Take care of yourself first

There’s a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam that describes acts of kindness to perfect or repair the world. Though it has religious underpinnings, the idea is often more broadly applied to social policy and social justice issues. Tikkun olam is about healing the world, but the process begins with the individual: you must heal yourself first before you can heal your family, your community, your state, and eventually the world. The first step to fixing societal problems is to look inward and make sure you have the strength, well-being, and capacity to help others.

This concept is helpful for individuals (particularly those who push themselves to their limits and forget about their own self-care) but it is also useful for organizations.

When organizations look at their goals, they tend to be focused on the external ones – what sort of impact the organization wants to have on the world and the strategies needed to achieve that impact. Organizations like to think big and work hard to make a real difference and have a lasting impact.

But in order to achieve those big goals, it’s important to also look inward and think about what the organization needs in order to be successful. What capacity does the organization need to have to implement its plans and what capacity will it need to create? What are the resources – human, financial, technological, and institutional – that must be in place if the organization is to succeed and remain resilient? Are you growing the organization to meet the coming challenges or are you pushing its limits and reducing its effectiveness?

As you strategize for external change, think about strategies for organizational growth and development to achieve those goals. This is done at the strategic plan level, but also at the level of annual planning, team planning, and individual objectives. How are resources being acquired and allocated? How are teams structured and managed for greater productivity? How are individuals developing their own competencies to achieve their objectives?

The first step to helping others is to take care of yourself. Make sure your organization has the strength, resources, and resilience it needs to achieve great things.


How to unify your organization

If an organization is to be successful, all of its individual parts must be aligned towards the same goals. Yet in many organizations, especially larger ones, it can be difficult for an individual employee to see or know how his or her work contributes to the organization’s success. And oftentimes individual contributors in different teams or departments do not know how their coworkers add value to the organization. This creates a disconnect among the different parts of the machine.

When employees understand how their work connects to both the organization’s achievements and the work of other teams, it can create a sense of unity, purpose, and meaning that drives engagement and performance. When employees lack clarity about their contributions to the organization’s success, it can lead to employees feeling unsatisfied, disengaged, and less committed to the organization.

So how do we ensure that members of the organization feel connected to the organization and one another? How do you get everyone moving forward together to realize the organization’s success?

  1. Articulate an exciting vision. As any good leader will do to gather followers, the organization must present a clear and compelling vision for the company to all employees. They should all understand the goals, values, and vision of success for the organization, and they should be on board with pursuing that vision. This is the endgame that everyone is working towards, the common goal that unites everyone in the organization.
  2. Use performance management. It is important that individual employees and teams feel that the work they do is contributing to the organization’s mission. If the metrics for evaluating an individual contributor’s performance are based solely on that individual’s workflow, it can be difficult for the individual to understand why his or her work matters to the company. However, if an individual’s objectives and performance indicators are derived from the organization’s strategic plan, the ties between the employee and the organization become clearer and more definitive. Organizations should look at their strategic and programmatic goals, and use those to determine the work of each team and then the work of each individual, so that they all add up to the organization’s goals.
  3. Foster collaboration. If you want people to be unified, they need to understand each other. Encouraging individuals and teams to work together on projects, either by creating interdependent objectives or establishing inter-department committees, helps individuals better understand their peers’ roles and responsibilities. (Alternatively, some organizations have tried using rotations as a way for people to better understand the roles of different departments.) Equally important is informal communication, which builds trusting relationships and facilitates more voluntary knowledge sharing between employees.

Oftentimes the leader of the organization and the senior management are aligned, but the rest of the organization has difficulty getting on board, especially those employees who are furthest from the leadership team on the organizational chart. It is vital that the leadership communicates a clear vision, establishes supportive systems, and fosters a collaborative culture to make sure that everyone is working together in unison.

It isn’t easy to be the captain of a ship, where you are responsible for setting the ship’s course, navigating the waters, looking ahead to what’s next, and overseeing the sailors. You may not be in control of the weather or the seas, but if you can ensure that everyone is rowing together and performing their duties in harmony, you’re more likely to weather the storms and experience more smooth sailing towards your destination.

How do we define organizational success?

I work with many organizations that successfully use their limited resources to achieve significant impact. They manage to deliver on goals and take on more work with minimal staff and minimal capacity.

One could say these organizations are successful – they are highly efficient, effective, and growing. Surely donors and funders would remark upon how these organizations are able to achieve so much given they have so little. Heck, I’m amazed at what they can do despite so few staff.

But the question is: at what cost?

I end up working with these organizations because they need help, and usually that help is behind the curtain, so to speak. Sure, the organizations are running programs with some success, but they are also struggling. Struggling to crank out the work, struggling to cultivate and maintain relationships with donors and funders, struggling to communicate with their audiences, struggling to get everyone on the same page, struggling to keep the organization moving forward. On the surface, everything may seem fine and dandy, but look within and there may be a lot of stress, anxiety, and tension.

This isn’t to say every organization is like this, but in my experience, even in the best-run organizations, I’ve found there is always at least a little discontent among staff with some aspect of how the organization is managed, whether it be in their individual role or at the organizational level.

Nonprofit organizations are notorious for overworking and underpaying their staff, all in an effort to appear efficient to donors and funders. They focus all their efforts on delivering on programs at the expense of strengthening the business behind their program work. As a result, they often suffer from management issues, lack of strategic planning and focus, lack of clear messaging, and lack of the human capacity to do all the work. This in turn causes stress, dissatisfaction, disengagement, a reduction in organizational commitment, and oftentimes a higher turnover in staff.

Perhaps the most dangerous part is that organizations accept this is as the status quo – that struggling and being stressed is just the nature of the job and how things are done. But should it be?

In my high school science class, the teacher had posted a banner with a well-known expression: “What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.” I think the same could be said of this stressful state of organizations. Just because doing things that way is getting you results does not mean that it is right, sustainable, or even acceptable.

We often measure success in terms of dollars earned and results produced, but not in how those things get done. In evaluation terms, we focus on performance metrics – achievement of set goals and objectives – but not on process metrics – measures of how well those goals and objectives were achieved. It is great to achieve your goals and objectives, but if staff are unhappy, stressed, overworked, and disconnected from each other and the organization, how sustainable is your success?

At the end of the day, organizations are groups of people, and if those people are not doing well, the organization will suffer as a result. When we value the organization not just for what it can produce but also for how it produces it, we begin to take better care of the organization and its staff. We invest in better leadership and management. We take time for thoughtful planning that clarifies and unites staff behind a common goal and imbues them with a sense of purpose. We step back to articulate the work in ways that energize staff and excite your audiences. We make sure that staff are taken care of, supported, and valued for the amazing contributions they make to achieving our goals and objectives.

Many organizations are merely surviving when they could be living and even thriving. It is a matter of how we define success and how we value the people who drive the organization’s success. If we invest in them, we can achieve programmatic success while ensuring our organizations are more resilient and sustainable.