Lessons in Strength

Two nights ago, Hillary Clinton spoke at the Children’s Defense Fund’s, “Beat the Odds” Gala.

She naturally touched on her days since her election defeat, but quickly turned to reflect on her mother and the impact she has had on her life.

As was recounted in a CNN piece about Clinton’s remarks (and which I expand on here for deeper context), Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, was put on a train (at 8 years old) to California with only her younger sister to live with her grandparents. Based on what I’ve learned of Dorothy’s experiences with those grandparents, the parental horror I feel about her train ride was actually the easy part of her journey. To say the grandparents treated the sisters abusively would be an understatement by any measure of the definition. The treatment led Rodham to move out, remaining in California for a period of time, before moving back to her hometown of Chicago.

During Clinton’s speech on Wednesday night she reflected on what she’d say to her mother on that train if she had the chance:

“I dream of going up to her, and sitting next to her and taking her in my arms and saying, ‘Look, look at me and listen. You will survive. You will have a family of your own: three children. And as hard as it might be to imagine, your daughter will grow up to be a United States senator, represent our country as secretary of state, and win more than 62 million votes for president of the United States.”

Those are 79 powerful words. Whether you are a champion of social justice, social causes, humanity, or anything that is good or can be good in this world, those words can teach and remind us of much. Here’s what I took from them:

  1. Her words are evidence that we all need to use what we have, when we have it, to do what we can. In the end, there’s no telling the impact that perseverance can have. Work hard, or harder, if you have to in order to embrace your role and do all that you can to make a difference now and for the future.
  1. Leaders of purpose-driven organizations are needed in more ways than can ever be expressed in spoken or written words. Their knowledge of systems, subjects, people, language, relationships—yes, relationships—are the tools to carry missions forward. Believe in them. Trust them. Use them for good.
  1. Imagine the world you wish to live in and then imagine it even greater, because of something you did. There’s no time to settle for status quo or regression. Finding our passions and joining with others who share them can lead to amazing outcomes not only for ourselves but for our communities.

Getting From Here to There

It’s strategic planning season.

This month, tens of thousands of organizations will start their strategic planning process for 2017.  And according to Inc. Magazine, more than 50% of those organizations will find the entire process futile.

Some of the questions that lead to this strategy-on-a-shelf syndrome: “We built a plan that was too big for us”, “We didn’t take into account the true capacity of our team”, or “We didn’t spend enough time thinking about why we do this work or for whom we’re doing it.”  

Here at C.Fox, we’re currently counseling a number of organizations through the process, all from their own unique position: There are some organizations planning for launch, others are merging and some are re-booting. The request in all cases is nearly identical: “Help us get from here to there.”

As we help each organization do just that over the coming months, and make sure they ultimately have a strategy that sticks, we’ll ask a whole series of probing questions, some of which we share here in case you’re entering the season of strategic planning, too:

  • What Are We Solving For? Can you answer this one in a way that would compel your supporters to act?  Don’t shortchange the process of understanding and articulating why your organization matters, and what it’s working to achieve. As much as you think someone will support you because you’ve got a great idea, you must be prepared with proof that your idea is a real and relevant one. (And that means wrestling with how you’re measuring your impact on the issue too.)
  • What Do We Stand For? Surprisingly, most people have a much easier time answering “what are you against?” even though the answer to the first question is at the heart of your organization’s purpose and values. Once the answer is identified, and consensus among the team is reached, other business decisions start to fall more naturally into place.
  • Who’s Our Most Important Customer? One of Peter Drucker’s signature questions. As Drucker saw it, you’ve got primary customers (those whose life is changed because of your work) and secondary customers (those who must be satisfied for your organization to achieve results.) If you want your plan to stick, take the time to understand your customer base, and build a plan to engage a select number of them in the planning process before you even think about plotting strategy.
  • What Do Others Think Our Value Is? Do you know what your primary customer would say if you asked them to define your value? Strategic planning can’t happen in a vacuum, regardless of how well you think you know answers to the questions above. Talk with enough people at least one step removed from your organization to find out how they describe your organization and its impact, and to uncover possible weaknesses or threats in your model. You’ll likely find that their answers contain some of the most crisp and compelling elements of your work, in a way that only an outside perspective can see.

Learning to Embrace Innovation

On Thursday, September 1, Elon Musk’s latest big idea literally went up in smoke.

The explosion of a Falcon 9 space rocket, manufactured by one of Musk’s companies, SpaceX, didn’t just call into question the viability of the launch vehicle (which is slated to launch NASA astronauts for the first time as soon as next year), but it once again raised concerns regarding his management style. As this Los Angeles Times story suggested: Was he trying to do too much too fast?

It’s not the first time Musk has been referred to as impatient, much like other goal-driven leaders with a big vision for the future. Achieving big breakthroughs absolutely requires impatience, though it’s far from anyone’s list of must-have management characteristics.

But impatience, really?  Isn’t patience the virtue?

As Karin Hurt of Let’s Grow Leaders shares, “Impatience works when combined with other important characteristics, such as trust, humility and relationship-building”. It’s the same message we heard delivered in last week’s Mission Forward conversation with Clara Miller and Mauricio Miller. As they both believe: Impatience is critical for impact, whether you deal in spaceships or the social sector.

Reflecting on Clara and Mauricio’s comments, here’s what we think you need to know about embracing impatient leadership:

  • There’s a difference between striving for a better tomorrow, and asking for everything yesterday. Being an impatient leader can inspire remarkable teamwork, or it can create a highly pressurized and toxic environment. Understand that there are consequences for setting up a culture of urgency. Drive for progress without driving your team to the brink.
  • Even in impatience, you must find your patience. Striving for a better and brighter future is noble, and appropriate in the social sector. However, being driven by the possibility of what lies ahead need not come across as irritation, restlessness, or edginess. Leave those characteristics at the door.
  • If you seem impatient, explain why. Urgency without explanation is frustrating. Ensure that your team understands how the urgency of your tone (not necessarily the urgency of your actions) links to the bigger picture. By doing so, you’ll empower your team to help make your big vision a reality.

The Power of Two

Labor Day weekend is upon us. For many, that means one final summer trip to the beach before the ceremonial packing away of the bathing suits and white pants. For others, it means back to school next week, or that the holiday shopping season countdown has begun. (Please, no.)

For me, Labor Day weekend signals my wedding anniversary—12 years this Sunday—to the person who is my best friend and better half both in life and at C.Fox Communications.

This week’s unconventional (and perhaps for him at this moment, a bit uncomfortable) intersection is devoted to none other than my partner in all things, Brian Fox.

Many have asked us over the years how we work together and stay married, but I’ve never seen it as a challenge. Often, I just shrug off the question and answer with some variation of: “For us, it just works.”

But the reality is, it doesn’t “just work.” It works because we’re constantly working to make it work.

On our anniversary three years ago, Brian and I were asked to deliver an opening address at Loyola University’s Executive MBA program. We were asked to speak about the lessons that have informed our leadership styles. We rarely have the opportunity to present together, which made this experience at our alma mater a special one, and as we head into this Labor Day weekend, it felt worth pulling out of the archives.

Here are a few of the lessons we shared on that day three years ago:

Lesson 1: Remember What it Felt Like at the Start
Starting and running a company is not for the faint of heart, and doing it with your spouse while raising two young children takes on another dimension completely. But it’s worked for us because we’re not only on the same team, but because we remember what it was like on the ground floor. (Literally, on the ground floor of our Silver Spring townhouse, in a guest bedroom that became our first shared office space.) We’ve learned to work well in close quarters, and we’ve learned that even the best teams need some space every once in a while, too. But in every phase of building this company, we’ve never shied away from doing what needs to get done, even when that means washing the office’s kitchen towels. The lesson we’ve always remembered, from our very early professional experiences, is to seek out opportunities to learn what the job is like on every level: to see what it’s like to work with people of all different backgrounds and in all different situations, and to never to be afraid of new experiences or diverse teams. Hard work happens on the ground level, and it’s important not to forget what it feels like to just be starting out. If you can remember that, you’ll always be a leader that others can relate to, and that inspires that same spirit in those around you.

Lesson 2: Trust your Instincts
When we started building the business together in 2008, we had a shared sense for what we believed in, but our principles as business leaders have been refined based on our own experiences in recent years.  One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that you must always trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. For us, that’s meant turning down business when it didn’t fit our principles. That may have seemed like a strange thing to do during the 2008 recession, for instance, but it’s always been more important for us to like WHO we’re working for and the ISSUES we’re representing, than to take on an assignment that we don’t personally believe in. It’s made us stronger as a team, and stronger as business leaders.

Lesson #3: Strive for Balance, Aware that it Won’t Come Easy 
This one’s a given when you work with your spouse, but hang with me. When we hit about 5 employees, we realized just how much those employees were watching us. If we worked late, everyone worked late (and in the early days of our business, we had many more late nights than we do now). The lesson we work hard every day to remember is that this job—or any job for that matter—does not define us. As business owners, we work hard to force balance in our personal and professional lives. We work hard to share the load and to give one another breaks from the chaos. It’s in those moments that I believe we’ve become better leaders, and a better pair.

Regardless of what the future holds for us as business leaders, I know one thing for certain: the path for me has been lined with great moments, and there’s been no better partner in the climb.

Happy Anniversary, Brian.


The Power of a Good Reset

It’s been more than 15 years since I graduated college but right about this time each August, I get the urge to hit a reset button. It’s as though I’m preparing to hit the books once again. I commit to a more intense exercise regime. I pick up the pace on my business book reading. I break out fresh new notebooks, I clean out my desk drawers, and I read (and re-read) my business goals for the year.

Then, my focus kicks into high gear.

Turns out I’m not alone in this little mental exercise, and it’s not only a good thing for my health, it can be a great thing for business. Here are three principles I abide by in my end-of-summer reset:

  • Tune Out Before You Burn Out: I realize that I’m able to do such a reset because I did what I hope you’ve taken time to do: I find time to tune out, to ensure that I don’t burn out. In his research paper, “Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom,”author Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries writes: “The secret of truly successful, creative people may well be that they learned very early in life how not to be busy.” It’s uncomfortable at first, and it’s taken me years to get there, but to perform at your best, you must give yourself a true mental break, even if you don’t think it’s possible. Indeed, there’s always a way to work in a good break, especially if you want to prevent burn out. You—and your organization—will be stronger a result.
  • Force Some Perspective: Leaders operate today with a speed unlike ever before, given the need to evolve business structure, develop and introduce new products, and adapt to new funding streams and opportunities before the opportunity passes. It can be exhausting. But that exhaustion can be channeled into energy with a little perspective. As Glenn Llopis wrote in Forbes, “When you make it a point to stop, reflect and assess your actions, tendencies and behaviors, you will begin to see certain patterns that you can improve upon and/or eliminate all together.” Llopis suggests that every leader periodically ask himself or herself the following three questions: “What must I keep doing?”, “What must I start doing?”, and “What must I stop doing?” I take my answers to those questions to heart in these final weeks of summer, and I make it a point to check back in on them every four weeks through the fall.
  • Encourage Greater Things for Yourself and Your Team: I know from more than a decade of experience in leading my own business that the energy of a company is born from the top. When I am “off,” my team feels off. So my own mental reset is designed to ensure the best in me and those around me. As we head into this new season, consider your own leadership reset to encourage decisiveness in your team, to encourage big, bold and creative thinking, to encourage trying (and where appropriate, some failing), and risk-taking. Some of my best work happens every year in the fall and it’s not by chance.

Finding time for a reset can feel daunting for some, but the best place to start is by listening—especially to your body, your family and your colleagues. You may be surprised how much renewed focus you find in the process.

How to Deliver Negative Feedback

Are you conflict-averse? Many of us think we are. And the topic has certainly been one of interest to researchers in recent months. As reported in The Washington Post in December, a University of Auckland study suggested that conflict-averse people are happier out of the spotlight and far from controversy. Perhaps it is not surprising then that people who are conflict-averse tend to bow out of the political process (according to ongoing research being conducted at William & Mary) – not great for a democracy.

Conflict aversion spills over into the executive suite, too. As reported recently in Harvard Business Review:

“A stunning majority (69%) of managers surveyed said that they’re often uncomfortable communicating with employees. [And] over a third (37%) of the managers said that they’re uncomfortable having to give direct feedback about their employees’ performance if they think the employee might respond negatively to the feedback.”

More than a third of managers shrinking from uncomfortable conversations with direct reports? Two-thirds fearing communicating with employees?  That’s a significant problem that could be detrimental to moving an organization’s mission forward.

The good news is that if you’re a manager with constructive criticism to deliver, communicating that message to a direct report doesn’t have to be painful. Considering the stakes for your organization, it’s important to take your time and get it right.  In our view, the best way to do so is to focus on three things:

1) Hear them out first. Allow your employee to provide their perspective on the situation and be an empathetic listener.  As Stephen Covey has famously said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Listening without understanding is the fastest way to lose your employee’s trust. And there’s more than one reason to show your employee you want to understand where they’re coming from:  A global study by Zenger/Folkman of 3,875 people who’d received negative or redirecting feedback found that “those who felt strongly that their managers listened to them rated them high on their ability to give honest feedback.”

2) Help the employee diagnose the problem, especially if a challenge area is hard to define. The first step in solving a problem is identifying it, and in the process you are coaching your employee to build their own problem-solving skills for “next time”.  At the same time, don’t assume your employee doesn’t realize there is a problem with his or her performance. That same Zenger/Folkman study asked people if they were surprised or had not known already about the problem that was raised … [and] 74% indicated that they had known and were not surprised.

3) Empower the employee by reminding them that learning from your mistakes is where leadership can bloom. It’s not a question of if you’ll make a mistake, because everyone does at some point. What’s important is that your employee learns from the feedback that you give them.

So whether you identify as conflict-averse or not, as a manager you really have no other choice: having open and healthy lines of communication with your employees, especially when they make mistakes, is critical to the long-term survival of your organization.

Three Leadership Lessons from TIME’s Person of the Year

This week TIME Magazine unveiled its annual choice for Person of the Year. Now in its 89th installation, it marks their recognition of the person (or persons) who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important in the preceding 11 months. The choice this year was Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel whose likeness now graces millions of red-trimmed covers worldwide.

Shockingly, as only the fourth individual female to receive this honor, TIME points to Chancellor Merkel’s leadership in four areas to support their choice:

  • Expertly managing serial debt crises
  • Leading conversations between the West and Russia
  • Setting a humanitarian example for welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution
  • Committing to fight radicalism

Set in this context, it’s clear that 2015 has been the Chancellor’s defining moment.

So what leadership lessons can mission-driven organizations learn from Chancellor Merkel? Here are three thoughts that came to mind:

  1. Effective leaders evolve. For many years, Chancellor Merkel governed with small steps, and was described by others as cautious and oftentimes indecisive. She inspired new words “merkelsch” and “merkeln,” roughly translated to mean “being indecisive” or “failing to have an opinion.” But over time, her leadership style has evolved. In a November 2015 cover story, aptly titled “The Indispensable European,” The Economist states, “In her ten years in office, Mrs. Merkel has grown taller with every upheaval.” Leaders must always grow.
  2. Effective leaders stand their ground. This summer, as the refugee crisis reached itstipping point, Chancellor Merkel became the trendsetter. Despite calls for her resignation, she has set – and preserved – an unprecedented bar: a total of 1 million asylum seekers are expected to reach safe haven in Germany by the end of the month. The easy solution would’ve been to reduce that number when critics raised their voices, but the Chancellor remained committed to those seeking a better life. Leaders have to make the hard decisions.
  3. Effective leaders are brave, even in the face of terrifying situations. In September, a middle-aged woman rose from an audience and asked the Chancellor what she intended to do to prevent “Islamization” in Germany. The Chancellor thoughtfully responded: “Fear has never been a good adviser, neither in our personal lives nor in our society. Cultures and societies that are shaped by fear will without doubt not get a grip on the future.” Leaders are courageous.

As we prepare to usher out this year and look ahead to making the most of our personal leadership in 2016, let’s all look to Chancellor Merkel’s example – to evolve, to stand our ground, to be brave.

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The Power of Persuasion

My husband likes to point out that when I am about to ask him something I know he won’t like to do, I always preface the request with, “Will you do me a favor?” As in: “Will you do me a favor…will you clean the litterbox?”

My spouse theorizes that I’d be more persuasive if I just cut to the chase and do away with the niceties. But I’m – ahem – pleased to say that research supports my tendency to choose my words carefully.

As noted in a recent Science of Us article, evidence suggests that when it comes to getting others to do what we want, our chances for success improve based on the words we use.

For example, a 2008 study involved having a group of college students ask strangers to complete a small task (filling out a survey). Per the article:

“Some students were told to frame their question straightforwardly: ‘Would you fill out a questionnaire?’ Others were told to first ask, ‘Can you do me a favor?’ and then ask that same question. In the straightforward condition, 57 percent of the passersby complied; [compared to] 84 percent of those [who had offered the] favor condition.” 

Essentially, asking nicely helped.

There’s an even more important point to this study, one that reflects an issue we counsel our clients on often: you are more persuasive than you think.

We often fail to ask our audience to do what we want them to do just because we – wrongly! – assume we will turn them off by doing so. Infusing confidence and kindness in the ask can make an enormous impact in your ability to land more yes responses.

So the next time you’re prepping for an ask to the Board, penning a letter to your donors, or even thinking of how to maximize that coveted informational interview you’ve secured, don’t forget to make your ask clearly, concisely and kindly.  Chances are you’ll be pleased with your powers of persuasion.

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The Legacy of Julian Bond

There is nothing like being in the presence of a leader. Not just a person who can draw a crowd’s attention, or whose approach and ideas are worth emulating, but who blazes a trail for others to follow. The rare kind of person who doesn’t stand atop others, but who lifts others up.

One of our country’s greatest leaders passed away this week. Julian Bond was one of America’s most dedicated fighters of injustice and he blazed a trail for civil and human rights. He was an icon, remembered for his intelligence and wit.

As Morris Wells from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group once led by Julian Bond, said, “He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.”

While many witnessed his leadership, I was among the lucky few who got to call him my professor.

We met at American University in the fall of 2009 and every week, he guided our class through a project he called “Preserving the Oral Histories of the Civil Rights Movement.” His charge was to research, interview, and document hundreds of personal narratives that when woven together, made up the Civil Rights Movement.

With each interview request we made that semester, whether it was to one of the first students to integrate Baltimore schools, or a woman who helped organize logistics for the March on Washington, the response would almost always be the same: “you want to document my story?” One woman even asked me, “Why, if you have Julian Bond as a professor, would you spend your time talking with me?”

But Professor Bond taught us that in order to preserve the true story of what happened during the Civil Rights Movement – or any moment in history – thousands of people needed to lend their voice.

I know with some certainty that I didn’t take full advantage of Professor Bond’s generosity and knowledge. With his passing, I’m sure I’m not alone in dwelling on the questions I wish I could ask him now. So, in tribute to the man that I called professor, I present to you a challenge: find time today, this week or this month to preserve someone else’s story. Take a break from talking and focus on really listening to a colleague, neighbor, sibling, parent, friend or even stranger.Ask them questions, and honor their experiences.

Julian Bond was a leader who believed that every individual has a voice to be heard and every person has a contribution to history. But it’s only when we step aside and listen—really listen – that we show each other how much we matter.

Professor Bond, I can think of no greater leadership lesson than that.

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A Letter, 50 Years in the Making

A few weeks back, Warren Buffett released his annual letter to shareholders, just as he has done every year, for the past 50 years. As usual, the letter drew broad attention—from non-Berkshire shareholders and business news media.

What we found most interesting, aside from its usual wit and wisdom, was a comment by Bill Gates remarking on this latest letter, who called it “the most important one he has ever written.” Gates called the letter “really three notes in one. It offers a look back at 2014 performance, a history of Mr. Buffett’s leadership since he took control of Berkshire and the perspective of Mr. Buffett’s longtime colleague and Berkshire’s Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger.

Looking at the letter through the three dimensions that Gates lays out led us to reflect on each for takeaways that could benefit the leaders and organizations we work with regularly. Here’s what we discovered:

1. The Look Back – The best leaders note the bad with the good and do something about it   
By all major accounts, as Buffett notes, 2014 was a strong year for Berkshire. But that didn’t stop him from quickly calling out one of its strengths as a weakness also. BNSF, a railroad distributor and one of Berkshire’s “Powerhouse Five” non-insurance businesses, contributed to earnings in 2014 but it also disappointed customers with service failures that hurt its shipping customers badly. Instead of pointing blame on managers or the harsh winter, Buffett notes how a substantial investment in capital improvements for equipment and plants has begun to improve its performance. Even in a strong year, it only took Buffett until the second page of his forty-two page letter to note a problem and what’s being done about it.

2. History of Leadership – The listening side of communications
You don’t need to read very deeply into Buffett’s letter for evidence of a legacy of strong leadership through listening. The one item that repeats again and again is Buffett’s ability to listen. He listens to his close associates, he listens to his managers and he even listens to himself sometimes. And he turns that listening into informed decision making that leads to successful outcomes. He’s not without his faults on this front and admittedly has taken too long to listen at times, but it’s clear he’s come to value the benefits of this other side of communications.

3. Vice Chairman Charlie Munger’s Perspective – Don’t underestimate “constructive peculiarities”
As leaders and managers it can be hard to let go and let others play their roles. In Munger’s  perspective on the 50 years of success at Berkshire he cites Buffett’s “constructive peculiarity” of being willing to “limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years.” That’s not easy to do for 50 minutes sometimes, let alone 50 years and even the best leaders can struggle with it. As Munger puts it, “Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. That way, opponents always faced his best players.” Doing fewer things well and believing in your team can carry you far.

Rare is the opportunity to get 50 years of wisdom in one place. Whether you look to Buffett and his annual letters or elsewhere, sometimes taking a step back and taking stock of the past and present can help set a course for a bright future.

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