It was a very hot summer afternoon. We took our oldest daughter, Scout, to a local circus. She was maybe 3 at the time and had slept the whole way there. We took this adorable, sweaty, groggy kid to a very noisy tent, paid for our three tickets, bought some popcorn, and took our seats.
It was so exciting. Well, we were excited – she was dazed and confused.
Until… the first act. Out rolls a cannon. A man goes up. Another man blows the fake fuse and BBBBBOOOOOM. The man flies out of the cannon and lands in a net some distance away.
Scout reacted with pure terror; as if she herself had been ejected from the bleachers. She ran as fast as she could out of the tent, followed by her two mothers. She had been scarred for life by a well-meaning afternoon at the circus.
Once she had started to breathe again, she asked a single question. And then she asked for it again. And even. And even. For the whole ninety-minute ride home.
His question was simple. “Why did they shoot this guy with a cannon? »
And presumably, our answers just weren’t up to par. Answers like “people think it’s fun” or “that’s what circus performers do” fell on deaf ears. These answers offered no consolation.
To his completely logical mind, it all seemed unfathomable. Someone suggested “that guy” get in that cannon so it could explode and “that guy” could fly through the air in a net that was really, really far away.
And “that guy” said YES.
Are you wondering where I’m coming from? This is not a story about the bad parents that we are. It’s a story about “that guy”. And this is a story about you.
You come back from a kind of vacation. Perhaps you barely remember that you had one?
You got back to work, opened your laptop, scanned that January calendar, and before you? An imaginary cannon. And you are “that guy”.
You can agree to start the year by intentionally making the decision to be shot down by a cannon. Endless tasks. Everything is a priority. So much noise. Stress. Anxiety.
Or… you can take a different path. Today I am going to offer you suggestions on three very important conversations you need to have this month.
And I’m going to give you a tip before you start.
Say no to cannon.
Your ability to intentionally use the month of January to get the year off to a good start is essential. You will blink and it will be St. Patrick’s Day.
And it will take more than the luck of a four-leaf clover to effectively plan for a year when you’re already three months into it.
So if you look ahead, the forecast is uncertain, but there is indeed a buzz around a recession. But when is the forecast not uncertain? And when has the nonprofit sector fallen short? Honestly.
Please worry less about what could go wrong and more about the important work ahead and how to advocate for support.
And as you plead for support, as you sit here in January and look ahead to the rest of the year, please have the following conversations before January turns into February.
1. Make time for an extended team meeting: pluses and deltas
Send a message to your staff (if you’re lucky enough to have one). It is vital to breathe and debrief. To talk about what you have learned about our organization over the past year.
Here are some chewing questions.
- What strengths did you draw on?
- How was the decision-making different?
- Are there any examples of how agile you have been this year?
- Something did not meet expectations? Spend more time on this – be candid and unravel the lessons you’ve learned.
- Many of you have had a greater impact while being resource constrained. How did you do that?
- If your board has stepped up, what has it done? How could you motivate them to continue on this same path?
- You have no doubt discovered cracks in the foundations of your organization. Take them one by one without judgment. I can already tell you that communications (internal and external) will be on the list. In times of crisis, we tend to forget that people really need to know a lot and need to hear from you often.
- End the conversation by going over the new things you’ve tried. If you haven’t tried new things, write it down and bring that mindset into the new year.
2. A conversation with your board of directors within 45 days
What is essential. If your organization needs to infuse changes into its DNA, those changes need to be marketed to your board. All too often, boards play the role of ‘risk managers’, so it’s essential for your organization to engage your board in high-level thinking.
It might even be interesting to look back on the last few years, including 2020/2021. How is your organization different today from what I call “the era before” (before the pandemic)?
A conversation like this represents THE BEST OPPORTUNITY you could have to shift your board mindset from one that values ”monitoring” and “risk management” to a mindset that values impact and innovation.
Now really talk about it with your board. Get out in front of that conversation before someone says the dreaded, “So when do you think we’ll be back to business as usual?” You need to start anticipating this now so you don’t have to defend it.
3. A conversation led by your board chair about the work of the board this coming year
If we start by acknowledging that after 2020 none of us will ever be the same, then that will be true for your organization’s board as well.
I suggest an executive session with the CEO after conversation #2. The board chair leads a thoughtful conversation that assesses the board’s role and lessons learned in recent years and ends with setting some goals for how it will operate differently this year.
- How did we present ourselves as a board of directors last year? Ask the opinion of the ED. Can you give examples of excellent partnerships? First-rate ambassador? What more does the ED want to see?
- What more could the council have done? What would that look like?
- Access this conversation: We are so privileged to be part of this council – it gives us meaning in these darkest days – we should approach council recruitment from this place of abundance and privilege.
- Be sure to tell the CEO what would help you be great at your job as a board member.
- And save the most important for last. The chair of the board or an influential voice on the board should end by talking about strategy, innovation and adaptability. The ED can market it, but the president must own it.
The conversations I suggest (and I’m sure I’ve heard a few of you say something about not having time for it) are filling up.
That’s why I offer them. You’ve just returned from vacation and hope the break refueled you – put some gas in the tank. But if you go straight up the barrel, your gas gauge will be at “E” in no time.
If you make these conversations happen, you will not only look back and remember your heroic deeds, but you will take the essential elements of those heroic deeds and infuse them into the way you operate this year.
One last thing. You want to know if you should join these conversations right away – you have so many emails. Here is my advice. Send this blog post to your board chair (or CEO). Pick up the phone and talk about it.
I am 100% convinced that these conversations are essential to have and 150% convinced that the longer you wait, the less impact they will have.
You’re back after a break. You can let the work manage you or you can lead with intention. Hope you choose the latter.
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