Monday, April 29, 2013

Leadership Lessons from the Royal Navy

By Virgil R. Carter

While few environments may be tougher than a warship or submarine, it may be striking to many that much is done using “soft” leadership skills.  For example, officers leading small teams in constrained quarters, there’s no substitute for cheerfulness and effective storytelling.  In fact, it’s said that naval training is predicated on the notions that when two groups with equal resources attempt the same thing, the successful group will be the one whose leaders better understand how to use the softer skills to maintain effort and motivate.
Andrew St. George, writing in McKinsey Quarterly, writes, “I believe that the same principle holds true for business”, as holds true for the Royal Navy.  St. Andrew, a business school professor and communications advisor, wrote the Royal Navy’s first new leadership handbook since 1963, which was based on research “of unprecedented length and breadth.
Here are some of his findings:
Cheerfulness counts:  No one follows a pessimist and cheerfulness is a choice.  It has long been understood to influence happiness at work and therefore productivity.  There’s an old saying that every organization reflects the personality of its leadership, and mood travels fast.  Royal Marine commanders understand particularly well that cheerfulness is fueled by humor.  Conversely, empty optimism or false cheer can hurt morale.  As one naval captain put it, “Being able to make the uncertain certain is the secret to leadership.  You have to understand, though, that if you are always uber-optimistic, then the effect of your optimism, over time, is reduced.
The relevance of many of these techniques to the corporate workplace should be obvious, particularly given a world of rapid job rotation, team-based work, and short-term projects that may be set up in response to sudden, unexpected challenges and require an equally fleet-footed response.
Keep spinning ‘dits’:  The Royal Navy has a highly efficient informal internal network.  Leadership information and stories, known as dits are exchanged across it—between tiers of management, generations, practices and social groups.  Through dits, the Royal Navy’s collective consciousness assimilates new knowledge and insights, while reinforcing established ones.  These dits are one way the Royal Navy fosters what a business would call its culture, or philosophy. 
There’s a fine line, of course, between respecting timeless values that can sustain an organization when times get tough and becoming a prisoner of the past or desensitized to changes in the forces at work on that organization.  The power of the Royal Navy is to focus on what individuals actually did in situations big and small, thereby providing inspiration for new challenges.
According to the author, “navy life has created a style of leadership that fosters trust, respect, and collective effort.  Softer skills such as cheerfulness, storytelling and the creations of a collective memory—all of which make indispensable contributions to the effectiveness of ships and fleets—merit serious reflection by business leaders, too.”  For the full article, go to:

Monday, April 22, 2013

How to Define Success?

By Virgil Carter

Do you have a commonly accepted definition for your organization’s success?  It may be common for volunteers, the CEO and senior staff to have different definitions of organizational success.  Perhaps the important thing is to identify and implement what matters most for your organization.  Thereafter communicate, communicate, and communicate. 
So, what does your association value most?  Is it performance?  How about relationships?  Perhaps its competencies or credentialing.  Each organization is different when it comes to what matters most, not to mention why it matters to us.  So, to define success, there has to be agreement on what matters most.  The situation, which may change over time, has a lot to do with defining success.  For example, an association in a protracted, downward financial spiral, for example, may define success very differently than an association whose growth has been 30% per year for the past five years.

Here are some important success categories, with suggestions how they might be used. 
  1. Strategy--Does our association have a sustained record of performing to plan over time (successful strategy is not measured in 12-month cycles and someone’s pet agenda for the year)?
  2. Voice of the customer—Who are our (right) customers and how do you know if they are satisfied (yes, there may be “wrong” customers)?
  3. Financial—Do we have sustained positive net performance over time meeting budget or ending each year with positive variances (no margin, no mission)?
  4. Business operations—What is the record of new program development and existing program retirement over the past 5 years (are you still doing what you did 5 years ago)?
  5. Learning & growth—What investment do we make on a consistent annual basis for volunteer’s & staff’s learning and growth in their association roles (no investment, no dividends)?
When you have figured out what matters most to your association and how you will measure success, it’s time to think about annual communications planning and the year’s key audiences and messages.  Key messages are important for association leaders—volunteers and staff—to focus on, repeat and reinforce.  The messages help everyone to understand and stay on the same page.
There are many useful ways to define organizational success, and these may vary with time.  There are also many ways to communicate effectively about how success is best defined.  When there is consensus about success, your volunteers, staff and external relationships will thank you, knowing what to expect and how to help.  How do you measure organizational success?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Helping Your Board to Be More Effective

By Virgil R. Carter

Governance by an organization’s volunteer boards and leadership is the key to organizational success.  Effective governance helps make an organization successful and enjoyable.  Less than effective governance may make an organization dysfunctional and a true pain.  Thus, we all seek effective governance by our boards and volunteer leaders.  But where to start to help ensure and sustain effective governance? 

A critical starting point is to recognize what a vital resource time is. Recruiting new board members is challenging because volunteers are concerned about drains on their time. Governing well is critical because a board’s time together is limited. Thus, how you and your board use time really matters.

Boards that are forward-looking, focused on strategy, provide the maximum effective (and enjoyable) leadership when time is limited.  Strategic boards spend the majority of their time identifying broadly important outcomes, setting priorities, and monitoring the way the staff and other volunteers implement major initiatives.

Here are five steps volunteers may take for an effective, productive, and rewarding board.

1.      Define success. Establish and practice a shared definition of organizational success. No matter how well an organization may perform in any 12-month period, if it can’t perform effectively year in and year out, it can’t really be called a successful organization. Thus, success has a lot to do with consistency and continuity over time.

2.      Understand your core assets. Every organization has core assets.  Typically they include:  1) knowledge, 2) community, and 3) advocacy. These are the resources for an organization’s accomplishment of its mission.  Volunteers and staff must be strategically focused on the welfare of assets that cause members and customers to value the organization.

3.      Think the unthinkable. Ours is a rapidly changing world in which we face unprecedented competition. To remain both up-to-date and competitive, focus on and prepare for the unthinkable—both opportunities and threats. Effective boards consider the one thing that would most revolutionize their organization and the one thing that would most jeopardize it. Thereafter, boards focus strategically to realize the opportunity and head off the threat.

4.      Set priorities and monitor them. Resources are always finite—there are never enough. So develop strategic priorities and communicate what is truly important. To maintain a strategic perspective, boards must think in terms of what is important, not how to achieve results. The staff and others of the organization’s operational side are the ones to be held responsible for executing the action.  

5.      Establish a respectful staff partnership. The professional staff of an organization offer important resources—so important that it may be impossible for a board to be truly strategic without them. For example, staff members may have access to knowledge, contacts, and resources that may be unknown to a board. The staff is uniquely positioned to help develop and implement a definition of organizational success that’s built upon consistent performance, year after year.

Effective boards are both productive and enjoyable where it matters most:  achieving the organization’s mission year after year.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Helping Boards and Staff to do Better

By Virgil R. Carter

The majority of non-profit organizations are governed and lead by a board of volunteer leaders.  While their names may differ by organization—board of directors, governors, trustees, etc.—they all share the common responsibility for the achievement of the purpose and mission of their respective organization.  Thus, ensuring that the organization has a clear and achievable strategy is one of the most important functions and the ultimate measure of the effective use of organizational resources.  Yet, many boards remain mired in familiar challenges.
These familiar challenges include:

·         Time (most boards are limited to a set number of scheduled meetings each year);

·         Focus on routine annual matters (receiving committee reports and minutes);

·         Lack of first-hand experience and knowledge with the overall organization (individual board members tend to have specialized interests and spend their time in these occupational niches);

·         Limited time of board service (board members tend to serve a relatively short period)
The challenge for most non-profit organizations is that they are often impacted by unpredictable economic volatility, which is less calendar driven and more a situation requiring frequent and regular interaction of a broader group of organization executives.  To be effective, boards must with work with staff in this environment, in a respectful and effective team setting, ensuring that strategy and operations are clearly linked and effectively implemented.
According to researchers Chinta Bhagat, Martin HIrt and Conor Kehoe, writing in “Tapping the Strategic Potential of Boards”, in a recent McKinsey Quarterly issue, there are three simple questions that board members and executives may ask themselves as they approach the development of strategy together:
·         Does the board understand their industry’s/profession’s dynamics well enough:  boards need time each year to more fully understand the structure and economics of the organization, as well as the ways in which the organization creates value

·         Has there been enough board-staff debate before a strategy is discussed:  board members should approach these discussions with an “owner’s mind-set”, with the goal of helping staff to broaden thinking by considering new, even unexpected, perspectives.  Staff’s role is to introduce key pieces of content—details of competitors, key external trends likely to affect the organization, specific strengths the organization can use for growth, etc.  The goal of the discussion is to develop a stronger, shared understanding of the skills and resources the organization has for producing strong performance, rather than merely moving with the tide.

·         Have the board and management discussed all strategic options and wrestled them to the ground:  Staff should formulate a robust set of strategic options, with an end state for each.  These can then be brought to the board for discussion and decision-making.
Having meaningful, high-quality conservations like these is a challenge, particularly if boards aren’t used to having them.  Success is often linked to the board chair’s ability to lead and facilitate discussion.  The goal should be for a participative, collaborative environment while maintaining a healthy energy, in which all can speak their thoughts without “score keeping”.  And the chair must neither monopolize the discussion nor fail to intervene strongly to redirect unproductive tangents.
Board-staff involvement and discussions introduces new voices and expertise to the debate and puts pressure on boards and staff alike to find the best answers, and how they can be implemented and measured.  Yet, when done well, this type of discussion and strategy is invaluable.  For the full member article, go to

Monday, April 1, 2013

For Presentations, Half As Long is Twice As Good

By Virgil R. Carter

Leaders in non-profit organizations, as elsewhere in the business world, are expected to make frequent presentations on all sorts of subjects, in all sorts of settings.  It goes with the territory, right?  According to an article by Joey Asher, in Fast Company magazine, “most of business presentations stink.  Period.”  According to Asher, “(these presentations) are bloated PowerPoint-laden ramblings that ignore audience’s key concerns and fail to tell a simple story”.  Here are ways the author suggests to make your presentations the happy exceptions:
Half as long is twice as good:  Today’s attention spans are shorter than when Edward Everett, one of the nation’s great orators, spoke for two hours at Gettysburg.  The average contemporary YouTube video is just over four minutes, for example.  About the only place with audiences of any kind sit in one place for more than an hour is the movie theater.  Thus, presenters should “cut their presentations in half”.  Seven to ten minutes, before taking questions, is a good target.
Grab the audience like Spielberg:  We could all take a lesson in how to quickly grab the audience’s attention from Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Jaws.  It opens with a girl getting eaten by a shark.  The rest of the film is about resolving the problem of the shark!  Your presentations should start the same way.  Cut right to the “shark”, the key challenge that faces your listeners and your business.  That will grab their attention without wasting time.
Make the body of your presentation pass the $300,000 challenge:  Let’s say you’re about to give a presentation.  Before the presentation I offer you $300,000, saying you can have the money under one condition.  After your presentation, I will ask three people from the audience to repeat your key messages.  If all three can do it, you win the money.
If those are the conditions, you will limit your presentation to a few key messages and keep them short, repeating them many times.  Any good presentation should leave the audience with a few memorable messages.  So ask yourself, “What are the three things that my audience must remember?”
Leave lots of time for Q&A:  Q&A is duct tape for presentations.  It fixes almost everything.  Greater interactivity improves every presentation.  Want to simplify your topic for presentation?  Take the three questions that folks ask the most and put them on a slide.  Then answer them one at a time.  It will be a great presentation.
Minimize your slides:  Steve Jobs said, “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”  Most good presentations need no more than five to ten slides.  Figure out how to focus your message on your audience’s key issues, tell your story quickly focusing on a few key points and take questions.  Lots of questions!