By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from Mayberg Foundation Blog
Recently I was working with colleagues at the Mayberg Foundation, preparing a presentation about our approach to entrepreneurial philanthropy. As we spun out some of the core operating principles we wanted to highlight, two of them struck me at first to be at odds with each other. The first had to do with the ills of over-bureaucratization. The Mayberg Foundation invests in passionate, driven, committed people. We have seen so many times that visionaries often become stifled while working in rigid organizational environments. This destroys their creativity and motivation. In order to innovate, experiment, learn and iterate, social entrepreneurs require nimble, adaptable environments. On the other hand, we are also staunch believers in the importance of proper organizational infrastructure. Those who work closely with me have heard me say time and again that all exciting ventures require three not-so-exciting counterparts in order to amount to anything real: structure, support and accountability. Process counts. As one of our trustees recently put it, “instinct only takes you so far.”
Far from being contradictory, the need for quick, nimble decision making and the need for well defined processes are great examples of complementary opposites, each as true as the other — and each requiring the other. With too little process even the best ideas remain empty dreams forever. With too much process creativity gets squeezed out, destroying the very experimentation that represents the nonprofit and philanthropic sector’s most important role in meeting society’s challenges. The key, as a former advisor of mine told me many years ago, is “knowing when to loosen and when to tighten.”
And that brings me to our Foundation’s own commitment to constant introspection and improvement. Our growth over the past several years has forced us to professionalize and operationalize in order to handle the volume of good work with which we have the privilege of being involved. And at the same time we remain as dedicated as ever to our ability to pivot quickly and shift gears, remaining approachable and open to new ideas. To be sure, this is a tough balance, something that requires constant attention and adaptation. We discuss this openly and frequently among staff and with our trustees and beneficiaries, constantly tweaking our systems, balancing structure and creativity, discernment and openness, strategy and passion.
I’m sharing a slightly modified version of a Yom Kippur thought sent out to Koby Mandell Foundation board members by my dear friend and mentor of many years, Rabbi Seth Mandell. The humility and practicality of it made me smile, and made me feel a little better. Although Yom Kippur is a distant memory at this point, I heard back from numerous people I emailed it to that the message resonated with them big time, not only for Yom Kippur, but as a reminder year round that when it comes to spiritual growth, steady but gentle effort is best. So keep working on yourselves folks, but easy does it….
By Rabbi Seth Mandell
I have to admit that I am not prepared for Yom Kippur. I have not read inspiring commentaries nor reviewed the prayer book. Nor, sad to say, have I spent time in self examination or enumerated the things I could have done better this year.
Worse perhaps, is that I am singularly untroubled by this. Maybe because I have been occupied with my sons wedding, my toddler grandson’s almost daily progress and my daughters impending birth.
I’m reminded though of my friend who blew the shofar in one of the synagogues in Tekoa this year. I had heard that he was unable to finish even the first round of blasts. The sounds apparently just would not come out. Finally, frustrated, he asked someone else to take over.
Later he told me something interesting. “When I went home and blew the shofar for someone else (who was unable to get to shul) I did it perfectly. Every sound came out smoothly and easily. Must have been the pressure.” he said, referring to his difficulty during the service itself.
I have decided to take heart from this story. Maybe the lack of focus I feel, the lack of serious preparation, is not all bad. Maybe going into this awesome day without feeling the pressure to make it deep and meaningful, without feeling the awe, is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we can go into the day relaxed, taking it as it comes, and simply pray the words of the siddur and let our intention and focus take care of themselves.
My hope is that those of us who are going into Yom Kippur feeling unprepared can let go of our expectations, our critical self-judgement and accept ourselves, our family and friends – and our world – as it is. And maybe that lack of pressure will allow us to pray with a stronger intent, relate to our Creator in a more natural and meaningful way, and – as we accept and forgive our failings and those of others – be accepted and forgiven by the Almighty.
I wish you all a G’mar Chatima Tova – A successful and healthy year
By Todd J. Sukol
Ironically, in this week when my wife, Amy Sukol, led a seminar entitled “From Great to Awesome” at the 2017 Chicago Nonprofit Conference*, I was learning a complementary lesson, also loosely based on Jim Collins’ Good to Great, but in the opposite direction.
You see, this week wasn’t what I would call GREAT.
Rather, the power of good carried me, and really our whole office, this week as staff seemed to be in “just back from vacation” mode. Some of us really were just back from vacation. Others were dealing with children returning to school, the stress of upcoming holidays and looming deadlines.
Fortunately, we were well prepared.
Way back when I decided it was time to pursue my lifelong dream to learn to play the drums, I took lessons from the fabulous Wes Crawford. A great teacher, Wes stressed that although “playing by feel” was most satisfying to me, it was important to concentrate on rudimentary drills and thoroughly learn song structures so that even when I was “feeling off,” I could still play my part well. This sobering lesson can mean the difference between good and lousy.
As with playing music, working for a nonprofit organization is best done with a full, inspired heart. Our sector, not unlike the bandstand, is no place for just going through the motions. Passion, inspiration, commitment – these intangibles matter! They spell the difference between good and great.
But sometimes great is not an option. So many of us in the sector vacillate wildly between highly charged moments of intense productivity and low output slumps. I have certainly experienced this in my career – in my life. If we’re honest, many of us have. The inspired highs are amazing. We wouldn’t be who we are without them. But no human being can stay hyper charged all the time. We need ways of keeping forward momentum even when passions fade temporarily.
We’re in this business because we want to make positive change. Achieving lofty visions and fulfilling organizational missions requires greatness, to be sure, but sometimes greatness requires moments of simple goodness. As my long-time friend Rich once teasingly told me when I go through a bout with perfectionism in grad school, “anything worth doing is worth doing shabbily.”
Because our staff team diligently builds work plans based on office-wide goals that everyone has a hand in developing, a distracted week doesn’t need to turn into an unproductive one. We all know how to play our parts. We keep things progressing, even during those off moments when it feels a little more like just going through the motions than we’d prefer. Great can temporarily slow to good rather than crashing into lousy. The inspiration will return soon, as it always does. And when it kicks back in, we’ll still be heading down the right road and in the right direction.
*Amy Sukol, CFRE, is Executive Vice President at Lautman Maska Neill & Company in Washington, DC. She presented “From Great to Awesome: Using Analytics, Testing, and Donor-centricity” at DMA Nonprofit Federation’s 2017 Chicago Nonprofit Conference.
By Todd J. Sukol
Facing a big birthday a couple of years ago, I resolved to live my personal and professional life with a new level of courage, integrity and productivity. As part of my quest I adopted a three-part philosophy, which I openly confess remains somewhat aspirational:
“Embrace the uncomfortable, move forward in the face of mistakes and allow space.”
Nearly two years into the experiment, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect here on Giving Way about why each of these three principles is important to me and to offer them to you, my fellow nonprofit leader, as tools for accomplishing your organization’s important work.
Embrace the uncomfortable
Most of us give in more than we would like to admit to the very human tendency to avoid conflict, dodge decisions and procrastinate from the distasteful or difficult. I have had the unique privilege of getting to know someone who seems to have been born without this gene. He is amazing! No matter what’s going on, he runs right into the fire… every time. Not coincidentally, he is also one of the most successful and productive people I know. His approach can be unsettling at times, but I’ve tried it on for size and let me tell you that it is immensely freeing. The positive results this practice creates are staggering.
M. Scott Peck opens his The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth with a simple idea: “Life is difficult.” So much potential gets wasted by leaders who avoid the simple truth that life is difficult. Once we accept it, it no longer limits us. How many times have you avoided an uncomfortable reality and when you finally took care of it said to yourself “that wasn’t so bad, why was I making such a big deal out of it?” What are you avoiding right now?
Move forward in the face of mistakes
A dear friend from high school recently posted a beautiful picture of herself on Facebook, along with the gloriously honest comment: “Ever take a pic and for whatever reason the light in the room washes everything out and you look like you’re not aging? And your hair turned out right for once? Well, those are the only ones I post.” That made me smile from ear to ear! Putting our best face forward is only human. While I wholeheartedly endorse the practice when it comes to Facebook photos, this tendency can be damaging in our work and personal lives.
Here is a crazy experiment: For one week, keep a written list of every excuse for a mistake you hear. I mean really listen for and record every unnecessary rationalization you hear for a simple error. Jot down on your list every example of a co-worker, friend, family member, etc. conjuring an excuse, however plausible, when a simple “Oh shoot, I goofed” would have sufficed. Make sure you also log the rationalizations you hear yourself say, either out loud or in your head. If you listen and record diligently, I promise you’ll have a long list. Guess what? None of it matters.
Whatever image you project as a leader, we all know you make mistakes. It’s okay. No, really! Your flaws don’t invalidate your greatness. As long as you’re doing meaningful work, you’ll be making plenty of mistakes (I just learned this morning of an embarrassing one I made earlier in the week – whoops!). Admit to them, fix them, learn from them. Keep going. It means you’re in the game. It’s good.
A few years back I was running an organization called Do More Mission to help philanthropists and small- to mid-sized nonprofit organizations increase their impact. I am proud of what we accomplished but I now see a fatal flaw in how I named the organization when I started it in 2009.
A close advisor had tried to warn me. Encouragement to “do more,” he explained, is the opposite of what many driven nonprofit leaders need to hear most. So many of them (us!) share the shortcoming of pushing harder and harder even when it may be time to back off and leave room for grace. I suspect he was mostly talking about me. I ignored him and pushed ahead as planned, launching “Do More,” as we used to call it for short. A couple of years later a close friend and colleague told me about a management book by J. Keith Murnighan that he said really helped him. A few days later the mailman delivered Do Nothing!: Discover the Power of Hands-Off Leadership. Strikingly, the color scheme and cover design of the book was very similar to our logo. There I was with a simple choice right up in my face Do More! Or Do Nothing!
Do Nothing, By J. Keith Murnighan
Do More Mission logo
Of all the things you have to do – and learn to do well – one of them is, well, NOTHING (suddenly, I’m thinking of George Costanza). Productive doing of nothing is an important skill that doesn’t always come naturally to passionate social entrepreneurs. I advocate for working hard, to be sure, but working smart is equally important. We accomplish the most when we do our footwork passionately and diligently, and then back off and allow space for the Divine to step in and put all the pieces together.
Whether you serve in a staff or volunteer role, try modelling these three uncommon attributes. You may be surprised how much potential they free up, and how much they can contribute to your organization’s success.