When I first started thinking about launching a new consulting company, I created a folder in Google Drive to store my initial brainstorming notes and nascent business plan. Lacking a name for the business, I came up with the codename “GSD Consulting,” for Get S*** Done. That’s what I have always taken pride in throughout my career, and when I asked a handful of former colleagues and collaborators what words or phrases came to mind that they thought differentiated my work style, that exact phrase came back multiple times. It’s always a good thing to have alignment between how you see yourself and how others see you!
While actually using that name isn’t practical, the ethic still serves as the foundation both for how I work with clients, and for the strategies I recommend for helping them execute more effectively. In my time in the nonprofit industry I’ve seen a lot of emphasis on strategic planning, and on leaders with great vision. Both are important! I’ve seen less focus, however, on execution, or getting things done. Thomas Edison wisely counseled that “vision without execution is hallucination.” Even the best laid plans are often knocked off track, whether that’s by external forces beyond our control or due to our own internal shortcomings. The chasm between strategic plan and execution is what Class V seeks to help organizations cross. Following are some practices I’ve used in my work that have proven most effective for getting stuff done.
BE A VALUES-DRIVEN ORGANIZATION
Wait, I thought you were going to offer some practical advice about systems and processes, and you’re starting with a squishy concept like values? Yes! Full disclosure- I’ve never once in my career developed or asked my team to develop a RACI chart or a policy and procedure manual for anything other than routine accounting tasks. I believe that values, deeply embedded in the organization and embodied by the leadership, are the best guide to the “how” of work. Values reduce friction between people and teams. Values reduce the need for meetings and committees. Values enable decisive action at the point of service delivery. Values allow a common language to take form. Make them visible everywhere, celebrate great examples of their application and reward those who embrace them. Focusing more on values, rather than policies and procedures, is the first step to becoming an organization that executes.
HIRE AND DEVELOP BETTER TALENT
The return on talent is not linear, it’s exponential. Great people deliver better programming, raise more money, perform more insightful analysis and inspire more in the people working for them. I realize that the labor market is as challenging right now as it’s ever been for employers, and especially for nonprofits. That’s what makes this, in my opinion, a great time for our industry to rethink its approach to talent. If the same budget can be used to hire or promote two high performers rather than three average performers, I would always opt for the former. My experience is that it will yield higher production and performance for the same investment. I’m also not a big fan of focusing on years of experience and where (or whether) a candidate went to college. When I talk about great talent, I mean brains, curiosity, hustle, resilience, problem solving, empathy and communication skills. Often that overlooked talent can be found right in our own communities. I am inspired by the many nonprofit organizations who are hiring and developing great talent from within their own communities, and encourage our industry to do even more to nurture their talent, pay them more and promote them into increasingly responsible roles.
FOCUS ON THE WILDLY IMPORTANT
Most of the great practices and tools that I’ve used in my work are not original. I’ve borrowed from many sources, and one of my favorite ones is Franklin Covey’s Four Disciplines of Execution, or “4DX” methodology, for executing your most important strategic priorities. A big challenge for nonprofits is that we always have more to do than resources to get it done. There are always more stakeholders who can benefit from our work, more programs we would like to add or another location for expansion. We always have more good ideas than our teams have capacity to execute. The perhaps counter-intuitive result, however, is that when we have five or more goals, the less likely we are to accomplish any single one of them. When we focus the combined energy, hearts and brainpower of our teams on just one to three goals, we are much more likely to achieve breakthrough results. We are much more likely to execute. There is a lot more to the 4DX methodology, and I hope to cover some of it more deeply in future blogs, but for now I encourage you to start with the first discipline of execution- focus on the wildly important- as you work on your 2023 plans.
TECHNOLOGY AS ACCELERANT
Much has already been written about nonprofit overhead ratios, and how to allocate functional expenses between programming, fundraising and administration. Those are useful numbers, but I believe that they are limited as a management tool for organizational leaders. I’m much more interested in different efficiency ratios, like cases per program manager, revenue per fundraising team member or new participants per admissions team member. Just adding more people might help our organization increase its reach, but getting more leverage is the key to increasing our efficiency. A great way to achieve that leverage is by investing in technology. Technology that automates processes so your people don’t waste time in mind-numbing tasks. Technology that automates communication between team members. Technology that analyzes data and unlocks insights. Technology that connects you with partners and funders. Technology is not overhead- it’s an accelerant that turbocharges performance and execution. And if you want to attract and keep the best people, you need to give them modern tools to do their work. Every organization is faced with making difficult choices about where to invest its limited resources. On the whole, I believe our industry has largely underinvested in technology. Carving out even an extra 1-2% of your overall expense budget to invest in technology can provide a big boost in executional effectiveness both now and in the future.