Friday, November 21, 2008

Detroit: A Case Study in Broken Leadership

I have just come back from Detroit for a couple days and I have to say that the spirit in that city is definitely broken. From my talks with the cab driver who picked me up at the airport, to the hotel concierge who told me how to get to Motown (which was not what I had hoped) to the foundation executives whom I met with, everyone I talked to was speaking about the city in very distressed terms. The culture was similar to an individual who has been beaten down time and time again. From scandalous politicians, to closing auto plants to a severely distressed economy, Detroit is suffering.

I began thinking about Detroit in the context of leadership. What could leadership do to assist in this dire circumstance? I think, above all, leadership could have more of a positive effect than any economic injection. Having someone that could throw a vision on the wall and then inspire the city toward that vision would be paramount. Money cannot be the motivator, but surely someone with an eye on a new direction could. Unfortunately, sometimes those people are clouded by the enormity of the challenges.

I also thought about Detroit and how it compares to non-profits in a similar state. The organizations that I see in deep despair are similar, not only because their resources are scarce, the morale is low or leadership is ineffective. More, it is the culture that has been developed by the three converging simultaneously. Breaking past a culture of challenge and failure is harder than winning an organization-saving grant (do these exist?) or bringing on board a new Executive Director. Organizational culture, as it has been described my many non-profit experts, can be the slow death of an organization. Real organizational turnaround cannot happen unless the cancer of a negative organizational culture is reversed.
I hope, for the sake of Detroit, that they can not only find new leadership and inlets for new economic movement, but think the culture will be the largest hurdle to climb.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Transition Matters

For most of the week, since the election of Barack Obama, I have heard some stating that they do not view the world the same way anymore or that America will instantly be viewed by the world in a different light. While I do not subscribe to this point so quickly, I do see some correlations to how this relates to the addition of a new leader of an organization. I remember my stints in leading organizations and how individuals would come up to me and say, "You are going to bring great change to our organization" or I would get several needs for sit down visits for people to discuss their immediate challenges and how I could solve them with a snap of my fingers. I, for a time, was the bright, shiny coin.

Because part of what I do professionally is help organizations in time of transition and change, I can say that I have seen various angles of the shiny stage. Sometimes that time is short and sometimes it is very short. In each case, the more effective the transition the longer my shine stayed. For instance, if my introduction to staff was the only transition point, then I may only have until the end of the week until the natives started to grumble. If I met with a formal transition team and they led me through a mapped out transition, I may have had a couple of months. In all, there was a direct relation between the organization of the transition and the ease for which I was able to relate to internal and external stakeholders.

In looking at the Obama transition (all one week of it), it is apparent that there has been a very organized and thoughtful process regarding transition. A committee has been working on the effort for several months and concrete action steps are being orchestrated to a very tight tune. While it is too early to see how the effects of this effort will play out, it is easier to believe that the transition and early days of Obama's presidency will be positive because of this work. The opposite to this could be seen with some New York City agencies at the time of mayoral transition, where the interruption has caused severe mismanagement of essential city services.

While I try to stay away from telling the nonprofit sector from looking at government and business examples as best practices (some of my colleagues do too much of this), I do think that it would be an interesting exercise for us practitioners to be watching the Obama transition for clues and tools on executive transition. Now all we need is a new puppy.... hypo-allergenic of course.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Board Source Conference Ah-Ha

Last week I was in DC attending the Board Source Leadership Conference. Now, I describe myself as a "Cliff Notes" conference attendee, meaning I like to get in and grab the stuff and then go work in my room. I find myself tired of networking after ten minutes. They are a good ten minutes but I am often incapable of small talk. While I love the nonprofit world, I cannot bring myself to talk about board development for long periods of time. This is one of the biggest pet peeves from my wife as she can have a five hour dinner and I am fine with a good 30 minutes.

In any sense, the conference was very well done. The best session I attended was one that was led by Clara Miller, the leader of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Of course her workshop was on nonprofit finances and that was great but the portion of the training that caught my fancy was the brief discussion she was having on nonprofits view of operating costs (being less than 20%) and having fund diversification. Now, nerdy folk might think this was the interesting part (no offense please as I am part of the nerdy folk) but the most interesting point to me was how the discussion for a small time went to how nonprofit organizations should advocate to funders ( I brought up the point after raising my hand like a 5th Grader) on the problems with the view on operating costs and fund diversification. Ms. Miller stated that there had been a movement to educate funders on this. I had some knowledge of this but frankly thought it was idle chatter. Following the session I immediately went up to Clara and signed up for anything and everything I could do to advocate on this. Maybe the political campaign inspired me as I believe I shouted out, "Yes We Can!" Clara took my card after remembering me as a member of her facebook page and the rather embarrasing picture of me in a full-sized Winnie the Pooh costume.

In all seriousness, the reason I raise this is that I often think leaders in the nonprofit world think leadership is the activity of knowing where the land mines are and avoiding them, with the best leaders being those who show up on the other side of the mine field. Unfortunately, the mine field includes the often unwieldy requests that come from funders. To me, this shows some areas of leadership but mostly it just shows resiliency. The better way to view leadership is the act of removing the mines. Even more, the most successful leaders are those that change the mine field altogether, maybe into a field for all to enjoy. Kickball anyone......