Book Preview #4: My Top Lessons on Running Mission-Driven Organizations

Perhaps I should clarify what these book previews constitute.  They are highlights of about 400 lessons I learned and catalogued about running nonprofits and personal well-being during the first 30 years of my career.  My forthcoming book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, is a collection of stories that illustrate how I learned and applied a few dozen of the most important of those lessons. 

I thought it would be interesting to share, in raw form, these discrete tips, techniques and mindsets – both those that are elaborated on in the book, and those that fell to the cutting-room floor during the editing process.  As mentioned earlier, if anyone would like the full set of lessons learned on any individual topic, send me evidence that you have bought the book.  If you would like to have all 403 (!) lessons spanning 14 topics, then send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies. 

This category centers on what I learned about effectively running nonprofit and mission-driven organizations.  I distilled 64 distinct lessons while I was working on this project.  Below you will find twenty really important ones. 

By way of background, I was completely unprepared when I become the founder and president of Grameen Foundation in 1997.  As I describe in the opening chapters of the book, I lacked most of the skills required.  All I had was my work ethic, self-discipline, and achievement orientation.  I had a few assets, such as the Grameen brand, my knowledge of microfinance (at least as practiced in Asia), and my relationship with the iconic social entrepreneur Professor Muhammad Yunus.  I forged ahead and made a ton of mistakes, but also gained insights, mentors, and confidence with each passing year.  If I had learned what is described below earlier, I would have accomplished much more, much faster.  I hope you find them useful. 

Think of these as things I would tell myself at age 30 as I was undertaking my first leadership role.  They may or may not be applicable to you as a nonprofit leader in this form, but perhaps they will get you thinking about your own philosophy or preferred techniques.  (Many of them are applicable to the for-profit sector and government, and may be helpful even if you are a board member, non-executive employee of, or simpy an active volunteer in a non-profit.) Please share your feedback and your own lessons learned.

1.      Always be on the lookout for ways that you can develop ongoing sources of earned revenue to supplement donations.  This is especially important during times when you don’t need that additional revenue, such as when you are fund-raising, because you will have some discretionary resources to put into testing earned revenue ideas and investing in the infrastructure needed to turn any ideas into reality.    

2.      On a regular basis, share with your senior team and board your worst mistakes in recent times and what you feel you learned from them.  Encourage them to do the same with their direct reports.  If you feel comfortable doing so, share these with a broader group of organizational stakeholders.    

3.      During moments of organizational conflict, change and risk, invest heavily in talking one-on-one with the people you need most to successfully navigate the turbulence.  Tell them why are you are leading the organization the way you are, and also ask for their advice and act on the best ideas you get from these sessions.   

4.      As a leader, I believe that being decisive is a strength.  Oftentimes, a good decision made quickly is far better than a great one made after a long delay.  But it is also important to remember that sometimes muddling through and kicking an issue down the road is the best course of action. 

5.      Don’t be the kind of leader who commits to meetings with colleagues or speaking at convenings organized by industry peers and perpetually shows up late, unprepared, or cancels when something better comes up.  Instead, develop the discipline of showing up on time (or close), being prepared, and keeping commitments even when something better emerges that conflicts with your prior commitment.  Don’t call in sick unless you are really sick; suck it up and show up whenever you possibly can.

6.      The essence of good leadership of a non-profit is to first convince yourself, your staff and your volunteers that the change you are seeking to make in society is important.  Second, convince them that those changes are possible, but not inevitable.  Third, help them to believe that you have or are developing a credible plan and team to make those changes and that your organization will receive some credit for – or at any rate can take pride in having contributed to – those changes.  These messages need to be continually reinforced in various ways that take in account people’s different learning styles.

7.      Since mission driven organizations lack the easy measures of success that commercial enterprises have – such as profit and stock price – take care to build in ways to credibly measure the success of your organization and all of its projects from the beginning, when it is much easier than when it is already underway.  When developing success metrics, put a premium on simplicity and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

8.      There are two types of organizations – those that regularly experience self-inflicted wounds and admit it to themselves, and those that regularly experience self-inflicted wounds and don’t admit it to themselves.  While avoiding unnecessary self-flagellation, strive to be the former rather than the latter.

9.      Some employees in mission-driven organizations are renters who intend to stay and contribute for a few years while they build their resume and then move on.  Others are owners – they will settle in for a long period and relate to the organization as if they founded it.  Strive to have at least one-third of your middle and senior management be “owners,” and be forgiving about their faults in ways that you might not be with renters.  Having too few owners can be dangerous, but renters also have important roles to play.   Sometimes their lower level of affinity for the organization allows them to see its flaws and be willing to talk about them openly without fear of retribution (since they are likely leaving at some point in the not too distant future anyway).

10.  Everyone knows you should reward success, though not all leaders do it (either because they worry it will breed complacency, define success too narrowly, or because they play favorites).  But there are times when it is just as important, if not more important to reward failure.  If someone shows that they have learned a profound lesson from a setback and have emerged a stronger professional, give them more responsibility, not less.  (Few things teach lessons on a deeper level than experiencing failure when you expected success.)  Doing so will demonstrate that risk-taking is encouraged and that growth (even if through failure) is recognized and rewarded. 

11.  After a major project or event is complete, have the discipline to schedule a post-mortem where everyone on your staff who was involved can have their say about what went well, what didn’t, why, and what the lessons are the for the future.  As a leader, it is important that you ensure these sessions happen, that you participate, and that divergent and unpopular views are welcomed and digested rather than driven underground.  This helps promote a learning culture focused on continuous improvement, and also a culture of celebration for those things that go well. 

12.  Be visible to your staff and, to the extent possible, your clients.  For leaders that need to travel frequently, as many roles require, this means being present and available as much as possible when you are not travelling, and being responsive to them by phone and email when you are not.  I recommend almost never working from home (unless you don’t have a physical office). Even when you are in the office, make an effort to be accessible, walk around and say hello to people, attend staff-organized social events after work, and eat lunch in the common area (rather than at your desk) so that people can come up to you and talk about anything on their minds.  It also means going into work even when you feel a little under the weather. 

13.  Respond to people’s calls, emails and letters quickly (and don’t make excuses when you fail to do so).  This will reinforce that you are paying attention to them, give them priority, and do not overthink things.  But if a message is about a contentious issue, it is often best to delay responding for a day or two, in order to seek advice and reconsider whether your initial reaction is the best response.

14.  Never allow colleagues to criticize people who used to work at your organization but have left.  Above all, it isn’t fair, since they are not there to defend themselves.  Model this behavior yourself.  This is not to say that people can’t discuss factual things about the service record of past employees if it is necessary.  But avoid gratuitous exploration of former employees’ mistakes and expressions of opinion (especially if negative) about how they performed.

15.  Be optimistic, but never stop trying to see the organization through the eyes of your staff and board who are worriers, pessimists, or generally unhappy with the internal status quo.  This will ensure that you remain credible with them and gradually improve their experience in the organization.

16.  Encourage dissent at all levels in your organization, but ensure that it is typically presented as an attack on an idea, not at people.  Otherwise, the dissent will be driven underground – it rarely “goes away.”  At the same time, it is important that people don’t reflexively dissent from the ideas put forward by leaders (or anyone else) in the organization, but rather give them a hearing and approach them with an open mind. 

17.  Energetically engage in at least some the debates in your field.  Have the courage of your convictions if your views about those debates are not currently in favor among the majority of your peers or opinion-leaders.  In such cases, explain to your team why you are taking a contrarian view.  It can become a point of pride and differentiation, but that will not happen automatically.   While arguing your case publicly and privately, remain open to getting new information that could change your point of view.

18.  As a leader, you have a special responsibility to see that people are given farewells from the organization that are generous and that calibrated to their tenure and their level of contribution and effort to the mission.

19.  Some good and great employees will stay loyal to your organization well beyond what would be in the best interests of their career and earning potential.  Try to figure out who those people are and make an effort to compliment, reassure, support and listen to them.  Don’t ever take them for granted.  Even if you can’t match what they can command on the open market, if you pay attention to them and do what you can for them, they may continue to work for you and put forth their best effort.     

20. If you like to send emails to your staff on weekends and holidays, make it clear to them whether you expect them to respond before the next working day. In general, a good approach is to say that you don’t expect (but will happily receive) responses over weekends and holidays, except in rare cases when they must be responded to. You will make it clear when those rare cases occur.