The virtues of getting your butt kicked: Barack Obama’s basketball game

Michael Lewis covers a lot of ground in his October Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama, from Congressional gridlock to nuclear reactor meltdowns to a downed F-15 over Libya. But the heart of Lewis’ piece is the President’s regular basketball game. The other guys on the court – everyone but Obama – are former college players. They’re tall and fast. Most are twenty years younger than Obama.

As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.

“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.

“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.

It turns out that Obama, despite his age and his lack of competitive college (or even high school) hoops experience, is good enough to be useful to his team, passing well and playing smart.

But what’s really remarkable to me is the game itself. This is a guy, as Lewis puts it, who could “find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star.” Instead, Obama seeks out this “ridiculously challenging” game. He goes out of his way to surround himself with people he knows can outplay, out-hustle, and out-muscle him. The president is extremely competitive, and he plays to win, but he also wants to be pushed and stretched and challenged.

A players hire A+ players, as the saying goes, and B players hire C players.

And people who consistently exercise great leadership know that you only get better when you stretch and take risks, and that building great teams is as much about surrounding yourself with people who are really good at what they do – even better than you – as it is about whatever talent and drive you might bring to the table.

(White House photo via Creative Commons)

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

Extraordinary Teams

Inc. published a nice blog post yesterday on the “7 Habits of Extraordinary Teams.” It’s an obvious play on Stephen Covy’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” (both of which are worthwhile reads, by the way).

One thing I like about the post: the predictable but still critically important emphasis on the ways in which strong teams collaborate and support each other. It seems pretty obvious, but in the absence of real trust and effective communication among team members, it’s pretty tough for a group of folks to gel (and consequently kick ass).

I do have some quibbles with his list. For instance, while I agree that clear goals are critical I’m not convinced that those goals must necessarily be quantifiable. Similarly, while clear roles are really important, part of what elevates teams from mediocre or even good up to greatness is an enthusiasm for stepping up wherever the needs might lie. Yes, it’s critical that each individual know her role, but that has to be coupled with an ownership – by every individual – over the entire team effort and a willingness to fill in whatever holes and to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.

Those are just quibbles, in any case. However obvious the list may seem, dysfunctional teams are at least as common as the strong ones, so there’s clearly a lot of work to do (obvious or not).

Photo by Flickr user dearbarbie.

Cultivating Conflict

I think we often do internal organizational conflict wrong. Plenty of nonprofit folks and organizations actively avoid conflict. Nonprofits collaborate, we don’t fight. It just feels wrong, so we do what we can to avoid it.

Or we fight in the wrong ways about the wrong things.

What we often don’t do is deliberately cultivate and encourage conflict, yet conflict is actually healthy and important, I think. That’s where teams really push each other, challenging each other’s assumptions, pushing back against each other’s ideas, probing for the flaws and the opportunities. Conflict, when done right, creates a “productive range of distress,” to use Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s term from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. The challenge isn’t to sterilize or repress conflict out of our office environments but to make sure we contain it and shape it so that it really does serve those sorts of productive purposes.

I don’t claim any expertise here, but I have noticed a few things that seem to help contain and shape it in useful ways:

  • The discussion is respectful even if heated … personal critiques and attacks usually aren’t helpful.
  • Establishing some ground rules about decorum. I don’t know that it matters much what those ground rules are, so long as the group feels some ownership over them and so long as they are consistently enforced.
  • Someone playing the role of facilitator, which might be the ED, or it might rotate, or with some other arrangement, but someone who’s job it is to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute, to pull back the tension if it climbs too high or push the conversation forward if it starts to stall.

How does your organization manage conflict? Does it ever cultivate conflict, and if so, how? How well does it work?

(Photo by Flickr user iansand).

The “Hot Seat” (or, “Talk Less, Listen More”)

As I worked my way through the Founder Institute’s startup incubator program last summer, my incubator classmates and I would frequently find ourselves on the “hot seat,” presenting a short pitch to a panel of mentors, after which the mentors would proceed to brutally critique our performance. Among the inviolate rules: even as the panel of mentors would lambaste our pitch, we had to simply stand there and listen. We weren’t allowed to respond, to rebut, or to push back. I’m told this is a conventional practice in architecture programs and art schools, but having attending neither it was new to me.

And it was awesome. We each had to learn, in a humbling and publicly painful way, to shut up and listen. It didn’t matter what my intention was, or how right I was, or what I knew that they didn’t … they were the audience, and if they understood something differently than I had intended, or if they didn’t buy my argument, or if my story wasn’t persuasive, the challenge for me was to listen intently enough to understand what they heard. Only by keeping my mouth shut, and not defending, challenging, or explaining, was I able to really hear them and consequently improve my pitch.

I think the key was grasping that the success of my pitch wasn’t about me, it was about them. It didn’t matter how right I might have been, or how compelling I thought my arguments were. If they weren’t persuaded, then I had failed, and the only way to learn where my powers of persuasion had fallen short was to shut up and listen.

Anyone who has spent time fundraising or campaigning knows this to be true, but even when we know it in the abstract it can be tough to remember in the heat of an actual pitch to an actual prospect, or when a colleague or (gasp!) employee is telling you what they think you did wrong, or when you are trying to sell a story to a reporter or an idea to an elected official.

Talk less, listen more.

The Counter-Intuitive Secret About Hiring

Most people view the hiring process as the opportunity to screen candidates, learn what you need to know about them, and select one lucky enough to join your team. And yes, of course that’s one goal of a hiring process.

But here’s the part that’s easy to miss: Persuading them that they want to work for you is at least as important as deciding whom you’d like to bring on board. The very best candidates in your pool, even in a buyer’s market, are likely to have other options. Whatever you weave into the hiring process to help you assess skills, experience, and cultural fit, don’t forget that your candidates are also interviewing you.

Your job, in other words, is as much or more to persuade them that your organization is truly amazing and worthy of their talents as it is about you figuring out who you want to hire. Your hiring process amounts to a marketing campaign (in the best sense of the term), and the most successful efforts not only result in a great hire but also leave all of your other candidates – including all of the folks who didn’t get the job – talking about how awesome it would be to work for your organization.

Giving Feedback: A Starting Point

This was originally published as a guest post on Frogloop on April 30, 2012.

Some approaches to giving feedback are more useful than others. Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games photo via Inc. Magazine (Creative Commons).
Over the course of more than 100 interviews with nonprofit staffers while writing The Nimble Nonprofit, “managing people” turned up on the list of “skills that my executive director sucks at” more than any other. And giving feedback is one of the specific skills that nonprofit managers seem especially weak at.

It’s not just nonprofit executive directors that struggle with this challenge. Anyone at a nonprofit who manages people – a senior staff attorney managing a team of six lawyers, a development director who supervises a grants manager and a membership manager, a communications coordinator directing the work of a media consultant, a program associate managing an intern, a site manager supervising a group of volunteers – giving feedback is an important skill for all of these folks.

And giving feedback, especially negative feedback, is hard. It’s awkward to tell someone you aren’t satisfied with her performance, or to explain to her what she’s doing wrong, especially when you know she puts in long hours, she works hard, you don’t pay her as much as she deserves for the work, and there’s a good chance she’s your friend in addition to being your direct report. It’s not surprising, then, that so many managers give vague, soft-pedaled feedback that obscures the criticisms.

Swinging too far in the other direction is a problem, as well, where the feedback comes off as a brusque attack on the recipient’s character, integrity, and basic self-worth. You might think you’re doing him the favor of candor and clarity, but if it sounds like you are questioning his basic value to the organization your feedback won’t probably have the desired effect, either.

Some advice:

* Offer both positive and constructive feedback every time.
* Be direct, clear, and pleasant (which is very different from being nice, as Mike Monteiro points out).
* Provide concrete guidance on how to improve or remedy the problem.
* Give feedback frequently.
* Explicitly tie your feedback to your previously established and explicit expectations about their job performance.

The goal in giving feedback is – or at least should be – really, really simple: enable your staff to kick ass. Your feedback needs to validate and support. It needs to communicate in concrete terms what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. And it needs to be clear (so they understand it) and actionable (so they can do something with it).

A lot of smart folks have written a lot of smart things about giving feedback, and it might be worth spending some time skimming through some of the literature for ideas. The Harvard Business Review blog,, and the Manager Tools podcast are just a few good examples.

But these five principles, mixed in with a healthy dose of your own intuition and thoughtfulness, and topped with a commitment to try, learn, and improve, are a good place to start.

Trust your staff

Trust your staff.

That is point number one in a recent post by Allyson Kapin on Frogloop titled Tips to Create a Culture of Collaboration and Innovation.

Leo Cullum cartoons on innovative thinking in the office.
Leo Cullum cartoons on innovative thinking in the office.

It’s interesting to us that a commentary on ways organizations can create collaborative and innovative cultures should begin by emphasizing trust in staff. Most nonprofits, after all, are intensely staff driven. For many, staff knowledge is their key asset. Salaries (and overhead) comprise the vast majority of expenses. This is perhaps even more true (or should be) in advocacy organizations whose activities revolve around research, policy analysis, lobbying and communications.

What does “trust your staff” have to do with innovation? As mentioned above, staff are all you have. The external pressures on organizations and pace of change around them require teams that are trusted to implement, innovate and learn quickly.

Numerous factors are coming together that make it more important than ever that staff be both strong actors and collaborative contributors to iterative growth and learning in organizations. Online communications is empowering citizens, activists and donors to take action, make donations, get involved and speak out in ways and at times that organizations can’t control. People have more ways than ever to do things organizations don’t expect. You send a direct mail piece and the donor goes to your website to make a contribution. You send an email asking an activist to send a message to his congresswoman and he views the message on his phone before going to bed but can’t see the links clearly enough to click and forgets it.

A fractured (and in some cases dissolved) news distribution system has completely altered citizen expectations of their role in news. People are not just recipients they are reporters (which is VERY different than journalists, we want to make clear and this isn’t necessarily a good change). And personal sharing of news and thoughts can happen quickly, with a large audience and impact networks beyond just immediate friends and family.

The 24 hour news cycle and social networks that are always on mean that organizations must be on their game at all times. They are also being asked to engage directly with activists, donors, media and community leaders in ways most never envisioned just five or ten years ago. Transparency is de rigeur. Financial statements and 990s are online for all to see. Staff, volunteers and just plain outsiders are blogging, Facebooking and tweeting about issues and organizations in ways that can’t be controlled.

In the face of these and other dramatic shifts in the environment in which nonprofits operate, the only way forward is to create and truly support cultures of trust within organizations. What this looks like will vary, of course, for every organization. All have different leaders, histories and missions. And “trust” is not the same as turning people loose to do what they will without guidance, leadership, plans and support.

What trust looks like and how to create and engage a trust-driven culture is itself a big topic. One for a future post. For now, we encourage you to reflect on that state of trust within your own organization and teams. Define it. Talk about it. If you are a manager, leader or staff member don’t stew on it. Bring it up. Hash it out. Take steps to make it happen. It may not be easy but the result will be more creative, innovative and successful teams that move past reacting and push organizations forward.

Rethinking Responsibility and Authority in the Online Organization

Seth Godin recently wrote about authority and responsibility in organizations. Achievers in traditional organizations, Godin says, lobby for more authority in order to get things done. In the top-down organization, one needs authority to act, build, implement. This structure doesn’t necessarily work in rapidly evolving and growing organizations, including nonprofits and others working to adjust to the impact of online networks. As Godin put it:

“Management by authority is top-down, risk-averse, measurable and perfect for the org chart. It’s essential in organizations that are stable, asset-based and adverse to risk.”

Those that demand responsibility should be granted authority, Godin concludes.

Having spent most of my career in and around nonprofit organizations that are “stable [more or less], asset-based [sorta] and adverse to risk [highly]” this got me thinking about the different natures of authority and responsibility in organizations, particularly those struggling to adapt to, integrate and manage digital programs and teams.

Perhaps the key word here is adapt. Online communications is a young and rapidly changing field. Few organizations had websites or email lists just 12 or 15 years ago. Those groups that created a website ten years ago have probably rebuilt it three or four times since (and are likely about the redo it again soon). Facebook, Twitter and much of what we call social media didn’t exist five years ago.

Today, more first gifts are coming in online than off. Organizations have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube pages and more. Time and money are going into growing these networks, text messaging/SMS, iPhone apps and more. Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is doing what, how much it is worth, how to budget and staff for it all and whether this is a communications, development or policy department role.

In other words, rapid change is afoot and is pressuring organizations, boards, staff, budgets and plans. It is changing the expectations of members, activists and donors. People are scrambling to respond but evolving slowly, if at all.

Responding means adaptation, testing, rapid learning and, increasingly, the ability to empower staff (and even outsiders) to speak for the organization on social networks and online media.

Authority-driven hierarchies don’t work well when a premium is placed on rapid learning and adaptation. They assume that the people at the top (organizational leaders and middle managers that might run departments or teams) have complete understanding of the problem at hand, the tools needed to tackle it and what staff need to do.

Does the rapidly changing nature of online run afoul of most organizational structures? Quite possibly. Online teams and structures vary but are generally placed somewhere in an IT or communications department and responsible to the authority of someone with minimal experience in online networks. Online teams may be given responsibility (to put together emails, run Facebook pages, create web content) without clear authority over resources or strategy.

The networked nature of social media can add to the complexity for these organizations. Most everyone – not just online or communications staff – is present on social networks and talking about the issues that concern them, including those of the organization. Activists and donors are on the networks. All of them are tied to the organization and can be speaking on its behalf but how does an organization manage them? It’s hard enough (or impossible) to “manage” staff in other departments. Managing those outside the organization won’t happen. Many organizations fall back to not engaging those outside in a meaningful way. It limits potential but avoids messiness and time-consuming interaction.

Does this mean organizations should dissolve hierarchy, eliminate management/directors/supervisors and watch themselves slip into chaos? Probably not.

But isolating online in a single authority-based team limits the ability of the organization to adapt, grow and share responsibility across (and beyond) the organization. Indeed, responsibility for much of what we think of as “online” rests in many places. Most staff are potential online organizers, communicators and fundraisers. Encourage their responsibility to act appropriately and independently without relying on authority to act.

And online teams themselves are (or should be) stocked with people that are highly engaged online and understand trends. Encourage them to take responsibility for adaptation, innovation and success by granting authority to make decisions and lead. If this threatens authority placed in traditional management positions then deal with that. Online moves fast and the adaptive teams and organizations will come out ahead.