Knowing when to step aside

I’ve crawled into bed after 11:00pm the past two nights. As a conditioned morning person, I am feeling the grind this morning.

Speaking of feeling the grind: when it comes to leadership positions and the people who hold them, when is the right time for people to move on in order to bring in a fresh perspective and style to the work?

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Transitions in leadership have enormous implications for an organization’s strategic direction and culture. But, our nonprofit sector seems more comfortable sticking our heads in the ground rather than preparing and planning for the inevitable and necessary.

That’s right: necessary. Our society values longevity and gives credence to those who stay in positions of power for years. But, at what cost? That isn’t to imply that such leaders always fail or bring harm to the organizations they serve. That certainly could be the case. It’s more about recognizing that our influence and decision-making will put the organization down a series of paths aligned with our values. Yet, think of all of the other roads available to the organization that could have an even bigger impact. But, we’re not able to see those options, not because we don’t want to, but because we operate from what we know. If we haven’t walked a particular walk, then we’re not going to be able to find that way.

A lot of people have asked me this year how it feels to no longer be on the YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors. Did I miss it? Was I sad to no longer be a part of a tight-knit group of motivated, dedicated leaders?

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This was the North Carolina contingency in Atlanta for the 2017 National YNPN conference. What an easy group to love!

When put that way, of course. The organization brought incredible people to my life who have become some of my closest friends and trusted confidantes. But, when it came to my role, particularly after serving as Chair for three years, I knew that I had given all of myself on the playing field. While I had the institutional knowledge that can be a justifiable reason to encourage a leader to stay, I also had the baggage of my five years of experience dragging behind me.

As a leader, it is my responsibility to prepare the organization to continue moving forward without me in the picture. When people have asked me about my feelings related to leaving YNPN Triangle NC, I could confidently respond that I knew the chapter was going to flourish because of the committed people around the table.

One of the best lessons I learned as Chair: surround yourself with people who aren’t like you. Leaders need to be challenged in their ideas, assumptions, and visions. It is not only unfair but impossible for one person to have all of the skills we’ve identified as necessary to be a successful nonprofit leader. Nope. Not a real thing. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector still operates in this mindset (a la the solo Executive Director model aka martyr aka magician).

I was struck the first time I heard “One Last Time” from Hamilton. George Washington, through what historians have discovered, recognized his limits as a leader and took action to transition the power of the Presidency. Such forethought was not the norm during that period (nor in present day, sadly).

One lyric in particular stood out to me:

If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone

Yes, let’s acknowledge there is some trace of ego laced in this idea of building something that will outlive us. Yet, I would argue that it’s more purpose than ego: who doesn’t want to be remembered? Who doesn’t want to leave some sort of positive mark on the world that is lasting? Isn’t that the reason many of us work in the public and social sectors: not necessarily for individual recognition but to have a hand in shaping better outcomes for all people and our broader world?

There’s no blueprint for knowing when it is time to step aside. I believe it comes from a combination of internal reflection (gut-checking) and being open to receiving feedback from others. It’s hard not to take it personally: you want me to go?! No no. It’s not about you. Let’s say that again: it’s not about you. These organizations are about the people the mission seeks to serve: you just have the privilege of being on other side.

Let’s make a commitment, especially as emerging leaders, to be willing to step aside and not grind our organizations/staff to the ground. Let’s commit to having open conversations about leadership transitions — preparing for them as we would any 990 or board report. Let’s commit to building a team around us full of people willing to challenge us, bring new ideas to the table, and share the responsibility of achieving collective goals.

We’re gonna teach ’em how to say goodbye.

 

 

Applying a ‘beginner’s mind’ to leadership

Do you consider yourself a goal-setter? Do you derive pleasure from crossing off items from your to-do list?

Gray brick wall with black painted soccer goal with "gol" written above

No matter the language, goals matter

Have you ever put an activity on your to-do list that you already did but wanted to release those oh-so-coveted endorphins as you drew a line through it?

Yeah, me too.

Here’s the good news for any of you who identify (even at times) as a Type-A person: we can still be mindful leaders. But, it’s not something that we can knock out of the park in one swing. It’s a process — at times, a painful one. It requires us to challenge our modus operandi and the behaviors deeply ingrained in our brains.

Fortunately, leaders like Robyn Ferhman are here to help. I had the opportunity to attend Robyn’s workshop last Saturday at Carolina Yoga Company entitled: “Attention to Intention: A Mindful Start to 2018.” You can see what was covered in this two-hour block of wonder and exploration here. Needless to say, I wasn’t ready to leave when time was up.

One of the key learnings that I took away from the workshop involved the concept of “beginner’s mind,” which is one of the core attitudes that make up a mindfulness practice. It is exactly like it sounds: approaching situations as if it were your first time ever experiencing it.

Imagine: how routine is brushing your teeth? How many of us spend that time up in our heads, running through memories or thinking about the events awaiting us tomorrow? What would happen if we approached brushing our teeth each morning and night like it was the first time? We would focus on making sure we addressed our gumlines; used circular motions to eliminate the plaque from those problem areas our dentist reminds us about every six months. How many fewer cavities would we have collectively? How much more in-tune would we feel with our bodies?

What does a “beginner’s mind” approach in leadership look like? Meetings are often a place where leaders are called upon to provide direction, make decisions, and build consensus. What if we approached the next meeting on our calendar as if it were our first ever meeting to run? What questions would we ask or anticipate others asking? How would we want to feel in the meeting? What baggage would we be able to leave outside of the door so we could fully participate, without judgment, in the space? How would a fresh perspective add value and contribute to your ideal workplace culture?

How about bringing a “beginner’s mind” to building relationships with others? Whether with our co-workers, fellow board members, or even our friends, we have a shared history, whether shallow or deep. This often results in us pre-judging outcomes or perhaps not investing our full attention into our time together. While our co-worker is sharing a new project idea, our mind drifts to: “How is this going to impact me and my time?”

A real hamster between two stuffed hampsters on a shelf

With a beginner’s mind, the impossible may appear a bit more real.

In my search for ways to incorporate a “beginner’s mind” into life, I stumbled upon this post from Amira Posner, a Mind-Body Fertility practitioner at Healing Infertility, featuring a well-known eating meditation credited to Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Take a raisin and put it in your hand. Pretend you have dropped off from another planet, and you have never seen a raisin. With an inquisitive, open, non-judgmental perspective, examine the raisin. Explore it. Smell it, feel it, taste it. Engage your senses, in the moment, in a non-judgmental way. With all your attention, be one with the raisin.

Note: if you’re not a fan of raisins (or happen to be participating in a Whole 30 program), another food item can be easily substituted.

Upon first reading, it can sound and feel a bit silly. But, I would pose the question: hasn’t the way we’ve been operating — passively, automatically, re-actively — silly? We have kept ourselves from being fully present and engaged in our world; a world in which we only have so much time to be present.

How could a “beginner’s mind” alter your relationships with other people, with your career, and with yourself?

Leveraging your network for that next great opportunity

What a sales pitch for a title!

In all seriousness, building up a network of folks who you respect (and in return, respect you) is not only good for you personally but a must-have for your professional career. At YNPN Triangle NC (and across the broader YNPN movement), providing opportunities to network is a core aspect of our work.

It’s not always what you know – it’s who you know.

The question is: after you’ve met incredible people, collected their businesses cards, and found them on LinkedIn: what’s next? How are you nurturing and maintaining those relationships? And when an opportunity presents itself to active your network, how are you communicating with those folks to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you?

I’m going to be upfront: right now, in our nonprofit sector, we are not doing as good as a job with our networks as we need to. Far too often, the people in our networks look like us. White folks make up the majority of the nonprofit space. One study estimates that whites make up 80% of board members (90% as board chairs) and 89% of executive leadership. There will be many more focused posts on equity in our sector coming up, but I felt it important to raise this point as we think about our personal and professional connections. Since we recognize that who we know matters, if we don’t open up our networks to leaders who don’t look like us or have shared experiences, then it will be more difficult to transition leaders into nonprofits. [see chart below from Community Wealth Partners].

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But, returning to the questions at end for today’s post.

Number one: how are you nurturing your network? It would be a nearly impossible feat to stay on top of all connections, so the first step is to prioritize. I like to think about what skill or knowledge deficits still exist in me. Then, I look to my network to find those individuals who can help fill in those gaps.

For example, my current role requires me to engage in online fundraising, an activity that I had zero experience. So, I hopped on phone calls and had coffee with folks that were doing online fundraising to ask them about their processes, evaluation tools, challenges, and successes. Even after more than two years on the job, I still do this. I know that I can always learn more from my peers or those a few years ahead of me in the professional trajectory. I sign up to receive communications from other nonprofits. If a particular appeal strikes me, I’ll reach out to ask: how did this appeal do in terms of achieving your goal(s)?

14067508_1151662291542857_5219411369995159038_nI am guilty of overlooking the on-going maintenance of my network. Our networks get larger and larger. Our work responsibilities pile on, and it can feel comprising to our to-do lists to make time for a meeting. But, it’s so important. It gives us a dedicated space to interact with another human being (an obvious statement but think about how much your work day is spent not interacting with an actual human being.) It provides us opportunity to learn about ourselves; to learn from someone else; and to also develop a better sense of what’s happening in our sector and/or community. Reconnecting with your network helps to eradicate those silos. Those silos exist between sectors (nonprofit/for-profit/public) and within sectors themselves (organization focus/geographical).

Recently, I had lunch with a colleague who works in providing grants and financing opportunities to help stimulate growth in rural economies, particularly for agriculture. I knew zero about this topic, but after our meal, I can better speak on what the NC Rural Center does if the opportunity arises to share it with others. I can now be a liaison between someone interested in pursuing farming to an actual resource.  Win-win!

13055092_1070433859665701_8618031969423345895_oNurturing your network doesn’t have to be anything formal. I do think it is important to ensure you are meeting face-to-face when possible in order to have a deeper level of engagement. A quick email now and then is fine; but we all know that our conversations will stick with us after those in-person meetings much more so than another item in our Inbox.

Second question: how are you communicating with folks from your network to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you? Over the last year, I have provided more than a dozen references and/or recommendations for folks from my networks. Some have approached their requests to me in more helpful ways than others. From my experience, here are some suggestions I have for taking this type of initiative:

  • If possible, ask your connections before applying for that position. If you find a job at an organization where you have a connection or know someone who does, reach out as soon as possible to ask your questions. It’s ok if you have already applied to the position. But, doing your homework on the front end may save you time if you learn that you may not be a good for the organization or there’s something concerning about the culture that you don’t want to be a part of.
  • Ask your references if they are comfortable being your reference. It is awkward to receive a phone call from an organization and/or recruiter about a candidate that listed you that you wouldn’t actually recommend. Don’t assume your references want to be your references. It’s important to know if they have any concerns about recommending you. If they do, find out what those concerns are [yes, we are not all perfect. It’s ok.]
  • Provide references with context for specific positions. Once you have shored up your references, give them an overview of the position and its responsibilities. Are there particular experiences or skills you would like them to highlight about you? Were there specific projects you worked on that could be cited as examples? Don’t also assume your references remember every great thing you have done. Spend a few minutes talking through some particulars with them.
  • Even if you are asking someone to put a good word in for you more informally, still follow the steps above. When I send a note on someone’s behalf vouching for their awesomeness, I am putting my reputation on the line. So, I want to make sure that I believe the candidate is a good fit, not only for that organization but for that particular position. It’s also easier when you give me advanced notice. giving advanced notice (i.e. I know that Katie Todd is going to be applying for this position, and here are five reasons why she deserves an interview) versus (I believe Katie Todd applied for those position a week ago and I hope you haven’t already cast her application aside). We want to plant those nuggets into the minds of others.
  • Say thank you. As with anything in life, please take the time to drop a note, make a call, send a text, and share appreciation with the person who provided a reference and/or recommendation for you. Personally, I’m all about the hand-written thank you note. Yes, it’s old school but it’s power cannot – cannot – be underscored. Receiving a handwritten thank you note can be. I’m more likely to want to go for bat for those who did follow-up with me to say thanks than those that didn’t.

In the coming week, I challenge you to schedule at least one in-person meeting with someone from your network that you would like to learn from, whether it’s about a potential career shift or acquiring insight into a skill. My final advice for today is this: remember that when you are networking, approach the opportunity not from the frame of what can they provide me but from the space of what can I bring to them. Listen without worrying about what you are going to say next. The number of doors that will fly open when you approach networking in this manner will astound you.

 

 

 

Defining leadership

Over the last year, I’ve been working on revising my own definition of leadership, particularly for how I want to be perceived (or not) in conjunction with this word.

After reading Paul Schmitz’s Everyone Leads and currently in the midst of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I firmly believe that leadership is rooted in action, not in a particular position or title. This approach contradicts how we are socially conditioned to view leadership/leaders. Power resides in the individuals at the “top” of various chains; but, each of us carries immense power that can be flexed, given the right conditions.

It’s funny: this week has been an opportunity for me to “flex” a variety of leadership muscles in vastly different surroundings. And, at times, I see my continued struggle in finding balance, especially when it comes to those leadership “positions” as opposed to opportunities to act like a leader.

Our YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors participated in our first-ever strategic planning session this Saturday, facilitated by two corporate executives over the course of five hours. (What a way to spend a Saturday, right?) I left that afternoon feeling, as Sophie says, the feelings. Exhilaration. Stress. Frustration. Clarity. Exhausted. As a completely volunteer-driven 501(c)(3) organization, it can be easy for me to forget that…oh right, we’re volunteers. The majority of us have full-time responsibilities, whether in employment or academia, not to mention families and other extracurricular activities.

There were several moments during the session I found myself hesitant to speak up, fearing that I would create an unfair power dynamic within the group. I am finishing my second year as Board Chair, with one final year ahead. Even nearly 18 months in, I’m still feeling out the ropes as to when to step up and when to step back, knowing (or, at least sensing) that there is an expectation for me to have the answers to questions from the rest of our team. Most of the time, I’m working to figure out those answers alongside them. I view my role as keeping our ship pointed toward the end goal, making sure my crew has what they need in order to be fulfilled and successful, and actively seeking opportunities to keep us afloat (resources, partnerships, funding).

That’s the ideal, at least. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I came home Saturday, elected to pick a fight with Aaron, and then cry into my pillow for 15 minutes. Is that how leaders act? It seems fairly unlikely. At least, not so people can see. The pressure to keep up that front, to be bold, to be willing to take it on the chin (up to a point), and to invest in others so much that you are left drained and depleted – it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. On the flip side, it’s also a huge honor, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

Oh, double-edged sword. 

Tonight marks the third night in a row of board meetings, and as I noted above, I have navigated the previous two with varying degrees of leadership. On Monday, I engaged at our youth advisory board meeting with conviction, offering a rallying cry around personal responsibility and communications. But, I hold no actual leadership position. That was an intentional decision, as I recognize I am spread far too thin. It would be unfair to me and those around me to pretend like I could fulfill those roles. Last night was our quarterly board meeting for my job. As a staff member, I spend most of the three-hour meeting in silence, sharing when scripted in the agenda. In this space, I wonder if the board members view me as a leader, or since I tend to be more reserved, if they don’t.

Viewing myself as a leader in my work space is more nebulous for me. We operate in such silos that it feels like we’re all individual leaders. But, when it comes to some of the broader, bigger decisions, our voices may not be part of the process. Mini-leaders. Which is fine. That’s why we week out other opportunities to grow those skills and competencies desired to be more equitable, thoughtful leaders, not only in our work spaces but in our communities.

Alright. It’s time for coffee and, well, time to get down to work. I’ll leave you with this: how do you define leadership? And, based on your definition, are you a leader? Why or why not?

free flow Friday

Discourse morphed into diatribes.

Arguments rooted in articles.

Actually read? Argubale.

Easier to spot what’s trending then what’s happening outside the window.

Positions held firm with glue made from politics, power, and privilege.

Spin from machines muddle words and true meanings.

Can’t help but think of Aaron Burr:

What do you stand for?

Posturing is one thing but to truly stand up takes courage.

No longer a qualification for leadership but

Replaced by contempt, cowardice –

the creation of fear in the free world.

What is free about fear?

Why do so many people allow themselves to be shackled?

Look up. Listen. Love.

Alliteration breeds more than literary bliss. It builds actions that lead to real change that we all can take.