Top 10 Reasons a Nonprofit Organization Does NOT Need a Board Consultant

With inspiration from the Late Show with David Letterman, this week’s article is all about the reasons why an organization might NOT need a Consultant to help with their Board of Directors. Counting backwards from 10, here we go:

The #10 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

All board and leadership staff have been trained on the philosophy behind nonprofits and their governance. Understanding the different roles of the agency leadership is key to being effective. Furthermore, it helps each volunteer and staff know and understands their role in leading the organization. 

The #9 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The agency has established strategies and regularly monitors progress towards them. There are strategies tied specifically to the work of the volunteers in advancing the organization. 

The #8 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

One or more volunteers is actively paying attention to and driving the health and culture of the board. Not giving attention to the culture does not mean that one doesn’t exist. It simply means that it has evolved on its own. Without intentionality, a culture generally does not move in a positive direction. Additionally, this individual or group can establish systems to drive board accountability and productivity. 

The #7 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Board meetings are super productive and well attended. Fifty percent of the meeting content is made up of generative discussions where all volunteers contribute. 

The #6 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Governance volunteers understand and own their responsibility for the success of the organization. The board owns the success of the agency in the same way that the owner of a for-profit business owns its success. 

The #5 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The board and staff leaders partner to drive the success of the agency. While, technically, the board supervises the Executive Director or CEO, the dynamics need to be more of a partnership. Neither governance nor operations can be effective without partnering with the other. 

The #4 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Board members and staff can see the connection between the work they do and the mission impact they provide. Connecting the dots between tasks, projects, discussions, and programming with the mission and strategies of the organization motivates and maintains focus. 

The #3 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

Serving on the Board of Directors is a two-way street, where volunteers contribute, and also benefit. Any agency that just has their hand out looking for what their volunteers can give, will likely struggle to keep volunteers. Benefits to the board members include personal growth and development, networking, mentoring, recognition, and more. Sometimes they even get some really great agency swag!

The #2 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The agency doesn’t really need to think about their future or impact. This may be the case if an agency has a crystal ball and can see the future. Or if they are really close to achieving the mission and vision of the organization and their work is almost complete. 

And, the #1 reason a nonprofit would NOT need a Board Consultant:

The organization already has more money, partners, supporters, volunteers and staff than they need. In this situation, an organization might not need a strong and healthy board to tell their story, raise money, forge relationships, and advance the cause. Good for them!

All of this being said, the clients that are doing a good job with their Board of Directors, and want to continue to get better, are some of my favorites. Every board has the potential to grow and improve. Making our world a better place is hard work. The better the health of a board is, the more equipped it will be to make a difference!

When we are working to grow and improve, an outside perspective can be beneficial. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to advance your Board of Directors and the work of your agency.

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com

Red Flags to Watch For

When I write about nonprofit board governance I usually spend my time addressing current nonprofit leaders – either staff or volunteers. This article is for current leadership, and also for those who are thinking about joining the board of a nonprofit organization. 

I love connecting people to organizations that they care about. But serving on a board has to be about more than a passion for the cause. It’s a commitment that should be taken as seriously as a job. In order to make a good decision for yourself, you need to ask a lot of questions. What follows are questions and topics to dig into, so that you can make a great decision about how you donate your valuable time. 

When people get caught up in an organization that is a mess, they tend to become disenchanted with the whole nonprofit sector. And that’s just not fair. There are so many great agencies, working hard everyday, to make our communities and our world a better place. To make sure you don’t end up disillusioned by this sector, here are some red flags to look for when choosing where to serve:

  • “Nonprofit” is not the business plan
  • Agency lacks focus on the mission
  • People are undervalued
  • Fundraising comes first
  • Lack of board ownership
  • Organizations that don’t know who they are or what they need

Let’s dig into each of these issues and what to look for/ask about.

Nonprofit Business = Business

Despite the confusion caused by the title “nonprofit”, all nonprofit organizations are actual legit businesses. They have to make at least as much money as they spend each year. The term “nonprofit” is a tax designation from the IRS. It’s not a philosophy for how to run a business. 

In fact, many of these organizations generate a surplus. The difference comes in what they do with that money. A nonprofit organization is required to reinvest the surplus back into the organization. This could be in the form of equipment, supplies, salaries, training, facilities, investments, etc. With a for profit business, any surplus goes into someone’s pocket. 

Board members are responsible for the fiscal health of the organization. Before joining any board, ask a lot of questions about the agency’s finances. Even if their financial situation isn’t stellar, does the board have a plan to fix it? Is that the kind of problem-solving work you like to do? Avoid any board that has financial problems that they are refusing to address. 

Benefit the Community

Nonprofit organizations exist to make our world a better place. For profit organizations exist to make money for someone – the owner(s), shareholders, investors, etc. 

Governance volunteers are charged with making decisions that are in the best interest of the constituents served and the agency. This is why board members are volunteers. When money comes into the picture, there’s personal interest that may influence their decision making. Does the agency have a conflict of interest policy? 

Another thing to look for in this area includes ego driven leaders. Agencies with either staff or volunteer leaders who make themselves the center of the work can be extremely toxic. These leaders struggle to keep the focus on the cause. They make decisions based on how they will look/benefit, rather than what is best for the organization and its mission. 

Organization Values Its People

Reputable agencies believe in the importance of fair compensation for their employees. Just because someone works for a cause-driven business, it does not mean that they don’t need a livable wage. Caring about constituents at the expense of employees is a contradiction that should be examined. 

Young organizations sometimes hire or contract part-time staff to manage operations as they grow. This is fine, as long as they are not expecting full-time work on a part-time salary. Additionally, this should be a short-term solution, while the board figures out how to get to the level of staff leadership they need to be successful. 

Strategy Drives Fundraising

So far, I have never encountered a nonprofit that didn’t need money. It’s the nature of the game. Making our world a better place takes money. However, boards that focus on fundraising first are missing the point. Fundraising efforts need to be tied to strategies that have been developed to fulfill the mission. Without connecting those dots, it’s going to be extremely difficult to raise funds. 

Integrity

It is the job of the board to uphold the integrity of the organization. If something doesn’t seem right the board MUST speak up. By asking questions about accountability, generative discussions, and where the power of the organization lies, you’ll get a good idea about the board’s leadership. 

Red flags to listen for include any board that lets the staff totally run the show, unaddressed financial issues, lack of vision held by the board, and board meetings where the volunteers just come for a “sit & get”. 

Websites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar can help you with your research. These sites rate nonprofits based on their IRS compliance and verify good standing. They provide access to Form 990 data, giving you the ability to evaluate an agency’s financial health. These resources can help you decide if an organization is a good fit for you or not. 

Culture, Values, Structure, and Needs

Making a good decision about the kind of agency you want to volunteer with involves knowing yourself. What kind of culture do you want to be part of? What are your values and how do they align with those of the organization? Do you want to be part of building a young organization or will you be more comfortable with all the policies and procedures in place? Do the skills-based-needs of the agency align with your talents? 

Other things to consider include your tolerance for risk, what you want to get out of the experience, your time availability compared to the needs, and how you think you can make a difference. Just like every person is different, every organization is also different. Take the time to make sure you find one that aligns with your wants, needs, values and interests. 

None of this is meant to scare you away from governance work. It’s meant to give you the knowledge to ask good questions, get involved with reputable organizations, and have the impact that you want to have on your community! 

If you are on a board where you see some of these red flags, it doesn’t mean that you should quit and run away. However, you might want to start asking questions and using your influence to help move the agency in a positive direction. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to advance your Board of Directors and the work of your agency. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.
kim@athena-coco.com 

 

Showing Your Volunteers Love

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been dedicating my newsletter real estate to comparing the skills used in supervising staff with those used for leading a board. I believe there are a lot of similarities and things we can learn from staff leadership and apply to supporting your Board of Directors. To get up to speed and read the first two articles go here and here

Continuing in this vein, and acknowledging that it’s Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share some ideas for showing your volunteers how much you love them. Many companies and organizations focus a lot of energy on staff appreciation – which is great! Let’s look at some of those ideas and consider how we can apply them to our Governance Volunteers. 

Some of these ideas can be celebrated during the “month of love”, others you might want to put into an ongoing Appreciation Plan. Knowing that your Board members likely do not want you spending money on them, these ideas are all free or very low cost. A little bit of time and thoughtfulness goes a long way when it comes to showing appreciation. 

Recognition

There are many ways to recognize staff and volunteers. You get the biggest bang for your “buck” when the recognition is specific and genuine. Nothing beats telling someone directly, exactly what they did that is appreciated, and how it helps. 

In nonprofits we often acknowledge that our donors help us to serve our clients. And we are also pretty good about recognizing our staff and program volunteers for their direct service delivery. However, we seldom call out our governance volunteers for their impact on our cause. Consider recognizing the contributions of your board volunteers. This could be in the form of a social media post, bulletin board in your facility, a newsletter article, etc. 

Celebration

I think there’s this crazy idea out there that Boards of Directors are all business. Like they don’t want to celebrate the accomplishments of the organization. Take time out of board work to celebrate milestones, wins, and achievements. Don’t just pause and say “yay us”. Make it a big deal. Bring in balloons, noisemakers, and party favors. And most importantly, connect the dots between the work they do governing the agency, and the outcome you are celebrating. 

Food

I know for a fact that staff who work for nonprofits love food! People come together around food. It gives them something to connect around. If you do not regularly feed your board members at a meeting, consider adding this component once in a while, or on a regular basis. Depending on your timing, this will look different from board to board. Be sure to let everyone know if you are doing something out of the ordinary. If you are providing a meal, or even a dessert for an evening meeting, volunteers might want to plan ahead for that.

Sincere Thank You

Nothing beats a sincere thank you. This could be in the form of an email, written letter or a phone call. It’s tried and true, and it’s always appreciated. If you want to shake things up, consider doing a video message, or creating a JibJab type card to make your volunteers laugh. 

Shake Things Up 

Pick a month and shake things up for your regular board meeting. Maybe take it off site. Bring in a guest speaker. Spend extra time on team building. Switch up the order. 

Don’t do this every month, because then it’s not special. Think of things that will increase engagement, allow for your volunteers to grow personally or professionally, or provide opportunities for greater connections. If you’re thinking about trying something new with your regular meetings, this might be a good way to try it out. 

Social Opportunities 

Your volunteers likely serve your organization to help solve a critical social issue in your community. But there’s nothing that says they can’t build new relationships along the way. Bringing volunteers together to connect in a non-board setting can strengthen their ability to work together. 

People are busy and you’ll never get everyone together. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the effort to build deeper relationships with those who are able to make the time. 

Acknowledge Personal Accomplishments/Milestones

Just like your staff, board members have lives outside of your organization. They get married and promoted and have babies and climb mountains and retire. Creating a culture where these things are celebrated is a great way to deepen relationships and spread love. Loop back to the Recognition and Celebration bullets for thoughts on how to acknowledge these things. 

SWAG/Name Tags

Most volunteers do not want an organization spending money on them. So if you do want to give a physical token of your appreciation, it’s a good idea to give it a dual purpose. Give them a shirt to wear that creates awareness for your cause. Provide a name tag so they can be recognized as serving your organization. Acknowledge them in a way that deepens their connection, but also benefits the cause. 

Nominate them for Awards

This requires you to know your volunteers and your community pretty well. Are there folks who should be nominated for citizen of the year? 40 Under 40? For their philanthropic efforts? Or should their company know about the great work they do for your organization? If they own their own business, are there ways to help support their business in a “Best of” campaign? 

Be Silly

Again, serving on a board doesn’t always have to be all business. Adding in a little silliness or light-heartedness can make the difficult work of leading an organization more enjoyable. It also helps to bring out the personalities of your volunteers. 

Consider starting meetings with a kookie question for everyone to answer. When signing important documents, bring pens shaped like french fries. Use clips from movies to set the tone for a discussion. Think “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men or “Show Me the Money” from Jerry Maguire. (The use of examples from two different Tom Cruise movies was completely unintentional.) 

While silliness can create a relationship-building culture, be sure to maintain a safe space. Playfulness shouldn’t shift into pranks or sarcasm. The goal is lighthearted fun that breaks down barriers. 

You may be loving these ideas, but the reality is that you don’t feel like you have the time, energy or creativity to pull any of this off. I bet there is someone in your organization who would love this project. Delegate to a staff or volunteer whose love language is Acts of Service. This would be right in their wheelhouse and will likely energize them. You could even have an Appreciation Committee made up of volunteers, staff, or both. Give them clear direction and parameters and set them off to spread love and joy! 

Anytime you want to visit about how to build up your Board of Superheros, email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.
kim@athena-coco.com

Culture – It’s Not Just About Your Staff Team

In my years with the YMCA I thought a lot about how to lead my staff team, how to build a healthy culture, communication strategies, accountability, problem solving, and more. I also thought a lot about how to lead and engage my Board of Directors. But I didn’t think much about the crossover between these two functions of leading a nonprofit organization.

In fact, I thought these two areas of my job were very, very different. Now that I have some distance and my thoughts have evolved, I see that there are more similarities than there are differences. I’m going to spend the next few articles looking at the similarities and what we can learn from them. 

I’ve written more than a little about building healthy cultures, leading a team, communication, and more, more, more. Go check those out, if you’re so inclined. 

One of the most important roles of a leader is to create a healthy culture for their team. In the nonprofit sector, we usually think that this means our staff team. Right? A healthy staff culture is crucial to delivering quality services, caring for our constituents, and ensuring our staff are nurtured. Logic would tell us that the same is true for our volunteer teams, and even our governance volunteers. 

Think for a moment about your Board of Directors. How would you describe the culture of your Board team? Are they uber professional? Super laid back? Well connected to one another? Eager to help? Something else? Take a moment to jot down all the words that come to mind when you are thinking about the characteristics of your board. 

Once you can describe the current culture of your board, I’d like for you to think about how that compares to the culture of your staff team and/or the agency as a whole. Are they similar or different? Are the similarities intentional or by happenstance? There is nothing that says they have to be the same or different. 

After you do a little work to define the culture of your board and how it compares to the rest of your organization, a good next step is to decide if what you have is what you want. This project is an excellent way to engage volunteers in defining and creating the board culture that is best for your nonprofit! Your Board Governance or Board Development Committees can dig into everything from the board meeting agenda or room set-up to onboarding and engagement of the volunteers. 

The skills and strategies that create a healthy culture for your staff are pretty much the same for creating a healthy board culture. 

  • Aligning values:

    • If your organization has not gone through the process of clarifying and understanding your values, that’s a great first step! If you have gone through this process, the next step is to consider how they relate to your board. The values for the organization do not have to be exactly the same as the values for your board. They can be the same, similar, or even different. It’s based on the needs of the organization. 
    • For example, an organization that serves children may have a very lighthearted culture among its staff. Perhaps the kids need a positive atmosphere. At the same time the organization may be helping children escape really horrible situations. In that case the board likely has some very serious topics to discuss. The culture of the organization may be light and fun, while the culture of the board could be serious and more stoic.
  • Decide the culture is important

    • The main ingredient in any healthy culture is to be thoughtful about the experience of those involved. By simply being intentional about the type of culture you want – you’re taking a huge step towards creating a great experience for your Board team. 
    • A healthy culture requires that the organization and its leaders decide that the culture is a priority. You cannot create a positive culture without first deciding that it matters. When it comes to culture, the biggest problem I see is that leaders ignore the importance of being intentional about this piece of their organization.

  • It starts at the top

    • When it comes to the staff culture, the Executive Director or CEO sets the tone. They define the values and decide that the culture is important. However, with the Board of Directors, it’s not just about the Exec, it’s a combination of the Exec and the Board President. Between the two of them they drive the culture. The Exec connects it to the operations of the organization, and the Board President is the one who sets the tone for the governance volunteers. 
  • Listening and Caring

    • Creating a culture involves listening to what is going on with the members of the board. And not just listening, but also genuinely caring about how the volunteers are feeling and what their experience is like. This is how you keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on. 
  • Communications 

    • Circling back to #1, once you have established your values, you should talk about them. All. The. Time. Talk about what they mean to the board as a team. Use them when making decisions. Include them in opening thoughts, plan them into board meeting agendas, and use the language as you work to create the culture you want and need. 

As mentioned earlier, a Board Development or Board Governance Committee is an excellent group to tackle this project. Their role is to ensure healthy board dynamics. If you do not currently have a committee focused on the growth, direction and health of your Board of Directors, consider starting one and making this their first initiative. You could even start it out as a task force, with growth into a full committee coming next. 

Would you like help evaluating the culture of your Board of Directors? Or, do you want to start a Board Development Committee of your own? Let’s visit! Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s connect!

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.
kim@athena-coco.com

Mission Monday ~ The Exodus Road

According to the latest report from the International Labour Organization there are currently 50 million enslaved people in the world. Of those, 22 million are in forced marriages, 21.3 million are in forced labor, and 6.3 million are in commercial sexual exploitation. These numbers represent an increase of 10 million people over the last 5-years. The Exodus Road is combating this global crisis with their vision of a world where humans are never bought, sold or exploited. 

Through programming focused on training/education, intervention, and aftercare this agency is battling human trafficking in Brazil, India, Latin America, the Philippines, Thailand, and the US. In the 10-years that The Exodus Road has been operating – 1,814 children, men and women have been freed from trafficking. 1,543 survivors have been supported with aftercare; this is significant as 80% of those trafficked end up being re-exploited.

Training and education serves to help increase awareness and understanding of law enforcement, nonprofit partners, and the local communities on human trafficking. To date 1,246 officers and citizens have been trained on the realities of human trafficking and how to fight it in their own countries. Education is one of the most powerful and crucial weapons in the fight for freedom. You can take their digital course – TraffickWatch –  to learn facts, stories and action steps you can take. 

In speaking with Sonia Meeter, Director of Partnerships, I learned that small efforts can have an impact on this big problem. Monthly donations of even $19 truly helps make a difference and advance this work. You can also engage with The Exodus Road via social media to learn more about their work and share with friends and colleagues. Links, as well as a sign-up for their newsletter, can be found at the bottom of their website.  

After 10 years of fighting to eradicate human trafficking, it’s time to celebrate the impact The Exodus Road community has made over the past decade. Their Anniversary Celebration is coming right up on Thursday, October 6th at Lumen8 Rooftop Social. If you are moved to get involved in the fight against human trafficking, consider joining this insider’s look into the work. Details and tickets can be found here, TODAY is the last day to purchase!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors.
She empowers nonprofit organizations to help make the world a better place.
kim@athena-coco.com

What is the Right Culture for YOU?

Culture is a word that is thrown around a lot. Many people use it to describe work environments, businesses and organizations. Most people probably have a vague idea of what it means, but not necessarily a concrete idea about how you impact culture. 

In the past I have written articles on culture, which you can find here and here. Both of these are good, if I do say so myself. Today’s article is on the same topic, but I want to shift the focus just a little. Today we will look into how to create the right culture for your business. 

Not all cultures are created equally. They are not one size fits all. When people talk about a company having a good culture or a bad culture, what are they really saying? Simplified, if a culture matches your values and beliefs, you probably describe it as a “good culture.” Conversely, if they don’t align, you likely consider it a “bad culture”. The tricky thing is, everyone’s beliefs and values are different. 

This begs the question – how do you create a culture to fit everyone. And the answer is – you don’t. You create a culture that is right for your company. Then the culture attracts the kind of people who have values and beliefs that align with you and your business. Before we jump into creating a culture that is right for your business, let’s touch on what happens when you don’t work at your culture. 

It Is What It Is

If you do not intentionally create a culture, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have one. Rather, one evolves – unchecked. In this case, the values that emerge often come from the squeakiest wheel or the biggest personality. And that’s not always good. In fact, this is often how toxic, misogynist, and racist cultures come about. 

Without the clarity of company values – which are actively discussed and referenced – one person can start a culture where telling off-color jokes is the norm. Or a culture where the default mode is to complain about everything. Or one where backstabbing and gossip take over. Almost certainly, none of these are the values you want your company to be known for. But if these traits are emerging, it’s a guarantee that people both inside and outside the business describe your culture negatively. 

How To Get the RIGHT Culture

There are a lot of well-known and broadly studied cultures out there: 

  • Zappos is known for being weird, happy, and fun
  • Southwest Airlines employees are silly and empowered
  • Twitter staff are hardworking, smart, and passionate 
  • Google attracts the best of the best with tons of perks and benefits

What all these companies have in common is that they have taken the time to figure out what they value and how they want to be perceived. Then they keep these values and their identity alive. 

What Do You Value? 

There are several ways to determine your values. Everything from multi-day, facilitated leadership retreats to sitting in a coffee shop with a notepad. It’s up to you to determine the right method for your business. 

I’ll share one activity that leaders often find helpful. Think of the employee in your company who represents the image you want people to have when they think of you. List out all of the characteristics that make that person a great employee. Write down everything you can think of. Then add anything else you wish that person possessed. As you review this list, you will start to formulate an idea about what you value. 

Empowered with this description, start to write words or phrases that you would like your company to be known for. Between 3 and 7 is a good list. Take time to connect a statement or story to each value. Your culture should be starting to emerge. Don’t feel like you need to do this all in one sitting. Record your ideas, then let them percolate for a while. Come back to them and see if they still resonate, or if you want to add to or change them. 

One Size Does Not Fit All

This was stated earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Zappos, Southwest, Twitter and Google all sound like fun, cool places to work. If fun and cool is important to your brand, great! Go in that direction. However, many brands need to be taken very seriously. For others safety might be the most important thing they are known for. And others need to have a reputation of efficiency. Those values might not be as sexy as “fun” and “cool,” but they are just right for certain brands. 

Never Stop Talking About Them

Once you have clear values that are just right for your business, they need to be ubiquitous. They should be used in recruiting and hiring. They should be present in decision making and staff meetings. Your values should be posted throughout your facility and included in many, if not all, communications. 

It’s the talking about them that makes them real. Unless you want your values to be a “flavor of the month” initiative, you need to bring them to life. As the leader, you will want to memorize your values, and have several stories and antidotes demonstrating them. Celebrate values in action. Reward the behaviors you want to see. Own your culture by knowing who you are as a company. Be true to your values. And tell everyone about them. This is what will shape your culture.

While this process is simple, it’s not easy. If you are interested in working on creating a culture you are proud of, email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.
kim@athena-coco.com

The Power of Silence

I have written a lot about listening skills. And by a lot, I mean this and this and this; as well as touching on it in several other articles. It’s a topic I geek-out on. Today I’m going to hone in on one very specific component of listening. That is, the importance of SILENCE

You may be thinking – What does silence have to do with listening? Silence is what happens when no one can think of anything to say! Sometimes that’s true. We’ve all experienced that awkward pause in a conversation. But that’s not where I’m going with this. 

Deep Listening

For the sake of this topic, I’m going to be referring to deep listening. Deep listening is when you’re in a conversation that requires focused attention, comprehension and understanding. 

Examples of times when you should practice deep listening:

  • When someone is upset. (Especially if you have upset them.) 
  • When the relationship depends on your understanding. 
  • When you need to comprehend information. 
  • Customer service!

What we know about human nature is that people want to be heard and understood. Even if you cannot do anything to improve the actual situation for the person, deeply listening to them can help significantly. 

Think of a time when you have complained to a business manager about service or product quality you have received. If the manager really listened to understand, you probably felt better about the situation. Conversely, if you were made to feel like they just wanted to move you along, you likely were more frustrated than before you complained. 

That’s the power of deep, empathetic listening. It’s listening to understand and honor the speaker’s thoughts, feelings and needs. 

The problem is that most of us listen to respond, rather than listening to understand. When we are caught up in our own point of view we are not listening deeply. What often happens is that we start out listening, and truly intending to give our full attention. Then, at some point the speaker says something that shifts our brain to our own thoughts, feelings and opinions. At that point we stop listening and we begin waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can take over as the speaker. 

To be clear – sometimes this is fine. When we’re out socializing or chit chatting with friends this is perfectly okay. During brainstorming sessions, we absolutely want to have ideas build off one another. That’s not what I’m referring to in this article. This is focusing on those times when deep listening is crucial to the outcome of the conversation. 

Silence

That brings me back to the power of silence. We as humans are uncomfortable with silence, therefore we work hard to fill it. That’s what makes it so powerful! 

During a deep listening conversation, there should absolutely be silence. In any conversation, there comes a time when the speaker stops talking. At that point, when you are deeply listening and giving your full attention, you likely need a moment to take in everything they have just shared. The silence is an indicator that you have listened all the way to the end of what they had to say. 

The more emotional or intense the speaker’s content, the more important it is to allow silence. Give space for everything they have just stated to settle. If you are super-uncomfortable with the silence, you can say something to the effect of: “You really shared a lot there, give me a moment to process all you have said.” This demonstrates to the speaker that you were committed to really hearing what they had to say, rather than thinking about your response. 

Another great thing about silence is that it leads the speaker to reveal more. Just as we dislike silence as listeners, the speaker is equally uncomfortable with it. When we listen all the way to the end, then leave silent space as we process, the speaker becomes anxious and often starts talking more. At that point they tend to start sharing more, including things they hadn’t necessarily intended to share with you.

Effective listening produces better understanding, which eases tension and helps the speaker to relax. As a result, your deep listening helps the speaker to think more clearly. When given the space to really be heard and understood, it leads to the speaker having revelations or changes about their thoughts on the topic. The silence allows space for those things to come out.

The last benefit of allowing for silence is that it gives us, as listeners, the opportunity to formulate our response. By listening all the way to the end and being comfortable with the silence, we then have the opportunity to clearly think about the best next step in the conversation. 

  • Do you need to ask a question to improve your understanding? 
  • Does this person need you to validate their feelings with a reflection? 
  • Should you offer comfort? 
  • Or do you need to formulate a response to what has been stated? 

Use the silence to practice your emotional intelligence. 

Deep listening is a powerful tool for managing conflict, improving relationships, and increasing our knowledge and understanding. It results in easier collaborations and more fulfilling relationships both in our work life and our personal life. Becoming comfortable, or even confident, in the silence will make you an even better listener! 

If you would like help in developing your listening skills or creating a listening culture, I would love to help! Email me at kim@athena-coco.com to connect them for a free 30-minute discovery call. 

Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits, small businesses and leaders.

kim@athena-coco.com

The Great Resignation and What to Do About It

It’s safe to say that businesses that employ staff are struggling right now. There are exceptions, but this is a very clear trend in staffing right now. The easy answer, that many like to point to, is the extra unemployment benefits that have been provided during the pandemic. I’ve heard it said that these benefits have made people lazy, and that they just don’t want to work. I think there’s a whole lot more to it. 

What I believe the extra benefits have done is give people options. Those who used to feel stuck in jobs they didn’t like, have had the opportunity to look for jobs with more money, more flexibility, and more happiness. They are starting businesses, going back to school, or using the financial cushion to find a job that aligns with their passions and values. 

Employees leaving jobs to pursue something new implies a few things:

  • They don’t believe their time is valued by their employer
  • They don’t feel fulfilled by their job
  • Their needs for flexibility and work-life balance are not being considered 
  • They are not happy

Recently I read a report on this very topic (shared with me from my fabulous friend and Coach Beth, Unlimited Potential). What I found most interesting is the connection between people leaving and manager burnout. It turns out, people who are stressed, overextended, and depleted, don’t make great staff leaders. 

In addition, many companies overlook training managers to be supervisors. Often new leaders are elevated to their position because they were good at their previous role. So now they will supervise others doing that job. What a tricky position to be placed in! Especially if the new supervisor has never experienced quality supervision themselves. 

When these two factors are combined it becomes pretty clear why people are leaving their jobs. And it makes it even more important for business leaders to be proactive about taking care of their people.

Right now, the struggling companies are searching for a quick fix to their staff shortage. Some are finding success with things like hiring bonuses and referral rewards. However, I don’t think these will fix the problem long term. In order to do that, leaders need to acknowledge the HUMAN in Human Resources. 

This means acknowledging the following and using it to drive decisions and policies:

  • Staff want to be respected and valued
  • Supervisors need to be trained on how to lead people
  • Employees at all levels should be able to find work-life balance
  • It starts at the top

Respect & Value

Showing your staff that you respect them and value them is a baseline for retaining them. Different positions in a company will be paid different amounts based on the level of responsibility, expectations, and the experience and expertise needed. That doesn’t necessarily make the people at the top of the organizational chart more important than those further down. In fact, businesses who lift up their front line staff for the valuable work they do interacting with customers, experience better retention. “Lifting up” means paying a respectable wage, valuing ideas and input, treating them with dignity, and actively seeking ways to make their jobs better. 

Train Your Supervisors

Some people are naturally gifted at leading others, but even those folks need guidance. Supervisors need to know company expectations regarding how to treat staff, boundaries, communication, and more. I believe the middle manager is often the most important role in a business. They are often young leaders rising through the ranks, and they usually supervise front-line staff who are representing your company to the customer and the world. Great supervisors will grow their staff and develop dynamic teams. 

Work-Life Balance

As presented in the report mentioned above, burnout can play a key role in employee attrition. Burnout is usually the result of a person feeling like they have more to do than they could ever get to, even if they worked 24/7. It is often exasperated by a lack of support. A Work-Life Balance culture is one that ensures:

      • Jobs are “right-sized” – roles are evaluated regularly to ensure the expectations are reasonable for one person to manage effectively. 
      • Staff are in the “right seats” – people are well matched with jobs that utilize their skills and knowledge. 
      • Balance is encouraged – employees know their health, well-being, family, and social life is important to the organization. 
      • Employee health is a discussion topic – leadership is interested in how employees are doing, but individually and as a team.

Leadership Sets the Tone

Companies wanting to improve staff retention by improving culture need to start at the top. Words are hollow if the leadership of an organization doesn’t follow suit. Those at the top can do more to retain staff than any policy or statement they could make. They do this by talking to staff at all levels to learn, grow and improve the company. They do it by role modeling, taking time for themselves and their families. And they do it by investing in their staff on a regular and ongoing basis. 

A while back I wrote about Self-Care for Leaders. This is a good place to start. However, if staff attrition and manager burnout is a chronic problem, it’s time for an intervention. Taking a good look at culture and supervisor training will not provide the quick fix some may need. But it will help create a long-term strategy for the kind of environment where everyone wants to work. 

Need help with creating an environment where everyone wants to work? Email me at kim@athena-coco.com to schedule a free 30-minute discovery call to look at how improving your culture and training your supervisors can help your business grow and thrive!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of small businesses and nonprofits.
kim@athena-coco.com

Communication Conduits

As I mentioned in last week’s article – communication is hard. Unclear communication obviously leads to misunderstandings. Unfortunately, it can also lead to hurt feelings, confusion, mistrust, and a loss of productivity. 

Two major communication pitfalls include: 

  1. The barriers to effective communication. 
  2. The components that make up an effective communication system. 

Last week I dove into the many ways that communication can break down due to internal and external barriers. You can think of this as the quality of the conversations that are happening. In this article we’ll look at structures that can be put into place to improve communication. This can be thought of as the quantity of communication occurring.

On a weekly basis I hear leaders and employees complain about the lack of communication in their company. This is almost always referring to internal communications between staff. Often this is not because of a lack of commitment to quality, intentional conversations. Rather, it’s because everyone is so busy, making it difficult to remember, or take the time to have those conversations. Once you are in a place where quality conversations are taking place, it’s equally important to establish conduits for regular and effective communication. 

Each business needs to decide who needs to know what information. That will be different for every single company based on the size, sensitivity of the information, culture, and more. This article couldn’t possibly explore all of the different scenarios for communication systems. Instead, I’m going to share some best practices that apply to most organizations. 

  • Direct Report Meetings

    On a regular basis, every staff person in a company should have conversations with the person they report to. This should be dedicated time where the supervisor listens, coaches, gives instruction, provides direction, and develops the relationship. 

Frequency varies based on the employee’s role, their experience, and their personal need for support. This is not a one-size-fits-all. I have had staff in similar positions, but very different meeting frequency. Some staff have a high need to process ideas or receive positive affirmations. Others like to be given marching orders and check-in when they come to a challenge. 

  • Regular, Effective Staff Meetings

    Most people hate staff meetings. This is usually because they are ineffective and a waste of time. Yet, this can be such an efficient tool for communication and driving work. If your staff meetings are a source of dread and frustration (or if you just want to make them the best use of time possible), check out this article. 

I want to be clear, a staff meeting should NOT be a time where everyone sits around and tells what they are working on. That isn’t what I mean by communication. Rather, all staff meetings should include a well structured agenda with components designed to provide appropriate communication.

  • Cascading Message

    Including this component in all meetings ensures that important messages and decisions are shared with the appropriate people. This practice can save a great deal of staff time. By using it consistently, you may reduce the number of people who need to attend each meeting. 

Dedicate a few minutes at the end of each meeting to determine what needs to be shared beyond the meeting attendees and who will deliver those messages. If necessary you can create a follow-up on those action steps in the next week’s agenda.  

  • State of the Company

    On a regular basis, company leaders should communicate to the whole organization about how business is going. A minimum of once a year is acceptable, quarterly is better. The entire staff team should know the current priorities and the progress being made. This is also a great opportunity to celebrate, recognize, educate, and build relationships.

  • A Two Way Street

    Quality communication includes gathering feedback from employees. While this can be built into Direct Report meetings and Staff Meetings, it’s a good practice to collect anonymous input as well. This is the best way to learn what staff are really thinking. Hopefully it goes without saying, feedback should not be collected if leadership is not going to address any concerns revealed. Collecting input and ignoring it is worse than not collecting it at all. 

Again, the above practices might not all apply to your company. But when it comes to communication, I always recommend implementing more, rather than less. You can always eliminate practices that are not effective or change things up down the road. 

While I’m on the subject of communication, I want to share a few practices for controlling email communication. Anyone who has email knows that it can completely consume your time and mental energy if you let it. The average employee spends just over 3 hours a day on email, and about two thirds of them are irrelevant! Multiply that by the number of employees in a business, and most leaders will be pretty motivated to make sure that the time spent on email is effective and efficient. 

  • Email Rules

    Critical conversations should not take place over email. Nor should sensitive information or important messages. Email is best for relaying facts, setting-up logistics, or sending out mass communications, like newsletters. A rule might be something like “Any email over 3 sentences needs to be switched to a live conversation.”

Leadership is responsible for creating an expectation for how email is used throughout a company. Telling people how to use email might seem petty. However, without established expectations, people will create their own norms. 

  • Email Coding

    Consider using a coding system for all internal emails. For example, the subject line might start with URGENT, THIS WEEK, FYI, or NO RUSH – letting the reader know how quickly they need to review the materials. With everyone using a similar system staff are better able to prioritize their time. 

  • Email Best Practices

    Here are a few more ideas on how to corral the email beast:

    • Train staff to be very selective when using cc:, bcc:, and reply all.
    • Discourage the drive towards a zero-inbox.
    • Provide staff with training on the lesser-known tools your email system provides. Things like automations, templates, folders, tags, etc. can save time and reduce busy work. 

Once communications systems are put in place, it’s important to monitor them. Otherwise, well thought out systems can deteriorate into annoying tasks. The intentionality of the structures put in place needs to be held high and team members need to be reminded of the purpose behind the process. 

Any business with more than a few people can improve their operations by focusing on communication. Quality communication involves clearly relaying messages back and forth. Creating systems for the appropriate quantity of conversations ensures the necessary communication has a platform. I believe any company that focuses on communication quality and quantity, will go far. 

Need help with creating a communication structure that works for your company? Email me at kim@athena-coco.com to schedule a free 30-minute discovery call to find opportunities for growth through improving communications. 

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of small businesses and nonprofits.
kim@athena-coco.com

 

The “I’m So Busy” Competition

What is the deal with this? People compete to be the most busy, the most rushed, and the most stressed. Like it’s an Olympic sport. 

I really love the meme that has been popping up lately that states: 

“We need to stop glamorizing overworking. Please. 

The absence of sleep, good diet, exercise, and time with friends and family is not something to be applauded. 

Too many people wear their burnout as a badge of honor. 

And it needs to change.”

What if, when standing around the water cooler, we bragged about how much sleep we got last night? Or how great we’re doing keeping our lives in balance? Wouldn’t that be a cool paradigm shift?  

To be clear, I’m not writing this from the perspective of someone who has never slipped into this mode. I’ve done it. Especially as a young professional trying to do everything. And as a working mom keeping many balls in the air. As I’ve gotten older and maybe a little wiser, I see how I contributed to the chaos in my life.

This article is not meant to shame anyone who is struggling to keep it all together. Rather, I’m going to share my observations on the topic as well as the importance of balance. A while back I wrote about Self Care, which relates closely to this topic. I also want to look at what we, as leaders, can do to help make this shift. 

So Much to Do, So Little Time

I recently came to the realization that I have more books that I want to read, than I will ever be able to get through in my lifetime. At first I was a little bummed when I recognized this. Then I mentioned this to a friend and he had a completely different reaction. He said: “Isn’t that awesome! There are so many great books in the world and so many options.” The difference a shift in perspective can make! 

While I would love to read all the books on my reading list (and all the books I have yet to discover), I don’t HAVE to get to them. I will read the ones I really want to get to. And I’ll read the ones I need for work or education. Some will just present themselves at the right time and I’ll get to them. 

The book thing got me thinking about all the things we fill our time with. If we were to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, there would still be projects to do or tasks to complete. Just like the book thing. We have a limited amount of time to give and we each have to decide for ourselves how much of it we are going to commit to the different areas of our life. Making this a thoughtful decision is key to balance and self care. 

How to Spend Your Time

First let’s focus on our work time. And the first step in this is deciding how much time you will work – full-time, part-time, project based, etc. If you’re self-employed, clearly define how much time you will commit to your business. 

Next I like to think of our work time divided into three categories: NEED TO, WANT TO, and SHOULD. 

  • NEED TO: There are the things we absolutely have to do. Likely these items are outlined on our job description or they are directives from our supervisor. If our job is important to us, then we have to do these things. 

Items on the NEED TO list can sometimes be subjective. For example, if an employee has a need for perfection, they may triple check their work. Another employee who has the ability to run through a project accurately on the first try might not have that need. 

  • WANT TO: These are projects that we believe will improve the company, culture, product or service. They are initiatives that we want to pursue, but are not required to work on. WANT TO projects provide fulfillment and engagement. Often these are the reasons we enjoy our jobs and make us care about the company. 

Depending on the amount of autonomy you have at work, this might be something you need to negotiate with your supervisor. Being clear about the things on your NEED TO list, and how your WANT TO items will benefit the company will help with your discussion. Also, if the WANT TO projects are the only thing keeping you at a company, they may truly be NEED TOs. 

  • SHOULD: Items on this list are things that are not required from you, and you probably don’t really want to do them either. It’s best to avoid SHOULDing on ourselves. The SHOULDs need to be evaluated to see what’s really going on there. You clearly feel an obligation to the task. Consider why that is and if it really belongs on the NEED TO list. 

An example is a project that you don’t want to do, but that would make you look really good to your boss. If you are actively working to advance at work, then you might want to shift it to your NEED TO list. On the other hand, if you are new to a position and it makes more sense for you to focus on your primary responsibilities, then this item probably needs to be removed altogether. 

Too often we approach everything that comes our way as a NEED TO. By thinking through how to categorize the many demands on our time, we can make decisions that will keep us from becoming overworked. 

Not Just a Work Problem

While at work, the NEED TOs take priority, in our personal life there should be a better balance between NEED TO and WANT TO. Being overworked or overextended is not just a work problem. Homes, family, friends, hobbies, volunteering, and more quickly fill up our non-work time. The problem is usually amplified for women who tend to carry the majority of home and child care duties. 

Categorizing tasks and activities can be applied to our personal time as well. This process can be a useful tool for families to use in order to distribute tasks or to decide what is really important. Having a clean kitchen might be a NEED TO for one person and a SHOULD for another. There might be items on your SHOULD list that really need to be outsourced because no one wants to do them, but eventually they NEED TO be done (hello housecleaning!) 

Evaluating the ways you spend your time can also reveal opportunities for positive change. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, scrolling social media for an hour before bed could be the culprit. When we think intentionally about how we spend our time, we will probably choose quality sleep over looking at cat memes. 

Leading Change

As a leader the categories still do not change. The biggest difference is that you are the one making decisions about what NEEDS TO be done for the company or organization. With this difference comes the power to drive change. As I see it, there are four key areas where today’s leaders can help reduce the glamorization of the overworked: 

  • Create jobs that are manageable – evaluate jobs regularly to ensure that they can be completed in the allotted time. Avoid filling every minute of a staff person’s time. Encourage creativity and staff taking initiative. This can lead to new solutions and  processes, and energize staff. 
  • Ensure NEEDS TO are really needs – your role is to divide the many tasks and projects that it takes to operate your business. As time goes on, priorities change. The leader’s job is to make sure that tasks remain relevant and true NEED TOs.
  • Set a good example – monitor your own use of time. Nothing encourages balance like the leader making it a priority. If you do need to put in extra hours, don’t make a show of it. The leader’s behavior will create the culture.  
  • Encourage balance – beyond demonstrating work-life balance, talk about it. Tell staff why it’s important. Help them figure out how to manage their role in a healthy way. If you observe a staff person engaging in the “I’m So Busy” competition, have a conversation with them. 

In today’s job market, leaders need to provide jobs that people want. This means work-life balance, opportunities for meaningful contributions, personal development, and a culture they will enjoy. Businesses that figure out how to do this will attract the best employees. 

Need help with creating a healthy culture? Email me at kim@athena-coco.com to schedule a free 30-minute discovery call to start creating a culture that celebrates work-life balance. 

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of small businesses and nonprofits.
kim@athena-coco.com