Monday, September 30, 2013

The Ideal Governance Model

By Steven Worth, President, Plexus Consulting LLC

Each organization tends to have that governance structure that reflects its values and culture. If having every voice at the table for every definable stakeholder group is what is most important to an organization then such groups tend to emphasize those traits while also accepting that the trade-off is to have process-intense decision-making governance structures that resist change. This perhaps marks one extreme of a spectrum.

The other extreme is represented by mission-driven organizations where the driving force lies in finding the means and strategies to advance the organization's mission. The people chosen to serve the governance structures of such organizations are chosen for this purpose alone. This is much more common to the governance structures of for-profit corporations than is it in the nonprofit world. The governance structures of these organizations tend to be lean, focused and fast-moving. The dangers in such structures are an increased risk of insider dealing and myopic decision making.

Somewhere in between lies the ideal governance-operational balance, but that spot is different for each organizational culture, I think. As a consultant I prefer the second model to the first because decision making is clearer and easier and these organizations do tend to adapt more easily to a fast-changing environment. But like the tortoise and the hare sometimes these lumbering, muscle-bound organizations in the first model tend to muddle through and end up winning the race after all!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Five Steps to Habit Change

By Virgil Carter

How many of us have habits we’d like to change?  Hold up your hands!  I’ve got my hand raised; how about you?  According to a recent article by Daniel Goldman, the brain’s basal ganglia plays a key role in the formations of habits, both good and bad.  What’s the basal ganglia I heard someone say?  The basal ganglia (or basal nuclei) are a group of nuclei of varied origin in the brains of vertebrates that act as a cohesive functional unit. They are situated at the base of the forebrain and are strongly connected with the cerebral cortex, thalamus and other brain areas.  If you don’t believe me, just Wiki it!  But I digress.

According to Mr. Goldman, “As we keep repeating a routine of any kind, the brain shifts its control of the habit from areas at the top of the brain to the basal ganglia at the bottom. As this switch occurs, we lose awareness of the habit and its triggers. The routine springs into action in response to a trigger we don’t notice, and does so automatically. We lose control.”

“To change the habit we must first bring it into consciousness again. That takes self-awareness, a fundamental of emotional intelligence.

Mr. Goldman writes, “This (idea of habits) came up at a workshop I gave with Tara Bennett-Goleman on her new book, Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-defeating Emotional Habits, which explains the neuroscience of habit change. She recommends mindfulness as a way to bring unconscious habits back into awareness where they can be changed. And she outlines a simple five-step process for making that change, especially helpful if the person is working with a coach.

1.   Familiarize yourself with the self-defeating habit. Get so you can recognize the routine as it starts, or begins to take over. This might be by noticing its typical thoughts or feelings, or how you start to act. You can also follow Paul Ekman's simple suggestion: keep a journal of your triggers.

2.   Be mindful. Monitor your behavior –thoughts, feelings, actions – from a neutral, “witness” awareness.

3.   Remember the alternatives – think of a better way to handle the situation.

4.   Choose something better – e.g., what you say or do that would be helpful instead of self-defeating.

5.   Do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.

Tara cites the neuroscience evidence that the more often you can repeat the new routine instead of the self-destructive one, the sooner it will replace the self-defeating habit in your basal ganglia. The better response will become your new default reaction.

To read the full article, go to

Monday, September 16, 2013

Aligning Volunteers and Staff

By Virgil Carter

Experienced non-profit CEOs and senior staff know that their job tenure may be rocky.  Tension, sometimes conflict, with volunteers and staff may be all too common.  When these situations occur they are not good for the organization or those involved.  What can be done to understand and minimize these situations?

Closer examination often reveals that active volunteers care passionately about the association.  Why else would they volunteer their time?  Many volunteers are leading figures in their field.  While many volunteers are subject-matter experts, many have little leadership experience in the unique setting of nonprofit, volunteer-led organizations.  In fact, many active volunteers may have little senior or executive leadership experience, since their work roles may be at mid-management or specialist levels.

By comparison, many CEOs and senior staff spend years expanding their enterprise-wide leadership and management knowledge of nonprofits. Many CEOs and senior staff gain perspective through active participation in the broader nonprofit world.

Thus we have a disparity:  volunteers without senior or executive management experience working directly with staff who may be functioning in senior or executive roles on a daily basis.  Compounding this disparity of knowledge and experience is the fact that roles and responsibilities of volunteer leaders and CEOs often are highly ambiguous. Even where there are written policies, there may be many more unwritten policies actually determining who does what, when, and how. Sound familiar?

What can be done to reconcile these disparities between volunteers and CEOs/senior staff?  One important improvement is forging and maintaining a volunteer-staff partnership built around leadership role clarity based on the following:

·         Mission-driven activities: These activities tend to represent the purpose of the organization. These activities motivate volunteers and are where most want to be active. These activities, which are rightly led and populated by volunteers, may produce few revenues and may be largely subsidized. This financial situation may be coupled with volunteer assertions that association activities shouldn’t produce revenues over expenses, to keep volunteer costs to a minimum.  Mission-driven activities are critical. There is nothing wrong with subsidized activities, so long as revenues from other sources are available for the needed subsidies.
·         Business operations activities: These activities are where most of the positive revenue is created to subsidize mission-driven activities. Because they are profit-and-loss oriented, they must be staff led and managed, since volunteers simply have neither the access nor the time to manage business affairs in the timely and agile manner required. A caution: business activities must be related to the mission, as much as subsidized activities.
·         Clear roles:  Establishing clear roles and accountabilities for these two categories of association activity enables volunteer leaders and CEOs to play to their respective strengths. Such clarity, coupled with good communications, enables effective leadership, improved relationships, and strengthened organizational performance.

Leadership role clarity is an important step to transform tension between volunteer leaders and CEOs into productive partnership. Annual and on-going volunteer and staff leadership orientations provide on-going opportunities to discuss and reinforce the importance of role clarity. 

The results—more effective volunteers, stability in CEO and senior staff tenure, and more successful, enjoyable association experiences—make the partnership worth everyone’s effort.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Litmus Test for Sustainability

By Steven Worth, President, Plexus Consulting LLC

It is a forehead slapping, frustrating moment when a manager realizes the metric they have been using to measure a program’s effectiveness may not be the right one--but it is the only explanation sometimes when hitting a target leaves you less than satisfied, when you realize that you could hit the target repeatedly and still never be any further ahead in the end. It is a more common managerial mistake than many realize, but how do you solve it—how do you know you have set the target on what truly matters?

The answer lies in the realization that every strategic goal has multiple dimensions such as:

• Financial, are the revenues generated enough to cover costs and contribute to investment in new intellectual capital?;

• In what measurable way(s) does it contribute to advancing the organization’s mission and vision? and

• In what measurable ways does it increased the market share or impact of your organization on your target markets?

But there is a fourth area that the most effective programs cover as well:

• How has this improved the economic performance of your customers?—how has it helped students find jobs, professionals to find better paying positions, and employers to operate more efficiently and profitably?

As important as the first three are, we have found that it is this fourth aspect of measurement that matters most in this competitive global economy we all live in.