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Finding Swing: Syncing Up Your Team for Success

Rowing

In rowing, we call it swing.

All four, or eight, members of a crew cut through the water, their oars at the same speed, pulling with the same pressure, at the same time. It’s exacting. And difficult. But, when it happens, magic occurs. The fiberglass shell lifts, almost as if it’s floating on top of the water. And the crew, working smarter, not harder, is operating at its maximum efficiency, reserving energy for the final sprint to the finish.

Achieving swing can happen in the workplace, too. When a team crystallizes around a shared focus and common goal and focuses on working smarter, not harder, an incredible efficiency occurs. Workplace efficiency requires outlined roles, but on the outside, it’d be difficult to identify where the work of one team member stops and another starts. And the team always, always has each other’s backs.

Swing is what we aim for every day at Mission Partners. We work to achieve continuity across each project team we build, ensuring efficiency for our clients and effectiveness. We take the time to define exactly what it is we are working to accomplish, something we refer to as being “fierce in our focus.” Mission Partners takes this seriously from an operational perspective, but—especially for an agency that spends a significant amount of time helping organizations think about the words and messages they use—also from a communications perspective. Think about the confusion that could arise within an organization where team members are inconsistent in how they talk about the work they do or are out of sync in the ways in which they share the message.

Whether approaching swing from an operational or communications perspective, here are three ways you can build it within your workplace:

  1. Outline the Assignment

At Mission Partners, we always begin a project by defining the specific assignment and receiving approval on it from our client. No exceptions. If we can’t all express in crystal clear terms what we’re working to achieve, the chances that someone will be out of sync are too great.

In Action: Think about a project that you have on the horizon; it could be work, school, or personal related. What are you working to achieve? Write down, as specifically as possible, what the assignment is. If the project is feeling too large, try breaking it down into two or three smaller projects and write an assignment (and a due date) for each. Remember to always keep it simple.

  1. Define Roles

In the boat, every position has a clear title and clear responsibility, with no overlap. This even goes for talking; it is the responsibility of only one person—the coxswain—to give commands, call cadence, and provide spoken motivation. All other crew members are expected to be silent. Similarly, but perhaps not quite so severely, Mission Partners has adopted the Management Center’s MOCHA model to assign responsibility and accountability to every aspect of a given project. This model eliminates any questions of ownership, ensures smooth execution of projects, and serves as a quick reference for internal and external stakeholders.

In Action: Consider a team project at work, school, or in your personal life. Using the below chart, detail each task associated with completing the project. List the team member who will play which role for each task. Remember, the Manager and Approver are often the same person, and not every task will have someone who plays the role of consulted or helper.

Task MOCHA Model
Manager Owner Consulted Helper Approver

For more on the MOCHA model, visit http://www.managementcenter.org/

  1. Practice

A few years ago, I returned to my high school as an assistant coach for the school’s novice crew team. Over the course of practices that season, I was reminded of two things:

First, that we all are all novices when we begin. That goes for rowing, and it goes for everything else, too. No one is born knowing how to play a violin or ski down a mountain. And—while there’s certainly something to be said for natural talent—no one gets to be an expert at anything without loads of practice.

The second thing I observed is the time it takes to form a team. When the team first started rowing together, this disparate group of women had almost nothing in common and barely knew each other. It took a few weeks of practicing before norms were established and the team was comfortable working together. This happens quickly in rowing; try lifting a 200-lb. boat overhead and not immediately feeling trust and appreciation for the seven other rowers helping you out. But in those first few weeks of practices, swing would’ve never been a remote possibility—regardless of the team’s skill at that time.

In Action: Practice. Practice at your own work and practice at teamwork. Find opportunities to build trust and deepen relationships. At Mission Partners, we end every staff meeting with team appreciation, sharing ways in which our colleagues go above and beyond with each other and with the clients we serve. Reflect on what the 200-lb. boat is within your organization. How can you build trust and deepen relationships on your team to ensure that someone will be there to help you lift it overhead?

Want to learn more about how to find swing within your workplace? Subscribe to the Mission Partners newsletter to find inspiration, resources, and the latest on events and workshops that we’re hosting on this topic. And, if you have a specific question, email it to me at bridget@mission.partners and we can explore it together.

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Creating A Customer Experience That Goes The Extra Mile

There’s a yellow Post-it note that’s been anchored to my desk for many months now. It’s scribbled with a newish take on an old adage by Hall of Fame football player Robert Staubach, who said “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.” 

It’s a mantra we all try to live at Mission Partners; a reminder that our brand is built in the moments when we go beyond the expected to deliver the extraordinary. When our clients realize we didn’t just hear what they said, but we were listening between the words for what they were really trying to say. Or, when colleagues realize we remembered their best days—or were thinking of them in their hardest moments. In either case, and in many examples beyond these two, we do our best to show up and act our part, as their partners, through those moments. I believe our success has been fueled in part because we believe in the people for whom we get to serve, just as much as we believe in their mission, and we allow that belief to inspire our work.

I’m in the midst of reading Howard Behar’s book, It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks—a powerful read on how to build trusted, innovative, and strong organizations and leadersand the breakthroughs that can occur when when you put people over profits. In it, he recalls a short anecdote about how serious sprinters don’t see the finish line at 100 yardsthey visualize the end of their race at 110-yards. That way, when you’re in a race, no one will overtake you before you reach the finish line.

As Behar writes, “this concept applies to everything we do. It tells us to think beyond the whole, or we may always fall short and undermine our results. We need to think beyond our potential to achieve great things. If you shortchange your dreams, if you shortchange your sense of who you are, you’ll shortchange your life.”

At Mission Partners, we realize that our purpose is to help others move their missions forward, often in times of great change or organizational transition. We realize that our role is to help organizations and their people communicate in a way that can build trust, belief, buy-in, or understanding.  And we realize that our role is to develop strategies that can help people get beyond whatever is broken, to a place that allows breakthroughs to happen.

This spring we’ll begin taking that role to a new level, when we open our new Design Thinking studio in our Bethesda office.  One of the first things we’ll offer for our clients—and the extended community are open Design Thinking Days…sessions for our community to bat around their big, exciting, unwieldy, or maybe not fully formed idea with someone who can listen, and then help to ideate on solutions. It’s one offering in a mini-series of new content we’ll soon roll out under our Mission Forward umbrella of services.

I often write in these posts about the importance of understanding your audience—and then calibrating to their needs. These new Design Thinking Days are just one example of how we listen to our own advice. It’s about going the extra mile, finding the added benefit, and creating the unique value, that can help our clients move their missions forward.

Learn more about our upcoming Design Thinking Days and consider attending our first session this spring.

Expanding Our Table

By Carolyn Berkowitz

I love occasions when we put the extension leaf in our dining room table.  Mind you, I don’t love schlepping the heavy oak slab from the hall closet or trying to fit it into the slots in the table, but do I love the anticipation of expanding my regular inner circle. I love welcoming new people, ideas, and perspectives to our conversation that will fill our dining room with new ways of thinking, thinking that will undoubtedly expand our points of view.

Today, Mission Partners put an “extension leaf” in our table to help expand our point of view by launching our Equity Advisory Board. Designed to build and share equitable practices within our own firm and on behalf of our clients, the Mission Partners’ Equity Advisory Board includes a set of seven deeply experienced leaders who are answering questions of equity in the practice of their organizational life every day, and who bring critical perspectives and voices to our table.  These new voices help us to apply a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion to our daily work – a benefit that our clients and employees will feel directly.

Here’s why we felt the urgency to create and closely engage with an Equity Advisory Board, and why you may want to think about it too:

Our deep desire to help our clients advance equity: We live in a deeply divided world, in which values including cultural competence and respect are mistaken for being “politically correct.” Pew Research Center projects the disappearance of any racial or ethnic majority in the U.S. by 2055. Historically subjected to blatant discrimination, the growing percentage of individuals representing diverse populations in America simply must be supported with policies, programs and practices across all dimensions of life in order for our nation to achieve its ideals and to prosper economically and socially.

As the aging White population begins to decline, new talent and brain-power is arising in communities across our nation, bringing multi-cultural viewpoints, solutions, and growth mindsets to our nation’s table. As William Frey, Senior Fellow from the Brookings Institution states, “the sheer size of the minority population is arriving just in time…assuming positions of responsibility, exerting more political clout, exercising their strength as consumers, and demonstrating their value in the labor force.” We must all challenge ourselves to seek out the leadership of this brain-trust to build our future.

By doing their part to advance equity in housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and civic participation, our clients are at the forefront of ensuring that our nation prospers. At Mission Partners, we believe that our Equity Advisory Board will help us better serve our clients by adding more value and thoughtful insight around to the challenges and opportunities that they face in advancing their missions, all while maintaining the lens of equity and inclusion to create impactful and measurable change to policy and practice.

Our belief that homogeneity is a hindrance to progress: Without the full breadth of perspective, new ideas and innovative solutions to community impact are simply not possible.

When homogeneous leaders – even well-meaning ones – create solutions for our organizations and society, they are bound to fail, or at best, to be useful only to small segments of the population. Many of us have heard the story of “racist bathroom sinks” – automated soap dispensers that do not recognize darker skin tones because their optic sensors were built only to accommodate the level of light present in pale skin tones. This is a prime example of the dangers of homogeneous thinking.

More and more research points to the improvement of every dimension of organizational performance when Boards and leadership teams are diverse and inclusive. One of my favorite studies on this phenomenon focuses on corporate strengths beyond financial performance. In a 2014 study conducted at Utah State University, researchers found that when a White CEO operates with a diverse board, both corporate governance and product innovation are significantly strengthened.

At Mission Partners, we recognize that to innovate in our business and on behalf of our clients, we simply must incorporate a breadth of perspectives, experiences, and skills to our work that are representative of the communities that we and our clients serve. We are excited to welcome seven stellar leaders to our expanded table today, because together, we will solve problems, learn from one another’s experiences, and become better stewards of the missions we seek to advance.

Here’s Why Leading with Empathy Matters – And How You Can Do It Better

By Carrie Fox

Several years ago, a young employee was having a hard time concentrating at work, and while it was clear she was struggling to connect with her peers and meet certain deadlines, she was also noticeably uncomfortable sharing details of her struggle.

Rather than scold her for missing deadlines (which was my first inclination), I asked her to join me for a walk. We found a little table at an outdoor café and talked, about seemingly inconsequential matters first, before she shared that her grandmother was ill, and that she was having a difficult time thinking about anything other than how she was going to get back home to visit with her. She was a relatively new employee, and hadn’t yet worked up the vacation time to step away.

As she talked, I no longer saw her as a new employee causing issues among the team, but a young person, who was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of someone very special to her. I suggested she take the rest of the week off, to be with her family, with the knowledge that that we would manage her assignments for the remainder of the week.

Looking back, it was such a small gesture, but it deeply and positively changed our relationship, and her future performance. It was also my light bulb moment to the power of listening and learning from my employees, and the importance of leading with empathy in the workplace.  As  Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Empathy is defined many ways, but I understand it as the ability to see the world through another’s eyes. The importance of empathy has long been understood among educators, parents, and physicians, but only recently has it emerged among the shortlist of required skills for successful CEOs: an essential tool to the success of business, with direct correlation to the growth, productivity, and earnings per employee.

Why Empathy Matters

When you allow yourself to see situations from another’s perspective, you create an environment for employees and peers to feel safe with failures, or to ask for support when challenges arise. When our leaders are empathetic—and by extension, kind— we become more loyal to them, and therefore work harder to do right by them. And, in this especially divisive time, how can we be anything but kind?

Yet, according to the recent Workplace Empathy Monitor, while sixty percent of employers believe their organizations are empathetic, just 24 percent of employees agree. Many times, leaders think they are being empathetic. They think they are creating space for an understanding environment. But they don’t take the time to really listen and learn from their employees.

How Empathic Are You? Take the Quiz!

The good news is there are some very simple strategies to build empathetic leadership into your day-to-day activities. (Note: the following list is adapted from the teachings of Roman Krznaric and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley.)

  1. Speak from Experience vs. Giving Advice. Frederique Irwin, the brilliant mind behind Her Corner, asks members in her Accelerator programs to abide by the Gestalt Language Protocol, in which individuals speak from experience rather than give advice. For instance, saying, “Here’s what worked for me…” is far more effective and empathic than saying “Here’s what you should do…” or “Here’s what I would do…”
  2. Listen vs. Analyze. The person with whom you’re speaking likely isn’t expecting (or wanting) you to have the answer, nor do they want to be immediately judged or evaluated on the information they are sharing. Rather than jumping to a statement like “I think you’re taking this the wrong way…” or “You’re taking this too seriously…,” just listen, and avoid the urge to have “the right answer.”
  3. Focus on Understanding vs. Defending. If an employee or peer has difficult information to share with you, give them the time and space to share, without immediately jumping to your own defense. It is far more effective to let someone explain what is bothering them, and then to calmly enter into conversation, without rushing to give your side of the story—even if you do believe you are in the right.
  4. Give the Person Speaking Your Full Attention. The person in front of you is your sole focus and multitasking, while a great skill, is not appropriate when working empathically. Instead, practice active listening. Tune into what your conversation partner is saying without interruption. Pay careful attention to their body language and facial expressions and periodically repeating back to them what you think they’re trying to say, to make sure you understand them accurately. The real test of active listening: next time you’re in conversation, focus on the color of your conversation partner’s eyes. Tune in to them fully, and you’ll likely find that you will hear them better than you have in the past.
  5. Look for Commonalities. Approach your day knowing that you have at least one thing in common with every single person with whom you interact—on the train, in the coffee shop, and certainly at work. When interacting with people who, at first glance, seem to be different from you, look for sources of commonality and shared experience. Maybe you’re both fans of the same sports team or you both know what it’s like to lose a loved one. Seeing your Shared Identity can help you overcome fear and distrust and promote empathy and cooperation.
  6. Share in Other People’s Joy. Empathy is not just about commiserating; it can also be experienced in response to positive emotions such as happiness and pride. If you hear someone else sharing good news or celebrating a special moment at work, step away from your computer, and express your enthusiasm for their good news. Moments like this take mere seconds, but they are immensely important for the well-being of a relationship.

 

The short summary to all of this is: Life is hard, and there will always be more to people’s stories than they let on. Start every day from a place of compassion, and an understanding that it’s OK to not know all the answers. And, in taking the time to understand others, they’ll likely take time to understand you better, too.

 

For more empathy tips, check out the best research-based empathy practices, and read Roman Krznaric’s “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.”

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Going Beyond Belief

When we moved into our office space at 7201 Wisconsin Avenue, the very first thing I did was have a quote painted on the wall right outside of my office:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

I have read those words, from Nelson Mandela, nearly every weekday morning since 2014, just as I step into my office to start the work day. It’s my constant and intentional reminder of the power and influence that good communication can have, especially when the pace of life can make real connections feel hard to come by or—in the case of this year—when the state of our national discourse feels too much to bear. But there’s something in those words that always brings me back to what I firmly believe, and to why I do the work that I do.

I believe that communications can change the world. I believe that when people connect with one another—often across whatever divides us—real, positive and lasting change happens. Whether it is advancing a critical piece of legislation, inspiring a movement, educating young students, or building bridges between cultural divides, positive change happens through communication.

But belief, while an important ingredient, is only half of the equation. One most act on those beliefs in order to realize their magnitude, which reminds me of another guiding quote, this one from Mahatma Gandhi:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

As I prepare to enter my 14th year in business, and our first anniversary under the new umbrella of Mission Partners, I can honestly say that entering every day with my core belief top of mind has allowed us as a company to lead with purpose. And leading with purpose has allowed us to build a company beyond belief:  a company that drives every decision with heart and head—a company that can say ‘what we do, for the good of others,” without even a second of pause. A company that goes further to get at the heart of our work, and sticks with that work until big breakthroughs are realized, because our heart’s in it too.

In this season of gratitude, I simply pause to give thanks for the people who drive me, the organizations that inspire me, and the daily routine that has become my “work.” It is, truly, beyond belief.