Monday, August 27, 2012

Be Graceful Under Pressure

By Virgil R. Carter

Being a senior staff executive or chief staff officer in a non-profit organization often means dealing with pressure-packed situations, right?  Sometimes the situations can be anticipated.  Sometimes not!  For example, you are 20 minutes into your on-stage presentation and it’s going great.  Without warning the computer crashes, the screen goes black and you want to fall apart!

What to do?  In an article, in Owner’s Manual published in Inc., author Jeff Haden writes, “Some people do seem naturally confident and poised under pressure. But poise isn't natural. Poise is a skill that some people develop… And that's why the key to maintaining your poise during even the most stressful situations is to gain experience. Not just any experience, though; the right kind of experience, the kind that builds confidence.”

Haden offers these tips for staying cool—no matter what happens:

Practice the basics:  Run through your demo a number of times. Smooth out the kinks. Make sure you know it cold.  Then think about the most likely questions or interruptions. Make sure you're ready to present the demo as a conversation rather than a presentation.

Then rework the basics:  All your initial practice will result in a set of logical steps: 1, 2, 3... To really know your stuff, change it up. Start with step 5. Rehearsing a different order helps reinforce your knowledge of your material and also prepares you for those inevitable moments when the client says, "but what I really want to know is this." 

Practice the "What if?":  Once your presentation is in good shape it's time to prepare for things that could cause you to freeze. What if your software locks up? Figure out what you'll do. What if your client is delayed and you only get 10 minutes instead of 30? Decide how to shorten your presentation so you still hit key points. What if you get questions you aren't able to answer? Go crazy. Think of some outlandish scenarios and decide how you'll handle them. It's actually kind of fun.

Rinse and repeat everywhere:  You can apply this approach to almost any situation, whether business or personal: Giving feedback, pitching investors, disciplining employees, dealing with confrontation, playing a sport, starting and building relationships... it doesn't matter.  You don't need to be brave. Just take a systematic approach to developing skills and gaining confidence.  Do the work and bravery, composure, and coolness under fire are unnecessary.  They're automatic.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Don’t Ever Put These on Your Resume

By Virgil R. Carter

Most of us have prepared and distributed resumes.  Resumes are important documents that may lead to new and better career opportunities.  As a result, many people concentrate on what they should include in a strong resume.  Do you?  But how much attention do you pay to what shouldn’t be included in your resume?

Dawn Dugan, writing in a recent article explores things you should never put in your resume.  Here’s a summary:

·        A crazy objective:  You think you want to be the next Bill Gates?  Great!  Just don’t put it in your objective statement.  Outlandish or overconfident objectives almost always ensure the rest of your resume isn’t read!

·        Irrelevant job experience:  Sure, the summer after freshman year you spent as Harry's Hot Dog Hut mascot was the best ever. But unless you're applying to wear the Gorilla suit for the Phoenix Suns, leave it out.

·        Statements that aren’t achievements:  Being nominated prom queen is not an achievement. Nor is belonging to a sorority or fraternity. And that award you won in a competitive eating contest? That's right--not an achievement. Stick to professional and community service awards only.

·        Bad grammar and obscure words:  Describing yourself as a "Very detail oriented multi-taster" is likely to get no other response than, "Yeah, right" before it's passed around the HR department for laughs--and then tossed. And don't try to impress with big words. No one needs to know you are endowed with "sophrosyne," when "good sense" will do.

·        Unprofessional contact information:  If your email address is, don't include it on your resume. Email addresses are free and most accounts allow you to get several, so either get a new, professional address or delete it from your resume.

·        Attention-getting tactics:  Adding non-traditional elements to your resume will make it stand out--but not in a good way. Different font types and ink colors, glitter and other adornments, and brightly colored or perfumed paper--yes, every hiring manager has seen at least a few of these memorable tactics--are all no-nos.

First impressions count a lot.  When it comes to finding the right job, first impressions count a lot. You can ensure your resume gives a good first impression by knowing not only what to include, but also what not to include. Good luck in your job search!  For the full article, go to

Monday, August 13, 2012

How Do You Define Strategy?

By Virgil Carter

So, just what is strategy?  It’s a term that every executive is familiar with, isn’t it?    The fact that there are so many differences among executives and management specialists may help to explain why organizations often struggle with strategy.  In a recent article in Strategy+Business, authors Ken Favaro, with Kasturi Rangan and Evan Hirsh share their experience with strategy.

According to the authors, “Strategy is different from vision, mission, goals, priorities and plans.  It is the result of choices executives make, on where to play and how to win, to maximize long-term value”.

“Where to play” specifies the target market in terms of the customers and the needs to be served.  “How to win” spells out the value proposition that will distinguish an organization in the eyes of its target customers, along with the capabilities that will give it an essential advantage in delivering that value proposition.  “To maximize long-term value” means to select those options that will give the greatest sustained increase in a company’s economic value.

“Every company faces innumerable options for where to play and how to win”, write the authors.  And the reality, in the marketplace, is to never stop looking for higher-value options, according to the writers.

“In the end”, the authors suggest, “To define the fundamentals of you business strategy, you only need to answer three questions”:

·        Who is the target customer?

·        What is the value proposition to that customer?

·        What are the essential capabilities needed to deliver that value proposition?

“Without clear and coherent answers to these three questions, you may have an exciting vision, a compelling mission, clear goals and an ambitious strategic plan with many actions underway, but you won’t have a strategy”, the authors conclude.

Can you answer these three questions clearly and succinctly?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fishing in the Boardroom: Catch of the Day

A selection from Origami in the Boardroom and Other Misadventures in Nonprofit Governance©
By Neil Bohnert

It was a golden opportunity! The chance to make a difference; to create a vital future for the organization. The nominating committee of this national organization, elected by the members of the organization at the last annual meeting, was now proposing its slate of nominees to serve on the board.  The committee had been meticulous in selecting candidates based on criteria such as geographic residence, membership class, and other representational factors that would ensure a popular slate.  The chairman of the meeting called for nominations from the floor and, as had become the rule rather than the exception for this membership organization, there were nominations.  And one among the floor nominees was elected.  The organization had a new board, fairly and openly elected without any undue influences. Perhaps not the board everyone expected or the one the organization needed, but the one inevitably formed by the prescribed process.  Order was observed and the principles of democratic rule had triumphed.  It was a glorious achievement. But the consequences were less than noble.

We all remember the fishing pond at the school carnival in which a child is given a pole with a string and hook attached to the end of it.  The child then casts the hook to the other side of a curtain obscuring the “catch.”  The child waits in excited anticipation as a carnival assistant attaches a prize to the hook and the child retrieves the special surprise.  Neither the child nor the assistant can see what is on the other side of the curtain.

We’ve also had experience with elaborate nominating schemes designed to restrict the board’s hand in selecting its members.  Such schemes create a curtain, separating and obscuring the selection process from the board.  The result is the same in both the carnival and the boardroom—a complete surprise. 

An isolated case, you say?  Decidedly not.  It’s not unusual for organizations to have carefully designed processes to control the selection of board members.  So determined are some organizations that special provisions are often written into the bylaws or the charter to provide for boards to be appointed in part or in whole by authorities outside the organization, such as direct appointments by governmental bodies, church organizations, beneficiary groups, founding organizations, or other authorities beyond the influence of the organization.

These “firewalls,” which keep the selection process at some distance from the board, are intentional to ensure that the organization is controlled in a certain way.  Good intentions, but also some unintended consequences.  In this case, no one on the nominating committee held a seat on the board and the board was neither considered nor consulted. There was no way for the committee to know what skills and talents were needed on the board and with an open nomination process, candidates were often elected with no consideration to the organization’s needs for board composition and leadership. The board in this case was casting its line to the other side of the curtain and saying to the nominating committee, “Send over another three” and then returning to the boardroom with the “catch of the day.”

Why is this important, you ask?  Each election of directors is one “golden opportunity” to get the ablest and most committed people to serve as volunteers in governing the organization and  to design a special mix of expertise on the board that will uniquely fit the strategic needs of the organization well into the future.  The board’s composition is an important resource and the selection of board members should not be a random, perfunctory, chance event.

What can possibly be the negative consequences of these good intentions?  One is a random composition of skills on the board.  No thought is given to what skills are needed.  Are we losing critical talents needed to direct the organization?  Do we need to bring to the boardroom important skills and experiences, such as leadership, executive experience, business acumen, fundraising and networking strengths, minority views, diverse ideas, or any number of key talents that may be called upon to address the strategic issues of the organization? 

The other unintended consequence is the misplaced belief that board members “represent” constituencies within the organization.  This is common and it has the potential of eroding the unity of the board and excluding key skills needed to direct the organization.  Boards should certainly not be homogeneous bodies of like-minded persons.  Neither should they be a collection of representatives.  Every member of the board represents the best interests of the organization and has fiduciary responsibilities to the whole.

What’s to be done to take advantage of this golden opportunity?

Let’s start with determining the needs of the organization for governance vis a vis strategic priorities.

Let’s start by abandoning the need to form representational constituencies.

Let’s start by designing and building tomorrow’s board today.

Let’s start by creating a vital, strategic board function that effectively positions the organization in a competitive environment.

Let’s get started!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Are You a Good Listener?

By Virgil Carter
Listening is one of the secrets for good decision making.  It’s listening that enables one to gather facts and assess the issues.  Good listening is an active and disciplined activity to gather and assess information, and a key to building a base of knowledge for insights and good decision-making. 

“The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”, by Bernard T. Ferrari, in a recent McKinsey Quarterly suggests that “good listening…can often mean the difference between success and failure in business ventures (and hence between a longer career and a shorter one).”  Ferrari notes that most executives spend little time cultivating listening.  He describes three kinds of behavior that will improve one’s listening skills and those of one’s organization.

·         Show respect:  Our conversation partners often have the know-how to develop good solutions, and part of being a good listener is simply helping them to draw out critical information and put it in a new light.  Leaders should also respect a colleagues potential to provide insights in areas far afield from his or her job description.

·         Keep quiet:  Ferrari’s 80-20 guideline is that a conversation partner “should be speaking 80 percent of the time, while I speak only 20 percent of the time.  Moreover, I seek to make my speaking time count by spending as much of it as possible posing questions rather than trying to have my own way.”  Ferrari points out that “you can’t really listen if you’re too busy talking!”

·        Challenge assumptions:  Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation.  Many executives struggle as listeners because they never think to relax their assumptions “and open themselves to the possibilities that can be drawn from conversations with others”, Ferrari writes. 

Ferrari concludes by noting, “Throughout my career, I’ve observed that good listeners tend to make better decisions, based on better-informed judgments, than ordinary or poor listeners do—and hence tend to be better leaders.  By showing respect to our conversation partners, remaining quiet so they can speak, and actively opening ourselves up to facts that undermine our beliefs, we can all better cultivate this valuable skill”.  Are you and your senior executive team good listeners?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Murder in the Boardroom: Death by Strangulation and Poisoning

A selection from Origami in the Boardroom and Other Misadventures in Nonprofit Governance© By Neil Bohnert

The next item on the agenda was a preliminary report by the chairman of the Nominating Committee based on a board resolution adopted several months earlier. The committee chairman gave a brief report on the committee’s progress, then turned to a long-time member and said, “Dick, you’re eligible for another term.  You’ll agree to serve, won’t you?”  Dick agreed.  The chairman then turned to another member and made the same offer, getting a like response.  “Well then”, he exclaimed, “we have a full slate.”  And with that, he gestured to the group that the work of the Nominating Committee was finished.  The board looked on as the very life breath was squeezed out of the organization.

Typical?  Yes.  Easy?  Absolutely.  Effective?  Definitely counter-effective.

It was a clear case of double murder; strangulation and poisoning.  The gene pool had been poisoned by not exercising the greatest and most fundamental opportunity available to the board; getting new talent.  Not only getting new people, but identifying the organizational DNA needed to bring about a positive mutation in the board.  No new members were being nominated for the next year and, further, the Nominating Committee had been derelict in its duty.  The board had charged the Nominating Committee, in writing, with reporting on four key actions:

·        Identifying the skills and talents needed on the board;

·        Seeking candidates that met the identified needs;

·        Developing a plan for orientation of new board members; and

·        Developing a plan of succession for officers.

The committee had failed in every charge and in so doing had ensured that the governance of the organization would not be changed. It would be allowed to stagnate: Status quo; same-o, same-o; into an inevitable death spiral.  Strangled.

As for the poisoning, boards tend to clone themselves.   When an opening occurs for a board seat, the usual practice of the Nominating Committee is to look to one another for suggestions and recommendations.  It’s a practice learned from years of experience with nonprofits.  Since we tend to move and work in circles of like-minded people, the natural consequence is to find another director just like ourselves.  Without a plan or deliberate process for determining what is needed and where to find it, we lapse into the habit of cloning.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking.  The board was already ideal and nothing needed to be done to improve the composition or balance.  That’s so rare it’s difficult to comprehend.  And even if that were the case, the board should regularly examine its makeup against what is needed for the organization.  Organizations are not static.  The external environment is not static.  Why should a board be static?  By regularly profiling the board, a board can compare “what is” with “what should be” and thereby seek and identify qualified candidates well in advance of an opening.  This avoids the problems of cloning and stagnation.  In addition, a thorough orientation process needs to be designed.  And finally, a succession plan for leadership should be in place to provide continuity and preparation for future leadership.

The committee charged with the nominating process is the most important committee of the board.  Why, then, do we give short shrift to this important work?  More often than not, the committee is activated shortly before elections, given a list of expiring terms and the names of people who are eligible for re-election, and instructed to prepare a slate.  Then the committee sees that they only have to find one “new body” and they take the path of least resistance.  

Let’s start with profiling the board and making the nomination process a year-round activity, not a last-minute sprint to the annual meeting.  Who will be leaving (term limits or other reasons)?  And don’t forget to ask who should be leaving.

Let’s start with strategic diversity—getting the mix of talents that’s right for the organization.

What’s missing?  Will we need to replace important skills lost through attrition?  What do the strategic priorities of the organization demand for governance?

Let’s start with forgetting about constituencies.  Board members do not “represent” a segment of the membership.  Service on the board carries fiduciary responsibilities to act in the best interests of the organization.  Representational governance should be left to legislative bodies.

Let’s start with getting serious about developing the board—orientation, education, succession planning, committee and board structure.  And don’t neglect the need for living, working bylaws.

So, what’s the lesson from this story, a true-life misadventure?  The need for a board work plan and a real commitment to improving the governance function is essential to achieving exceptional board performance—and the mission.  Mediocre performance begets more mediocrity.  Maintaining the status quo is a prescription for slow death by strangulation and poisoning. 

Let’s get started!