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#391 The Elusiveness of Excellence – We Funders are not Exempt

August 10th, 2020

Richard Marker

A couple of years ago, my accumulated professional careers crossed the half-century mark. Knowing of my untypical journey, a number of people asked if I was planning to write an autobiography. While I don’t believe a full autobiography is warranted, I have written a pamphlet-size retrospective built around lessons learned. It will be published sometime this Autumn.

While writing, I was reminded of a number of influential episodes, some of which are applicable to current developments in the philanthropy world. This is the second such article; you may find it helpful to read #390 prior to this. Others will be posted periodically.

In this article, the applicability to those of us in the philanthropy world comes toward the end.

It was not that many years ago when Jim Collins “Good to Great” and its follow up “Good to Great in the Social Sector” were on everyone’s canon of required reading. It may still be but if so, I am not hearing it spoken about. Primarily built on retrospective examinations of what seemed to characterize those companies [and, subsequently, nonprofits] that have excelled over time, Collins challenged some B-school orthodoxies, and reminded everyone that it takes disciplined work over time to achieve that greatness.

I suspect that the book is less celebrated today because the dozen or more years since its publication have not been particularly kind to all the winners of which he wrote. Now, it is quite true that it was published before the recession of 2008-2010, and certainly before the current upheavals in the economic and social sectors, but many of his lessons are still valid, and worth the read.

When I look at his books from the retrospective of my own career, I see a divergence between what I accomplished as an executive, and how those related to my own personal accomplishments. They are overlapping, but not the same.

Before proceeding with the extrapolations to our philanthropy world, let me share a very significant personal story that made a difference to my own career and to my understanding of what “Good to Great” can really mean.

Many of you know that over the last couple of decades, my skills as a speaker and educator have been celebrated and nicely compensated. Verbally communicating to audiences small or large in 40 countries around the world became a key source of my compensation. I am a proud Legacy member of the National Speakers Association/Global Speakers Federation – membership in which is only open to those who can demonstrate that we are actually paid to speak.

Those who have known me only for the past 23 years may not know that I wasn’t always so excellent at this. My professional life had always required me to speak in public. I was always comfortable doing so, and always thought that I was good at it. Indeed, I had overflowing files of letters thanking me, and I had my share of standing ovations and plaudits. If you had asked me before 1997, I would have said I did it well.

Yet, I often wondered why I wasn’t being invited to give certain speeches that I felt I was as least as appropriate to give as those who were chosen. It was Mirele, to whom I have been joyfully married since 1995 and who knew me in professional contexts even before we became a couple, who set me straight. After we were married, she began to see that I was more frustrated by this than she had realized. Finally, she told me the truth: “If you really want to know, you are not consistently so good. You have great mastery of the content, and wonderful rapport with audiences, but your talks are, well, not consistently great.” [Admittedly this is a paraphrase, but a fair one.]

She said that if I was serious, I should work on my speaking skills. Now this may seem strange, but until that time, I had never had a course in public speaking, and, more important, no one had ever given me negative feedback.

And now we are getting to the crux of the message:

It appears that I was never so bad that it was worth it to anyone to tell me how I could have been better. I was sometimes only “fair”, maybe sometimes “excellent” but mostly “good.” No one had anything at stake in telling me that I could or should have done better. Until Mirele did.

I signed up for a mentoring program at the National Speakers Association and discovered something very quickly – I was undisciplined. I had all of the skills and knowledge and presence and I thought that was enough. But then I learned the discipline of how one organizes a presentation. I discovered that I still talked like an academic even though I had mostly left academia over a decade earlier. People did not want to know how many syllables I could have in every word; they did want to hear stories that illustrated what I was talking about. They didn’t want to be impressed with how much I knew; they did want to know how that knowledge could make a difference to them. [You know the old mantra: “nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.”]

Within 6 months I began to have evidence of the transformation. I started getting invited to more places, but more to the point, invited back! The character of the thank you’ s was markedly different.

I look back on so many squandered opportunities over the years and wince. I asked myself “why didn’t anyone tell me?” If I could go from just “good” to “excellent” in only 6 months, think about what I might have been able to do had someone held a mirror to me, or had the courage to tell me.

And now the message: the only person [other than a loving spouse] who really cares if you go from “good to great” is yourself. If you want to excel, you have to make it clear to others – and safe for others – to tell you! For most others, “good” is good enough. As I said above, what stake do they have in pushing you to excellence? Most of the time, your personal aspiration is at best only incidental to them or their work.

It also made me rethink prior parts of my career: I am pretty confident that I pushed organizations that I headed or was a trustee of to become high quality performers; I am less confident that I helped colleagues and supervisees reach that level in all they ways they could. Or maybe should have.

Having learned that skills and knowledge are insufficient without the discipline to apply them means that one has to work hard to not become complacent. One of my favorite, if embarrassing, cases about my own complacency goes back to a time when we were invited to Buenos Aires to give some lectures. One of the talks was to university students at 10 pm on a Saturday night. Shockingly, it drew a very large crowd – I learned that I was the entertainment before a night of dinner and dancing. Before speaking, I did my homework, and learned the names of all the hot spots that young adults frequented. I peppered my talk with those references, and I was a star! Two years later, we were invited back, but I was complacent and didn’t bother to update those references. They were all passé. And, while the talk was more or less well received, my star quality was seriously diminished. I have been back since for other audiences but not for the young adult crowd. Serves me right.

At the present time, the foundation and philanthropy sector are doing a lot of soul searching about our decision making, about our governance, about our priorities, and about our role in society. Groups such as CEP, NCRP and others are pushing us to go beyond our long-term self-satisfied [and often self-congratulatory] complacency to respond to systemic issues of racism and economic inequity. Impressively, many in our sector are taking these challenges seriously. Good enough is simply not good enough anymore.

The challenge, though, is if we can sustain this attention, momentum, and operational change over time. In the midst of a pandemic of public and of persuasive challenges to the social weal, it is evident that we must respond. But when there is a vaccine or a change in administration or a recognizable sense of normalcy, will we as funders find it all too easy to become complacent? Or will our commitment to endemic and systemic change propel us to internalize the discipline to sustain excellence?

That discipline will prove the harder challenge – one from which we must not back down.

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