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Posts from the ‘Leadership’ Category

#344 Updated -Non-Profit Leadership and Staffing: in Response to Chronicle, Sept 2019

September 12th, 2019

Richard Marker

Upon returning from a recent vacation, I saw that the lead article in the current Chronicle of Philanthropy addresses issues of staffing, retention, and compensation in the non-profit sector. This posting, partially revised, from 7 July 2019 speaks to some of those issues and includes a few practical suggestions not mentioned in the Chronicle article. I hope these will be welcome additions to an important discourse. We funders must recognize the essential nature of quality staffing to accomplish the extraordinarily important work we enable. I particularly call your attention to sections #3, 4, 5, and 7.
…..

A colleague recently expressed surprise that I had not submitted a response to an RFP for leadership training for a foundation board that was posted prominently by a national philanthropy organization. I demurred saying that I really am not an expert on “leadership.” The colleague’s response was pretty strong: “Are you kidding? Of course, you are” and went on to remind me of my own career path.

My professional world over the last quarter century has been fully in the area of grantmaking, funder education, and advising funders and families about how to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions. But the colleague reminded me that I have a long history of volunteer leadership roles, and professional work advising and teaching foundation leadership around the world, and, also have held senior executive and supervisory roles. I acknowledged that I had both relevant experience and some well-developed thoughts about leadership.

For what it is worth, I calculated that, over the course of my career, I have served on at least 60 boards and chaired 12. [It is a role I relish and would be delighted to join additional foundation boards.] Moreover, when I was an executive, I supervised many dozens of professionals and organizations around the world. While I am in the autumn of my career and these roles have been reduced, there are some learnings that have emerged along the way – a few of which may be worth sharing here.

1. I learned early on that there are 2 types of leadership – “ascribed” and “earned.” The former emerges out of “position” – and is often top down; the latter is what others attribute to you independent of the formal “position.” One would like to think that one can hold both roles simultaneously, but it doesn’t automatically follow and isn’t easy.

2. Being CEO or a professional supervisor carries a certain authority. Indeed, one has that ascribed position because there is assumed confidence that one can lead a business, organization, or foundation or some part of one. When one does this well, the staff, board, other stakeholders, and peers all respect the culture, style, and vision of the leader. This confidence must be earned. Without it, a leader has power but only ambivalent or reluctant followers or employees.

3. The empowerment and enfranchisement of others is typically the most effective long-term way to earn that respect. Top-down exercise of power or charismatic style may work for a while, but it rarely inspires genuine long-term loyalty or deep-seated respect. And they certainly do not cultivate future leadership and decision making, indispensable attributes for the long-term viability of any business or organization. [If you see me, ask me about my sobering discovery, very early in my career, about the flaws of charismatic leadership.]

4. The courage to stand for values in the face of organizational challenges is often a measure of how deeply a leader is committed to earning that role. Organizational change matters, and is always disruptive, but when those changes are only because it may be popular or because a few more powerful folks demand it, it may be expeditious but rarely efficacious. [A personal note: Much to my real surprise, in recent months several people told me that what they remember most about my various leadership roles – both as a professional and as a volunteer leader – were the times I stood fast on principle, or told “truth to power” – even when it was unpopular or at professionally cost/risk. Those anecdotes have touched me deeply.]

In this context, perhaps it is important to give an illustration: When I became CEO of a regional non-profit based in Chicago in 1982, I learned that not only was my salary low by any comparative local and national standard, but every single staff person’s salary was way below their comparable standards – and those standards themselves were barely manageable. The board thought that they were paying normal salaries. When I demonstrated the discrepancies, they offered to immediately bring my salary up to national norms. I asked if everyone’s salary would be raised and they said no. I refused to accept my increase until the entire staff received an appropriate increase. It took a full year, but it happened. I wonder what kind of leadership credibility I would have had if I had been the only beneficiary of a much-deserved salary correction!!!!

I also insisted that the increase was not to be a one-time bonus but rather an adjustment to everyone’s base salary. Otherwise annual incremental increases would be calculated on a much lower base.

5. If having a moral compass matters a lot, leadership also requires a profound empathy. That empathy needs to be manifest to those whom one leads. In these days of attention to staff retention and cultivation, perhaps two very concrete examples [of many techniques I used] will illustrate:

a. Career Pathing: When I was a CEO or supervisory executive, I offered to meet with every professional every year to help update their resumes. Why? Well, for one, virtually every professional thinks about his/her next career step; I know I did. Why should I begrudge that ambition in others? No, I didn’t want those colleagues to leave but even more I didn’t want them sneaking around thinking they were disloyal. An unintended consequence was that I often learned that many professionals were 80-90% satisfied but one element of their job was really bothering them. By switching that one assignment with another professional with a different set of priorities, both could be more gratified in their work, and remain longer than they originally intended.

b. Professional Development: In the non-profit sphere, personnel is almost always the largest budget line. So, if there are budget pressures, that is the first place to turn. One line that always seemed vulnerable was the one for professional development. Yet I knew that it was invaluable to the long-term strength of any organization as well as to the growth of individuals within it. Therefore, working with board leadership, we moved that item from being a separate budget line to an assured personnel benefit – in the same category as health benefits. It demonstrated our commitment to how important this was and protected it from budget cutters who saw conferences and staff training as a dispensable luxury item.

6. Effective leadership requires another balancing act as well: keeping an eye on the long term while understanding the daily demands on all elements of one’s organization or business. A visionary who only sees the future may appear charismatic but can often undercut those who need to do the work. One who is only committed to the daily organizational needs may be an outstanding Operating Officer, but rarely can lead the organization into the vagaries and potentialities of the future. This combination of skills and attributes is rarely easy, but, when achieved, it is the mark of outstanding and exemplary leadership.

7. Culture is the grout that holds the organizational edifice together. For example, espousing empowerment and then overruling decisions is likely to inspire only safe behaviors and discourage risk taking. Bragging about staff quality and then always hiring from outside for key positions erodes loyalty and casts doubt on your sincerity. Endorsing the need for equity yet continuing to pay differential salaries to women or minorities is suspect at best. When there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, there is an erosion of “earned” leadership that not only weakens the leader but takes a toll on the business or organization as well.

It is trite to say that leadership is both an art and a science. Typically, it is hard not because of our intentions but because of our blind spots – every single one of us has them.

As we look around the world today, we find a resurgence of a destructive, non-empathetic, self-satisfying leadership, and not only here in the USA. Whether because of blind spots or megalomania, they are the wrong kinds of leaders for long term societal thriving, and a counterproductive paradigm of good leadership. Someday, soon I hope, they will be replaced.

In the meantime, whether on the national, local, or organizational level, leadership informed by these insights learned over 5 decades may help advise the next generations of leaders in every sector.

#344 Some Musings about Leadership – Perhaps a bit overdue

July 7th, 2019

Richard Marker

A colleague recently expressed surprise that I had not submitted a response to an RFP for leadership training for a foundation board that was posted prominently by a national philanthropy organization. I demurred saying that I really am not an expert on “leadership.” The colleague’s response was pretty strong: “Are you kidding? Of course you are” and went on to remind me of my own career path.

My professional world over the last quarter century has been fully in the area of grantmaking, funder education, and advising funders and families about how to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions. But the colleague reminded me that I have a long history of volunteer leadership roles, and professional work advising and teaching foundation leadership around the world, and senior executive and supervisory roles. I acknowledged that I had both relevant experience and some well-developed thoughts about leadership.

For what it is worth, I calculated that, over the course of my career, I have served on at least 60 boards and chaired 12. [It is a role I relish and would be delighted to join additional foundation boards.] Moreover, when I was an executive, I supervised dozens of professionals and organizations around the world. While I am in the autumn of my career and these roles have been reduced, there are some learnings that have emerged along the way – a few of which may be worth sharing here.

1. I learned early on that there are 2 types of leadership – “ascribed” and “earned.” The former emerges out of “position” – and is often top down; the latter is what others attribute to you independent of the formal “position.” One would like to think that one can hold both roles simultaneously, but it doesn’t automatically follow and isn’t easy.

2. Being CEO or a professional supervisor carries a certain authority. Indeed, one has that ascribed position because there is assumed confidence that one can lead a business, organization, or foundation or some part of one. When one does this well, the staff, board, other stakeholders, and peers all respect the culture, style, and vision of the leader. This confidence must be earned. Without it, a leader has power but only ambivalent or reluctant followers or employees.

3. The empowerment and enfranchisement of others is typically the most effective long-term way to earn that respect. Top-down exercise of power or charismatic style may work for a while, but it rarely inspires genuine long-term loyalty or deep-seated respect. And they certainly do not cultivate future leadership and decision making, indispensable attributes for the long-term viability of any business or organization. [If you see me, ask me about my sobering discovery, very early in my career, about the flaws of charismatic leadership.]

4. The courage to stand for values in the face of organizational challenges is often a measure of how deeply a leader is committed to earning that role. Organizational change matters, and is always disruptive, but when those changes are only because it may be popular or because a few more powerful folks demand it, it may be expeditious but rarely efficacious. [A personal note: Much to my real surprise, in recent months several people told me that what they remember most about my various leadership roles – both as a professional and as a volunteer leader – were the times I stood fast on principle, or told “truth to power” – even when it was unpopular or at professionally cost/risk. Those anecdotes have touched me deeply.]

5. If having a moral compass matters a lot, leadership also requires a profound empathy. That empathy needs to be manifest to those whom one leads. In these days of attention to staff retention and cultivation, perhaps two very concrete examples [of many techniques I used] will illustrate:

a. Career Pathing: When I was a CEO or supervisory executive, I offered to meet with every professional every year to help update their resumes. Why? Well, for one, virtually every professional thinks about his/her next career step; I know I did. Why should I begrudge that ambition in others? No, I didn’t want those colleagues to leave but even more I didn’t want them sneaking around thinking they were disloyal. An unintended consequence was that I often learned that many professionals were 80-90% satisfied but one element of their job was really bothering them. By switching that one assignment with another professional with a different set of priorities, both could be more gratified in their work, and remain longer than they originally intended.

b. Professional Development: In the non-profit sphere, personnel is almost always the largest budget line. So, if there are budget pressures, that is the first place to turn. One line that always seemed vulnerable was the one for professional development. Yet I knew that it was invaluable to the long-term strength of any organization as well as to the growth of individuals within it. Therefore, working with board leadership, we moved that item from being a separate budget line to an assured personnel benefit – in the same category as health benefits. It demonstrated our commitment to how important this was and protected it from budget cutters who saw conferences and staff training as a dispensable luxury item.

6. Effective leadership requires another balancing act as well: keeping an eye on the long term while understanding the daily demands on all elements of one’s organization or business. A visionary who only sees the future may appear charismatic but can often undercut those who need to do the work. One who is only committed to the daily organizational needs may be an outstanding Operating Officer, but rarely can lead the organization into the vagaries and potentialities of the future. This combination of skills and attributes is rarely easy, but, when achieved, it is the mark of outstanding and exemplary leadership.

7. Culture is the grout that holds the organizational edifice together. For example, espousing empowerment and then overruling decisions is likely to inspire only safe behaviors and discourage risk taking. Bragging about staff quality and then always hiring from outside for key positions erodes loyalty and casts doubt on your sincerity. Endorsing the need for equity yet continuing to pay differential salaries to women or minorities is suspect at best. When there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, there is an erosion of “earned” leadership that not only weakens the leader but takes a toll on the business or organization as well.

It is trite to say that leadership is both an art and a science. Typically, it is hard not because of our intentions but because of our blind spots – every single one of us has them.

As we look around the world today, we find a resurgence of a destructive, non-empathetic, self-satisfying leadership, and not only here in the USA. Whether because of blind spots or megalomania, they are the wrong kinds of leaders for long term societal thriving, and a counterproductive paradigm of good leadership. Someday, soon I hope, they will be replaced.

In the meantime, whether on the national, local, or organizational level, I believe that leadership informed by these insights learned over 5 decades may help advise the next generations of leaders in every sector.

#343 – Dancing on the Head of a Pin or the Edge of a Sword

July 3rd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is not about philanthropy; those who subscribe only for our commentary on philanthropy topics may want to take a pass. But the subject matter in this post is timely, so it might be worth a read anyway.

When I was an academic, and then again as a quondam theologian, the discourse often was admired or denigrated as a calculation of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When I left those worlds, I discovered that problem solving mattered more. I was struck by that dialectic last week when I attended a modestly historic event in Paris in international interreligious relations.

The context: In a volunteer capacity, I have been involved in inter-group and inter-religious matters for my entire adult life. Over the last 2 decades, most of those involvements have been on the international level – having had the honor of serving several elected leadership roles.

One of those chair-ships was of the Board of World Religious Leaders, a biennial think tank of leaders from 6 world religions, including some whose names you would certainly recognize. [When elected, I pointed out that all the rest were leaders of followers; I was just a leader of leaders.] That role has taken me to many countries and led to extraordinary friendships with remarkable individuals whose knowledge, passion, and transcendent empathy underscore the universality of religion, even while affirming the uniqueness of their/our own.

This post, though, emerges from another past chair-ship, that of a unique consortium in the Jewish world, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. For those of you who may never have heard of IJCIC, it is the official consortium representing the world Jewish community – including the major denominations and community relations organizations – to other world religious bodies such as the Vatican, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Christian Orthodoxy, and many more. It has been around since 1971.

Two decades ago, IJCIC split with one of those world bodies, the World Council of Churches. Suffice it to say that the reasons were real, but as time went on, it also became clear that it was time to see if it would be possible to get beyond that schism. Those discussions began in 2012 and continued on a behind-the-scenes level since. Last week, in Paris, I am pleased to say, the WCC and IJCIC formally reestablished our relationship. Our hope is that, even when there will be inevitable divergence of points of view, there is now a more open and solid communication to prevent that regrettable 2-decade schism from recurring.

The atmosphere surrounding our meeting is a changed world that neither Jews nor Christians can dismiss or ignore. Our topic, “The Normalization of Hatred” was not pure rhetoric. By any statistical measure, there is more anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti- Muslim behavior and speech than at any time since World War II. And as antinomian nativism surfaces dangerously throughout the world, religious leaders may not be silent, or passive.

If we cannot be silent, what words can suffice?

What emerged was a delicate balance of how to articulate the fear and vulnerability that is now a daily reality for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in so many places. Composing a communiqué that was credible and comprehensible was not easy. For example, does the word “Islamophobia” adequately convey the irrational and irresponsible hatred of Muslims or need we find an alternative way to express that? Or, has the word “antisemitism” been used so much that, in the face of a frightening surge, even in the USA, some disagree on its proper definitions? And what word should we now use to describe a hatred of Christians that see them murdered in prayer?

Our meetings last week were not characterized by disagreement between the Jewish or Christian leaders on the facts or their horrendous implications. However, there was no immediate consensus among the individual attendees about how precise our word choices need to be. Some comments reminded me of my academic years alluded to above, when precision was the only credible way to speak, when anything stated or written must be defensible against any challenge. Others were more committed to expressing our current dystopian reality in ways affirming the aspirational ideals of our respective religious traditions; our Traditions must convey a vision of a better and more inclusive future rather than surrendering to the nihilism that surrounds us. And still others felt that the most recognizable words were the most effective to the largest numbers. “Islamophobia” may be an insufficient word to describe the hatred and abundance of unacceptable hate-actions against Muslims, but it has become the most recognized statement. The definitions of antisemitism may be arguable, but there is little doubt that, by any definition, it is there, and growing, and anti-Jewish behaviors are no longer isolated.

This last group argued, persuasively, that the urgency of the moment takes precedence over academic type precision. This, despite the awareness that there has been a weaponization of this complex shorthand vocabulary by some in order to silence the voices for good and to distort the reality of the dangers we all face.

The WCC and IJCIC, dedicated ourselves not only to restoring a relationship that honors our respective traditions, but also to being assertive voices, together, to a world that needs our commitment to action more than our precision of words. Our group, wisely I think, decided that the edge of the sword poses more of a danger than counting the angels on the head of a pin can solve.

#324 – November 9, 1989 – A Retrospective

November 16th, 2018

Richard Marker

This replaces a prior version of this post that was posted with errors. Apologies.

I didn’t plan it that way, but events have a way of happening. So, it was that I found myself in Berlin on 9 November 1989.

The trip changed my life [and, of course, much of the world.].

I was in Germany as a guest of what was then West Germany. A small group of young-ish [today, we would call us emergent] Jewish leaders was invited for 3 weeks to demonstrate how the nation had dealt with its shameful past and the underlying values that defined the new Germany.

The content of the trip was fascinating. Quite appropriately, it included powerful exploration of Holocaust places and remembrances. It introduced us to how education about the nadir of civilization was being taught to all school students, how there is now a policy of the military that enables, indeed mandates, resistance to immoral orders. And, perhaps most telling, it began to show how a nation was moving from memory to myth – how that terrible period will be understood long after those with direct memory are no more.

The trip, though, was not only about The Shoah. It reminded us that Jews lived in Germany for 2000 years. We saw the birthplace of what is known as Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhine Valley. We visited the birthplaces of Modern Jewry – both Reform and Neo [Modern] Orthodoxy. And much more.

Jews were not suddenly transported to Germany in 1932 to experience the Holocaust; rather there was a long,, complex, and often thriving and robust diaspora there for a long time.

And lest we think that this was only a trip of parochial interest, I have a folio from the Gutenberg printing press in Mainz in our personal collection. We sat in the home of Beethoven’s birth. And more.

And we also saw the great Wall dividing the “free” West from the Soviet East. That divide meant almost certain death for any daring to cross it. Armed GDR troops on one side had their fingers on the triggers, and the armies of 3 other powers were on the alert on the other. That was visible and palpable all the way through the morning of 9 November.
It was coincidence that I remained for a few days after the conclusion of our program. So it was that I was in Berlin that day. Today, few remember that the militaries were all on full alert. The end of the GDR was clearly in the offing. But none were confident that it would be a peaceful end. Truth be told, that no sergeant lost his cool was the real miracle of that historic day.

My own life, as I said, was changed by that – both professionally and personally. As an American, never again could I revert to the provincialism of seeing my world as disconnected to that which was happening across the Pond. And, as a Jew, never again could I view our existence in simplistic terms. History, politics, identities are all interwoven – and that trip brought that complexity to the fore. It became a defining element of my own persona, and my professional work.

The world seemed very binary at that time. When the Wall fell, optimism for a new, different, and better era seemed inevitable. We were confident that the liberties and freedoms, and even the economic success we took for granted in the West would soon become universal. Prosperity and enfranchisement for all. It was just a matter of investment, planning… and learning.

Well, 3 decades have shown us how elusive and illusory that romantic optimism was. We have witnessed nationalist and ethnic backlashes. We have seen that greed, selfishness, and myopia have made sharing the wealth of the developed world with those still in need seem Sisyphean. And, we have learned that painful lesson that not all share our vision of a world with liberties and justice for all – regardless of race, gender, religion, or national origin.

I write this for publication the week of this auspicious anniversary. Looking back now, these days and in this week, as an American, as a Jew, as a student of history, I realize the fragility of civil society, the brevity of memory, and the destructive hubris of leaders motivated by xenophobic rage,

History teaches us to be vigilant. Germany wasn’t – and we weren’t – and it took millions of lives and a radical change in world order to recover from that silence. Today the stakes are even higher. The earth’s climate change is an existential challenge to all human beings. Technology doesn’t allow any but the fiction of isolationism. And the deepest-seated cynicism toward institutions means that too many are simply unwilling to invest any energies in preserving a democratic society – not just in the USA but in too many places.

Looking back, the Fall of the Wall did not usher in an era of guaranteed freedoms and prosperity for all. It did usher in a time of great challenges – and choices. I am trying hard not to be trite, but if there was ever a time to learn from the past, an historic moment with much to teach us, and with moral values that need to infuse our thinking, this is it.

#286 Exit Strategies – 10 Strategies for Successful Leadership Change

July 11th, 2017

Richard Marker

Readers, students, and clients all know that I urge all funders to take “exit strategies” seriously as an indispensable component of effective grantmaking. A workshop on this subject is a popular unit of our courses and a frequently requested conference presentation.

An attendee of one of those conferences who did not attend my session had heard that I had spoken about exit strategies and contacted me to see if I would share the PPT. While I was open to do so, I learned that her interest was not about exit strategies for their grantmaking but her own. Approaching retirement, she was looking for guidelines to help the foundation she headed have a smooth transition to a successor.

In reviewing my funder exit strategies guidelines, it was clear that only some of those apply to personnel changes, and for those that do, it is only by extrapolation. Nevertheless, I realized, I myself have been in her position, or supervised or advised many others who were transitioning and I wondered if I had learned anything. [One of the advantages of having had 5 careers is that there is a collection of unsystematic but suggestive data worth looking at.]

Some of the following strategies are from the perspective of the one transitioning; others reflect the perspective of the organization. Together they provide a blueprint for effective leadership transitions:

1. There is no perfect time to leave. There is always more to do and something not yet done. Most in the private sector take that for granted; those in the non-for-profit sector often take leadership responsibilities so seriously that we feel a sense of guilt that we haven’t finished, or a sense of annoyance that the leader hasn’t completed some key part of the work. Gradually – probably belatedly – I came to see, if I had finished, the job wouldn’t have been big enough. Projects can finish, organizations rarely do.

2. Everyone is replaceable [with the possible exception of a brand-new startup fully dependent on the creative innovations of a single individual. Much to say about that, but not in this posting.] Those who believe that they are not replaceable are probably leaving the organizations in a needlessly fragile place. Our replacements may not look like us, sound like us, do like us, lead like us, or even dream like us, but they may be exactly the right person to take the organization to levels of accomplishment we hadn’t imagined, or, if we are honest, correct for our weaknesses that had been masked or overlooked by our hard-won successes.

3. Charisma is a Fragile Leadership Style. Therefore, our leadership style, from the very beginning, needs to be committed to building an organization stronger than the one we inherited, with viable bench strength and empowered decision making. I have told this next story previously, but in this context, it is worth re-telling.

Very early in my career, when I was still in grad school in the late 60’s, I had a part-time position on a university campus. I was charged with overseeing and developing a student/faculty group. Lo these many years later it is hard even for me to believe, but I somehow developed a guru leadership style. Groupies followed me around. Big crowds came to our events. It was a different era and I thought I was doing something new and noteworthy. While I was in no way abusive [and decades later, I feel comfortable saying that], it was a very personality centered leadership model that had no sustainability. When I completed my graduate studies and I accepted a prestigious full-time position elsewhere, everything collapsed immediately.

I was crushed. I promised myself that I would never again use a cult of personality leadership style and would always err on the side of empowerment and decentralization. I daresay that in many subsequent leadership roles, that worked.

Leadership too based on the power of one charismatic individual is the most fragile model and least adaptive to successful succession and transition. [When this does exist, and we all know that it does, it typically calls for some sort of interim or transitional system to get an organization on track.]

4. So is a Bureaucratic One. If charismatic style is not ideal, a strictly bureaucratic one isn’t either. An organization needs to be encouraged to reach beyond its grasp and dream beyond its limits. Hopefully, that ethos is ever present, but it certainly needs to be a part of any succession planning. A leader should model that visioning but may not monopolize it. Transition is an ideal time for the articulation of those visions and dreams among all levels of an organization since it can motivate and inform subsequent decision making.

It is tempting for well-run organizations to look to “stay the course” at a time of leadership transition. That sounds easy, but should be adopted with some care. Any leadership change is itself a kind of intervention even when an organization chooses not to change radically or adjust its priorities. Even a well-groomed successor is not a clone and even a successful organization needs to decide if it wants to affirm what it has done or if this is the perfect time to try one of the roads not yet taken.

5. Step Away but Don’t Disappear. This next point calls for a very tricky and delicate balance: when planning to step down, a leader needs to begin stepping away from decisions that will be implemented after the succession. That is not the same, though, as being “out of there” too quickly. Genuine discussions with top board and staff about this question can mark the difference between a smooth and honored transition and one surrounded by a sense of abandonment.

6. Be “Out-going”. Organizations often have genuine and authentic affection for the contributions of their long-time leader. Wouldn’t it be great to have her around a while longer? Maybe give him an office, and an “advisory” role? As a rule, not a great idea. There will be a new leader and that leader needs space, emotionally and physically and organizationally. One would hope that open channels will continue to exist for the times when the new leader seeks advice, but at a distance. Stakeholders at every level should know and see that a change has happened and if the optics and semiotics convey that it may not have, it is very easy to set up a counterproductive dynamic that hampers the new leader and hobbles the organization. [I know that there have been exceptions that have worked very well, but one should enter into those arrangements with great caution and care. The trade-off of the positive of institutional memory vs the negative of controlling from the metaphoric grave can be very real.]

7. Allow Time to be “New.” For all of the planning by the outgoing leader and board, a new person needs time and space to be new. My advice to new professionals, at any level, has always been “you are only new once.” There are questions one can ask, conversations that one can have, and people one can approach with a most open agenda only when one is new. After 6 months or so, it is assumed that the new person has his or her own ideas, opinions, reactions, and recommendations. Moreover, it is often awkward to reach out after 6 months or so and then say, “I have been here for 6 months; sorry we haven’t spoken yet.” Boards need to build in an acceptance of a certain amount of time for that kind of discovery. The outgoing leader needs to resist the temptation to say, “I could have told you, why didn’t you ask me first?” New people need to have their own relationships, their own opinions, and their own business model.

8. Document. Outgoing leaders owe it to their successors and to their organizations to document procedures, time lines, and any other operational matters. The likelihood is that long-time leaders have so internalized many procedures that they may not even think to commit these matters to a memo. But it is not fair to a new executive or the organization you are leaving for them to miss a filing deadline or a key communal meeting or some other “do it all the time” matter because it was so ingrained in you that you didn’t think to document it.

It is often useful for an outgoing leader to sit with a key administrative person and other executives to review the documentation and time lines. [This is not about human resource matters that, of course, need to be handled according to confidential protocols, but are about the operations of an organization.] Having overseen or supervised many transitions, I can attest that errors of omission are the norm, not the exception.

9. Board Role. The board should have a transition committee to oversee the transition. This may or may not be the selection committee or the executive committee. Since any outgoing professional had competing claims and expectations, and any new professional has even more, there needs to be a committee with authority to endorse what is to be done by whom and when, and to run interference with those who have legitimate competing preferences.

10. Public Positioning. A key part of the transition process is what is said to the public and when. Once upon a time it was possible to keep information fully quiet. Today, the number of stakeholders involved in and impacted by any not-for-profit, and the ubiquity of social networking makes such secrecy impossible. Therefore, the public stance of any transition should be planned early and information presented pro-actively. It makes it possible to respect the outgoing leader, obviate any rumors about the transition, and give helpful information about the succession and successor.

This list does not present a time line since situations can vary so widely. Moreover, there are two very specific situations that require special attention and, therefore, require more customized responses to the general recommendations listed in this post. One is when a foundation shifts from donor/family led to professionally directed. The second is when a non-profit organization shifts from being founder directed to a successor. These are rarely straightforward matters of leadership succession and require a very different, and often very sensitive planning process.

Thank you to my unmet foundation colleague for her query on leadership exit strategies. I appreciate that she encouraged me to offer these thoughts. I invite others to add to or fine tune this list of recommendations.

#284 Leadership Development Programs; Are Funders too Elitist in our Approach?

June 28th, 2017

Richard Marker

Leadership development programs abound. It is a rare week when we don’t read of another one sponsored by an impressive organization and funded by one or more foundations and philanthropists.

Why not? If we want to make change, isn’t it best to invest in leaders, either current or potential? Is there a more efficient way than to buy into the “multiplier effect”?

If we want innovation, isn’t the mantra to invest in people, not programs?

If we want to have inspired institutions, don’t we need inspired and inspiring leaders?

And more. Not everyone in our field funds this way, of course, but it is fair to say that the dominant approach to funding change is to do so around leadership models.

A closer look reveals something even more telling. Selected a.k.a. future or emerging or young leaders are very often the very same ones who were selected for the last leadership training, and very likely will be selected for the next one. Once on the inside track, it becomes a prestige express. Organizations and funders jump on the winner bandwagons.

Don’t misunderstand: I believe that there is a great need for training leaders. Indeed, two of them radically changed the trajectory of my professional life: a year-long executive management program of the Sloan Foundation in 1980-81 and a three-week program of the German government in 1989. Moreover, I have been involved in the funding of and teaching in several first-rate ones.

But, a recent conversation with the head of a successful and growing international NGO made me realize how funders too often become enamored by a single approach. This NGO, which has been around for about 40 years, prides itself on developing programs and leadership from the grass-roots up. The very decision to have a professional coordinate the international organization was controversial and culturally challenging. When s/he came to me, he/she shared a dilemma. Funders didn’t think that their leadership development program was professional enough.

It wasn’t for me to assess whether or not that perception was accurate, but it did make me wonder: is the professionalism of their leadership development program a true metric of their success? If an organization has been around for 4 decades, is expanding, and utilizes a ground up approach and not a top-down one, it seems to me that that is something to celebrate and model, not something to change and put into a pre-conceived box just because we funders buy into a preconceived concept of organizational development.

It also seems that a model of developing an educated populace may be just the model we need at this time in history. It may be that there has been too much of an erosion in the development of caring, interconnected communities, with pluralist values, and a shared commitment to an inclusive future. Ya’ think?

The above-mentioned NGO is built around educational values, multiple sources of learning, a sense that the whole can only exist when the disparate parts are in sync [but they don’t have to be in agreement.] Their paradigm is to create space for all, even when that challenges, and to recognize that leadership must be earned, not ascribed. They have expanded because these core values have been adapted to cultures in many communities and countries. Civility is mandated as a non-negotiable ethos.

Not a bad model I would say.

To be fair, not all funders have ignored the need to fund civil society from the ground up. There are a growing number of examples that surface in the news bulletins and journals from which most of us get our news. But there continue to be even more announcements of all sorts of leadership programs that are targeted to the already accomplished. [So that no one misunderstands: I am not advocating a “know-nothing” vacuous populism; I am suggesting that we need to cultivate populations that care carefully, make educated judgements, and insist on a commitment to the social weal and humaneness as guiding principles.]

There is room for us to continue to create and fund leadership programs, but perhaps it is time that our funding priorities swing to those who comprise our communities, not just those whom we fund to lead them.

Words Matter #3 – A Plea to Colleagues

March 28th, 2016

Richard Marker

“Everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it” has been attributed to so many historical figures that I dare not choose which one. Properly self- chastened, I am nevertheless returning to the urgent and imperative need to plea for a restoration of civility in public discourse, civic values, and communal behavior, and, in this post, our role in that.

As America and much of the world descends into a frightening and self-destructive path, none of us is exempt from doing what we can to restore some modicum of equilibrium and humanity to the national and international weal. Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me be clear about my own political commitments: nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, demonization of Islam, misogyny, xenophobia, demagoguery, and mean spirited personal attacks are abhorrent, and have no place at all in this year’s or any other campaign, or indeed in any credible and responsible public discourse. That they have any standing at all in the public space at this time is a sign of a cancer in the body politic.

Alas, my two earlier attempts to address these matters last summer didn’t have any more impact than those of many more influential and widely recognized leaders. And since I am not so naïve to believe that this post will touch the magic button among millions who need to hear it and heed it, I am restricting my audience to three groups of which I am a part where I can speak not “to” as an outsider, but “with” as an insider. Each one of these constituencies has something distinctive to contribute to the importance and value of words. Should others find these thoughts of value, that would be a bonus.

Professional speakers:

I discovered that “speaker” was a professional designation relatively late in my career. I only learned of the National Speakers Association/Global Speakers Federation about 19 years ago – and became a professional member a year or so later. Few of my fellow NSA members around the world share an expertise in philanthropy, to be sure, but the vast majority of us take our craft and responsibility quite seriously. After all, we are paid to use our voices and our words to influence change. Most of us, I believe, accept our charge with great humility, even if our public persona is one that projects confidence and assuredness.

Some have argued that politics is not our business. And while I concur that we may not be politicians, we are people who make our living through our words and speech. And thus our responsibility in this role has never been greater. We must model how to use words, public space, and roles of influence in ways that inform and shape both the possibilities and limits of how one uses those words and speech. As so many political aspirants have abused, badly abused, this unique space – with horrendous consequences, our modeling of a different and more responsible way is a veritable mandate.

Religious Leaders:

I rarely write about this but many of you are aware that I have had the unique privilege and honor of chairing two international interreligious bodies and have had leadership roles in several others. Insofar as much political discourse and behavior has revolved about interpretations and misinterpretations of the role of religion and faith, it is striking how different the international religious leaders I know behave and believe. They model, through words and actions, how one can honor the Truth of one’s own religious faith, and respect the True in that of others.

These religious leaders are not simply outsider modernists within their traditions. These have included many worldwide leaders of all three Abrahamic religions [to the skeptics, that includes many influential Imams from around the world] and of many of the Eastern Traditions. Many of the leaders’ names are widely familiar; very few would be called liberals by their co-religionists. None of these religious leaders feels threatened in his or her own profound commitment while acknowledging that others feel as deeply and profoundly about their own. All recognize the dialectic tension within every authentic religion between the particular and the universal, and use that as the basis for dialogue that transcends simple personal acceptance. [And, let it be said, all are embarrassed and angered by the usurpation by extremists in EVERY tradition who misrepresent authenticity in pursuit of narrow political aims.]

In America, it is so jarring to hear how religion is trivialized by politicians who, while espousing unshakeable faith commitments, make a mockery of those affirmations in how they disrespect others. Would that they could hear what I hear among the world religious leaders – and learn what authentic religious affirmation really is.

My call here is not to invite religious leaders to enter the political fray, but to publicly insist that their religions, our religions, not be besmirched by those whose words and actions cheapen what our religions really mean and espouse.

The Philanthropy Field:

In many ways, no group is better positioned to assertively address the erosion of decency in the public square than our field. Of course I am well aware of the limits on lobbying that US law imposes on private foundations, but I am also well aware that there is great elasticity in permitting assertive advocacy on matters of values and public consequence. Private philanthropy can do so with impunity. Its unique autonomy can allow us to be strong and unequivocal voices for sanity and respectability.

This argument for a clarion call for better behavior goes beyond a partisan political stance. I would hope that philanthropists on the left, right, or center would agree that no long-term good comes from a country or world rent asunder by hatred and fear. I would hope that all of us are sufficient students of history to see what has happened when nations and empires became poisoned by demagogic leadership. And I would hope that all of us remember that our legal legitimacy is to enhance “public good.”

None of us on the philanthropy side need change our missions or even our grantmaking strategies to join in a demand for the restoration of a civil society based on civility.

These are dark and ominous times – not only in our United States body politic, but also around the world. My pleas to colleagues, even if heeded, will not be sufficient to cure this ill. But we, those of us in our privileged roles, are certainly not exempt from recognizing our ethical and moral responsibility to act now, while we can. While we can.

Words Really Do Matter – Post Papal Visit Update

September 28th, 2015

Richard Marker

Over the summer, I wrote “Words Really Do Matter” – a cautionary missive for those of us who earn our livelihoods with our words. Much of this was targeted to fellow members of the National Speakers Association – some of whom seemed to object to being challenged by those whose narratives included political mandates. My rebuttal: Our charge must be to engage with a seriousness of purpose and not simply entertain. En passant, I called for some greater self-discipline in political discourse.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if that had an impact, but in fact, the character of public discourse has only deteriorated since then. [Don’t misunderstand, I have no illusion that any of the principals have ever heard of me, let alone read my writings.] What concerns me these days is that the level of honesty in that discourse has sunk to despicable new lows; that some are now arguing that what our Declaration of Independence and Constitution consider inalienable rights should be decided by popular vote; that private religious belief and practice, guaranteed by our constitution, should be imposed on the public at the whim of individual believers; that no-nothingness – as in anti-vax and anti-climate change – should be given equal weight in education as scientific consensus; that public insults about size, looks, and pretty much anything else can be offered with impunity; that victims should shoulder the blame as well as bear the burden of their own victimhood…

Each one by itself represents a violation of civility. Taken together they represent a profound erosion of a commitment to civil society seen only in totalitarian regimes. It is scary out there.

I know that reasoned exchange is never as catchy as simplistic extremism; that societal anomie and anger is easier to manipulate for political gain than offering real solutions; that a changed and dangerous world is disruptive and unsettling for too many; that social injustices and economic disparities are glaring threats to stability and play into the hands of demagogues. We are paying the price for elected officials who reject governing; for long term underinvestment in education for our most at-risk populations; for a misguided understanding of American exceptionalism, the same hubris that has dismantled every previous empire in world history; and for being far too slow to root out the deepest hatreds of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and its latest manifestation, anti-Islamism [I don’t like Islamophobia since the word means fear, when we should be calling it what it is, a form of hatred.]

A version of this post was about to be published just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to the USA. If the affect and feeling of the previous paragraphs suggest a sense of deep despair, that would be a correct reading. But in the immediate aftermath of that extraordinary visit to Washington, New York City and Philadelphia, it seems appropriate to revisit those feelings. What was extraordinary to observe over the several days was Pope Francis’ unwavering demonstration of caring and effective leadership. Unafraid to challenge the deepest self-destructive impulses in the USA and the bureaucratic obstructionism in the UN, he quietly, powerfully, effectively called for values of compassion and caring over self-aggrandizement and radical autonomy. He did so with no troops, no great dramatic gestures, and no real political power. But he did model the power of soft-spoken authentic conviction, small symbolic yet humbly authentic acts, a palpable sense of transcendent presence and the courage to address the most existential challenges of our time.

A story I told on Facebook just after it happened: I attended a large interfaith gathering outside of the UN to express support for the signing of the important revised Sustainability Goals. When it ended I walked the 30 blocks to our home. There was little choice since traffic was simply at a standstill, but pedestrians were able to move – until I got to 64th Street. There the sidewalks and streets were fully blocked and many hundreds of us were held in place by the police barricades. If you know New Yorkers, that would not be welcomed cheerfully. However, two minutes later, the Papal motorcade drove by and I saw something rare: all of these hundreds and hundreds of cynical and world-weary New Yorkers who just happened to be at that intersection erupted in a spontaneous cheer and applause. Every cell phones snapped away and when I continued on my way, all I could hear around me was person after person telling someone of their remarkable serendipitous experience. No it was not the same as happening upon a political leader, or even a well-known sports star or celebrity. This was something so universal, and genuine in these responses. That is leadership, and, as we have seen, that is how one uses words and actions to enable change worth making.

It remains to be seen if this visit was simply a flickering light in a political world gone far too dark or the dawn of a sunrise that can purify the soul and cleanse the spirit. The early evidence is mixed – there are those who wasted no time in distancing themselves from the message and, with one notable exception, there has been little reason to see a diminution in the nonsensical and divisive rhetoric from too many aspiring politicians. Will a nation, of all faiths or none in thrall to this insist that this behavior and these words unacceptable for those wishing to be leaders? As Pope Francis has returned to the Vatican, we have been shown a better way to lead… and to speak. As we have said, words really do matter.

Words Really Do Matter – Use Them Wisely and Ethically

August 11th, 2015

Richard Marker

Well, I hadn’t planned to add to the noise surrounding the unconscionable pre-presidential campaign – in the United States. I really hadn’t.

But….

Many of you know that I am a proud member of the National Speakers Association, and by extension of the Global Speakers Federation, a professional affiliation of those around the USA and elsewhere in the world who earn a significant part of our livelihood as paid speakers. Public Speaking is a competence that has given me great gratification, and enabled me to give presentations in 39 countries on 5 continents over my career. [Australia, what are you waiting for?]

At the recent annual convention, one of the morning plenary sessions was devoted to guest presenters who had lived through or witnessed horrific experiences, were changed by them, and who had deep and abiding messages based on them. I don’t exactly know what process was used to decide whom to invite or which messages were best to convey to a group of 1700 professional speakers, but I, for one, found the morning to be thought-provoking even if I myself might have chosen some other, equally challenging, topics.

At the luncheon that followed, however, a surprising number of folks sitting around the tables complained. “We didn’t come here to be depressed or to engage in political discourse; we came to be uplifted and to enhance our skills.”

I confess that I was surprised. After all, we make our living through words and ideas. To be sure, some of our colleagues are wonderful entertainers, musicians, or comedians. But most of us, including humorists and musicians, are purveyors of ideas. And we use words, in speech and in writing, to convey those ideas. Words matter. How we say things matters.

What we say matters as well. We should weigh not simply how to get applause, or a chuckle, or a return engagement, but also the value of those words, the ethics of those words, the power of those words to change experiences and lives. What was important to me, as a member of NSA/GSF that morning of the recent conference was that we were being reminded of how important and powerful and influential words can be, even if they leave us a bit uncomfortable and uneasy. I was disappointed in the segment of our professional group that so easily dismissed the value of being discomfited – if for no other reason than they so easily dismissed exactly one of the reasons for such a professional association to exist. Our association spends a good deal of time addressing the ethics of stories, quotations, and competition. We should spend an equal amount of time remembering that we must model the responsibility that accrues when we have a mastery of the spoken word, and the ethical mandate of truth when we have the command of the stage. These are not little things.

Which, unfortunately, brings me to what passes for political discourse these days. Leaving aside the frightening spectacle of Trump-ed up demagoguery on the world stage, what are we to make of the anti-scientific, anti-educational, implicitly racist and explicitly nativist comments of many other candidates? No matter how much one repeats a false mantra does not make it true, even if it may make it popular. Willful ignorance, no matter how cleverly stated or clothed in populist garb, must not be allowed to rise to legitimacy. The 20th Century, more than any other in world history, taught us the destructive nature of this kind of malignant discourse. The world, our world, the world in which we live, and the world we hope for our children, dare not risk a repetition in the 21st.

Those of us who earn our livelihood through words know more than most how powerful, transcendent, and transformative words can be. We owe it to ourselves, our audiences, and the public polity to insist that others are held to the ethical standards we must demand of ourselves. We, all of us, need no less.

The ICYMI Series – Why Strategic Plans Fail

March 9th, 2015

Richard Marker

This is re-posting of one of our most popular and requested posts.

….

Why Strategic Plans Fail

In a word: “Implementation.”

Now, as an old-time radio personality used to say, for the rest of the story.

There have been a slew of articles and talks recently raising questions about the efficacy of strategic plans, planning, and planners. As one whose livelihood has included strategy planning in the private, non-profit, and now the foundation and philanthropy sectors, I have to say that I concur with the skepticism, but disagree that failure is inevitable.

It is not at all uncommon to be contracted to help with a strategy issue and discover that other planners have been there before. In many cases, beautifully crafted plans, filled with charts, power points, and eloquent jargon sit gathering dust in someone’s office. with nothing to show for the effort and dollars. Why? A few of the generic reasons for failure:

1. Pre-determined outcomes. The client told the strategy planner what result they expected before beginning. And, yes, there are many in the field who are comfortable delivering that message. It may make the CEO happy to be vindicated by an “outside” expert, but not surprisingly, little new strategy and few new directions emerge from a pre-determined outcome. Many of us, me included, will not take such contracts, but I understand those who do: if a CEO hires them, the CEO is the client and, unless otherwise agreed upon, it is her/his approval that matters. One can readily imagine that few others in the organization have much confidence in such a study, and have few incentives to embrace it, but the consultant will have done what the client asked and paid for.

2. Too few stakeholders. In developing a strategic direction, there is no magic number of those who should have a say. However, it is important to make sure that those who have to endorse it and those who have to implement it are involved early on. It need not and in most cases cannot include every possible individual, but the process must have credibility to the key stakeholders if its conclusions are to be taken seriously. If not addressed early in the process, or if an organization chooses to automatically discount or exclude key stakeholders, the credibility, will be suspect and thus the ultimate implementation will likely fail.

A related example is an unwillingness to include outside stakeholders. In one case, an organization simply believed its own hype and tried to develop strategies from the misperceptions of their own self-image. Reluctantly, at my insistence, they went kicking and screaming to see their competition. They were shocked by the degree to which others had simply outpaced them in the quality and effectiveness in what they did. I was by no means their first strategy planner but I was the first who insisted that their stakeholder list include a broader range of input. [This story has a good ending, but any further details would necessarily identify the client.]

3. All too often plans are too abstract and/or don’t include an understanding of the culture which pervades an organization. When I was recruited by one of the large well-known strategy groups 20+ years ago, our discussions diverged when I expressed my commitment to implementation and the inclusion of corporate culture within the strategy. At that time, less so today, the response was unequivocal: we do strategy; it is up to the client to implement it. To understand the importance of this, all one has to do is look at the long list of failed corporate mergers over the years. Pure strategy made them look like a slam-dunk; real cultural differences made them an air ball.

4. The new plan is too far reaching. When I was heading a foundation, we partnered with many other foundations in support of new and innovative ideas. In one case, one of the partner foundations felt that a boutique program we were jointly funding was too good and should be brought to scale. A planning consultant was hired who produced a textbook plan for how a small and promising organization can be ramped up to have a national reach. The plan was elegant and thorough. However, it didn’t account for two crucial realities: there was no internal competence or commitment to such a massive re-make, and by becoming a new national player, it became vulnerable to larger full service competitors. The plan was too far reaching. The organization closed within a year.

5. The plan is not ambitious enough. The flip side of this kind of thinking is a strategy plan that is too cautious, barely incremental, and does not compel any kind of change at all. It should be remembered that any planning or evaluation process is, by definition, an intervention. There is nothing wrong if a serious strategy planning process reveals that an organization is at the top of their game and the most respected in what they do. [Wouldn’t that be nice?] However, it is hard to imagine an organization that is excellent across the board, or doesn’t need to anticipate changes in demography or utilization patterns, or need to enhance professional and board succession. A plan needs to be reaching enough to get even star performers to consider how to respond to tomorrow’s challenges.

6. Lack of an Implementation Plan. Change doesn’t just happen, it rarely happens smoothly, and it becomes chaotic without a plan. Now, in the current discourse, there is room for disruptive change; indeed I myself have been contracted to “disrupt” so that an organization’s stasis is shaken up sufficiently to begin to hear and see things differently. But once that has begun and a new direction is set, it needs management of the agreed upon changes. As suggested in #3 above, implementation is not simply a listing of what has to be done. It needs to have a mix of short-term victories, mid-term targets, and emerging long term changes. Change needs to account for the inevitable, and sometimes legitimate, pockets of résistance. It needs to recognize the style of decision-making and power. And it needs to be sufficiently adaptive to adjust to efforts that simply missed the mark even if the longer-term goals are valid. Finally, change needs to have a shepherd – preferably with appropriate authority or status – who “gets it” and is able to manage this complex process.

7. An Orphan Process. Transitions within an organization can create an orphan planning process. Turnover among professionals and volunteer leadership is normal. Since any planning process takes time, the planning facilitator may be working at an agreed upon pace but those who owned the process are no longer there. It happens! In this context, it is not surprising to find that reports are prepared, submitted, acknowledged, paid for, and shelved. It is possible to pre-empt this dynamic if the caveats of #2 above are followed, but it isn’t guaranteed. After all, does a new CEO want to start out by endorsing the vision and change processes determined by a predecessor? Rarely.

The cautionary tales are clear. But good strategy can and does happen. Avoiding these 7 pitfalls ups the chances for success. And saves a good chunk of wasted time and money along the way.