Training and Speaking and Learning

Oct 19, Texas CASA Institute, Galveston, Texas “Creating a Map: Engaging your Board In Fundraising”

Oct 20, Texas CASA Conference, Galveston, Texas “Beyond Tomorrow: Sustainable Leadership”

Oct 25, DivInc: A Pre-Accelerator Focused on Championing Diversity in the Tech Startup Ecosystem, Austin, “Fundraising with Sally Blue”

The Fear Default

The Fear DefaultA Clear Warning

We were sitting in her office at the small conference table set aside for working and for difficult conversations. Like any busy CEO, every light on the desk phone was lit, her cell phone kept buzzing, and her walls were lined with photos of the smiling faces of volunteers, clients, and staff. This well respected and longtime nonprofit leader was taking time to sit with me and offer her heartfelt advice. And she was making a great case.

Those who most need to do succession planning, won’t. They won’t leave gracefully. They won’t leave without a fight. Her raised eyebrow indicated that I knew exactly what she meant. You don’t want to be a part of that, she said. Don’t do this work, was the clear message.

I’ve heard this fear before – even when it’s not spoken so directly. Nonprofit leaders are too competitive, too overworked, too self-important to take transition planning seriously. Their boards are too afraid to have the conversation and too unwilling to put the needs of the mission over their desire to sweep the topic under the rug.

And maybe, for some in our sector, this is the truth. Some leaders will stay until there is no way to leave without burning bridges. Some boards will turn a blind eye to the responsibility of their office. Those nonprofits will likely not recover from their leadership transition. Anyone who’s spent any time in, or paying attention to, our sector can name at least one scandalous ending of a nonprofit, where the real losers are those the organization was supposed to serve.

The best case scenario may be a limping along, then a short-lived replacement, and finally (hopefully) things get back on track. And in the meantime, good people and energetic missions get lost, stunted or forgotten. The public’s trust may be forever altered.

But I’m a crazy dreamer.

I believe that we can do better – I know that we can build organizations that foster abundant leadership and that push us to greater levels of service and to real social change. I believe in partnership, in honoring legacies, and in planning for the future we want to create, instead of just reacting to the one we stumble into one day.

It is more than belief. Clear planning and honest dialogue proves that dynamic organizations can transition smoothly, not simply surviving but recognizing change as an opportunity to thrive, grow and enhance their community position.

We don’t have to accept the fear default. Fear is not the option we choose when we stare down the social problems that we face everyday. It’s not the option we choose when people tell us that  those problems can’t be solved. As a sector, we choose again and again to get messy and do life-changing work.

Let’s keep doing it – strengthening and supporting our leaders now while creating the leaders we’ll need next. That should be our default.

Leadership: But What’s After Air Traffic Control?

One of the unspoken fearsIMG_1671 about succession planning is – what then? What happens when my team is functional, cross-trained and confident in their work? What happens when others hold the vision for the organization with me, when we can all see the flight patterns? 

Executive Directors often find themselves in a similar role to air traffic controllers. Because so much rests on their shoulders, only they can really make the decisions about take-off’s and landings, which planes to ground and who gets permission to move out of line. It’s an exhausting job and without it, most organizations would experience some painful inefficiencies at best or worse, something catastrophic.

A solid succession plan helps alleviate the burden by distributing the responsibility throughout the organization. Staff are cross-trained beyond their day-to-day roles. Board members not only know there is a plan for emergencies but are equipped to face challenges that arise. Leadership staff and board members understand each other’s functions allowing confusion and conflict to give way to team work and creative problem solving.

Sounds great. But what’s the ED’s job in this utopia?

The former air traffic control tower in the developing Mueller neighborhood is a ripe metaphor. It is currently empty and frankly a little sad. No longer functional for its original purpose, boards cover some the windows where the distinctive blue glass is broken. Weeds are growing inside. Ideas have been suggested about what to do with it, but no decision seems to stick. It is the perfect image for the fear mentioned above.

If I’m a leader, and I no longer maintain and monitor the flight patterns for my organization, why am I here?

Step back. Look around.

Today, there is construction all around the tower. No longer surrounded by miles of concrete runway or dilapidated airport structures, homes are going up at a record pace. Families are thriving, playing, learning, and growing. People are becoming neighbors. Birds and lizards are claiming the park land. None of this could have been envisioned by the person so busy up in that tower, staring at the sky, following maps and making lists.

Air traffic control ensures the safety and efficiency of the now. But you are so much more than a tower and a view. As we learn to stop the glorification of busy and focus on what’s important, we become more capable and less burdened leaders. Once a leader stops managing air traffic, there’s a chance to step back and create the vision, right here on the ground.