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.


Why managers often fail… and how to fix it

Managing an organization is no easy feat, but it is critically important. Management is the organization and coordination of several interlocking activities in order to achieve a defined set of objectives. Like leadership, it requires essential skills that go beyond technical know-how or content expertise. It requires people skills – emotional intelligence, empathy, and insight – as well as decision-making skills and different ways of thinking. These “soft” skills enable a manager to successfully work with a team of people so that not only are the group’s goals met, but also each individual feels satisfied, engaged, and motivated by the work.

Unfortunately, most managers are promoted to positions of authority not because of their managerial skills, but because they have some technical or content expertise. They excelled in some role that probably required specific subject knowledge and the ability to deliver on projects that focused on a particular type of work. If they do well, they get promoted, and then they are in a position where they have to manage other people. And yet they may not have developed the skills needed to do that well. As the saying goes, “People rise to their level of incompetence.”

As another saying goes, “People quit their bosses, not their job.” Bosses who do not know how to manage their direct reports will wind up with employees that are unhappy in their roles, do not feel supported or valued, and do not feel connected or committed to the organization. And who wants to stay in a job when you feel like that?

So what can be done to ensure that people put into management positions have the skills they need to be successful managers?

There are three fundamental ways to promote better management:

  • Recruitment. When looking to promote from within or hire from outside the organization, the hiring manager should seek candidates who demonstrate some competency in the skills needed for successful management.
  • Development. Training and development opportunities should be offered for managers to help them continuously develop their skill set. These may be formal trainings or informal opportunities, such as learning on the job or mentoring.
  • Modeling. The organization’s leadership should demonstrate the kind of behaviors they want to see in other managers. The organization’s values, norms, and expectations (the core of culture) are set by those at the top.

Organizations are institutions of people, and being able to effectively manage those people is fundamental to an organization’s success. It is important that managers are developed into the kind of people who can improve the satisfaction, engagement, and performance of their employees. With the right support and leadership for its managers, an organization can boost its effectiveness and really thrive.


Are you planning for change?

Change is a natural and even inevitable part of an organization’s life cycle. As the organization grows, learns, and adapts, it will be necessary to alter your strategies or even shift your mission. At a minimum, most organizations create new strategic plans every three to five years. 

The successful implementation of those changes and plans will require the cooperation and commitment of the whole organization – from entry-level staff to your Board. After all, everyone plays a role in the success of the organization

But change can be hard. Some people fear what such changes mean for their jobs. Others worry if it’s the right decision for the organization. Some like things the way they are and don’t want things to change. Some people just naturally are creatures of habit, finding comfort in the familiar, and they have a hard time with change. Change can create stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction and disengagement. All of this resistance will make it harder for the organization to implement any change and succeed in making a shift. 

Most of the time, strategic planning happens with a focus on producing the deliverable without fully considering the process or how it affects others. Any good planning process should assess potential resistance and proactively respond to ensure successful implementation of the plan. This takes a little more effort, but done well, it makes organizational changes so much easier. 

Here are a few ways to reduce resistance and improve acceptance of and commitment to the new plan:

  • Consider potential concerns from the start. Survey the employees to get an understanding for how people are feeling and to identify both those who will resist the changes and those who can help promote them. What specific concerns do people have? How can you alleviate those concerns and send a positive message that resonates with staff?
  • Communicate a clear vision and value. If you want people to get on board with the changes, they need to understand the purpose and benefits of such changes. Why is this change so important? Why now? What will things look like with the changes? How will things be better for the organization and everyone who works there?
  • Involve people in the process. Reach out to key people in the organization who can help implement the changes and help build a coalition of support. Empower the staff to be proactive and help solve any problems that may arise in the process. Keep channels open for ideas and feedback that can improve the changes or their implementation. 
  • Provide regular updates. Keep people informed about the process, key milestones, critical decisions, and opportunities for staff to provide feedback or engage in the process. Also, updates are a good way to reinforce the vision, value, and enthusiasm for the forthcoming changes.
  • Offer support during the transition. While you want to provide opportunities for people to provide feedback and be involved in helping the organization change, you also want to make sure employees are supported by the organization. Have someone who can advise employees that are struggling with the transition, and consider making someone involved in the change process serve as a liaison to answer questions or just listen to concerns. Some organizations also offer additional time off to help people deal with stress, or allow flex-time to help them balance personal priorities when work gets too stressful.

Once the changes are in place, be sure to reinforce them with incentives and by demonstrating how such changes are leading to positive outcomes for staff and the organization. 

Change is hard, especially when it can mean venturing into the unknown. To make the transition easier, planning for change should include planning for implementation, factoring in others’ feelings about the change into the process. When you need to change an entire organization, you need the entire organization standing with you.