Tom’s Blog

Elicited Chat: Chinwags with a Purpose

I can chat anytime, anywhere, with anyone. I am infamous for my chatting ability and inclination. I’ve written a little bit about my proclivity for chatting in an earlier blog (Movies, Wavers, & Client Love). The airplane is my favorite place to chat with people for the obvious reasons of boredom on long flights, the unwillingness of airlines these days to provide distractions (e.g., food, movies, flight crew with a sense of humor, etc.), and the absence of space to move any other part of your body but your mouth, which, at least, supports the activity of chatting.

This past week I was on a flight when my seatmate surprised me with my own opening gambit when he turned to me and asked, “Going away or going home?” I was stunned that a) he beat me to the question and b) he used nearly the exact question I use to start many fascinating conversations. Needless, to say, we chatted the entire flight. He had an entirely more fascinating life than my own – he is a movie director, had worked on many of my favorite films (including some in the Star Trek series and a movie with one of my favorite actresses, Jodie Foster). He was en route to begin shooting the remake of a very well-known movie series. However, we mostly chatted about the joys and challenges of launching our 20-something children. This kind of chatting is a lot of fun and it certainly passes the time in the most entertaining way when one does not have many other options.

I have come to realize, though, the value of chatting in relation to research. Chatting with a purpose, what I am now calling by the more scientific sounding name of elicited chat is a useful qualitative research strategy. An elicited chat is one that calls forth or draws out information in an informal act of talking in a familiar way with another person. To be clear, I am proposing elicited chat is different from elicited conversation, a more structured qualitative research strategy used in some other fields. Elicited conversation in these fields appears to refer to a conversation that is staged in order to gain research data. Elicited chat is differentiated by an even more informal interaction in which the researcher follows openings to collect data in the natural flow of the chat as the openings appear. Of course, before a researcher would engage in any data gathering activity, he or she needs to pay attention to the guidance of the appropriate Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure the ethical treatment of research participants. Assuming IRB approval, an elicited chat with research participants has the potential for mining some very useful qualitative research data in a less contrived way than traditional qualitative interviewing.

My journey to discovering for myself the value of elicited chatting began when I was doing my dissertation research on leaders of sexual health organizations using a constructivist grounded theory approach. Though I used a semi-structured qualitative interview process, I noticed that in nearly all of the interviews they changed into something different at some point. They stopped being formal interviews directed by my carefully constructed interview guide and became, instead, chats that were merely informed by the interview guide. When this change occurred, I could feel it and, presumably, so could the other person. The tone of our talk changed, the sense of connection changed, and the conversation grew warmer.  As a result, we became more open, more genuine, and more revealing with each other. I have no doubt my research participants shared things with me after the change that they would never have shared with me, if the change from an interview to an elicited chat had not occurred.  Before your imagination runs ahead of you, please remember we are talking about “elicited chats” not “illicit chats.”

There are several reasons why I believe elicited chats can be more effective in gathering rich data, in some situations, than interviewing.

  1. The concept of “chatting” connotes a level of informality that is lost when a research participant knows he or she is about to be interviewed. The informality creates a more relaxed environment and that can, in turn, result in more entry points in the talk to access the data being sought.
  2. While there is still a necessity for informed consent and some structure to assure confidentiality in an elicited chat, an elicited chat can be done in a way that is less contrived. It can be done in a variety of settings, even while doing other things, thus allowing the conversation to more naturally flow between the researcher and the participant.
  3. It is an approach that changes the power relationship between the researcher and the participant. They become two people in an interesting chat about something instead of being an “expert” trying to learn more from a “subject.” They are bound, in the moment, as two people by mutual curiosity and the joy of conversation.
  4. This bonding allows two people to communicate across socio-demographic (e.g., age, race, socio-economic position, etc.) and ideological barriers that might otherwise restrict their interaction.  Elicited chat, by virtue of the human connection it creates, can quickly facilitate a trust and confidence between two people.

Recently I wrote on the challenge of community engagement on issues that were perceived as being difficult to address (see Community Engagement and Touchy Topics). My experience of interviewing sexual health leaders, who represented a very wide spectrum of ideologies in the debate over comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only education, convinced me that an elicited chat has considerable value when trying to learn from another person who has a very different ideology than my own. When community issues being researched are less controversial, elicited chat can work well because it more closely resembles the informality and familiarity that characterizes how neighbors and members of the same community typically talk to one another.

As I have continued to think about elicited chat and become more convinced of its value, I am also considering several limitations to its use.  First, a researcher needs to be naturally curious about the topic and genuinely care about it. Chats are richest in those magic moments when both parties are connected with interest and sincerity. Secondly, a researcher needs to be a “people person.” The richest chats are between two people who enjoy connecting with others. For this reason, my seatmate and I started talking the moment we sat down in the plane and did not stop until we were walking off the plane together. Thirdly, at the risk of sounding ageist, elicited chat may work better for the more mature (e.g., older) researcher. The art of conversation requires a large frame of reference that may not yet be available to less mature (e.g., younger) researchers. Finally, a researcher needs to be comfortable with chatting as a complex, though informal, process. Chatting is a complex process in that it is often messy, by which I mean it has the properties of complexity – it is dynamic, entangled, emergent, and robust. (More about this in a future blog.)

I am continuing to think about the integration of my love of chatting with qualitative research.  I would be pleased if you would think about it with me and join the conversation.

More later…


Copyright 2014 by Thomas W. Klaus

Giving Voice to the Voices in Our Head

We all have voices in our heads. They are the ideas, random thoughts, non sequiturs, and inspirations which often appear out of nowhere, even in the middle of the night, like this blog at 4:15 AM on a Saturday morning when I could be sleeping in. Fortunately, they also occur at other times of the day. I am especially good at non sequiturs at all hours.

So, there I was watching the opening ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympics last night (yes, this is one of those non sequiturs but it is going to make sense in a minute). I am loving the spectacle of the show and I am enjoying it so much I pick up my tablet and start tweeting. I am blathering away on Twitter for hours when, finally, a friend sends me a note: “What are you doing?  What are you talking about?”  I reply: “Well, the opening ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, of course.  Duh!” The show ended, I went to bed and I woke up at 2:50 AM with a startling realization: I had not been using any hashtags to give my friend, or any other of my zillions of followers, the context of the voices in my head. Okay, who is the idiot now?

And, of course, that is the point! (Yes, another non sequitur but I will connect it now.) People who have followers (aka leaders) need to remain always aware of the voices in their heads. Communicating ideas, random thoughts, and inspirations clearly to others is essential.  Even more, it is a core responsibility of leadership to communicate effectively with our followers and colleagues. Regardless of how creative, inspirational, and important the voices in our heads, if we do not make a focused effort to share them clearly and coherently, they flow out as a string of non sequiturs. Look, an occasional non sequitur is fine as it tests whether people are really paying attention to us. However, a steady string of them can cause people to seriously question our competence.

Here are a few lessons I learned, again, tonight on how all of us can avoid confusing our followers whenever we are wearing the mantle of leadership:

  1. Remember, the voices in your head are in your head only. Seems pretty basic and easy, right? It usually is until we have hit a gusher of ideas. In those moments they want out so bad we forget that others cannot hear those voices too and do not know the context out of which they flow.
  2. Slow down.  Do not go immediately for your cell phone to call a press conference or text, email, post, or tweet any of your insights to the world. Do not call for an all organization staff meeting, video conference, convocation or write a company-wide memo. Sit with it for a while. Mull over it. Have a cup of coffee or tea. Walk around the block. Whatever you do, keep it to yourself for now.
  3. Write your idea as a Haiku poem. Haiku poetry is typically only 10 to 14 syllables in length. By writing your idea as a Haiku, not only will you distill it to its very essence, you’ll also make it sound very pretty. Even more, it will help you organize your thoughts and push you to communicate them more clearly and concisely. Yes, even Twitter gives you 140 characters and it does not always seem adequate, to be sure.  Trust me, though, you can thoroughly confuse people with 140 characters.
  4. Try it out on one or two people who will not agree to any idiotic thing you say just because you are the leader.  Yes, share your Haiku poetry with them.  You do not have to tell them it is a poem, if that seems too risky to you.  You may be worried, after all, since you are the leader, that they may judge you for taking time away from your important schedule to write poetry.  You know, though, it is not such a bad idea that leaders write poetry.  It models the capacity for reflective thinking as well as the wisdom to break with the insanity of a frantic schedule.  If these one or two or more people quickly grasp the idea, seem warm to it, and are comfortable “kicking it around” with you, then you can share it with more people.

In retrospect, I really wish I had taken a few minutes to test my tweets instead of being carried away by the inspiration of the moment.  Nonetheless, it was a good reminder of how the voices in my own head can confuse my followers – whether on Twitter or in a real-time leadership role – if I do not intentionally, thoughtfully, and clearly communicate them.

I’m going back to bed.

More later…


We’re Running Low on Flowers

The Mall in Columbia is 5.3 miles from my house.  Three young people died there last Saturday, January 25, 2014, at 11:15 AM in a murder/suicide. This morning I awakened to the news on my local National Public Radio station that legendary folk musician Pete Seeger died yesterday, January 27, of natural causes at age 94.  What do these four deaths have in common?  To me, there seemed to be a connection but I could not see it.

All morning I was haunted by this question but I did not have an answer until I went to The Mall in Columbia to see the site of the tragedy. The shop where the shooting took place has been closed since the mall reopened yesterday. It is completely boarded up with whitewashed plywood. Stenciled on the wall is a message that indicated the shop will be closed until further notice. Below the stenciled message someone had hung a sympathy card with a handwritten note scrawled inside. At the bottom of the wall this morning were flowers.

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?

As you continue to listen to this iconic Pete Seeger song, you will learn the answer. All the flowers are gone because they are being picked to adorn the graves of those fallen in war. Of course, at the time Peter, Paul, & Mary made this song famous the Vietnam War was looming ahead for the United States and the song eventually became a campaign song in anti-war protests. However, the song is just as appropriate today given the many wars that continue to take young lives throughout the world today. These include the undeclared war on our communities fueled by gun violence.

Today in Maryland there are at least three new families caught in a vortex of grief. One grieves the loss of a son with whom they had recently celebrated his two years of sobriety from drug addiction. A second grieves the loss of a daughter who leaves behind her own two-year-old son. The third grieves the loss of a child whom the police and the media do not count among the victims, and have, even worse, dehumanized into “the shooter.”

Our community grieves as well. Any illusion that we had about the safety and quality of life in Columbia, Maryland has been shattered. We have joined a sad and growing group of U.S. communities on the broken battlefield of senseless, preventable gun violence. The Mall in Columbia shooting does not meet the criteria for a “mass shooting” (at least four victims according to the FBI), but it feels like it to us. Ironically, had the young man who instigated the violence successfully exploded the two homemade bombs that were found in his backpack inside the shop’s fitting room, we would have far exceeded the FBI’s seemingly arbitrary threshold for a “mass.” But, then, it would not have been just a shooting anymore, it would have been a bombing, and the issue of gun violence would have been irrelevant, right? Gun violence, whether one dies or a “mass” die, is never irrelevant in our communities.

If Pete Seeger had lived another day to read that last statement (of course, I wildly flatter myself to even imagine that Pete Seeger might have ever read this blog), I think he would have agreed with it. I believe this because of one line, that seemed to eloquently sum the meaning of Pete Seeger’s life in the New York Times this morning:  “For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.”

Over the years I have come to see and embrace the power of community that Pete Seeger saw many years ago. He knew, and I am learning, that communities are extraordinarily powerful when they are finally moved to action. A few years ago we were reminded by a First Lady of the power a community has to raise a child. Today, we need communities to not only raise up a child, but to step up to protect those same children – all the children – in a way that prevents them from becoming either victims or “shooters.” In recent years we’ve begun to run low on flowers to cover the graves of our children dying as a result of preventable gun violence.  It is preventable, if we have the will.

Message on the Wall at Columbia Mall

“Will” is a small word but a gigantic concept. Genuine human change always begins with human will.  We change ourselves and our communities only if we can find the will to do so. Perhaps, in his or her own way, this is what the person was trying to say in this note left on the plywood wall at the mall: “We must be better. We can be better. We will be better.”

Pete Seeger once explained how he came to write “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and readily acknowledged, as any good songwriter, that the song has been changed over the years to reflect the times and the need. Therefore, I doubt he would object to one more change, especially if the song were to move our communities to find the will to finally do what it takes to end gun violence. With apologies and deep appreciation to Pete Seeger, may I offer the following?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago. Where have all the flowers gone? Parents picked them everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?

Where have all the parents gone, long time passing? Where have all the parents gone, long time ago. Where have all the parents gone?  Buried children everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?

Where have all the children gone, long time passing? Where have all the children gone, long time ago. Where have all the children gone? Gone to graveyards everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?

My condolences to the family of Pete Seeger at his passing yesterday after such a long, full, remarkable life. My deepest condolences to the families of all three young people whose lives were ended much to soon at The Mall in Columbia last Saturday. May the inspiration of Mr. Seeger and the tragedy of too many of our children’s deaths from gun violence finally cause all of our communities to find the will to rise up and end this war.

More later.


Counter Intuitive New Year Resolutions

In 2014, I am not going to stop any behavior that has adverse consequences for me.  Nope.  I am done with trying to stop negative behavior.  Instead, I am going to do more.  Except…I am going to do more of those things I enjoy and I know are already doing good for me.  Why?  At a personal level, I am going to take my own professional advice.  When I work with leaders and organizations I focus on helping them identify what they are doing well and, then, amplify it.  That is, I help them do more of what is already working well for them.  This is straight from the Appreciative Inquiry playbook, a development and change strategy that I use as often as possible in my work.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is, by its nature, counter intuitive.  Rather than search out individual and organizational problems that need to be fixed, it focuses on what is working well and simply doing more of it.  Some folks, who are trained to sniff out and fix problems find the approach a little frustrating, even a bit crazy making, at first.  I work with a lot of social workers and public health professionals.  My experience with them has convinced me that much of social work and public health training must be focused on identifying problems and finding solutions, both for individuals and systems.  (If this is a misperception, I am sure some of my readers will be happy to offer a correction.)  I have rarely worked with social workers and public health professionals who did not love problem solving and solution creation.  Hence, asking them to take an “appreciative” perspective by identifying what is already working well often meets with baffled silence.

For example, doing SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis with social workers and public health folks is a fascinating experience.  Most will fill up page-after-flip-chart-page of weaknesses and threats…and about a half page each of strengths and opportunities.  In recent years I have stopped using SWOT analysis in favor of the Appreciative Inquiry SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results) analysis.  This pushes folks to really think more deeply about what is working well and how they can amplify it to even better effect.  At first, my social work and public health friends struggle with the exercise because there is no opportunity to list out the problems.  (Once, I had an exasperated participant finally cry out in frustration, “WHEN are we going to talk about the problems?!?!”)  Actually, we never did because we did not have to.

There are a lot of reasons why AI works so well, but there are two that are most important with regard to new year resolutions.  First, by focusing our attention on what is already working well and doing more of it, we are also focusing our energy in a positive direction.  Rather than working against something (e.g., trying to stop a behavior) we are working with the natural flow of our success.  Who does not want more success in their lives, right?  It is far more appealing and energizing than the failure that we often meet by trying to stop doing something we might really enjoy, even though it is not doing us any good.  Appreciative Inquiry asks us to focus on replicating our successes.  Over time, this focus on replicating success, and the good feelings that come with it, captures so much of our time and energy that we no longer have any left for the things that are not working well for us.  As a result, the things that are not working for us tend to end on their own and we do not often miss them until some time later.

Second, AI allows us to define the future we want.  That is, the more we do the positive things that are working well and that are being successful, the more likely they are to become a habit and, eventually, part of our nature.  In this sense, through an appreciative approach, we construct the future we want to become our daily reality.  Therefore, as I do more of the things that I enjoy, are good for me, and cause me to feel successful and good about myself, the more likely it is that they will become simply a part of who I am and what I do.

So, what is my list of counter intuitive, appreciative new year resolutions?

  1. I am going to continue eating tasty things that are good for me and I am going to eat more of them.  Nearly four years ago I lost about 60 pounds by changing my diet with the help of Weight Watchers Online for Men.  I did not eat much less nor did I eat things I do not like.  I just learned to eat better.  Whenever I put on a few pounds (as I have over the holidays) it is not because I am eating too much of things I like that are good for me, but because I am eating things I like but are not good for me.  Confession:  I am a Holiday Cookie Monster (especially springerle made from my mother’s recipe).
  2. I am going to continue to enjoy silence.  When I went back to school to earn a Ph.D. in organizational leadership, I discovered the beautiful silence that is created by turning off all media.  There was nothing in my life noisier than television.  While I clung to my addiction to 24 until the series finished its run, once it was over, I rarely watched television.  Now that the Ph.D. stands for Phinally Done, I’m finding that I can still live a happy, productive, and interesting life without much media.  When I do watch television or engage with the media, I do so in a more mindful way today than I did in the past.  I have come to love the calm focus that I can have as a result of the silence in which I prefer to work and live (I am also a practicing Quaker).  You know, those Trappist Monks are on to something besides really good fruitcake!
  3. I am going to take more walks…without our dogs…in the
    Dolly, Tom, & Guy Noir – Madison, our other schnauzer, refused to be photographed with Guy to protest his intrusion into HER charmed life.

    coming year.  I walk each day, usually to give our miniature schnauzers their daily exercise.  However, walking our dogs is complicated by too many distractions for curious schnauzer schnauzes. It has become even more complicated over the holidays by the addition to our family of my son’s dog, Guy Noir, a 16-year-old (80+ in dog years) miniature schnauzer that is blind and can barely walk.  Sadly, we are thinking of this as hospice care for Guy.  I love walking around some of the beautiful lakes in our community with my spouse…alone…without the dogs…and will do more of this in the coming year.

  4. I am going to do more dancing.  We are ballroom dancers.  No, you will not be seeing us on “Dancing With the Stars” nor will we be dancing in a competition near you.  We are not competitive dancers…except sometimes we compete for the lead (even though, and this is an important point for my spouse, who reads these posts, to remember: I am the designated leader on the floor by all conventions of ballroom dance).  We dance strictly for fun…and it shows.  In fact, later today (New Year’s Eve) we will be dancing in the new year at our favorite ballroom with good friends we made dancing nearly eight years ago.  My paper chase made it very difficult for us to maintain our regular dancing schedule.  Now that “our” Ph.D. is behind us, my spouse and I are free again to dance as much as we can though it is never as much as we would like.

Those are my Appreciative Inquiry-informed, counter intuitive new year resolutions.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Happy 2014!

More later…


Rethinking Sustainability

Let’s get real about sustaining good programs, and even good organizations.  One of my consulting clients has had me on the road over the past few months helping a group of nonprofit organizations create sustainability plans.  The nonprofits have a common funder, which has asked them to continue, in full, a complex project each was heavily funded to create and implement over several years.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to be the bearer of bad news to each of these groups:  sustainability is not possible…if it is defined as simply replacing dollars.

The math just does not support the reality of replacing their awards dollar-for-dollar.  For that to happen, each organization would have to raise at least 15% of their original award in new money, compounded each year over the five years of funding they received, to be ready to continue on their own when the money spigot is turned off.  This kind of growth in contributions is Herculean even in the best of times.

These are not the best of times for nonprofits as illustrated recently in an article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  In brief, of the 400 charities in the United States that raise the most money, donations grew only 4 percent in 2012, and the projection for 2013 is only 3 percent.  Even the United Way Worldwide, a powerhouse in fundraising on behalf of nonprofits in communities around the world, is struggling.  It had only a 1 percent gain from 2011 to 2012 and, since 2007 when the recession began, it has seen at least a 16 percent drop in private donations.  Yes, the United Way is a big organization as are all of those 400 charities.  However, some of them, like the United Way, are also funders of smaller, community-based organizations like those I’ve been visiting over the past few months.  I think you get the idea.  It’s pretty scary stuff, even for Halloween week, so I’ll let you read it for yourself.

My experience in the nonprofit world is that we’ve too often thought of sustainability as simply replacing the money we need to operate our programs and organizations at the status quo.  When the economy is thriving, it tends to work, though it is still a shortsighted strategy.  In lean times, like those we have been facing, it is not realistic.  Today we assume, only to our own destruction, that we actually can simply replace the money.  Since 2007 I’ve seen too many good organizations and good programs cling to this concept of sustainability even as they were closing down and turning out the lights.

What is a realistic approach to sustainability today?  This is the question that has haunted me for some time, especially as I’ve been working with a lot of organizations to help them create sustainability plans for their massive, possibly over-funded, projects.  I don’t have any clear answers but I do have some ideas bubbling up.

Idea #1:  None of us need as much money as we think we do, to do good.  I actually winced when I wrote that because I don’t really want to admit it.  However, I do believe it.  If we are working in the social sector (a term for the nonprofit sector that I’m becoming increasingly fond of), then we need enough funding to pay our staff their worth, to deliver high quality services or programs, and maintain an effective infrastructure.  This can still amount to a lot of money, but what is it about the concept of “nonprofit” that we don’t seem to understand?  Yes, nonprofit work is a business, but it is business that has social good as a bottom line, not profitability.

Idea #2:  Financial stability is realistic and attainable, financial sustainability is neither in the current economy.  I have come to differentiate between financial stability and financial sustainability.  Financial stability means pretty much what I described above:  enough funding to pay staff their worth, to deliver high quality work, and maintain an effective infrastructure.  Financial sustainability, however, is about maintaining the status quo by replacing funds dollar-for-dollar.  Many nonprofit leaders are rightly concerned for raising sufficient funds to merely achieve stability.  I recently completed some research that found a consensus among small nonprofit organization leaders that fundraising was their single most stressful task.  The burden they carry is a great one.  Sometimes, however, it just isn’t possible to sustain every aspect of an organization’s work at its current level.  In fact, some things should not be sustained.  Some services and programs are better provided by other organizations.  Sometimes they are better off being maintained and sustained by volunteers in the community.  Some programs and services are no longer needed.  And, honestly, some services and programs are lousy and should be discontinued altogether.  These are tough calls to make.  Sometimes the political pressure and grief a leader gets from within her/his organization make it impossible to do anything except jump on the fundraising treadmill.  What kind of organizational culture would emerge if leaders were to make those tough calls?  Would they experience less or more stress?  Would there be a renewed focus on doing good for the sake of good?  Just wondering.

Idea #3: Community ownership = sustainability.  This idea has been growing very large for me over the past few months and last couple of years.  The more I learn about social change and sustaining it, the more I become convinced of the power of the community, and society as a whole, to create and sustain the change that is most meaningful to it.  Those of us who are veterans of the American nonprofit system are really experts at coming up with good things to do TO other folks whom we believe need them (as a result of our endless needs assessments).  What I’ve observed on the ground, however, is that our needs assessments rarely engage the people with lived experience of the issue we are trying to address.  Instead, we convene meetings, advisory groups, and, even focus groups, of the usual suspects and ask them what the community needs.  Ironically, and unbelievably, I’ve seen many of these kinds of needs assessments conducted with people who don’t even live in the community, they only work there.  The justification for including these folks?  They are experts.  However, who is really more expert on their community than the people who actually live in it and deal with the issue on a daily basis?  This top down approach has to be propped up through endless fundraising efforts (financial sustainability) and appears to be successful as long as the cash is flowing into it.  However, when the funders lose interest and the money dries up, the nonprofits often go away (many must go away to survive) to greener fields.  This is an oft told, and shameful, story of social change in the United States.  On the other hand, when the community (those people with lived experience of the issue) own the change, it doesn’t go away regardless of the funding.

These are ideas that have been bubbling up within me.  Even more, I’ve allowed the paradigm shift they imply to take root.  The ideas are still bubbling so you can expect to read more about them here in the future.

More later…


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…


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,


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

Of Dog Walking and Dissertating

I’ve been spending an unnatural amount of time talking to people and making extensive notes on the conversations.  Before you assume I’m moonlighting for the National Security Administration (which is within 10 miles of where I live – hey, aren’t they supposed to be in a secret location?) or call the authorities on me, let me clarify this is all in the name of science.  Honest.  Its part of the dissertation research I’m doing.  I’m in the final lap of the PhD race (aka RAG, for Running the Academic Gauntlet).  I collected the data which included 35 intensive interviews with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, each interview was painfully…er, painstakingly…transcribed, and the data have been pulled apart, examined, put back together, reviewed and analyzed ad nauseum.  Four of the five chapters have been written and are now in the hands of a couple of trusted and capable reviewers and next week I finally get to begin the process writing the summary and recommendations.  Oh, what is the dissertation about, you ask (thanks for asking, by the way)?  It is a qualitative, grounded theory study of the motivation to lead among leaders in sexual health organizations that are engaged in the long-term, contentious national (U.S.) dialogue on the sexuality education of young people.

On February 28th my spouse gave me the gift of devoting full-time to dissertating.  I left a long-time full-time position as Director of Sustainability and Capacity Building with a terrific global nonprofit to devote full-time at home working on the Dissertation (capitalized now for how it has taken over our lives).  In my spare time, I get to work on setting up the Non-Profit GP consulting practice (note the not-so-subtle product placement promotion), cleaning up after meals, sweeping the floors, keeping my bathroom clean, and walking the dogs, Madison and Dolly.  I’m not sure writing blogs is supposed to be on the list, so let’s just keep this between you and me, okay?  In truth, I’m spending a lot of time working on the Dissertation because I’ve got a pretty tight timeline.  My Dissertation defense hearing was just scheduled for September 19, 2013 and by the end of the year I’ve either got to have a decent consulting practice going or I need to find a real job.  So I’ve been slogging away.  By July 15 my Dissertation chair needs to see the whole thing and it has to be to my full committee by August 15 to stay on track.

Dolly and Madison
Dolly and Madison

So, my research is on motivation to lead and I’m learning much about the subject when I take Madison and Dolly on their walks throughout the day.   Both came to us from a dog rescuer who got them from a “backyard breeder” in the Midwest.  We are pretty certain Madison is Dolly’s mother.  Both were cropped and trimmed to look like the stereotypical miniature schnauzer in some rather inhumane ways.  Unfortunately, both were also debarked by the breeder.  While we don’t know for sure what conditions were like for them in their former “home,” we do know they came with certain deficits to our home – they didn’t know what dog treats were, they had not eaten “normal” dog food, they had never been trained to walk on a leash, they weren’t house broken, they didn’t know how to play, and, most sadly of all, they were exceedingly submissive to humans out of fear.  The rescuer explained that Madison had been one of the favorites of the breeder so her fear of humans was less.  Dolly, however, to this day, too easily cowers, fears brooms and mops, and defensively barks when people move too quickly near her.  Dolly and I do have a special bond, though, and she follows me everywhere I go while Madison tends to prefer her “mom” to me.

The walks we take together are a fascinating experience and we must be an odd sight to the neighbors.  Dolly charges out of the door first, followed by me (and I also serve as the porter for lugging the “doggy doo doo” bags), and Madison brings up the rear, acting as if she really doesn’t want to be bothered with going for a walk.  As we move down the sidewalk Dolly continues to practically strain at her leash while Madison practically makes me drag her.  There we are, slowly moving down the sidewalk, heaven forbid we actually go fast.  We occupy at least 18 feet of the sidewalk (Dolly’s 6 foot leash, Tom’s 6 foot wingspan stretched between the leash handles walking sideways, and Madison’s 6 foot leash).  Thus it continues for several minutes until something more exciting happens (e.g., squirrel, rabbit, one of their dog friends, or something really interesting to sniff, which is most anything.)  Though Dolly appears to be the leader of this pack, it is actually Madison.

Madison is what I’d describe as a “quiet leader.”  She doesn’t appear to be the one in charge at all.  She is an introvert, she’s passive, doesn’t care about other dogs, and generally never gets as excited as Dolly about anything.  But she is in charge.  Why?  Because Madison wants to be in charge and likes it (affective MTL, for those of you who know the theory).  When she wants to stop, we all stop…and we don’t go again until she is good and ready.  There is a more traditional way in which Madison exerts herself, however.  Whenever Dolly stops to answer a nature call, Madison immediately moves to the spot and “marks” over it.  Dolly fully understands who is in charge.  She won’t mark over Madison and always defers to her.

While Madison’s behavior seems to be consistent with affective MTL (motivation to lead), Dolly apparently subscribes to the “Great Dog” theory of leadership and happily follows Madison.  For me, though, it’s all about Charismatic leadership.  I’m a sucker for “The Girls” (by which they’ve become affectionately known throughout our neighborhood) and I’d follow them anywhere…and I often do.

That’s it for now.  Nothing really heavy here…just needed a break from the Dissertation.  Besides, it’s time for a walk…

More later,


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

If I have to explain it, it won’t be funny…

If I have to explain it, it won’t be funny….

A great way to close out the week with humorist and fellow dissertationist Jeff Logan.

Collective Impact & Complexity Resources – Check Them Out!

I’ve recently come across a couple of resources that I wanted to share.

First, FSG has recently put out a video about the Cincinnati, Ohio “backbone” meeting in March.  In some recent posts I wrote about my experiences at that conference which focused on “backbone” organizations for Collective Impact initiatives.  If you’re not familiar with Collective Impact or the concept of “backbone” organizations, this is a nice introduction.  If you look closely, you may also see somebody you recognize.  Watch the video here!

Second, my son, Jake, gave me a new book for my birthday a few weeks ago.  Jake and I have a similar, but odd, sense of humor so he often gets me a funny book or DVD.  This year he gave me “Using Complexity Theory for Research and Program Evaluation” by Michael Wolf-Branigin.  Not quite the usual fare and not really a funny book.  And, the book already had about a half-dozen pink Post It flags distributed throughout it.  Really odd.  Then I began to look at each of the pages the flags were marking.  Turns out Jake was Dr. Wolf-Branigin’s research assistant at George Mason University for over two years when he was getting his MSW.  During that time he worked closely with Dr. Wolf-Branigin on portions of this book.  Jake’s contribution was signficant enough that he gets several mentions and is credited as the co-author of chapter 7 (Developing Agent-Based Models).  Dr. Wolf-Branigin was a terrific mentor to Jake and certainly gave him some extraordinary opportunities, including co-authorship, not just on this book but on some upcoming research articles as well.

Now that I’ve had my “proud dad” moment, let me also say that the book is really good and quite useful for anyone that is a fan of complexity theory (which I am) and yet is somewhat puzzled to understand how evaluation research works in complexity (which, again, I am).

In closing, I think I’ve also mentioned in previous posts that I’m deep into data analysis and writing up research findings for my dissertation.  I’ve been trying to write occasional posts on this blog as well to try to shake off “dissertation brain” but haven’t been a regular in my posting as I’d like to be.  I’ve got another in progress that I hope to be posting by early June.  So, stay tuned.  In the meantime, check out the video and the Wolf-Branigin book.  Good stuff!

More later…


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus