Breaking Free from Hub & Spokes Syndrome

By Todd J. Sukol
I just returned from two weeks completely disconnected from my office, an all-time high for me, to find our team producing fabulous results in my absence. Yes!

Though I have long been familiar with the ideal that great leaders can walk away without their teams falling apart, it has been a long road for me to get there. I spent years plagued by “hub and spokes syndrome,” always keeping myself at the center of the action. In a well-intended effort to keep things under control, I bought myself only an illusion of control while denying staff the chance to take responsibility, tap their creativity and stretch their skills. For the past eight to 10 years I’ve made a concerted effort to escape this trap. I’m making serious progress, and so can you. My team and I have cultivated an atmosphere of trust, risk taking, open feedback and personal responsibility. We’ve experimented with various ways of providing constructive amounts of structure, support and accountability for everyone on the team. I’ve also been blessed with some incredibly talented and growth oriented team members.

My smooth reentry this week showed me that our collective efforts are working wonderfully. For those of you in management roles, struggling with your team’s performance, I’m here to testify that giving your staff enough room to succeed as well as fail can be a frightening leap of faith, but it works. We’re not talking about neglect here – there’s plenty of work to be done, it is just a different kind of work than you might be used to. When we focus on our people instead of their work, our staff members have the chance to build on their strengths and address their weaknesses.

When we focus on processes instead of emergencies of the day, we give ourselves the breathing room to keep an eye on the big picture, detecting extraordinary opportunities and deadly icebergs alike.

Embracing Complementary Opposites: Learning When to Loosen and When to Tighten

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.

Renew your heart, engage your head, and speak your truth

By Todd J. Sukol
There are moments when your work in the nonprofit sector will seem futile. You begin to wonder, “Am I really moving the needle or just filling up time and space?”; “Is it worth it?” If you are staff, you may consider abandoning the grind and pursuing a job making more money in the commercial sector. If you are a volunteer or donor, you begin to think the whole enterprise may be a vanity. Are you just fooling yourself, or maybe even being taken for a ride?

These are the times when we need to remember that we are princes and princesses. We possess royal power. Nonprofit work is holy work and it requires our very best selves if we are to succeed. We renew our resolve by looking inward. We need to access our deepest motives for making change. We cannot afford to just go through the motions. Our work requires ever-renewing connection to our internal fire in order to carry us through the hard times until our efforts pay off. And at the same time, we must check the passion of our hearts with the strategic thinking of our minds. We add our best thinking to that of our co-travelers — volunteers and staff alike. We chart new courses, try new approaches, and yes… we put our heads down and persevere with those things that seem to be working.

“The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince — that he has royal power,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel in A Passion for Truth. “All worlds are in need of exaltation,” he continued, “and everyone is charged to lift what is low, to unite what lies apart, to advance what is left behind.” That is the work in which you are engaged. Renew your heart, engage your head, and speak your truth. The work of your hands will carry more power when you do.

You can’t outsource responsibility

By Todd J. Sukol
It behooves all leaders, and certainly those who are new in their role or are in a new position or organization, to inventory their performance regularly with regard to taking responsibility.

Whether you are in charge of an organization, a department, a team or a project, one of the most important things successful leaders must do is accept responsibility. You will rely heavily on your team to get things done, to be sure, and you will need to stay open to others’ ideas since – believe it or not – they frequently will be better than yours. And yes, there are always unexpected bumps in the road that are totally out of your control. But if you are to be an effective leader you need to start and finish with the premise that the one thing you carry above all is ultimate responsibility.

Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States of America, with his iconic “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign. If he can accept responsibility, so can you.

Using outside contractors is an area where this can be especially challenging. Nonprofit leaders do well to bring in truly expert consultants to augment staff capacity, but there are no magic bullets. The two most common mistakes I see nonprofit execs make (and wink, wink – maybe I myself have made a few times) is to go to one of these two extremes: a. think we know better than the experts and force them do things differently than they recommend; or b. abandon our own common sense and judgement, allowing consultants to impose ill-fitting boiler plate solutions. Both extremes typically end badly. If you were smart enough to hire an expert, be smart enough to listen to them. But at the same time, don’t abdicate responsibility. Be an inquisitive learner. Ask lots of questions. Make sure you understand their recommendations as they relate to the nuances of your particular operation. If you’re dealing with a real expert, they will not be rattled or annoyed by your questions. A great consulting relationship is a partnership, with both parties learning from each other along the way. But make no mistake about it, when it comes to the outcomes your organization experiences, you are responsible

This simple lesson can be as hard to internalize as it is easy to say.

As leaders and managers we facilitate and orchestrate with the big picture in mind. If a piece of our plan falls out of whack, we are the ones with the perspective and power to creatively deploy a compensatory measure to make up for it. We are headed for trouble if we adopt attitudes like: “This would have worked out perfectly if so-and-so were better at her job”; or “it was the consultant’s fault.” There are no perfect employees, no perfect board members or volunteers, no perfect consultants, not even perfect machines. As a leader, it is your job to keep an eye on the big picture – the buck stops with you.