I recently heard of an individual who was promoted to a leadership position from within his organization. When the email hit everyone’s inbox, staff spontaneously celebrated with him. The vibrancy of the conversation communicated an esprit de corps felt by all. They knew he deserved it, and they felt good about the organization because of it.
Unfortunately, this is more the exception than the rule.
For over a decade, The Bridgespan Group has conducted research on nonprofit leadership, and they report that, despite volumes of articles and discussions about the need for organizations to develop their own staff, too many nonprofits do not grow their own leadership. The result is a “leadership development deficit” and an ever-present worry about leader succession.
Another result is that we’re losing our leaders. When ONEplace began, there was a concern about Baby Boomer retirements leaving a gap in leadership. However, researchers report that less than half of those leaders leaving their positions are doing so because of retirement. Many leave due to a lack of support for their learning and growth.
When we cut our professional development, we bleed out leaders.
Last October, I wrote about ONEplace’s move to encourage the development of Resolute-Humble Leaders (read post). As we continue down that path, it’s becoming clearer that what we’re taking on is less like a program focus and more akin to a movement.
As we move into and through spring, ONEplace will be facing the challenge of how to reverse the trend toward effectively supporting and developing leaders. I suspect that it will involve conversations with many of you.
I look forward to it.
Three times a year, ONEplace hosts a gathering of our Consultants and Trainers Network – area professionals that work with nonprofits. During each gathering, we check-in with each other and discuss the underlying issues related to nonprofit operations, management, and leadership.
Our recent gathering took a deep dive into the question, “What drives an organization, and what difference does it make?” This was not a philosophical question but one of observation and assessment. We wanted to get a read on what’s happening in the field. Three themes emerged in the discussion.
First, we tend the follow the path we’re on. This was expressed as tradition, the status quo, going down the same tunnel, fear of change, or even as an object in motion stays in motion. While organizations are consistent, they may lose sight of other options or become risk averse.
Second, we’re bound by a common cause. While most organizations have a mission statement, this point gets to a more personal connection to the cause, such as all have a family member who suffers from the same disease or endured a similar experience. Being close to the cause elicits deep engagement, and it may cloud understanding relative to fundraising or community engagement barriers.
Third, the organization will rise and fall with leadership. Organizational success often is determined by how the Board and Executive Director partnership lead the organization. The organization thrives when the board conversation revolves around impact, and it falters when the board conversation delves into operational concerns.
We acknowledged the fact that organizations are always communicating a message – whether intentional or not. Being deliberate about that message and mission creates clarity internally as well as external consistency.
This month we sat down with Don Nitz, CEO at Lakeside Academy. With nearly five decades of experience, Don reflects on the people and events that have most influenced his career, and the lessons they taught him.
Tell us how you got to where you are today
I’ve had a wonderful career – working with kids for 45 years. I started employment in 1970 with Kalamazoo County as an attendant at the Juvenile Home. Over the next few years, I was a Caseworker/Probation Officer, a Supervisor, and Assistant Court Administrator. In 1984, I accepted the position of Superintendent of the Juvenile Home and was asked to clean it up. I fell in love with the place, and we were able to bring the agency to one of the tops in the state. I served Superintendent until I retired in 2003. Funny thing – as I retired from the position, I was asked to re-apply for it. So I was rehired as Superintendent for another two years which allowed me time to finish up some loose ends. I was asked to consult with the Lakeside Academy in 2004, and I joined their board in 2005. I became Executive Director of Lakeside in 2006 and then CEO in 2007 – the position I hold today.
In my work, I always focused on systems – revisiting why we’re doing what we’re doing. I look to improve the service delivery by improving the systems and processes. As one system changes, it has ripple effects throughout the organization. I got this from my Dad – he like working puzzles.
What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?
I’m a promoter of revolution. I enjoy looking down the road to see where new ideas and initiatives will take us, and ask, “Is that where we want to be?” So, Kalamazoo is a great fit for me. It’s a city that provides people the opportunity to think big, try new ideas, pick themselves up when ideas fail, and enjoy the ones that work. It’s in our communal DNA. I stay here because Kalamazoo is constantly working on its brand, maintaining its core, and keeping it a wonderful place to live. In addition, Kalamazoo has a strong downtown, arts, family-oriented, higher education institutions, great size, ease in getting around, surrounding agricultural and recreational areas, wonderful people and friendships. The community allows individuals to become involved in living their passions.
What guides or principles do you rely most upon?
The primary guiding principle has always been to ask, “What is best for the kids and their families?” Related to that, I share with staff, “If your son or daughter was here, how would you want them to be treated?” Sometimes, adhering to my principles meant putting my job on the line – doing what was right rather than following the rules. In fact, a judge actually fired and rehired me twice in the same day! Oh, I also keep in mind that, in addition to skill development and learning, success takes a lot of pure luck.
I developed a personal mission statement around 1994, and it stays before me to this day. It’s a series of principles influenced by my parents: Be fair with others; Honor my parents; Appreciate the wonders of nature and protect it; Advocate for the underdog; Maintain a high physical regimen; Nourish the spiritual inner self; Prepare mentally for a positive departure (death); Let determination and perseverance rule; Give back more than I take from this world; Accept my deficits and tolerate those in others; Leave no financial or emotional debt for others; Practice the development of new life skills and knowledge; Live a clean, orderly lifestyle; Never lose sight of the vision on how the world could be; Allow my sense of adventure and curiosity emerge, to seek personal fulfillment; and Crave learning and gaining knowledge.
Who was one of your mentors and what do you carry with you from that relationship?
First, my parents were great influences. Both had 8th grade educations and worked hard for low wages. They valued a strong family, open-mindedness, taking in others in need, and being fair. They taught me about social justice and working hard, and they always said, “You WILL go to college.” Among all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, only my siblings and I went to college because of my parents’ encouragement.
Harold Dyer, Court Administrator, also was a mentor to me. He took me into his administrative domain and taught me the rigors of politics, administrative struggles, human resources, and the importance of staying focused on end results. He made my career!
What has been one of your biggest learning moments?
The Peace Corps changed my life at a young age. Living outside the USA opened my eyes to the many terrible things my country was doing around the world. Living in a mud house without toilets, running water, or electronics, relationships and daily survival were the common foundation for living. This made me question the USA model.
Another learning moment came in Kalamazoo when I was asked by a Chief Judge to clean up our Juvenile Home after numerous serious problems were discovered. After becoming Superintendent, I developed a 3-year plan for functional changes and never met my goal. To be successful, I needed to functionally change my approach and relationships with all other staff members before changing the system. This was a real “aha” moment that carried my career.
What’s an average day like for you at work?
At Lakeside, the executive director handles the organization, so for me, an average day is pretty low key: licensing, accreditation, audits, legislation watch, requests from prior students, consulting with peers and talking with students. It’s a big change from my days at the Juvenile Home where I was working 50-60 hour weeks.
What are the types of challenges/opportunities that keep you up at night?
My greatest challenge at Lakeside was in 2006-07 when trying to save the agency and convince the Board members that “we could be a national model.” We faced the challenge and went from worst to first in Michigan as a residential treatment facility. It took many sleepless nights to get there. Today, our biggest challenge is educating our community on the outstanding work we do with our students and the sustainable health of the agency. It is slowly coming around.
How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends in your field?
I constantly keep my ear to the ground: legislative searches, talking with similar agencies, being a member of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, and receiving updates on state and federal policy and legislative decisions. I chair the local DHHS Board of Trustees overseeing the local operations and I’m a member of the Michigan County Social Services Association. MCSSA keeps a finger on the pulse of Lansing policy and legislation, and it offers opportunities to discuss program needs and immediate citizen issues at any age.
What advice do you have for those wishing to have a long lasting career in the nonprofit sector?
Most of all, know who you are. Challenge yourself to be your best. Overcome competitiveness, defensiveness, and ego. Be forward thinking and fresh.
On the content side, understand the politics of your board and where each member stands on their view of the agency. Be inclusive in idea sharing and decision making. Also, understand organizational finance: budgets, audits, balance sheets, and fiscal health for the agency.
I’ve found that the really fun side of living is talking with people and getting to know so many good people. The greatest joy in work is having an idea, sharing it, and watching it develop. That only happens in relationships.
What hobbies or outside interests do you enjoy?
I enjoy hiking, biking, golf, running, swimming, tabata training, weight training, yoga, pilates, gardening, cross country skiing, reading, international travel, college sports, Rotary, and family.
One more thing
I started a physical regimen in 1972, and it has been an integral part of my lifestyle all through the years. It’s worked well for me, and I’m grateful for it. Too many sacrifice health for work, and it’s not something that you can buy back. You must start early and maintain it.
One day, long ago, my 4 year old son was crying. He was frustrated, angry, uncomfortable, or whatever – he was crying. In my wisdom, I offered him this solution…then that…then this…then that. No success. So I went back to the first “this.” Why? All my best data and experience convinced me that this is what he wanted…what he needed. He cried louder, his whatevers all in a twist. Then, having exhausted the taller, wiser parent approach, I tried this:
I sat with him, put all of my good ideas aside, and asked him, “What’s wrong? What do you need?”
Recently I read the January 2016 installment of Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) – TDCE is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free. It’s often manifested in community-wide efforts that eventually falter under the weight of convening fatigue, a series of false starts, and no dedicated personnel.
Unfortunately(?) I followed the TDCE post with a scholarly article from a national institute staffer who had his “spirit awakened” by a renewed effort by his network of partner organizations to “step up our ambition, performance, and leadership as a national backbone organization.” (Release the Trickle!)
To add salt to the wound, all of this came on the heels of participating in a board meeting in which a list of “gaps” were circulated and discussed followed by a list “ways to fill the gaps” – a list which had no connection to the previous list of gaps. The proposed “ways” came from persons removed from the problems and included a lot of wonky language that didn’t make clear what specific action(s) could be taken.
When do we include the voice of the people being served and the staff who directly perform those services?
When I worked in a large, multi-building organization in Chicago area, there were managers spending time in meeting after meeting developing policies and procedures to guide the work of people not in the room. These initiatives failed every time. When the managers asked those doing the work to propose policies and procedures to improve their work and job satisfaction, an effective solution was found in half the time. And the buy-in was 100%!
Self-determination goes a long way.
Our motivations and intentions are good, and we need to study all the evidence, data, and best practices. It’s important. Equally important is to sit down with those most affected, set our good ideas aside, and ask: “What’s wrong? What do you need?”
With the success of last year’s Inclusion Series, I started 2016 excited to plan our next installment. Conversations about equity and inclusion are happening all over the country, everywhere from the world of literature to Hollywood. Being a part of that zeitgeist, and bringing practical tools to the nonprofit sector here in Kalamazoo is a great privilege.
I took that energy to Creating Change, a conference hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force, this year held in Chicago. Over 4,000 organizers, activists, and social justice allies came together for workshops and institutes concerning the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities. I attended just three out of the five days of Creating Change, and can’t quite believe how much I learned in such a short period. Here a few of the biggest lessons I took from the conference.
1. Lean into – not away from – discomfort. One awesome panel that focused on the experiences of queer racial justice activists encouraged the participants to expect discomfort, and embrace that. The moderator noted that turning away or shutting down due to uncomfortable feelings or truths can be a major barrier to advancing important conversations.
2. Don’t do for, do with. One very serious, heartfelt panel about the crisis of HIV in young Black American queer men focused on how realities specific to the African American community, such as religiosity, are exacerbating the issue of HIV transmission rates. The moderator noted that because these issues are entrenched, health organizations would do well to work with communities rather than dictating terms on how to lower infection rates.
3. Visions of justice tomorrow may not look like yesterday’s. During the State of the Movement address, one of the Task Force staff members noted that it was the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, guaranteeing women the right to choose. That staffer further explained that while that event is an important one for reproductive justice, there is still much work to do to guarantee access to good healthcare for all, particularly the trans*, disabled and undocumented communities.
Creating Change was an excellent opportunity to illuminate how so many different things so essential to a fulfilling and productive life – secure housing, a good education, a safe work environment – must not be taken for granted. I am excited to use this new information as we plan for the 2016 Inclusion Series. And, if you have ideas of what you’d like to see addressed in the series this year, please email us.
I dreaded making the call. Every time I talked with this woman – the Treasurer of the New England area, based in Boston – she was short, direct, and seemed angry. Overall, she seemed pleased with our work, but I always felt put on the spot or called on the carpet when we spoke. Then, one day, I met her, and from that day,
I never again hesitated to call. In fact, I looked forward to speaking with her.
This happened early in my career when all correspondence was by letter, phone call or face-to-face – no email, text, or Facebook. I learned from my overly blunt colleague and from many others that no strong, working relationship can develop without face-to-face meetings. Email, phone, et al can maintain relationships. However, establishing or developing effective collegial relationships requires face-to-face meetings.
Everyone has experienced this. A lack of nonverbal cues leads to misinterpreted emphasis or tone of voice. And many a joke has gone astray because the reader wasn’t in the right frame of mind to receive our attempted jocularity (ouch!).
Few dispute what I’m writing. Indeed, article after article support the need for building and deepening relationships with colleagues, subordinates, board members and customers through face-to-face meetings. And yet, we do so little of it. Why? Most say this:
“I don’t have the time,” which is simply another way to say, “I don’t make it a priority.”
From my chair, I can tell you this: those who make relationship building a priority are better supervisors, have functional boards, do effective board and volunteer recruitment, have loyal donors, develop an excellent reputation, and work cooperatively with other businesses and organizations.
In other words, their investment in getting to know people creates efficiencies and builds effectiveness throughout their organizations. Indeed, strong working relationships increase capacity, saving time and money.
Electronic communication (email, social media) is disaffected connection – information exchange without feeling or subjective experience. It plays an important role in our workday, but it will never replace that which is required to do excellent work – real human connection.
So, have no dread, no fear. Before the day is out, arrange to meet a colleague, board member, or loyal donor for coffee or lunch…just because…just because working with people rather than beside people will transform your organization.
I hear it too often. The executive director brings a report to the board. The executive committee announces a decision it’s made. A committee chair proposes an initiative. A board member declares a public position taken. And, when any one of these occurs, the rest of the board is caught off-guard – total surprise incredulity, shock.
It shouldn’t happen.
Several months ago when asked by a new board chair for advice, the first thing that came to mind was “No surprises – especially with the executive director.” Everyone takes their cue from the top, and the relationship between the board chair and executive director – be it positive or negative – sets the tone for the organization. So, it’s to everyone’s benefit for these two to keep in regular, open, and honest communication.
This relationship models “standard operating procedure” for everyone else and it can be leveraged. Taking time to explain how, for example, there is a formal schedule of weekly phone meetings and monthly face-to-face meetings (in addition to email conversations) lets other members know the expectation. It set the bar. It also may increase their confidence in board leadership.
I raise this issue because surprises happen, often with devastating, long-term effects on the organization.
A board culture that allows surprises to occur, implicitly allows speculation, sidebars in the parking lot, and divisive cliques. A few years ago, I sat in a task force meeting where this was happening – “we-they” language was being used about the “nay-sayers” in the organization. I immediately said, “Stop it! We are one organization and cannot allow ourselves to be divided.” We then took time to discuss the merits and respectful intent behind the position held by “they.”
When surprises – or other potentially divisive practices – occur, someone has to interrupt the proceeding, name it, and call an end to it. Everyone knows its poor practice, but it must to be spoken to break the unspoken agreement that allows it to go on.
If you’re nodding right now (literally or figuratively), then that someone is you – take the lead.
Over the past two years, I’ve visited over 30 board meetings to provide training, facilitate discussions, and assist with transitions. I’ve also held individual meetings with several other board leaders. In each one of these meetings I’m reminded of a critical, yet elusive, fact:
The Board acts as one.
Many boards lack this unity. The organization may have a clearly written mission statement but board members are not on the same page with how this impacts their work. The executive director may have a clearly written job description but there are disconnects between board leadership and the executive staff that create confusion and impair operations. The board may have a recruitment plan for members and officers but they struggle to find people to fill the positions.
These three issues – getting everyone on the same page, managing critical governance relationships, and finding great board members – thread their way through many boards locally and nationally.
The most recent Governance Report (Leading with Intent) from BoardSource shows that, while members do a good job with technical concerns such as financial oversight and compliance (things that many do in their own jobs), they underperform on the adaptive concerns related to strategic direction and community connections. In contrast, top performing boards get the “right people on their bus” through a deep understanding of cause, purpose, and strategy that enables thoughtful planning, determined dedication, and collective commitment from board members as well as executive staff.
Let me be frank: I’m seeing too many boards struggle with ambiguities that can be addressed. I’m seeing too many organizations struggle because the board and executive staff fail to develop strong, working relationships.
Board service is serious work, affecting the lives of many – staff, volunteers, clients, and others. Every year, board personnel undergo change, so board development requires continual effort. Our Better Board Series (Jan 12, 19, & 26) offers a taste of what ONEplace can do to assist you in this effort.
Every few months we offer Grant Writing Basics – an introduction to grant writing. Always a well-attended and well-liked workshop, the Basics class emphasizes one key element: worry about what you can control.
Grant seekers often worry on concerns outside their control: who else is applying this round, how will we stack up against the competition, what pet concerns drive the panel, etc. Even if we could answer these questions, it would make little difference in how we write our proposals.
Instead, grant seekers have plenty to focus on within their control. Up to 80% of grant writing is research. Grant writers need to know: details on the organization’s cause, purpose and strategies; details on the proposed program development; the organization’s history of handling such projects; details on the need being addressed and the population being served; details on how other organizations are serving similar needs or the same population; and more.
Once the grant writer knows the details above, then begins the hunt for the funder with a hand-in-glove mission fit. This, too, is within the grant seeker’s control. Using the Funding Information Network (available at ONEplace Center) and other tools, the funder search can be narrowed quite quickly.
I once spoke with a young grant writer who said, “I wrote 100 grants last year and didn’t get a single one.” Don’t be that person. Grant writing is not a numbers game. It’s more akin to finding the right pair of gloves – appropriate material, solid construction, engaging color, and perfect fit.
Few people have the talent to start working as a camp counselor right after freshman year in college, and progressively rise through the ranks until earning an executive position. That is one of the compelling facts I learned about Tanequa Hampton, the current Camp Director of Pretty Lake Camp. She graduated from Western Michigan University last December with a degree in Child and Family Development, and accepted the Director position one month later. During our interview she discussed working with a multigenerational staff, and how she uses experiences from her own childhood to inform her work.
What is one of the most energizing aspects of your job?
Working with the campers who are misbehaving and trying to redirect their behavior. I try to get the staff to come alongside and understand what we’re doing here. During staff training, it is important to me to try to explain why we’re doing this and why we sometimes keep [misbehaving] campers longer than some staff think they should be kept. I try to share my heart because people using understand once they have a heart connection with it. It’s one of the most energizing aspects and it can also be one of the most draining. I think it’s cool to see a camper who has been misbehaving turn their behavior around and to see their growth year to year. Also, to see a staff member really connect with a camper and help that camper believe they have the power to decide how they behave. It’s really profound and powerful.
Do you feel like your early life and education directed you to your current career path, or are you surprised at where you are?
I’m both surprised and also kind of knew I’d end up in a place like this. I had a rough life growing up, and even from a young age I knew I wanted to work with kids, especially kids who had a story like mine. Or who maybe didn’t have an adult in their life to tell them their value. Did I think it would be a camp? No, it never crossed my mind until I got to college.
What has been one of your most impactful professional experiences?
For a couple of semesters [in college] I was a lead infant/toddler teacher for a childcare center and I think that helped me to see I could be the leader and delegate and what have you. So that kind of prepared me for my current role, but Pretty Lake has been the most impactful experience I’ve had because of how it has helped me grow--the multigenerational work I do here, like working with the staff and the campers, figuring out boundaries, and those kind of things. It’s given me confidence that I can rock out in something like this. In anything, for that matter.
Are there many early career professionals in your workplace? Does that make your job more challenging/simpler?
The year-round staff has one person close to my age, but most others are several years older. That part of my job makes it easier for me because they have a lot more experience in life and so they help me prepare for camp, and it allows them to share their wisdom. Only one part makes it difficult: trying to get the summer staff to understand the impact of their behaviors (while campers are here and when they aren’t). I think our culture sometimes makes it hard to truly get this concept. We aren’t taught boundaries and professionalism soon enough and our early adult years. We’re all learning and growing. If I had older people on the seasonal staff this maybe wouldn’t be an issue but there wouldn’t be the energy there. So, [the age differences] are a kind of checks and balances.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about millennials/early career professionals today?
I think people expect them to behave in a certain way so they don’t set the expectations to bring them up where you actually want them. But a lot of people want to rise to those expectations. So, one of the biggest misconceptions is that we just want to behave in a way that is not acceptable, and people don’t challenge us to meet those expectations. I think a lot of people act the way they do because they don’t know any better, because no one teaches them. Usually people act the way you tell them they should. We want to rise to the occasion.
What has been one of your most useful professional development experiences? (e.g. trainings, education programs, mentorship, etc.)
Probably college, because it reinforced a lot of what I already knew about child development and adolescent behaviors. A lot of the understanding I gained from my childhood was reinforced by my education, so people would believe me when I said, “this is happening because of this.” I recognized a lot of things before I received my education, but I didn’t know formal names for them. For example, some of the ways I deal with campers here I learned through my childhood, but then refined a lot of my knowledge at Western.
What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?
Most of my experience is from living on campus; people were really friendly. The friendliness of people and finding long-term friends has been long lasting and impactful for me. I like the historical landmarks here and how people go and support them a lot, like the State Theater. I also like the relationships between [Western’s] campus and the college, and the partnerships created through internships.
What is the best piece of advice you've received to date, and who gave it to you?
It’s been echoed through a couple of people in my life. Most recently I heard it from one of my pastors: we’re born for such a time as this. There is something in me that the world needs, so I’m trying to figure what that is and bring that to the world. Essentially I have an irreplaceable role in this world, and that is humbling and frightening at the same time. I try to be really intentional about how I go through life.
Which natural talent do you get to use most often in your work?
Even as a little kid people followed me, and I wanted to care for children even when I was a child. So that care and that mothering heart--and I don’t know if that’s a talent-- but there’s something in me that’s always been motherly, and that’s what I’ve been able to use the most. In this role of being part of a year-round staff and a supervisor of all these other staff, and to the campers, I’ve been able to use that in these three different groups, and that’s cool.
What's your favorite way to spend your free time?
Either reading a book, watching a movie, chatting with my friends, or playing games. I love listening to 90s R&B music, so having a little dance party with my friends is always really cool. I like the simple pleasures of life.
Lastly, how do you take your coffee?
I don’t drink coffee, but I do drink tea.