recover his or her character because of not following through on good intentions, we need to surround ourselves with action-oriented, commitment-honoring neighbors.

Let's remember that the root word of intentions is intend, referring to a future state of being. But if we fail to act in a manner that produces that end state or result what good were those good intentions anyway?   Good intentions are not enough ... regardless of whether the commitments we make are to ourselves or to others.

I want to be proud not just of my intentions, but also my actions, so I'm heeding the advice of the writer and monk Thomas Merton: "Take more time, cover less ground."

The More Appealing Appeal

I am always thankful to get past December 31 of any year. It's not because I hate New Year's celebrations or all the talk about a clean slate, making resolutions, or starting a diet.

January 1 means we have 360 days or so until charities and other nonprofits send out their well-intentioned, but often underwhelming last minute year-end solicitations.

If you want to make a new year's resolution that may help with your friend-raising or fundraising, let me suggest a simple one: stop using mass messaging that treats all recipients the same.

Say what?

In a four-hour span one day I received emails from four organizations I support asking me to make a donation before year's end.  Earlier in the year, I had already made contributions ranging from $100-$250 and I have given annually to three of the groups for multiple years.
  • Two emails were completely generic in their pitch, saying little except please make a gift and stressing the year-end deadline for tax-deductible contributions.
  • One was tailored to the organization's announcement of just receiving a major grant. Always a good strategy to link a solicitation to noteworthy and very timely news.
  • One was deeply heartfelt in reflecting on all the good that the organization had accomplished and what more might be possible in the year ahead.
So of these four, two were what I call fundraising spam: generic, impersonal, reflecting little thought.  I dismissed them outright. Two were strong examples of fundraising storytelling.  But those two excellent examples were undermined a bit by a simple mistake they shared with the two weak appeals. And it is a mistake that occurs all too regularly throughout the year, not just at crunch time.

What was it?  They failed to treat current year existing donors with any more personalization or attention than everyone else on the distribution list.  While not a fundraising felony, it certainly falls into the category of an avoidable error.

Here's what I'm talking about: in three of the four emails after the ask was actually made, a comment along the lines of "thanks to those of you who have already made a gift" was then noted.  The fourth email didn't even bother to do that.

At its most basic, when we do this we treat current supporters and their contributions as an afterthought: Oh yeah, thanks for that gift earlier in the year.  Don't ever make donors an afterthought if you want them to keep thinking about you.

So here's the oh-so simple way to avoid doing this again next year.  It's Fundraising 101 that often doesn't occur because of lack of staff time, training, or advance planning of donor communications.
  • Segment major solicitations and communications into two categories at minimum: (1) current year contributors and (2) current year non-contributors.  If you don't know how to do this with whatever list management program you use, stop reading immediately and go learn that first. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built.
  • At minimum craft separate communications for those two lists. Start your pitch to current year supporters with a re-acknowledgement of that contribution and what it has enabled the organization to do. Then launch into telling the story of your future plans and what an additional gift might make possible.  In short: thanks again for the past gift, here's what it has helped us do in the present, and listen to our plans for the future.  We'd love for you to be an even greater part of what we have planned.
That's it. That simple shift requires about 30 minutes to make, a minor investment in your major goal of increasing the support of existing contributors.  You don't want to treat all recipients of your message the same if their current level of interest and support is different ... differentiate your message to make them more meaningful.

Once this is mastered (or perhaps at the same time) do additional segmentation of current contributors based on level of support and engagement and create additional messaging and communications (both in content and form) that match appropriately.

And don't just make this a staff responsibility. While we often draw board members into making the ask, we less frequently involve them in "making the thanks." One of the most fulfilling 15 minutes I've had as a nonprofit board member was when we took time at a board meeting to each do a handwritten thank you note to a donor who had been especially supportive of our current efforts.

So the strategic question if you want next year to be one of greater friend-raising and fundraising is this: how might we make our appeals more appealing and what systems and processes must we create to do so with a consistent level of quality and timeliness?

Now go get to work. Those 360 days will go by quickly.

P.S. Some of you might be asking yourself if this is really such a big deal: don't donors support the cause/organization and not their communication practices? Absolutely, and if you weren't competing for time, interest, attention, and money any list management or communication issues might be more easily overlooked.  But you're not. You're one of many. And more importantly, segmenting lists and messages suggests a level of operational intention and attention that may inspire donor confidence.