Thursday, May 29, 2008

Preparing for Meetings with New Bosses

During my career, I've often seen new bosses come into the workplace. It was always an opportunity to advance both my career and my agenda for the organization.

Sometimes the boss was several levels above me, as was the case when I worked at the Community Service Society of New York. David Jones became the CEO and Steven Krause the COO. My boss, Josephine Nieves, reported directly to both of them, and I reported to her. I often accompanied Josie to meetings with one or both of them, and was impressed by the amount of preparation she did for each meeting. Usually, we got the outcome we desired! More than that, I gave thought to how I wanted them to perceive me - as capable, responsive, intelligent, results-oriented, and strategic. I demonstrated this through my behavior in meetings as well as through my follow-up - and as a result have good relationships with both David and Steven to this day.

At City Harvest, I had many new direct bosses. These included several different Chairmen of the Board of Directors, as well as incoming Board members. I always met privately with each of them, and spent a lot of time strategizing before each meeting about what outcome I sought. I strategized with my coach and usually with at least one of my senior leadership team members. At each of these first meetings, I established the groundwork effective working relationships with each Board member and Chair. How effective? The proof is in the results. By building those relationships, I led City Harvest to its phenomenal growth in services, funding, and visibility.

I was reminded today of how important it is to be strategic about first meetings with any new boss, when I talked with an up-and-coming faculty member at a university where there are two new Deans in Departments with which he is affiliated. He wants to meet with each of them and wondered if it was appropriate. I thought yes, as long as he has a purpose for the meetings, and as long as he tells his direct boss that he plans to have the meetings and when they are scheduled. (This relates to the "no surprises" rule - one should never surprise or embarrass one's immediate supervisor especially with any of their superiors.)

In response to a question, he admitted he hadn't yet thought through what he wants out of the meetings. Certainly, he wants them to know who he is. The question is "why?" We spent a good half hour talking about that topic at the end of which he felt much more prepared. This is what I suggested:

In setting up a meeting with a new boss - either your own or one higher up the food chain - it's best to ask some key questions.

First: What's the purpose of the meeting? There has to be a clear reason to request a meeting, as well as a well-articulated agenda. Otherwise, the meeting will waste everyone's time. And you don't want to waste a boss's time; it just annoys him or her and casts you in a bad light. Having a clear purpose makes it easier to get a meeting in the first place, particularly if the new boss has an Executive Assistant as "keeper of the calendar," aka gatekeeper.

Setting a goal is the first step toward developing a plan to actually get there. the purpose could be "getting to know you," it could be to raise some topics, or some combination of the two (as in my friend's case).

From these purposes flow additional questions.

Getting to know you:
1. Why do you want the boss to know who you are?
2. What do you want the boss to know about you?
3. How can you present yourself in a way that will help you meet those goals?

Raising specific topics:
1. How does this help him/her? For example, does s/he just need to know as background, or is it possibly a way for them to reach a strategic goal they already have expressed? Do some homework to find out what the new boss wants to accomplish - talk to other people who have already had meetings, attend any public functions, read the announcement about their appointment, etc.

2. How could this help you? Think through what benefit you could get by raising the topic, as well as the potential consequences of not raising it. Also, make sure it won't hurt you to raise the topic at this point in time. Maybe you need to lay more groundwork or do some more homework.

3. What’s the desired outcome? The outcome can be simply for the meeting itself (e.g. now she knows I'm involved in this project) and longer-term (e.g. now this will become a priority for him, and resources will flow to it). Ask also what materials you need to bring with you or provide beforehand in order to better ensure your desired outcome.

4. What do you want the new boss to do, if anything? Clearly articulate exactly what you will ask, why they should say "yes," how you will ask it, and what you will do if they say "yes" - or "no." Think it through - what then will you need to do in response? What back-up materials must you develop and provide?

5. Are there any next steps after this meeting? For example, do you want to promise that you will do something? Do you want another meeting? Are there other people who need to be involved? What do you need to tell your boss?

In general, it's better to over-prepare for a meeting with a new boss than under-prepare. All that preparation will be put to good use sometime down the line, even if it's not used in the initial meeting. If nothing else, you'll feel more confident walking through the door for that initial meeting.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Fun and Work

As I browsed around the Chief Executive website, I discovered a quote from Kenneth D. Makovsky's* blog about fun and work being completely interrelated.

I was thrilled to see that 98% of CEO's would prefer to hire someone with a sense of humor! That was my opinion when I led City Harvest. Far better to hire someone who takes themselves lightly and the work seriously than someone who takes both seriously or both lightly.

Someone who takes themselves lightly - who can see the ridiculousness of a situation, who can take and make a joke (not at anyone's expense, of course), and who can loosen up and play or celebrate or let off steam after the hard work is done - that's the kind of person I want to be, and I want to be around.

I also wanted to be surrounded by people who took work seriously in the sense that they had passion for what they did, that they took pride in doing a great job, and that they were committed to delivering excellence.

Seriousness could be taken too far, however, if that person couldn't detach from the work long enough to share a laugh around the worktable with their colleagues.

When I interviewed people for senior leadership positions, I always made a point of cracking a joke or using a pun - just to see if the person would join in laughing. If she or he did, s/he got to the next round - assuming all other signs were good. Then I'd have a team of people interview him/her, and I'd sit in to observe.

The people I ended up hiring were the ones who almost immediately had good rapport with their prospective colleagues. And that good rapport was demonstrated by laughter.

Laughter showed that people were comfortable with each other, that they had a similar view of life and work. It also showed that the prospective team member was capable of quickly blending in with the rest of the senior leadership team. That meant s/he would be able to get up to speed fast and soon develop collaborative relationships.

Speed was really important because City Harvest was a fast-paced organization. And it was equally important that we like each other enough to spend 8 to 14 hours a day together (with bathroom breaks, of course). If we could laugh together, we could work effectively together and create great success and value for our clients, the hungry of New York City.

* President of Makovsky + Company, one of the largest global independent public relations firms in the U.S.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Using the Must Have List

When most people answer the questions on the Must Have List, they end up with a lot of information or data on themselves. The next step is to make that data usable and useful. This means creating a "short form" Must Have List.

The "short form" consists of 5 or 6 words or phrases that capture the essence of what you are searching for in a job. For example, you might distill everything down to:

1) Type of work: Multi-focus
2) Role you will play: Team leader
3) Impact of your efforts: Helps children
4) Physical environment: Well-lit, professional
5) Colleagues, culture, emotional environment: Supportive/respectful
6) Compensation: Minimum $90K plus full benefits

This is the guide against which you assess potential jobs. It also is the basis for forming your intention for the job you want.

When networking, you'll need an "elevator speech" - the 2-3 sentence summary of what you're looking for in your job search. That's your intention. It's the introduction that will precede your saying "I'd like your advice. Would it be possible for me to have 20 minutes of your time?"

Your job is to help people help you by giving them clues to how they can help you and where they can start looking in their mental file cabinet (and then their rolodex/contact list). You'll do this via your intention. Something too amorphous is frustrating because then the person you're meeting with doesn't really know how to help you.

It will be useful for you to say things like "I really thrive on managing multiple projects and leading a team of people to achieve our goals. And I'm very interested in helping children. What kind of jobs do you think I might be qualified for?" Or "I'm looking for work that will allow me to use my talent for leading people, managing diverse projects, and reaching goals. I'm passionate about helping children, especially to get a good start in life through education, good nutrition, or great parenting. Who do you know that I might talk to about potential opportunities in that area?"

This gives people the idea that you actually have done some research and gives them a specific handle to grasp onto. Their minds then automatically go to the people they know in those fields to whom they can connect you. That's how you continue gathering information (I call it "Information Networking") and continually narrowing your focus until you zero in on the jobs that really excite and interest you.

Obviously, your intention will continue forming as you gather more information about the types of jobs and industries in which you're interested and for which you're qualified (in terms of your skills and experience). However, for the information-gathering stage, it's really great to form an intention based mainly on the skills and talents you have instead of simply the specific job you seek, because it keeps you open to many different kinds of jobs and allows you to network around skills/talents more than job/industry.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Types of Non-Profit Board Members

In the field of non-profit Board development, the hoariest of old saws is that Board members must possess three W's - Wealth, Wisdom, and Wit. I've also heard and said that non-profit Board members need to bring one or more of these things: money, contacts, clout, and expertise - and in that order. Here's my unofficial ranking of Board members, based on my many years working with Boards and many conversations with colleagues.

The best Board members give and get significant sums of money to fill the organization's coffers and cover payroll and other costs of delivering our very- needed services. It's even better if they ask few questions and generally support staff efforts. That is becoming a rarer occurrence, especially with the growing population of social venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, and other emigres from management firms, investment banks and private equity firms convinced they have the appropriate tools and outlook to make charity efficient and hopefully also effective. The more money you give or the more corporate/capitalist experience you have, the more right you have to second guess staff and question process and decisions. Smart ED's understand and expect that - as do their fellow Board members.

Next-best Board members use their clout and connections to get donations of goods and services, things for which we'd have to pay cash otherwise. These Board members are next-best because staff have no choice as to what resources they provide; we must take what we are given whether it meets all the organization's needs or not - and we must be grateful for it.

Further down the scale, we have Board members who know influential people and are willing to lobby on the organization's behalf for some kind of advantage. Hopefully, the advantage is pecuniary but political is acceptable. While it's good to have such a Board member, it's just good - not great. Why? Staff can often develop better relationships and there's always the possibility of hiring a lobbying firm that has the best relationships of all.

Last on the scale are Board members who actually know something about the issue the organization works on - unless they also have money, contacts and clout. You'd think it would be an advantage to have a knowledgeable person on the Board. Wouldn't they be able to offer so much to the staff? Well, yes, and therein can lie the problem. These Board members may have opinions about how the organization should be run that run counter to the instincts and talents of the ED and senior leadership.

If those Board members are indeed wise, they can be hands-off advisors and thought partners for the ED, as well as effective advocates for staff with the Board. That's in the best of all possible worlds. In that case, these are the very best Board members. Sadly, unless they are founders, such Board members are often "retired" from the Board after their service is up, especially as an organization grows in scope, visibility and prestige.

Non-Profit Boards of Directors and Executive Directors

Recently, I've talked with someone seeking to become an Executive Director of a non-profit organization. He's terrifically qualified and I'm sure would be great leader for a mid- to large-size organization. The only area in which he lacks experience is working with a Board of Directors. And, while not insurmountable, that is a significant gap.

While nothing beats personal experience, I've shared with him my own learning about how Boards operate to give him a leg up on other candidates. Here are some key takeaways from my 20+ years working with Boards:

1) The Executive Director has a completely different relationship with the Board than do any senior staff, and nothing prepares you for it.

Prior to joining City Harvest as its Executive Director in 1994, I worked with Board committees and Board members, as well as serving on Boards and helping form them. Certainly, those experiences gave me some awareness of how to work with these elite volunteers. Honestly, however, nothing could have prepared me for what it was like being an Executive Director. There's simply no other role quite like it.

All of a sudden, the buck completely stopped with me - which was a given, except that there were 27 people with different standards and desired outcomes. Which "buck" mattered the most? Who wielded the most power? How much should I tell the others about one or another Board members requests? Did I really have to deal with each individual concern, issue, complaint, idea, inspiration, request?

The answer to the last question was "YES!"

And the other questions? Gradually, I learned that the Board as a whole and members individually had no idea what the answers were or should be. Part of my job was to work out the answers to the other ones, using every tool in the book to enlist the cooperation of the Board as a whole.

I relied on my staff, I relied on colleagues in similar positions, and I talked often to my father who served as co-CEO of the American Bible Society and then as CEO (aka General Secretary) of the United Bible Societies. All provided me with invaluable information, suggestions, support, and venting space. Yet, at the end of the day, I carried on my shoulders the entire burden of managing the Board.

From the perspective of managerial effectiveness, I wanted it that way. Many staff carrying multiple messages would only confuse things. Yes, staff could interact with and help the Board - only with my full knowledge and agreement and consent.

Sad to say, I needed to be the chief liaison with the Board from a political perspective, in order to maintain my position as ED. I had reached the top of the non-profit heap and was a great target for someone who wanted to have my position, visibility, influence, and power. And, as I found to my chagrin, there is no better way for someone to oust an incumbent ED than by working behind the scenes with one or more ambitious Board member who seeks the pinnacle of volunteering: being Chairman of the Board of a prestigious non-profit organization. I told him that I believe I was no longer at City Harvest because, while recuperating from a hip replacement, I was out of regular touch with the Board. While other things may have contributed to my ouster, I am convinced that the KOD (kiss of death) was my lack of regular contact with and hands-on management of the Board.

That leads nicely to my next lesson.

2) The “care and feeding of the Board” is at least 50% of an ED's job.

My colleague estimated he would need to spend 25 to 40% of his time focused on the Board. Au contraire, I said. I could never have handled my Board responsibilities if I spent less than 50% of my time with them. That was the experience of my father and other colleagues. Few outsiders believe that this is necessary. I'm here to say that EDs listen to these outsiders at our own peril.

I remember telling the then-Chairman of City Harvest's Board about that rule of thumb and his thinking that a ridiculous amount of time. He told me not to spend so much time on the Board - he wanted the organization to get more of my attention. Fortunately, I was pretty seasoned by this time and completely ignored his request. He didn't get that, by working with Board members individually and as a whole, I was giving the organization my full attention. (Years later, he acknowledged that he now knew better.)

The reality is that an ED must spend a lot of time developing relationships with every Board member and each Board Committee and the Board as a whole, in order to achieve any agreement and forward movement on the organization's agenda. I can't fathom how I would have gotten approval for one Action Plan and two Strategic Plans if I hadn't invested major time and thought into "working the Board" - all 17 to 33 (or more) Board members. I talked, asked questions, listened, pleaded, flattered, cajoled, "talked turkey," made alliances, courted, appealed to ego and ambition, flirted, involved, confided in, strategized, meditated, dreamed, vented, cried, cheered, invited, thanked, and more – anything I could think of to do, I did. All of it was in order to find out what various Board members thought, wanted, feared, hated, liked, desired, and needed. Then I took that information and put it through my own mental sieve. Only then was I ready to work with my senior staff to devise the processes, strategies and scripts that would yield Board consensus and forward movement for the organization.

And that leads to the third lesson.

3) Board members spend 90% of their time elsewhere and 10% on their Board membership, if we’re lucky.

The reasons for this are obvious: Board members have occupations and lives that fill their minds and calendars. We want people on our Boards who have money, contacts, clout and hopefully good sense. If we have to sacrifice anything, it's the good sense - because we need their money, contacts and clout to make the organization's work possible.

The consequences of the 90/10 rule are so far-reaching, I can only name a couple here. I emphasize that understanding the cause of these consequences is key to reducing and even eliminating the frustration experienced almost universally by staff leaders.

The most pervasive symptom of the 90/10 rule is that Board members seem to "check their brains at the door" of the Board room. It can seem that Board members forget almost all they knew from one meeting to another, and that they never read the materials painstakingly prepared by staff. Optimally, Board members will read materials before the meeting. Assuming they will not is a far better rule of thumb. Board members are busy, their time filled with other priorities. Generally, the time they set aside to attend a Board meeting is all the time they can spare for the non-profit. So it behooves the ED to prepare crisp, bullet-pointed written reports and then present short, purposeful verbal reports at the Board meeting.

The wise ED will talk before the meeting with as many Board members as possible, to lay the groundwork for any discussion and decision that will occur. If there is little time to spend talking with individual Board members, the ED needs to focus on the most influential - or consider postponing the topic until a later time and then spend as much time as needed to educate Board members and allay concerns before the next meeting. A Board meeting is no time for surprises for the ED.

Another consequence of the 90/10 rule is that any one Board member who does spend a lot of time volunteering or working with staff will have an inordinate amount of power and sway within the Board. Often, other Board members will think: “well, s/he spends so much time on it, he must know what’s going on, so I’ll listen to him…” In the meetings, other Board members will often defer to this Board member, making sure to solicit his or her opinion before any decision. The smart ED quickly makes an ally of this Board member.

Founders often fall into this category. Regardless of the amount of money they give and/or get, founders usually receive great respect and deference from all other Board members. If the founder does not like the ED, it does not matter how well the ED does her/his job technically. That ED is not long for his or her job - a lesson I learned at New York Restoration Project.

In sum, Board management can make staff management look and feel simple. However, bearing all these things in mind, an Executive Director can be more successful at the job of managing a Board of Directors.