May 2008
The Long View
Advancing Nonprofit Leadership

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Oliver Tessier

Oliver Tessier & Associates is a consulting practice dedicated to building a more powerful nonprofit sector by strengthening leadership within the field.

One of the hardest tasks of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you're perceived to be by others.

-Edward L. Flom

 Worth Knowing

Anita Plotinsky

Anita Plotinsky, director of the Foundation Center-Washington, DC from 2000 to 2008, has opened a fundraising consulting practice with a special focus on foundation relations. I've long admired Anita as one of the best-informed people I know on the nonprofit sector. She is thoughtful, meticulous, and very attentive to people's needs. I'm sure Anita will do a superb job for her clients.

Anita H. Plotinsky and Associates


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Bridgestar's Lost in Translation: Common Language Pitfalls for Bridgers

The Meyer Foundation's Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out

Dan Ariely's Predictably
: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

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Given how long I've been consulting for nonprofits, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe the way a leader's behavior shapes the culture of an organization. I've usually been interested in structure that will optimise the strengths of both leaders and staff, but my attention is increasingly drawn to the way leaders communicate.

In this first newsletter my goal is to share some ideas that might have practical applications for you, my peers in the field. I hope you will find something useful here. I'd welcome your feedback, which will help me determine how to shape future efforts.


Beyond Words...

Communication Counts

For the Spring 2008 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly Ruth McCambridge and I co-authored a piece titled The Nonprofit ED's First 100 Days. The idea for the article grew from my work with an incoming CEO looking to gain the trust and cooperation of his new staff as quickly as possible. Beyond the practical steps that made it into the NPQ article, there is a world of nuanced dialogue that includes gesture, tone of voice, and the thousand other signals we send and receive beneath our awareness. My experience and research lead me to believe that raising our alertness to these nuances can provide tools for accelerating our ability to establish rapport. Consider these examples.

You look familiar...

You probably have read that mirroring, reflecting a companion's posture and gestures, can be an effective tool for creating a sense of closeness. Many of us fear that it's such an obvious a ploy it's more likely to make the other person think we're more eccentric than we already appear to be, but our concerns may be excessive.

Researchers at Stanford University programmed an artificial intelligence "agent" to mimic student movements while explaining a possible new university policy. Kevin Poulsen wrote in Wired that only seven of sixty-nine students detected the mimicry. "The remaining students liked the mimicking agent more than the recorded agent, rating the former more friendly, interesting, honest and persuasive. They also paid better attention to the parroting presenter, looking away less often. Most significantly, they were more likely to come around to the mimicking agent's way of thinking on the [policy] issue."1

Not from around here, are you?

Interpersonal communications expert (and Oliver Tessier & Associates colleague) Dr. Martha Miller, who has a particular interest in dialogue across cultures, highlights the importance of sensitivity to regional distinctions. "I had to tell a newly placed CEO that people didn't take her seriously because she smiled all the time," Miller says. "This was a very competent woman with a long history of achievement. She was from the south, and there's a basic cultural difference: southerners, as a group, smile more than their counterparts in New England."

Our default is to judge each other by the norms we're accustomed to. A newcomer who can reflect the local culture removes a barrier to being understood and accepted.

Miller adds a broadly useful detail from working with the same CEO: "Unfortunately, her constant evidence of good cheer was accompanied by a high-pitched voice--a combination that severely undermined her plausibility. Research has shown that lower pitches sound more credible to people. Fundamental frequency makes a difference," she says. "When you want to convey authority, lower your voice."

1 Poulsen, Kevin. "AI Seduces Stanford Students." Wired Online, 31 May 2005

Nonprofit Leaders Ask...

From Oliver's monthly column in Associations Now

I've been in my position as CEO for six months. During the interview process the board talked about how much they wanted to see big changes in the association. Well...I am initiating changes, but I'm meeting with the greatest resistance at the board level. How should I handle this?

You're not the first to learn the difference between a board's desire for change and their readiness to embrace it. I recommend the direct approach: invite your board chair and a few key members to talk about the situation. With great diplomacy, remind them what they said they wanted when they hired you--and what you promised to deliver. Underline your shared commitment to the success of the association and the critical role of the board's partnership with you in making progress.

Listen to their concerns, and adjust your plans where you can without losing sight of larger goals. You need to inspire the excitement you feel about change and to engage them in overcoming the tension between pursuing a brighter future and holding on to what's familiar. Try appealing to the current board's interest in leaving a legacy of improvements the membership will notice.

Encourage those who see your perspective to be public in support of your role in implementing change. Meanwhile, offer the board a lot of information. Look for ways to involve them in the earliest activities related to change so they feel included.

You can find more questions from nonprofit professionals in the Q&A section at www.otessier.com.

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