The Bells of Christmas Eve

I was born much later in our parent’s lives than my sisters. It was never made clear to me whether I was an accident, an afterthought, or simply a last gasp attempt to get a male to carry on the family name. Regardless of the plan, or lack thereof, I was born into the same generation as my nieces and nephews, and we grew up together, nearly as siblings. I was the oldest by only three years. It was always a bit odd for me to call my parents “Mom” and “Dad,” when they called them “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”

For the first 25 years of my life, Christmas Eve was celebrated by all at my parents’ house. Though there were gifts for everyone under the tree, my sisters’ families would also celebrate Christmas morning in their own homes where my nieces and nephews would finally receive the lion’s share of their annual yuletide loot. Mine, however, was received in total on Christmas Eve.

Since this was the arrangement during my childhood, I knew nothing else and never questioned it. My family was far from well off but, because we lived on a farm where humans were infinitely outnumbered by cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, sweet corn, potatoes, and other fruit and vegetables, we never went hungry. I remember each Christmas receiving one “big” gift, which usually meant it was the most expensive. The most notable of these was a miniature slot car racing set that stoked my boyish love of Midwestern dirt track stock car racing.

My Christmas Eve was always made special, however, by a mystery. After our holiday dinner of chili soup, oyster stew, and assorted delicacies, including pickled herring, mincemeat pie, and a canvas of sweets, including German Christmas cookies handmade by my mother, we would eagerly await the time to open presents. The mystery usually happened in the brief calm between dinner and the wild chaos of opening presents. It began as a faint jingling and would grow until we knew it was the unmistakable sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. All of us children would fly off to the only window we could reach and peer into the night. Never once did we catch a glimpse of him, but we knew he was there. We had the proof still ringing in our ears. When we finally peeled ourselves off the window and turned back to the Christmas tree, it always seemed a little bit fuller and brighter, and the gifts slightly more plentiful.

When I was on the verge of becoming a teenager, the mystery was revealed to me. The sleigh bells were real but they were not attached to a sleigh. They were dangled out another window (near the one we would race to) tied up by bailing rope, and hidden to all visitors outside the house by a small bush and the winter darkness. At the appointed time each Christmas Eve, my father would slip away to the room and start yanking on the bailing rope to play the orchestra of bells. It was, I believe, the only musical ability he possessed.

On this particular pre-adolescent Christmas Eve, I was shown the sleigh bells and invited to ring them for the others. Even more, I was invited to take over the annual tradition. Things and families change as they tend to do and the tradition was lost. But I still have the bells. Every time they jingle I am transported back to another more innocent time.

My last Christmas Eve adventure with the bells came on my son’s third birthday. By this time the sleigh bells, which really are from my great-grandfather’s sleigh, had been reconditioned and placed on a new leather strap and were hung on a wall in our home for display only. However, on this Christmas Eve, the only in which I (a guy named Klaus) would ever play Santa Claus, I conspired one last time with the bells.

I left the house to run an errand and changed into the Santa outfit in a nearby parking lot. I returned home as Santa, where I asked for my son. He came down the steps and stood frozen upon seeing me. His eyes were about to pop out of his head when I asked…”You must be Jakob. I just saw your dad and he helped me with a problem. I forgot my sleigh bells at the North Pole and he said I could borrow yours, but I had to ask you first. Is it okay?” Still frozen in silence and staring wide at me, it took several seconds for Jake to slowly nod his head. I thanked him for the bells, slung them over my shoulder, and left. When I returned home as dad after running my errands, Jake was no longer at a loss for words. He told me all about the visit from Santa, how Santa had asked for the bells, and how he and Santa had just talked…and talked…and talked.

I still have the bells and, in fact, they hang in my office today where, occasionally, as I walk by them I brush against them and, once again, the symphony of bells takes me back to those Christmas Eves in our Iowa farmhouse.

May your holidays be filled with wonderful experiences that become the most enduring stories of your life.

More later…in 2016

Tom

What if…”Better Practices” not “Best Practices?”

An emphasis on using “evidence based practices” is stifling experimentation. This was the statement I posed in a poll within my last blog, back in February 2015, just before I got sucked into a vortex of Federal grant writing from which I am only now extracting myself. The results are in and a full 77% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the statement is true.

Before we run out and create an “evidence based practice” of wild experimentation on the basis of this finding, however, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, this was a highly unscientific poll that was not intended for grounding a new discipline but only for stimulating dialogue…which it did. Second, I am not really a “best practice” or “evidence-based” curmudgeon, but I am not an uncritical fan of them. On some days, I may even be more critic than fan.

In fact, we need “best practices” and “evidence-based practices.” I was particularly taken by the comments of my friend Andy Penziner who offered this defense of evidence-based practices in a comment on my blog at www.nonprofitgp.com:

First, evidence-based solutions/best practices would seem preferable to pet solutions or random practices. Second, context and generalizability should always be acknowledged and considered. Third, a creative, open mind should never be stifled in favor of blind deference to whatever the best practice d’jour might be; they can coexist. Finally, as for pleasing funders or conforming to their priorities…well, it’s kind of a fact of life, eh!

I would like to add two additional points to these. One is that there are some situations in which “evidence based practices” are the best and only practices you absolutely want. For example, do you want to see a doctor that is not using evidence based medicine in providing care for you? Probably not. Do you want to live in a high rise building that has not been built to the standards of evidence based architecture and building construction? No way! Do you want fly down the highway in heavy traffic inside an automobile that has not been built to evidence based standards and carefully tested? Absolutely not. Keep in mind that my previous blog was a bit of a rant about using “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices to address complex social problems. A complex social problem is one that eludes solutions proposed by “best practices” and “evidence-based” solutions because it shares the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. It is dynamic; has many interdependent agents or factors; one change in the system affects changes throughout the whole system; and it is robust in its ability to do all of these things. Within complex social problems, there may be a place to use some “best practice” or “evidence-based” interventions for very specific purposes. However, to believe that one or two or even three or four “evidence-based” interventions can solve the whole of the problem is just wrong thinking. It is also to commit the error Andy warns about: failing to acknowledge the role of context.

The other thing I would like to add to Andy’s list is that “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” also have useful historical value. They tell us what did and did not work well in the past, which may have value for our current situation. Considered in this light, “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” can suggest to us “better practices that may work” though they offer no guarantees of working in our situation. I bristle against “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” when they are presented as the “solution” regardless of the context, which, in the case of social problems, is usually complex.

I have become increasingly fond of the idea of “better practices that may work.” This allows me to feel comfortable standing in both the worlds of “evidence-based” practice and “what if” experimentation. On the one hand, it allows me to consider the evidence of proven and best practices. On the other, as Andy indicates, it helps me to keep a creative, open mind; always consider the context; and avoid uncritically adopting the evidence-based practice of the moment.

The key word in the phrase “better practices that may work” is “may.” “May” does not offer the guarantees of “will.” To say something may work is to say just as clearly that it may not work which is a loaded proposition for many folks.

It is loaded with the risk of failure. It is loaded with the humility required to admit that one does not have all the answers. It is loaded with the requirement to engage in the uncertainty, angst, and, some would say, joy and excitement, of “what if” experimentation.

Over the past few months I have been compiling some “what if” experiments with regard to community engagement on complex social problems and have been discussing them and exploring their implications with increasing regularity with my clients. If you work with communities to address such problems, here are a few of my questions to help you think of your own:

  • What if…people with lived experience of the social problem we are trying to address were really welcomed into our coalitions, leadership teams, and other planning groups? (As my friend Tommy Ross has said, “There is a big difference between an invitation and a welcome.”)
  • What if…that welcome included having the same decision making power as the rest of us?
  • What if…we valued and prioritized relationship building and social networking as community engagement strategies more than using social media and marketing?
  • What if…we focused more on creating community ownership of change than “buy in” to the change?
  • What if…we used principles to guide our work rather than checklists, protocols, and performance measures?
  • What if…we were to build trust before trying to change things?
  • What if…we shared the leadership and did not insist on being out front?
  • What if…we were to conduct evaluation that is focused on developing a better effort rather than measuring achievement of outcomes?
  • What if…we were to embrace the risk of “better practices that may work”?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Beyond the Comfort of What We Think We Know

Has an over-reliance on “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices struck a deathblow to our ability to think creatively and our courage to be experimental?

My mind is still mulling over my experience at the inaugural Collective Impact Summit last October in Toronto. No individual presenter had a greater impact on my thinking in that meeting than Brenda Zimmerman. Dr. Zimmerman, who died tragically on December 16 last year in an automobile accident, was a leading thinker in the application of complexity theory to both for profit and social profit (aka nonprofit) organizations and our understanding of change. She is widely known for her book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, written with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton.

Dr. Zimmerman’s presentation and workshop at the Summit challenged, stirred, and animated my thinking in a number of ways. One that has been most profound has been pushing me to rediscover the value and validity of experimentation. I think of experimentation as the courage to ask “What if we tried…(fill in the blank)?” rather than rotely following the recipes, formulas, and checklists of “best practices” and “evidence-based” approaches.

I know better than most the safety of recipes, formulas, and checklists. The ability to apply or replicate evidence-based solutions to problems is often the surest course to achieving the measurable outcomes demanded by many funders. However, the unintended consequences of fidelity to our recipes, formulas, and checklists can be horrific.

For example, under pressure to meet some funders’ timetables to apply the best evidence-based solution to a complex social problem in our community, we ignore, in our haste, those who have genuine expertise with the problem and whose wisdom we need: those who live the problem every day.

Ignoring these, whom Dr. Zimmerman called “context experts,” can lead us, in turn, to an over-reliance on evidence-based solutions which appear to have demonstrated success in addressing similar complex community problems. As a result, we identify an evidence-based solution that worked for another community, but which does not really work for our community, or even at all. We assume the solution will work because the problem over there looks very similar to the one we are trying to solve right here. We even try to “tweak” the solution with various approved adaptations to make it fit better. In the end, we discover we have simply forced the proverbial “square peg into a round hole.” In our shame, we write-up carefully worded reports for the funder to make the evidence-based solution sound more successful than we know it was and, in some cases, our reports merely add to the myth of that particular evidence-based solution.

However, we are not the only ones who know that the evidence-based solution we selected to do to the community did not really work. Those context experts know it, too. Their secret knowledge of the solution’s poor fit and its failure significantly weakens the likelihood of sustaining the solution in the community. After all, the community might not have wanted or needed our solution in the first place and may be glad to see it now, finally, go away. Sustainability stems from successful solutions owned by the community; and ownership grows out of trust, respect, and meaningful participation of the context experts – which we did not demonstrate from the outset.

Nonetheless, we climb further into the “best practice” and “evidence-based” trap. We are confident the next time we will find the right fit if we just follow the formula a little more carefully.

What if the problem is the formula? What if the process is flawed? What if our assumptions about expertise, best practices, and evidence-based solutions are all wrong? What if we have allowed our blind trust in best practices and evidence-based solutions for complex social problems kill off our human capacity for genuine creativity, thoughtful experimentation, and the ability to simply ask, “What if….?”

I am going to leave you with these questions but I plan to continue this conversation soon. In the meantime, take a moment to complete the poll at the bottom. I would like to know what you think.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Collective Impact 3.0: Big Ideas from CI Summit in Toronto

I’m a really lucky guy. I got to spend a week with my Canadian friends earlier this month and, once again, they both affirmed and pushed my thinking. Boy, did they affirm and push! The occasion was Tamarack’s inaugural Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. Featured plenary speakers included Melody Barnes, John Kania, Brenda Zimmerman, and Jay Connor. In this space I want to highlight the five biggest ideas that came out of this event for me. The concept of a “big idea,” of course, is relative. What is big to me may not be big to you so I will explain my criteria. The five ideas that follow were big to me because they both confirmed what I have been learning through my own work with Collective Impact since December, 2011 and inspired me to go even deeper.

Elayne Greeley, from St. John's, Newfoundland and the CI Summit "Artist in Residence," illustrated the evolution of Collective Impact at the CI Summit in Toronto, October 6-10, 2014.
Elayne Greeley, from St. John’s, Newfoundland and the CI Summit “Artist in Residence,” illustrated the evolution of Collective Impact at the CI Summit in Toronto, October 6-10, 2014.

In the opening session of the summit, Tamarack’s Mark Cabaj set the theme and tone by arguing that the Summit was marking a new phase in the development of Collective Impact. The first phase, Collective Impact 1.0, was marked by experimentation with the approach. Collective Impact 2.0 saw the framing of broad parameters  and the emergence and development of practices related to it. Collective Impact 3.0, though, would extend and build upon these previous two phases as it deepened  understanding of the practices, capacities and ecology or context required for CI. The CI Summit did a great job of focusing on Collective Impact 3.0 and, as a result, these five big ideas emerged for me.

Big Idea #1: “Collective Impact” Does Not Need to be Applied to Every Collaboration. This idea represents a major leap in the maturation of the Collective Impact framework. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recognized “Collective Impact” as #2 in their top ten list of philanthropic buzzwords in 2011. In doing so, though, it suggested that CI was merely a new term for an old way of working together. Shortly thereafter the term was applied to every sort of collaborative effort. My regular readers will know that I am one who has been frustrated by the wholesale application of the “Collective Impact” label to every group effort. New ideas can benefit from such publicity but they can also die when, as a result, they are misunderstood as simply “new and shiny” objects. When a new idea’s label is, therefore, misapplied it can be devalued and its benefit to the field lost. I think Collective Impact 1.0 and 2.0 was at risk of devaluation as a result of its popularity.

At the CI Summit, Brenda Zimmerman delineated known, knowable, and unknowable problems. Isolated efforts and traditional collaborations are usually sufficient to address the known and knowable problems. Complex social issues, which is the realm of Collective Impact, are unknowable problems. That is, the problems are difficult to define and the solutions are even less clear. The appropriate application of Collective Impact 3.0 is to complex issues.

Big Idea #2: “Context Experts” and “Content Experts,” a 50/50 Proposition. The CI Summit introduced new language, as well as a new understanding, for how to think about the residents with lived experience that CI initiatives are trying to serve. “Residents with lived experience,” for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who are living directly with the issue a CI initiative is trying to address and are, therefore, likely to be the people who see the greatest benefit from a successful initiative. Context Experts are residents with lived experience, including children and youth. Typically, they are the people who experientially know about the issue. Content Experts are professionals, providers, and leaders with formal power who have knowledge, tools, and resources to address the issue. Typically, they are the people with the technical knowhow. The language is new and quite friendly to use though the concept of having both types of experts in a collaborative effort is not.

The really big idea is with regard to achieving the right mix of the two types of experts. For too many years and in too many collaborative initiatives, Content Experts have far outnumbered Context Experts, to the point of tokenizing them. The information coming out of the Summit, though, argues that it needs to be a 50/50 split to achieve Collective Impact 3.0. This reformulation of the equation has profound implications, particularly, I believe, among CI initiatives in the United States. In future blogs, I will try to unpack some of those that are most significant.

Big Idea #3: Ownership and Buy In are Not the Same Thing. This idea has an important correlation to the previous one: the more we involve Context Experts the more likely it is that we will facilitate “ownership” and not merely “buy in.” Why is this? The explanation lies in understanding how these are defined in the context of Collective Impact 3.0. “Buy in” means that Content Experts have come up with an idea and now have to get Context Experts to “buy in” to it, if it is going to stand a chance of working. This, I argue, is the sad status quo for most social change and public health initiatives I have both seen and been a part of in the United States. “Ownership” means that the idea comes from the Context Experts and, as a result, it is theirs from the outset and, therefore, need no convincing. We Content Experts are infamous for coming up with ideas for doing good to or for others, but not with them.

Big Idea #4: Best Practices are the Enemy of Emergence. The CI Summit highlighted that Collective Impact 3.0 is designed to address complex problems with emergent solutions. As noted earlier, complex problems do not have known solutions therefore evidence-based and best practices from past experience have very limited value. While they may offer clues, they cannot provide the definitive answers we expect of them. When best practices are applied, in fact, they stifle the creative thinking and adaptive responses needed for the solutions to emerge. Here is the danger of best practices when applied to complex problems: If we are convinced we already have the solution through an evidence-based or best practice, we stop thinking about and seeing other solutions when they emerge. As a result, we keep pounding the square peg into the round hole. Collective Impact 3.0 asks us to take the leap of faith that our Context Experts and Content Experts, when working together in a close relationship based on respect and trust, can allow the solutions to emerge and, together, see them, test them, and implement them.   

Big Idea #5: Change Happens at the Speed of Trust. “Change happens at the speed of trust” refers to comments made by FSG’s John Kania when he was speaking about the mind shifts that are needed for Collective Impact 3.0. Among the mind shifts John identified was the need to establish deeper relationships among CI partners to support the movement needed for progress to occur. It is not clear to me whether John actually used the phrase “change happens at the speed of trust” or whether this was an interpretation given to his actual words by another. I heard one of the members of my Learning Lab use this during our final meeting together of the Summit. It immediately resonated with me. The following week I used the phrase in my keynote presentation at the Iowa Department of Human Services Breakthrough Series Collaborative meeting in Des Moines. It strongly resonated with the group there as well. Wendy Rickman, Administrator of the Division of Adult, Children and Family Services, was so taken by it that she proposed that “change happens at the speed of trust” be carried forward as the theme for the next phase of the Iowa Breakthrough Series Collaborative, a five-year-old initiative of Iowa DHS and Casey Family Programs to improve the state’s child welfare system.

Regardless of the origin of the phrase, it says a lot about the look of Collective Impact 3.0. As one of John Kania’s slides did said, “typical social sector mindset and behavior has it backwards.”  It is not about pre-determined solutions and emergent interactions and relationships; it is about pre-determined interactions and the relationships and solutions that will emerge as a result.

The many pieces of information I gleaned from the Summit that congealed into these Five Big Ideas came so fast and furious that I am not sure I can accurately cite any single source. Some came out of the plenary sessions, some came out of the workshops, and some came out of the interaction with Learning Lab #20 (you know who you are and thank you for all I learned from you) which I had the honor and pleasure of facilitating. Regardless of the source, I am deeply appreciative of the insights and ideas that were shared at the Collective Impact Summit. I hope to meet you there next year!

Be greater, do good…every day.

T.W.K.

Driving the Rusty Spike – A Free Teleconference for Stuck Writers

On Thursday, September 18, 2014 from 7:30 to 8:30 PM (Eastern), I’m offering a free quickee teleconference titled, Driving the Rusty Spike: Lessons Learned in the True Life Adventures of Dissertating and Other Nasty Writing Projects.

This is a one-hour teleconference on how to make progress toward successful completion of a dissertation, thesis, or other weighty writing project that feels like it is stuck and just hanging around haunting your life. If you, or someone you know, is in the midst of one of those writing projects and would like a respite, mixed with a bit of witty encouragement, please join me. This is especially good for folks who have decided to inflict one of those graduate degrees on themselves that require a lot of writing.

Here’s a brief description:

You sailed through the course work, the comprehensive examination, and daily grind of pursuing a graduate degree or advanced study. Now it’s time to write that dissertation, thesis, or even book, that seemed a long way off when you started your program. Uh-oh. Brain freeze! Energy loss! Reactor core melt down! (“And don’t ask for any more warp 9 speeds, Mr. Spock. Our star drive is completely burned out. The only thing we have left is impulse power.”) How can you possibly find it within you to get over this last hurdle and sprint to the finish line?

In this teleworkshop you will receive:

  • At least 10 strategies for refueling your spirit, refocusing your mind, and reclaiming your drive to finish that dissertation, thesis or other major writing project
  • Inspiration to start moving forward again and to keep moving
  • Affirmation of your effort and support from others who are on a similar journey

I will be leading the teleconference. Here a little about my own experience that informs this presentation: Tom Klaus (Ph.D., Organizational Leadership) infamously described the doctoral journey with this appalling metaphor, that was nonetheless often quoted by others at the university whenever he was introduced: “It’s like tapping a rusty spike slowly through your forehead, into your brain, and yet finding it weirdly exhilarating.” Tom did finish driving the rusty spike and has been a prolific writer throughout his career, including books, articles, curriculum, and blogs. He is a nonprofit business and leadership development consultant based in Laurel, Maryland; an adjunct professor at Eastern University (Philadelphia) in the School of Leadership Development and Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership programs; a blogger for his own site, Non-Profit GP, and Tamarack, an institute for community engagement based in Canada; and a nonprofit leader with deep and wide experience.

There is no cost for this teleconference. You only pay the cost of long distance charges to call into the teleconference line. However, advance registration is required.

To Register: Click HERE to register (or cut and past into your browser this link: http://tinyurl.com/DrivingTheRustySpikeOR  you can use this contact form to register as well:

Between September 1 and September 12, you will receive confirmation of your registration and the conference call number and access code. Please note: Your registration information is confidential and will not be shared.

If you have questions, please contact me at info@nonprofitgp.com

Yes, please feel free to share this information with others you believe may be interested.

Be greater, do good, every day.

T.W.K.

Leaders, State Fairs, and a One Man Band

I love the Iowa State Fair.  I’m an Iowa native and August always means the Iowa State Fair and a symphony of cicadas.  The cicadas have followed me to the East Coast so I still get to hear them each year.  My visits to the Iowa State Fair, though, are not annual events anymore.  If I’m lucky, I get back to the fair about every five years.  This was one of those years!

The 2013 Iowa State Fair Butter Cow
The 2013 Iowa State Fair Butter Cow

Even though I’ve been going to the Iowa State Fair since I was a small child, there are still things one must do every time one goes.  You’ve got to see the Butter Cow which unfortunately was damaged by vandals this year.  The picture seen here shows how the cow looked on the opening day of the fair when I was there.  You’ve also got to walk through the midway to let all the carnival barkers have a chance to take your money.  You’ve got see the Big Boar.  For the first time ever I got to see the Big Boar weigh-in competition.  Otis, weighing in at 1,103 pounds, was the winner though he was actually 232 pounds lighter than Reggie, the 2012 champion and record-setting Big Boar.  So, why didn’t Reggie come back to defend his title, you may ask?  One word:  sausage.  Otis is a one-time winner, too, but watch for him to appear in a deli section near you.

Otis - 1,103 lbs - Iowa State Fair Big Boar
Otis – 1,103 lbs – Iowa State Fair Big Boar

Speaking of food, you’ve also got to hit the myriad of food stands at the fair (I had two incredible monster cinnamon rolls and, to honor my heritage as an Iowa hog farmer, a pork tenderloin and a pulled pork sandwich).

Though there are things I have to do at the Iowa State Fair as part of the tradition there are always a few surprises.  This year it was The One and Only Bandaloni.  Bandaloni is a “one man band” but don’t let that phrase conjure up the wrong image for you.  Bandaloni is not some quasi-talented guy on a street corner trying to make a buck by playing a ukulele, harmonica, and cymbals strapped to his knees.  (He’s actually got a nearly full drum set on his back.)  He’s a talented pro who sings and plays up to 12 instruments at the same time all the while strolling about and interacting with the large crowds he draws.  A local television station in Des Moines did a feature on Bandaloni’s appearance at the Iowa State Fair that is worth a look.

My ingrained Iowa farm kid work ethic makes it virtually impossible for me to simply have fun watching someone like Bandaloni without finding a good reason for enjoying myself so much.  The lesson I learned from Bandaloni that justified the fun I had watching him was this:  Bandaloni exemplifies much of what it takes to be a good, effective leader today.

Iowa State Fair Concessions
Iowa State Fair Concessions

First, leaders need to multitask seamlessly.  Leaders usually don’t have the luxury of doing just one thing at a time.  They have to continuously juggle and balance responsibilities, expectations, and priorities.  Even when they go a little off-key or miss a beat, they need to recover and keep going.

Second, leaders need to focus.  Though it may seem counter intuitive, effective multitasking requires intense focus to make sure everything is being addressed with high quality.  Sure, some busy leaders who are moving about wildly and without apparent reason are truly unfocused.  But others, and I believe these are the most effective leaders, if you look more closely, are like Bandaloni who have no wasted effort and they make amazing music.  This only happens when they are genuinely focused despite the 12 different simultaneous tasks they have to perform which may make them look a little wild and uncontrolled at times.

The One and Only Bandaloni
The One and Only Bandaloni

Third, leaders need to adapt to changing conditions.  If Bandaloni had been sitting on a chair performing his act on a stage, it would have been far less impressive.  Instead, he moves through the audience interacting with individuals even as he performs.  To do this Bandaloni has to be able to quickly and intuitively adapt his act for any possible situation (and when you perform at state fairs you get a wide variety of situations).  Leaders in the 21st century can no longer sit as the authority on the stage making pronouncements to their follows.  Instead they have to be engaged and able to adapt to the different individuals, situations, and contexts they encounter.

Finally, leaders need to have fun.  Bandaloni is having fun even as he is helping others have fun.  This is what makes it everything work so well.  The fun a leader has in doing the work of leadership conveys the sense of joy, excitement, passion, and committment she or he has.  Think about it.  I bet anyone you know who has those four things going for them mostly have a lot of fun doing their work…and their spirit is contagious to others.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got.  After all, I was on vacation.  In one last homage to summer vacation, join me in laughing, smiling, and singing along again with Bandaloni at the Iowa State Fair on August 8, 2013.  Enjoy!

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

Movies, Wavers, and Client Love

True confession.  I’m the guy you do not want to sit next to on a flight.  I like to “chat” with people.  I’m infinitely curious and I love to learn about and from others.  Recently a client had me traveling to North Carolina and on the return flight I found myself sitting next to a woman who owns and manages Liberty Tax Service stores in Pennsylvania. I learned two things from her on our brief flight that absolutely fascinated me. First, she told me the Liberty Tax Services corporate office has found that a person walking into one of their stores will decide within the first six seconds whether he or she will get their taxes done by a Liberty Tax preparer.  Count it…1…2…3…4…5…6.  In that brief time, a prospective client decides “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”  Liberty Tax Services apparently takes the challenge of making a strong first impression very seriously.  The company’s mission statement says a lot: “Set the standard, improve each day and have some fun!”  Mission statements can be just words so it is helpful to see that the company’s principles are supportive (scroll beneath the mission to read the principles).

The real evidence of this mission statement was held by my seatmate.  I asked her what she did to create a climate that won over people in such a short time.  She begins with her staff.  She works to create a warm, friendly, and fun culture where people want to work and spend time.  For example, she has monthly movie nights for staff.  It started quite by accident when she wanted to do something simple that would reward her staff for some extraordinary effort.  Her folks liked it so much they decided to continue and so it does.  It says a lot that people who spend so many hours in the office, especially in peak tax season, will come back just to hang out, watch a movie and eat popcorn together.  In this way she also models how to welcome customers and help them feel at home.  Her offices have also set up a special area for young children to wait and play while their parents are doing the grown up thing of having their taxes done.

The second thing I learned really floored me (or, at least it would have if I could have moved in my cramped seat enough to actually fall to the floor).  This needs a bit of context.  If you have a Liberty Tax Service nearby you may have seen someone dressed up like the Statue of Liberty standing by the roadside waving and flashing a sign for the business.  These folks are known as “wavers” and, honestly, I’ve never imagined this would be a pleasant job…except for extreme extroverts.  In fact, there can be a lot of turn over but what I learned is that good wavers are worth their weight in foam Statue of Liberty hats.  My seatmate had done analysis of what drives new business into her offices.  Fifty percent of her new business comes from the wavers, particularly if they are good wavers (energetic, friendly, engaging, etc.).  I was really stunned.  I just never thought a waver (I didn’t even know they had a name) would make that much difference but, according to this owner/manager, it does.

A Liberty Tax Service Waver
A Liberty Tax Service Waver

 The welcoming culture of the Liberty Tax Services office actually begins at the curb.  The way the waver engages passersby can say, “Come on in.  You are welcome here.  We’re glad to see you and to help.”  Once potential customers, enticed by the siren call of the waver, get in the door, they need to feel the love in six seconds or less.

As with many of my inflight “chats,” this one got me thinking about how nonprofits esteem their clients.  Since nonprofits, specifically direct service organizations, often provide services that are not provided anywhere else it is easy to take clients for granted.  After all, where else will they go?  Since nonprofits are not usually competing for business and staff are not being paid on commission, it can become too easy to forget the humanity of clients.  Isn’t this humanity really what nonprofit work is all about?  After all, nonprofits exist to promote the greater good for the people – humans – in a society.  A performance or outcome orientation of key funders may pressure nonprofits to measure their success through the logic of ROI (return on investment) but this needs to be resisted as much as possible.  Nonprofits are, well, not supposed to make a profit because they are continuously reinvesting in the greater good.  This reinvestment includes creating and maintaining offices, programs, events, and services that are welcoming to clients and honors their humanity.

As I was writing this blog posting in my head, the Harvard Business Review posted a blog in which the author, Sam Ford, encourages companies to rediscover their own humanity by developing genuine customer empathy.  He writes in his closing paragraph, “Only when all employees…work to truly understand the world from their customers’ points of view can we truly call ourselves ‘customer-centric’ and a ‘social business.'”

This is true for nonprofits and, even more, it is essential if nonprofits are to be agents of the greater good to all human beings.

More later,

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus