April 2010
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.

We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then
is not an act,
but a habit.


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Nancy Petrisko, who put the BlackRock Center for the Arts on the map, has returned to consulting for arts organizations. She's an outstanding programming talent, and she has an excellent understanding of how arts organizations can make the best of their relationships with individual, foundation, and government funders.

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More than a few clients have reported struggling with the amount of work demanded of them in the first quarter of this year. The economy is underscoring the relentless "do more with less" principle, and surviving February was an achievement in itself. I began thinking about how the habits we create for ourselves influence our predisposition to certain behavior. In the Strong Habitsarticle below, I've outlined some disciplines that might help people ward off the threat of feeling overwhelmed. All the concepts are likely to be familiar, but when considered as a whole, they can help ensure we make the best use of our energy.

Please have a look at the Seeking Your Stories piece at the bottom of this email. I'd welcome your input.

Best wishes for a hard-earned spring.


Strong Habits

Consider dancers, who spend hours every day repeating the basic "alphabet" of classical movements until the lines become their bodies' automatic choice. Over years they develop the ability to leap and turn and hold seemingly impossible positions with no evidence of effort. As with athletes, training builds their capacity while teaching them to use their energy efficiently; thus the effort it takes for them to perform is actually reduced. In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (Little Brown, 2008), the author gives more weight to hundreds of hours of perfecting a skill through practice than to amazing talent or good luck.

In business, we learn and practice our own alphabet of behavior that leads us forward without having to consider every step. We learn where our strengths lie and where we need to pay special attention. Some leaders naturally think strategically--maybe too strategically--while others have a hard time rising above everyday detail. Some are inclined to look for the potential in a situation where others see risk. Some love problems because they're opportunities to be creative. Regardless of what we bring to the table, we all have to know how prioritize, how to make the best of unexpected situations, how to get the job done in the face of conflict. My premise is that, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, we can practice some behavioral disciplines that condition us for outstanding performance with reduced effort.

Planning and strategy top my list of key disciplines. The CEO who has a clear direction and anticipates challenges is heading toward success. Structure is next: the manager who creates a calendar that works back from the due date is going to deliver quality on time. I continue to be surprised by how often coaching begins with getting clients to define what they want to achieve and develop timelines for action. Another is balance, the skill of paying attention to many things at once and aligning them to keep ourselves from leaning too far in any one direction.

Of course, if everyone could identify and practice the disciplines that serve them best, I'd have too much free time. While many people are adept at building productive habits, a professional's perspective can help some recognize and reach for broader options. Often, having to answer to another person creates a commitment to perform that exceeds they would demand of themselves. Wherever you are on the spectrum, here are a few reminders that may help keep you at the top of your form.

Think Strategically: Know your goals, anticipate the outcome of you actions, and choose the ones that align most closely with your intended destination. Keeping an eye on the horizon may be the most challenging everyday activity leaders face.

Plan: There is simply no better way to reach the desired outcome than to plot your course, decide who will do what, and when they will do it. (Even if you're the only one involved.)

Schedule: Create a calendar for every major deliverable; then compare timelines to see where you might be overwhelmed. If you must, make appointments with yourself for solitary thinking--one of our most powerful tools, frequently overlooked. Schedule time for reflection out of the office if that's what it takes to achieve it. Book the most important issues early in the day to avoid distractions.

Take Action: Once you have made a commitment to your plans, engage the right players and act. No excuses.

Speak the Truth: Master the power of reasonable transparency; tell people what they need to know as soon as you can. They'll come to trust that they can rely on you--and they'll tell you what you need to know in return.

Listen: Hearing what people have to say carries the twofold advantage of providing you with information and sending the message that you are interested in them. I continue to be impressed by the power of paying complete attention to someone.

Laugh: Showing that you don't take yourself too seriously, that you can see a situation from multiple perspectives, including humorous ones, makes you approachable and relieves others of some of their anxiety.

This think/plan/act/communicate matrix is very basic, but sometimes we overlook parts of it, or it gets out of balance. How are you feeling about the habits your behavior suggests?

Seeking Your Stories

I am writing the second edition of The Business Professional's Guide to Nonprofit Board Service
. To liven up a lot of factual material, I plan to include some stories about the experiences of business people early in their nonprofit board experience. In particular, I'm looking for what people felt they needed to know (or others need to know) when beginning board service.

If you have a story, of if anyone comes to mind, please let me know.

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