My Advice to Boards: Keep the Doors Open


Closed meeting. Executive session.

Whenever certain people are excluded from a board meeting, it’s a red flag. In my experience, it’s an immediate tip-off that an organization is in trouble.

Why do I say that? A couple of reasons come to mind.

First, transparency in decision-making is a very important value in nonprofit work. Closed-door board meetings are the antithesis of transparency.

Second, the exclusion of certain people from a board meeting (typically the executive director or other staff) immediately sets up an adversarial situation. Staff worry about what is being said. Board members, pledged to keep mum, do nothing to reduce the tension. The division between board and staff just grows and grows, fueled by deepening mistrust.

Third, a board that meets without the executive director must rely on its own knowledge base. This means their perceptions, understanding, and beliefs are what counts, not technical expertise or day to day management experience. One better hope board members have been listening well and taking notes about complex topics, that they are truly well-prepared for flying solo.

Fourth, without the mediating influence of staff and an audience, a board of directors can get swept up in a more refined version of ‘mob psychology.’ Extreme views can dominate and the consequences can be serious – both for the executive director and the organization’s long-term future.

What’s a better alternative to closed meetings or executive sessions? Open door meetings that are structured to support honest dialogue and collaborative problem-solving are a way better strategy. More difficult in the short term because board members have to stow their power reflex in favor of collaboration but easier in the long term because the damage to board-staff communication and trust is avoided.

Board leadership should think long and hard about setting up the negative dynamics launched by closed door meetings. Resist the urge to pull that power play. Choose to be a leader who is not afraid to do the hard work of governing a nonprofit in public.

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Four Signs That It’s Time for Nonprofit Leadership to Move On


Jan 2013 Portrait BW

In last week’s blog post, I laid out five arguments for longevity in nonprofit leadership. This week, I’m taking the opposite view. When is it time for an executive director to be replaced?

If it’s time go when the writing is on the wall, what might the writing say? Here are four things that signal time for leadership change.

Number 1: The exec is on autopilot. What does this mean? It means that the exec is keeping his or her seat warm, showing up at meetings, signing documents and posing for pictures. It means the exec has forgotten how to start something new or isn’t interested in taking on new challenges. An exec like this is a drag on an organization.

Number 2: The exec won’t adapt. Adaptation is a key component of effective leadership. A leader who won’t adapt to technology, political changes, diversity and new funding expectations keeps his/her organization stuck in the past. Nostalgia is great but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Number 3: The exec has an excessive number of enemies. In last week’s post, I talked about how an organization’s persona often takes on the characteristics of its leadership. This is both a positive and a negative. An exec that has burned a lot of bridges curtails transportation for everyone in his/her organization. [An interesting note: interagency animosity is often handed down from generation to generation.]

Number 4: The exec has lost the trust of his/her board of directors. This is really the death knell for an executive director. When the board of directors doubts the exec’s intentions or word, when the board questions every decision because they don’t trust the exec’s judgment, when board members communicate directly to staff rather than going through the exec, that’s big, big trouble and a signal that it’s time for new leadership.

I still tend to think that longevity in nonprofit leadership is a plus. But necessary for successful longevity is the need for executive directors to keep themselves current, energetic and positively engaged. Those execs who have figured out how to play the long game are gems in the nonprofit world. If you know one, pat him or her on the back. And take notes. There’s a lot to learn from the senior class.



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5 Ways to Doom a Work Group

Jan 2013 Portrait BWSometimes I watch a meeting of a work group and it seems like the leaders are trying to kill off the group.

Maybe they volunteered to organize the work group to tackle a difficult problem encountered by several agencies or to coordinate a joint effort like a neighborhood clean-up or community outreach campaign. They recruit people to participate and forge on with the best intentions. But then things disintegrate. Why would that happen?

Clearly, they’ve gone to the special workshop where they learned the five ways to doom a work group. Do you know them?

#1: Clearly designate some people as insiders and the rest as out of the loop.

#2: Spend no time preparing a decent agenda. The insiders will know what to talk about. The outsiders don’t matter.

#3: Have no supporting materials, hand-outs or distributed information of any kind.

#4: Use the same answer, variations on the theme “it can’t be done/we tried that before/they won’t let us,” over and over until people give up offering new ideas.

#5: Congratulate yourself on your tremendous progress and hard work.

These tried and true methods work every time. They inevitably lead to work group leaders bemoaning their lost membership and questioning people’s commitment to the cause. Soured on the work group experience, people run for cover the next time a call goes out for volunteers. A bad experience can influence people for a long time.

Like many dysfunctional things in nonprofit life, it doesn’t have to be this way. Work groups can be dynamic, energizing and very, very productive. Short-term focused problem-solving and action planning can be exhilarating but only if everyone at the table is welcomed, valued and expected to contribute.

That’s what I think based on 40 years of nonprofit experience. What do you think?





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Bless the Can-Do Folks!

Heroes and villains. Saints and sinners. In my work, I run into all of those folks but today’s topic concerns another dichotomy: the can-doers and the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks.

As a consultant, my work is about change. No one hires a consultant to maintain the status quo. They can do that on their own. So my mission always has to do with doing something new or doing something better.  This makes for exciting and very interesting work but it’s not without its difficulties.

Because I am a consultant on a temporary mission, I have to engage other people in the task at hand. Often this means suggesting to people who have done things in a particular way for a long time or those who’ve never done it but have an opinion none the less that they do something new or better.

Here’s where we meet two kinds of people. The can-doers are the ones who were waiting for someone to bring the secret code to unlocking the door to new ideas and they are ready to rock. They’re the ones in a meeting who are totally focused, intent on the topic, nodding and taking notes. They’re the students every instructor loves to have in class. All in and ready to one up the instructor. When that happens, when you’re the consultant and someone comes up with an even better idea because you created the environment for change, that’s even better than having the great idea yourself.

The flip side are the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks. These folks are death to a dynamic group. Everything suggested has been tried before, is too expensive, would never be approved by management, is too much work, will take too much time, and, my favorite, will require hiring another consultant. The ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks, also known as YCGTFR’rs, can deflate and depress a group beyond recognition, leaving the consultant the only person in the room with new ideas.

So are these two dichotomous groups born or made? A topic for another blog.

Let me know what you think — ever run into these folks in your work?

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Treachery at Work

As a consultant, I need to tune in to organizational dynamics fast. Why? Because I need to be able to maneuver the relationships and politics in order to get my job done.

That sounds cold and it is. My #1 priority, though, whenever a group hires me for something important, is to make sure my product is as good as it can possibly be. Getting it tangled up in an organization’s peculiar toxic environment is a negative. It will impede my progress and affect quality.

So in my travels and in my own employment history (yes, there was life before consulting), I’ve seen many organizations with very dysfunctional internal cultures, many of which would meet anyone’s criteria for toxic workplace.

What does treachery at work look like? It looks like this: unreasonable and changing expectations, poor or no communication, blatant favoritism, high school style cliques, blindsiding, blaming, dismissing, marginalizing, taking credit for other people’s work, gossip, the silent treatment. Shall I stop there?

What is a person to do in this type of environment?

Here’s the most important thing, the absolute must for a person who finds him/herself in a poisonous organizational stew. Don’t be a victim. Give yourself the same advice you would give your son or daughter about coping with bullies on the playground. The bully wins if you act afraid. Or if you begin to believe the bully’s taunts.

Stick with the process. A key element of a treacherous workplace is that so much of what goes on is out of the public eye. Deals are made, understandings reached, plots hatched with only some people in the know and everyone else wondering.  Sticking with the process means always forcing deliberation and decisions to the public venue and, once there, advocating for an open, honest discussion, and insisting on this over and over again until colleagues comply.

Remember you are a professional person with top-notch skills and great experience. That’s your mantra. If you then take your mantra to the high road and stay there, you will be in good shape. Is that difficult to do? Absolutely.

By being the person who sticks to the high road, you offer an example to others who wish they had your courage. Sometimes this can begin to change the culture, sometimes not. It’s very wearing to be a principled person in an environment where others seem to have lost their moral compass. But even if you end up leaving an organization because it is simply too toxic to continue, you will carry your professional integrity and self-respect with you. Those are qualities you truly can take to the bank!

Organizations that allow treachery at work limit their own success. Don’t let treachery at work limit your success!


A very helpful overview of toxic workplace issues and strategies is provided by Amy Scholten, M.P.H. in “10 Signs That Your Workplace is Toxic and What You should Do About It.”

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When Loner Meets Team

People who used to be called ‘loners’ are now introverts. Lately, there has been a blossoming of insight and information about introverts and a fair amount of appreciation for what introverts bring to the world. Susan Cain dissects the introvert’s world and how introverts affect the world in her book, The Power of Introverts.

But while we’re busy celebrating the introverts among us (or being greatly relieved because the world finally recognizes our value as introverts), the work world is still very much about collaboration and team work.

Teamwork can be very challenging for the introvert. Not because s/he doesn’t value collaboration but because teamwork often requires attitudes and approaches foreign to the introvert. If we remember this distinction between introverts and extroverts, it will be helpful to thinking about the teamwork challenge: extroverts refuel/get their energy from being with people; introverts do the same by withdrawing from interaction. Conversely, an extrovert can find the team experience to be exhilarating while the introvert find it exhausting.

The upshot of this difference may mean that the introvert’s contribution to a project’s success is less obvious. Not wanting to be in a group work environment may be interpreted as resistance or laziness. Being reticent to speak may be seen as lack of investment in the project’s success. Going off on one’s own to complete a project component might be viewed as arrogance.

Diversity manifests in many ways and not all of them are immediately obvious. Managers would do well to educate themselves about the differences between extroverts and introverts and reflect on their impact on the work environment, especially around the topic of teamwork. At the same time, a good manager probably wants to determine where s/he falls on the extrovert/introvert spectrum and think through how that might influence her/his assessment of the performance of colleagues and those they supervise.

Reading Susan Cain’s book would be a good first step. The next step is putting that new thinking into action in the workplace.

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The Difference between a Discussion and a Facilitated Discussion: Part 1

The nonprofit world loves meetings. An issue comes up. We need a meeting. A plan needs to be developed. We need a meeting.

We move as a group.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Most projects will be made better if more people participate in the discussion.

But the key word is participate.

How many group discussions have you attended this month where two or three people do all the talking and the rest of the folks might as well be potted plants? It’s more than one, isn’t it? Two, three, dozens?

Generally a group discussion will follow an agenda. Most people think that an agenda is enough to keep a discussion ‘on track’ and keep participants from wandering off or circling back. An agenda may accomplish that goal but it won’t produce the type of results possible with a facilitated discussion.

Among the shortcomings of a regular group discussion is that a few people will dominate and others will coast. Unless an issue is of critical importance to a participant, he/she will wait for someone else to speak up and lead. That someone else invariably becomes the opinion leader for the group. If there are a couple of folks who speak up, they steer the discussion. In the absence of countervailing forces (other points of view), they set the group’s direction. But because not all were heard from and not all ideas put on the table, enthusiasm for next steps is weak, ownership is shallow, and progress is negligible.

Another problem with agenda-driven, non-facilitated group discussions is that they are topic-focused and not outcome-focused. When the group decides that an agenda topic has been covered (usually because no one has anything else to say), the next topic is tackled until each agenda item has gathered its share of opinions. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” is a question usually met with silence. “Ok, then, let’s go to the next item.”

People will leave a group discussion like this one feeling as if they have done their duty. They attended the meeting and maybe put in their two cents. Scratch that one off the calendar and go to the next gathering of the potted plants.

They probably won’t feel like they’ve made progress, built something, laid the foundation for a larger effort. That’s what would come from a facilitated discussion.

More about facilitated discussions in Part Two of this series.





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It’s a NEW Year!

Doing business in the nonprofit world isn’t all sunshine and roses. It takes a lot of scrambling to stay alive. Funders need to be kept happy. Performance must meet high standards. Staff and boards of directors have to be aware, involved and supportive.  Running a nonprofit is a job at least as hard as running any business, probably harder.

All these pressures mean that it can get wicked out there in the nonprofit sector. At the end of the year, there can be a lot of nonprofit directors picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after having gotten flattened by competitors, funders’ disfavor, or the unhappiness of their constituents.

Looking ahead to 2014, there are three suggestions I want to make to nonprofit directors, the ones who are on top of the world at the moment as well as those wondering if they’ll still have jobs come spring.

1. How you do business is as important as how successful you are doing it.

Being devious, manipulative, and divisive is not a sustainable strategy for nonprofit success. The funding world and the public favor collaborative enterprises. Collaboration evolves from trust, reliability, and transparency. Note here that collaboration is not just an interagency concept; it’s an interpersonal one as well. When you think of it that way, you start to see how some organization directors are so good at moving their organizations forward.

2. Don’t be stuck in what was.

Steve Mahan, director of the City’s Community Development Grants Administration, used this phrase to encourage agencies to think of new ways to address homelessness. It applies in many areas. What was good enough five years ago isn’t anymore. The techniques proven to work by decades of application that seem to be weakening around the edges, maybe it’s time to re-tool them. Every day is a new one. Be new, too.

3. Get out.

The world won’t come to you while you are sitting at your desk pondering your next move. The partnerships, deals, collaborations that work start with getting to know people as people, having lunch for the sake of having lunch, showing up at other organization’s events. If there was to be a resolution to come out of this, it would be – make one date a week. That’s it. Just one. A date where you are talking to someone to get to know them and their organization, not because you want something from them.

2014 is going to be an extraordinary year for nonprofit organizations. It’s a time ripe for new ideas and bigger impact. Think about how you are approaching 2014. Let me know how it goes.

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When and How Executive Directors Leave

In the past month, there have been four big changes in nonprofit leadership. Jan Buchler, long-time executive director of The Parenting Network, completed a year-long transition to retirement that involved a significant length of time during which her successor, newly hired, was able to shadow Jan and become acquainted with her new community. The process culminated in a unique ‘fare welcome’ luncheon that gave a couple of hundred people the chance to congratulate Jan and be introduced to the new director. Artfully done, I thought at the time. I wish all nonprofits would be so careful and deliberate.

Paul Schmitz, the driving force behind or in front of Public Allies, also recently announced that he will be resigning in several months. Paul, the author of the book, Everyone Leads, and a very popular national speaker, is likely looking at other national opportunities. We don’t know, he didn’t say. The key thing is that he has given his board of directors a good long time to find a good replacement and made himself available for consultation about that process. Paul grew Public Allies into a major training and public service organization. He will be hard to replace, but the early heads-up bodes well for the organization’s ability to continue its smooth sailing.

Contrast that to two other local organizations, Community Advocates and Safe and Sound. In both cases, there were press releases that the executive directors, Joe Volk and Barb Notestein respectively, had resigned, one to take a job at a much smaller organization in another county and the other to ‘explore other options.’ Their departures were speedy, one planned for just two weeks hence and the other already occurred, causing a lot of raised eyebrows around town. What does it mean to have long time executive directors make such sudden exits? In both cases, interim directors were appointed pending an executive search and hiring of permanent replacements.

In cases like these where an executive director suddenly resigns, on his/her own volition or at the invitation of a board of directors, there are many things to worry about. Number one is the morale of employees. When the captain of the ship gets on a skiff and motors off to shore, the rest of the sailors wonder what will happen to them. Are their jobs safe? Is the organization in trouble? Will the new person be better or worse than the person who left? A popular director’s exit could inspire departures of other key individuals. Also, a perception of a leadership vacuum can fuel in-fighting and positioning for power within the organization. So, tending carefully to morale and keeping employees feeling engaged and important to the organization are really important.

Then, obviously, the organization needs to worry about the public perception of the leadership transition. If I’m a foundation director or government bureaucrat, I may be wondering a sudden executive departure means for the overall stability of the organization. Does the organization remain a good risk in terms of the investment of philanthropic and government resources? Will programs be run efficiently and effectively. Bottom line – do people in charge know what they are doing? It is extremely important that the organization’s leadership, especially its board of directors, meets individually with funders to allay any concerns and set the course for the future relationship. It is a very bad idea to allow funders to only know what they read in the newspaper.

I was a second level executive in an organization in which the executive director was suddenly fired by the board of directors. The remaining executive team regrouped into war footing, everyone taking on additional responsibilities, and trying to tamp down the extraordinary anxiety among staff regarding the change. It was a trauma from which the organization never really recovered. More strategic and careful thinking on the part of the board of directors would have protected the organization and its employees from unnecessary upheaval.

There are lessons in these recent leadership changes for everyone running a nonprofit organization. To put it bluntly, it’s not just about you. A lot of people, in an out of the organization, will be affected by a drastic leadership change. Take care with those decisions.  Think of the people around you, those you serve, and the long-term sustainability of the organization. And just be very, very careful.

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Failure IS an Option

How many times have you heard someone declare, “Failure is not an option?”

Sure it is. It has to be.

What passes for a cheerleading slogan shouldn’t be advice for living or, more to today’s point, advice for a successful professional life. To be successful means to fail because it is in the owning up to failure and the determination to do better that the fine edge of one’s career is honed.

My most admired colleagues are those who have made big mistakes and suffered a lot of negative public reaction, even humiliation, and then decided to hunker down, work hard, stay true to themselves, and be successful. It’s a great thing to see. They don’t deny the failure, they own it. But they don’t dwell on the failure, they sort through what happened and why, use what will help them develop professionally, and bury the rest.

They don’t blame other people, whine and complain, feel sorry for themselves, or hide from the world.

Owning one’s own failure is the number one way to turning failure into fuel for success. When you own it, you are saying that the analysis of whose fault was whose is over. You are taking responsibility and from there on out, you will be in charge of how the failure will influence your professional demeanor and decision-making.

When people talk about ‘seasoned professionals,” this is what they’re talking about – people who got to the top of their game the hard way.


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