Tips for “Virtual” Meetings

May 11, 2016

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:22 pm

In my consulting work, I’m involved in a lot of “virtual” meetings, often as the facilitator.  By virtual, I mean not in-person, so using the phone and/or internet.

I also participated in many virtual meetings over the years running a statewide conservation organization and being on the board of a national network of similar organizations.

I’ve learned some lessons over the years of some things to do and to avoid when planning for virtual meetings.

Before identifying those lessons, it’s important to underscore the two most important challenges posed by virtual meetings.

    1. It’s super easy for participants to be multi-tasking during the meeting.  That could be something else they’re working on or it could be scanning their facebook or twitter feeds.  How do you get their full attention.
  1. Unless it’s a small meeting with everyone on video, you lose out on most of the social cues that come in an in-person meeting, such as body language.

So if you have a virtual meeting to plan, how do you address these challenges?

First, plan ahead for video technology and don’t take it for granted.  There are many free options, such as Skype and Google for reasonable-sized video meetings.  (Editor’s note from 2020: since I wrote this in 2016, Zoom has become my go-to tech for virtual meetings).   If you’re trying a new technology, do a dry run with guinea pigs.  And make sure someone else other than the facilitator is prepared to deal with any technical glitches.  With that said, if people won’t have access to the internet or if video is just not feasible, you can still run solid virtual meetings by phone.

Second, have an increased energy level as facilitator.  It’s human nature to pay more attention when someone is energetic in their tone of voice.  Pump people up with your attitude.

Third,  take extra steps to make sure everyone is engaged.   There are lots of ways to do to do this.  Ideas include:

  • In setting the agenda, try to give as many people as possible an explicit task during the meeting so they’ll see the value of being fully involved.  Aside from leading on particular topics, other tasks include serving as scribe or timekeeper.
  • At the meeting opening, set the explicit groundrule that people won’t be multi-tasking during the meeting.  Included in that groundrule: they shouldn’t mute their phone unless they’ve been forced to participate somewhere with outside noise.
  • Use round robins to hear briefly from everyone on key topics.
  • If it seems like there’s not enough engagement, ask someone who hasn’t spoken in awhile what they think.
  • Explicitly ask people if they agree and ask them to say so out loud.

Fourth, as each agenda item wraps up, be explicit about what was decided and who has agreed to any follow-up task.   And then as the meeting closes, go through every person and ask them what follow-up tasks have fallen to them.

Lastly, get the meeting notes out ASAP.

Of course, all of the above presumes the meeting is otherwise well-organized.  If a meeting would be poorly designed in-person, no amount of attention to its virtual elements will overcome that.

Should your nonprofit use a Resource Council?

March 23, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:20 pm

A Resource Council. A Council of Leaders.

These are two names I’ve experienced as alternatives to an “Advisory Board,” which is more common in the nonprofit world.

What I like about the alternative formulation is you’re more explicitly naming the group for what it most should provide: resources.

The Council should be a group of 6-12 non-board volunteers who’re committed to doing something to help your organization secure more resources.

As a Council, they are probably only brought together once a year to meet with the organization’s other leadership. Perhaps one extra time if the organization is going through strategic planning.

The Council should have a written job description and some leadership –whether provided by a staff member, the Council Chair, or both. The Council should have an annual goal or goals — usually based on the resources the Council will help the group obtain.

This is a great way to involve those people who are in a position to help an organization, but don’t want to wade through all the nitty gritty of board governance.

Has your organization used a Council (by whatever name it’s called)? What’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well?

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Preparing for an Executive Director Transition

October 20, 2015

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:37 pm

Often times Executive Director transitions are abrupt, taking place within a 1-2 month period when an E.D. moves onto another professional opportunity.  Rarely, they are even more abrupt after a tragedy or the Executive Director being fired.

However, in many instances an Executive Director is able to give significant advance notice to their board, often as much as 6-12 months.

In those instances, the organization has an chance to make the most of the transition so that it serves as an opportunity as much as a threat.

Below, I list 10 major steps an organization should consider to manage the transition, particularly in the 6 months immediately prior to it.

    1. Make sure that the organization has a current strategic plan. In the absence of a complete strategic plan, the organization should hold a facilitated meeting to ensure the board is aligned with the remaining senior staff regarding the purpose of the organization and major programs for the next 1-2 years.

 

    1. The Executive Director should consciously “transfer” personal relationships with major donors and institutional funders to others within the organization. Depending on the situation this could involve board members or other senior staff.   This could be accomplished by holding meetings (e.g. lunches, coffees, or more formal) with the donors one-by-one or by hosting small gatherings with multiple donors.

 

    1. Communicate early and clearly with allied organizations and funders in advance regarding the transition. In those communications, identify the specific steps the organization will be taking to ensure a successful transition.

 

    1. In public communications, such as newsletters, press releases, the website, etc., tell success stories about other staff and have other staff serve as spokespeople.  The more constituents come to know staff beyond the Executive Director, the less noticeable their absence will be.

 

    1. Have the Executive Director write down organizational stories. These stories could involve the founding of the organization if they were involved in it.  It should definitely involve stories that demonstrate the organization’s success and/or impact.  Depending on the E.D., this may be best done by having someone “interview” the Executive Director and write up the stories as they are told, as opposed to having the E.D. sit at a computer and write.

 

    1. Create an E.D. “Job Manual” that identifies the systems used by the Executive Director. This should cover all the major administrative and fundraising activities of the organization where the E.D. is involved, identifying what major activities need to be conducted weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.  This might also cover major “program” activities if the E.D. plays a substantial role, again broken down by weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.

 

    1. The outgoing E.D. should talk to other senior staff about their own timelines for professional development and discuss if/how to motivate them to stay on with the organization at least at least 6-12 months after the E.D. transition. This conversation should also be an early flag of whether the senior staff intend to apply for the Executive Director position.

 

    1. As soon as feasible, the E.D. and the board’s Finance or Executive Committee should develop a cash flow analysis of where the organization will be financially as of the date the new E.D. should start.  If at all feasible, additional funds should be raised or spending should be curtailed so as to maximize the amount of unrestricted reserve available at the time of transition.  If cash flow is going to be tight, the board should be asked to increase their personal giving in the short run in order to help.

 

    1. If the outgoing E.D. has relationships where it would make sense, use the transition as a message around which to raise extra funds.  Examples of tactics that have been successfully used include an event that “roasts” the outgoing E.D. and the creation of a “Legacy” fund by which donors can make a gift in honor of the outgoing E.D.

 

    1. The board and Executive Director should identify a “Plan B” should the hiring process for a new Executive Director not succeed in finding someone appropriate who says yes. Boards should be enthusiastic about new Executive Directors and  organizations are almost always better off not hiring someone who they believe will be mediocre.   The Plan B could involve an outsider brought on as an Interim E.D. or the temporary assignment of one of the other staff as Interim E.D.

 

Do you have additional suggestions for steps an organization should take when planning for an Executive Director transition?

If so, please comment below.

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To follow your dreams, learn to say no

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:57 pm

Learning to say no is one of the most important skiils for any organizatonal leader or organization.

Oliver Bremerton recently wrote and illustrated a compelling explanation for how this plays at an individual level when it comes to following your personal dreams.

“Our brains behave like a beachball filled with bees. Hundreds of conflicting impulses, pushing us in different directions.”

Successful individuals (leaders, organizations, etc.) learn how to put aside the conflicing impulses and focus on the one, overriding “dream.”

Or in Bremerton’s words, “If you want to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives.

Why you Lead Matters

July 24, 2014

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:43 pm

I recently came across a study published in Harvard Business Review that crystallized some of my own thinking about how to motivate leadership.

The article outlines the results of a study of 10,000 graduates of Westpoint (the U.S. Army officer training college) through their graduation and well into their careers.  The graduates were asked questions to determine what motivates their leadership.  In general, leadership motivations were classified as intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (instrumental).  An example of an intrinsic motivation is “improving people’s lives.”  An example of an extrinsic motivation is “more pay” or greater status from a position of more stature.  Many people demonstrated evidence of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

I was not surprised that those who were intrinsically motivated had proven over time to be more successful leaders than those extrinsically motivated.  I previously posted a great video on this precise subject.

What surprised me about the study was that those who were both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated also proved inferior in leadership success compared to those whose sole motivations are intrinsic.

In the words of the study author:

“Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better — additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%.  Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.”

Personally, I’ve always been wary of organizations that consider using bonuses or other similar rewards as a means of improving employee performance.  This is especially true in cause-related organizations.  It creates a perverse incentive that can change how employees perceive their role.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen an organization go awry in this way.  A few years back, an organization I knew hired an Executive Director who insisted that the pay for his role be increased to match what they had been receiving at the job they were vacating, even though this higher pay would be dramatically more than the organization’s traditional pay scale.  In their words, they didn’t want to be taking a step backwards in pay.  It didn’t surprise me that the E.D. in question flamed out in 18 months.   They were more motivated by extrinsic factors (pay) than intrinsic (the desire to best fulfill the organization’s mission).

What implications does that have for nonprofits?  For those doing hiring, if a candidate says or does something suggesting their personal motivation is extrinsic, I suggest you think long and hard before going down that road.  Focus on candidates where the flame is burning on the inside to accomplish the mission.  Skills can be trained.  The fire inside cannot.

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A riddle about 5 frogs – updated

July 11, 2014

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:31 pm

About 15 months ago I created a blog entry: 5 frogs sitting on a log. 

Here’s an updated version.

The riddle:

Five frogs are sitting on a log.  One decides to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

The answer is five.  Deciding to jump off is not the same as jumping off, so all five are still on the log.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One gets training on how to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

Five, of course.  Being trained on somethings is no guarantee of action.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One decides he’s a lily pad frog and not a tree frog, so he’ll jump off and onto a nearby lily pad.  He recently was trained on effective jumping.   He’ll jump at sundown.  He knows he’ll have been effective if he winds up on the lily pad.

In short, he knows who he is, where he wants to get to, how he’ll get there, and by when.

How many frogs are sitting on the log?

Of course, the answer is still 5.  But I’d venture to bet that the odds of it soon being four are very high indeed.

Although the parallels to nonprofit work are clear, I’ll hit you in the face with it:  An organizational strategic plan should answer who the organization is, where it wants to go, how it will get there, and how it will know if it’s successful.  In strategic planning terms, this is usually a combination of mission/vision, goals, strategies, and a timeline.

The best written strategic plan, even when combined with training, are no substitute for taking action.

But those who are trained and plan are far more likely to take action (and take it effectively) than those who are not.

 

 

 

Guest blog: Grantwriting as a Team-building exercise

May 19, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Guest blog by Sami Fournier of Element Exercise.

Faced with the prospect of submitting a grant proposal, consider what a great opportunity you have before you. Beyond being a challenge and a bit of a chore, the grant writing process can define your organization’s work in a way that also improves the leadership of your team.

A looming grant deadline can be a team-building experience.

Let’s take the example of applying to a foundation for a general support grant.

Your first instinct as Executive Director might be to sequester yourself in your office and just write it.

But consider this alternative possibility:  Get your team together (on a rational, roomy timeline, if possible) and build an outline using the funder’s guidelines and requirements. Suppose you start with something like this:

  • Intro
  • History and Background
  • Statement of problem and need
  • Goals and objectives
  • Solution to the problem
  • Budget
  • Timelines
  • Applicant qualifications
  • Evaluation
  • Organizational Sustainability

Carve out assignments for your team members, knowing that each will review and edit and feed into the main narrative as well.

Whomever is drafting the narrative is not working in a vacuum. That person is hopefully starting from the organization’s strategic plan and building on the organization’s mission and goals.

The main job of the narrative writer is to organize and delve into the details of the how and each step along the path to the goals. The proposal should describe clear goals, activities and tasks you will do toward each goal, the target audience, and the intended impact. Be honest and direct about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and make it clear how you will evaluate the success of your efforts.

Now, back to your team.  Perhaps you had a lead and some other folks (board? staff?) assisting with various sections, or perhaps it was a set of reviewers providing input. No matter how you organized yourselves, the process helped each team member feel pride of ownership, and the end product gave them more guidance in their work.

That’s how you got the multiplier effect of improving and developing staff as they work through drafting and presenting your organization’s proposal to a funder. Throughout, you can be making process improvements and tweaks, and finding and developing leadership qualities in each staffer.

By this time, you have a proposal that can be submitted as a centerpiece of your group’s work. It describes a problem, but puts much more emphasis on your approach to solutions and their execution. In the process, you came away with a tighter team, and more direction and sense of purpose. The support you got from the funder went well beyond the financial benefit. You arrived with stronger leaders and greater skill than ever to go forward. No matter what, make sure to tell the funder how much you grew in the process.

Sami Fournier has a Bend, Oregon-based consulting company called “Element Exercise,” which sounds like a personal training outfit, but actually specializes in grant writing in the field of alternative transportation.  She formerly directed the League of American Bicyclists’ Education programs.   Sami can be reached at elementexercise@gmail.com.   http://www.Elementexercise.com

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Learning to let things go “wrong.”

April 29, 2014

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 5:11 pm

One of the trickier challenges facing a nonprofit Executive Director with supervisory responsibilities is leaning to let things go “wrong.”

If you are to empower your staff to have areas of responsibilities and for them to flex their own leadership, they must be allowed to make mistakes. That means giving them authority to make some decisions without prior authorization.

After the decision with which you disagree, usually that means just accepting it and moving on. Sometimes, the situation may be repeated, so you’ll want to discuss the decision and find out what the staff person being supervised was thinking. This should be done by asking questions designed to understand their thinking rather than starting with: “that was a mistake.”

Even if they come to you for advice, sometimes the right answer is: “here’s my initial instinct, but I haven’t thought about it much and its your area of responsibility, so the call is yours.”

The benefit of this approach isn’t just that it gives junior staff a positive work environment in which they’ll develop more leadership skills. And it isn’t just that highly competent staff are less likely to leave your organization if they are given responsibility.

The benefit of this approach is also about how much time the Executive Director can put into their other duties.  If the Executive Director is weighing in on matters that are really the province of someone else on staff, that means the Executive Director is taking time away from their core responsibilities.  Every minute debating some minor potential “mistake” is a minute taken away from fundraising and other core Executive Director job duties.

Of course, sometimes you do need to intervene — on mistakes that would be serious. And serious is a subjective term.

But all in all, I’ve experienced more examples of Executive Directors who over-manage to ensure everything is perfect than the opposite problem of just letting everything slide.   Bottom line: Executive Directors need to learn to let things go “wrong.”

Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who made his living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to him requesting his work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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Invest in professional development

December 6, 2013

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 10:54 am

A recent Huffington Post blog article focused on the importance of the nonprofit sector investing in professional development. As a whole, the sector has a poor track record in training its employees on effective leadership.  That needs to change.

What I particularly liked about this blog post is it didn’t stop there. Rather, it included some practical tips for how nonprofit employees can take some steps on their own to improve their leaderhip/management skills.

I won’t repeat their recommendations — best for you to read it for yourself.

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