The Second Deadly Sin of Nonprofit Strategy, Guest Blog by Rob Sheehan

May 19, 2014

Guest Blog by Rob Sheehan, Principal, Sheehan Nonprofit Consulting, Associate Member of Maryland Nonprofits

The Second Deadly Sin of Nonprofit Strategy is what I call “Insular Mountaintop Planning.” It can be good for a strategy planning group to go to the “mountains” to get away from distractions to do work together.  But, before you go, gather input regarding the organization’s future from stakeholders—and check in with them when you get back for more input before you publish the plan.

I get push-back on this, because it can take some time.  When a CEO asks me why she/he should take the time to ask others for input, here is my response (this is the unfiltered version):

1.  I know you are brilliant.  But brilliance is widely distributed.  Let’s ask others to contribute their brilliant ideas and maybe they will think of something that you and your senior team have not thought of. (I know, shocking possibility.)

2.  Once the brilliant strategy is set, you will need others to help implement it.  Let’s get them involved so they are inspired by it as well.  This will help with successful implementation.

3.  It’s their organization too!  You and the senior team don’t own it.  Others have a right to provide input into creating the future of the organization in which they have a stake.

IMPORTANT: When you ask people for their input, actually listen to them.  It is said that there are two different ways to listen to people – “listening to respond” versus “listening to understand.”  When you are listening to respond, you are mentally preparing to explain to the other person why they are wrong.  When you are listening to understand, you authentically want to hear what they have to say and you will consider adding their ideas to your own.  It is this kind of listening that James MacGregor Burns says is the cornerstone of transformational leadership – the kind of leadership that can transform organizations and communities.

Gathering input from others does not mean you have to individually interview each one of them or that they all have to be on your strategy planning group.  You can do some interviews, but also do focus groups, surveys, and/or town halls.  Provide opportunities for meaningful involvement and input.

Without demonstrated opportunities for people to provide voice, organization leaders run the risk of falling into a fateful pitfall that consultant and author Peter Block calls leadership by lamination.  This is the mistake that leaders make when they go to a mountaintop retreat and come back with a new vision that they print on the back of every employee’s business card, and then laminate it.  Think of it.  If you had an idea of how to make a slight improvement to the vision, you can’t even write it on the card — it’s laminated.

Don’t provide leadership by lamination. Involve others.

Next up soon, Deadly Sin #3.  Stay tuned.

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