Keeping Your Board Happy: Sensitizing yourself to how much is too much

By Todd J. Sukol
Anyone who works with boards of directors needs to strike a balance between accommodating board members and establishing clear organizational processes and boundaries. Too much bureaucratization leads to alienated or angry board members. Too much accommodating can lead to unhealthy, unproductive or even illegal or unethical arrangements.

Exponent Philanthropy, an excellent association of effectiveness-minded philanthropic foundations, recently published an article entitled: 6 Ways Self-Dealing Can Creep Into a Foundation’s Work. Even if you’re not working in the foundation part of our nonprofit and philanthropic sector, I encourage you to give the piece a quick read. Though the details of the Exponent Philanthropy piece will apply more directly to some of you than others, I think you’ll all benefit from thinking about how the emerging circumstances it describes may parallel situations you already face. Wishing you all a productive, positive week, Todd

Organic and Intentional: Jewish Grandparents Network Retreat Models Collaborative Program Development

By Todd J. Sukol
I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Grandparents Network planning retreat at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland this week. The event, co-hosted by JGN and the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education & Leadership at George Washington University, was unusual in one way above all.

To their extreme credit, JGN founders Lee Hendler and David Raphael have taken great pains to learn, to invite and to dream before going into program development mode. When I first learned of their efforts to harness the power of grandparents to convey Jewish wisdom, values and identity to young Jews, I wanted to know what they planned to DO. David and Lee told me it wasn’t time for that yet. They had identified that grandparents have great power and potential in the lives of their grandchildren, but they didn’t want to hurriedly invent a program and then promote it to the funder community. They did a little piloting, certainly, but they concentrated their efforts on running a survey (more than 8,000 respondents — wow!) and inviting various constituents to the table for a series of deep explorations about what JGN might endeavor to be and do. I respect that approach greatly. It is a breath of fresh air in a world where possessors of an interesting idea tend to be a bit too certain theirs is just right. JGN is casting a wide net, and taking a thorough, patient approach.

I’ll wait to see the outcome of the retreat, of course, but I have a feeling the convening, which attracted a very impressive group of hearts and minds, may have helped JGN clarify objectives and point the way toward some particular program areas worth exploring. The Jewish Grandparents Network is humbly and strategically building a strong base of supporters, fans and co-designers. I admire the way they’re approaching the effort and I suspect we’ll see some impressive programming from this group in the near future.

Hidden Growth

By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from

As the cold of winter sets in and the barrenness of the trees outside my window becomes a little starker, it is easy to forget the powerful transformation nature is effecting beneath our feet, just out of view. The earth is rejuvenating through much needed rest, and seeds concealed within it are undergoing invisible preparation for what will appear to be a sudden miracle come springtime. The seemingly infertile freeze of winter masks what is actually the greatest breeding ground for quiet potential. Unseen processes can yield remarkable, lifegiving growth.

And the same can be true in our offices.

The mad rush of year-end campaigns, budget planning and goal setting that typifies December in the philanthropic and nonprofit world is now behind us. We may be tempted to do a little digging out and then settle back into our old routines. But that would be tragic. The relative calm of this beginning is no time for business as usual.

The calendar’s fresh start holds endless potential. In the quiet of the new year, we have the ability to make seemingly mundane procedural improvements that can potentiate radical improvement that will come to fruition in months and years to come.

This powerful, hidden growth can sometimes be the most powerful kind of growth there is. We often hear about growth in numbers — numbers of dollars, numbers of meeting attendees, numbers of people affected by the programs we fund or run. But the subtler growth I’m talking about comes from the kind of internal stabilizing and strengthening that happens when nonprofit professionals reevaluate and adjust the systems and processes by which we perform our daily work. This nurtures our abilities and strengths in ways that may not be immediately obvious, but ultimately causes massive shifts enabling outcomes we may otherwise only dream of.

An ethos that guides our foundation is that we constantly strive to learn and grow. Though many of our annual goals are linked to measurable outputs, I am convinced that the most important goals we have are those that relate to ongoing internal process improvement. It is through these subtle, sometimes incremental, changes that we fulfill the wise words of my 9th grade science teacher, who wrote me a note on the last day of school saying “Leaps forward are made through little disciplined steps along the way.” And so it is with organizational growth: Our ultimate impact is governed not by our growth in numbers, but by our growth in capability.

“Strengths and Challenges”: The Tragedy of a Workplace Euphemism

By Todd J. Sukol
It is at great cost to our organizations’ missions that we have turned “weakness” into a dirty word and “challenge” into a weak word.

Two of the most powerful concepts to hit mainstream management from the world of psychology and human development in recent years are: “Strengths and challenges” flies in the face of both. In the work of management, words matter. Under the spell of good intentions to spare people’s feelings and a misconception about what makes for constructive criticism, we have created a workplace communication norm that has tragic consequences for individual growth and organizational performance.

People can and do grow. I have seen with my own eyes that it is possible to cultivate work environments that support individual and group efforts at constant improvement. I am blessed to work in such a place now, where people regularly acknowledge strengths, admit mistakes, expose vulnerabilities and accept unvarnished criticism as well as supportive guidance from one another. Caveat for the faint of heart: This environment can be quite uncomfortable at times. We run our shop with an explicit ethic that willingness to endure uncomfortable – even painful — moments along our journey is a small price to pay for the combined value of attaining our collective mission, making strides along our individual growth trajectories and achieving genuine success. What we value most on our team is ongoing performance improvement in service of our collective mission. Imperfection is welcome. Progress is possible, expected and celebrated.

When we design and nurture environments that encourage profound, genuine growth, we don’t need to dress up criticism in euphemisms, deluding ourselves that vague allusions to problems will be met by anything more than the most superficial, incremental improvements. When we focus less on protecting people’s feelings and more on providing the structure, support and accountability that helps individuals thrive, people grow and organizations succeed. You will know you’re on the right track when it becomes more insulting to disguise negative feedback in a disingenuous “feedback sandwich” than it is to come out and say: “Hey, you screwed this up.”

There’s another ethic that goes hand in hand with a culture of constant learning and improvement: Every single person on our team has extraordinary value as a human being and is uniquely qualified to contribute to our organization’s work today.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easier to remember that on some days than on others. And yes, it’s easier to see the beauty in some personalities than in others.  This is where positive psychology comes in. I’m not talking about a superficial, Pollyannaish attitude that “everyone is wonderful,” but rather a sustained and rigorous search to identify authentic greatness in each person. Like all really hard work, this pays off in spades. When I make a genuine effort to understand people’s inner character strengths, and let them see mine, they know I’m for real and they tend to respond.

From a positive psychology standpoint, challenges can can be seen not as the opposite of strengths, but rather as what I need to do to make my strengths more impactful. Positive psychology encourages us to expend less effort fixing problems and more identifying, building and deploying inner strengths.  That’s what I call a challenge! The hard work of making our strengths stronger – and making better use of them — is a choice for awesomeness, a choice for life. Why in the world should we settle for relegating the word challenge to euphemistically refer to weaknesses when it can be deployed so powerfully to encourage us to build on our incredible strengths?

In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicolson’s character famously declared “You can’t handle the truth!”  If you saw the movie, you’ll remember that he was dead wrong. You *can* handle the truth. And when you make a genuine effort to understand your colleagues deeply, they can handle the truth too. It may make them uncomfortable at times, but your employees can, and often will, accept your challenge to build their strengths and deploy them in increasingly complex situations. They can also take your strident criticism when appropriate, because they know it comes from a place of respect for their strengths and belief that they are capable of continual growth. We show more respect when we challenge employees to grow strengths and acknowledge weaknesses than when we protect their feelings and settle for mediocrity. As a manager, you owe your team and your organization nothing less.