Friday, March 20, 2009

Folding Tables Should Be The Table of Choice!

I was sitting in my car today and listening to Bloomberg News talk about the AIG mess, the $10 million dollar office upgrade and the CNBC statement that executives making under $250K cannot run a Wall Street firm. It is easy to see the populist sentiment that would erupt from this and I am working hard at staying away from AM talk dial to avoid my blood pressure from rising.
The one statement I thought it was interesting in all the "hub-bub" was some animated pundit in support of the business office upgrade stated, "What are they supposed to do, sit at folding tables?!!!!". This immediately made me think of all the clients I have or the site visits I have done where the table of choice for the organization is a folding table. Let's call these organizations, "Folding Table" organizations.
I think corporate groups like AIG and others could really learn a great deal from "Folding Table Organizations, (FTO's if we need another acronymm). FTO's could impart the following:
  • FTO's really make a dollar out of 15 cents. These groups, in many instances, have helped stave off and improve conditions in our most distressed communities. I think corporate CFO's should shadow FTO financial people for a day. I am sure they would learn a great deal about how to use resources.
  • FTO's are often the best are forming real win-win partnerships on a shoe string. For all we hear from foundations on how CBOs should partner more effectively, which is a goal that should always be perfected, follow a participant from a social service agency for a day. See how one participant will receive ESL classes one hour from one organization, a job counseling session from another organization the next hour and a physical check-up by a health clinic in hour three. This is through great partnerships and is often brushed off or not talked of.
  • FTO's could teach corporate america on a variety of subjects including diversity, organizational loyalty and non-financial reward best practices. Spend a day observing an FTO from a human resource perspective and you will quickly realize that the level in which groups are able to acheive in motivating their employees, many long-serving and from many different areas, to reach their difficult missions.

Now I am not suggesting that FTOs do not have their troubles, as they do and they are often immense. But, I do think that the often loud notion that FTO's should feel lucky to be in the presence of corporate america is flawed. It should be a reversed belief as I think the AIGs of the world could certainly learn from FTOs.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Riding Out The Storm

This article entitled "Riding Out The Storm" is from my good friend, Pat Nichols, a transition management consultant in the Washington D.C. area.

"Many organizations around the world, for-profit and non, will not survive the current economic storm. Some of those that do not will be of substantial size and repute. Many will be doing good work. All will employ good people whose lives will be painfully disrupted.

Some will die because decisions already made left them too vulnerable to survive, no matter what their leaders do in response to the crisis (Countrywide Financial and some of the nonprofits who invested with Bernard Madoff are examples). More, however, will have some chance of survival and that survival will rest upon the wit and wisdom of their leadership.

Having led or advised nearly 20 organizations through major, often life threatening transitions, I would like to offer four observations on the kind of “transition leadership” that might help other organizations survive. (I will discuss two here and two in a subsequent memo.) These thoughts, I suspect, transcend the sectors, though they will require adaptations to each.

Put the mission first: First, transition leadership requires that we put the mission first, always first, building a renewed sense of teamwork around the values it implies. People live and work, in large part, for meaning and for values; they work to add significance to their lives. Some, sadly, find that significance largely from the status that money brings and the adornments it can provide. Most, I am convinced, do not; or would not if their leaders were offering a sufficient opportunity to find broader social or spiritual value in their work.

Creating such meaning is, on the surface, easier for a civic sector and government organizations, to which people are drawn explicitly by mission. However, I would predict that for-profits that engender a sense of mission (I think immediately of Southwest Airlines and Apple Computer) will perform better, on average, than their more mercenary competitors.

One challenge for nonprofits, on the other hand, is remembering that, when tough choices must be made, mission should triumph even over loyalty to colleagues. People work to serve the mission, not to have the mission serve them; so the organization must sometimes face the severing of important, and personal, ties in order to advance that mission.

Character and integrity: Second, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of character and integrity, listening to and valuing diverse perspectives and talents. Some of these standards will vary with the values of the organization. (Teach for America or a biotech company will value experimentation and risk taking more than a hospital or an accounting firm). Some, though, will have broad application in a crisis. For instance:

· Be transparent and engage everyone—Crises are inherently unsettling. Leadership cannot guarantee an outcome. What we can do is ensure that information and participation are widely shared.

· Move quickly but systematically—In the absence of a known destination there is comfort in knowing how we will chart it and that no time is being wasted.

· Be hopeful in style and rigorous in analysis—This is a very difficult balance to strike. As leaders we must both set a hopeful tone and acknowledge, to others, and ourselves the magnitude of the challenge. To do otherwise undermines our credibility at the time we need it most.

· Live with ambiguity, acknowledge uncertainty—The need to acknowledge uncertainty doesn’t end with the description of the situation, it extends to the limitations of the choices we make. In crises, especially, we will be acting on incomplete and imperfect information. We will make assumptions and decisions that will prove mistaken. Acknowledging this is crucial not only to our credibility but to our ability to see our mistakes and adjust our course.

· Let it hurt; salve the hurt of others—As leaders in a crisis we must make decisions that are painful to us and to our colleagues. Those decisions should be painful to us. It is a mark of our caring about our colleagues. We must focus our attention on making and explaining them in ways that are sensitive and responsible.

The other two elements of transition leadership are that the organization should move forcefully and, at the same time, experimentally and that we share and celebrate success. I will soon send a second dispatch offering further thoughts on these elements.

In the meantime, best wishes to your organization in remaining sea worthy. "
Well said, Pat!