Seth Godin’s thought-provoking, minimalist posts constantly inspire me. I am in awe at how he manages to convey so much, in so few words, and always get me thinking. So much so, that I often want to share.
A recent post got me considering the way nonprofits structure job descriptions and conduct performance evaluations. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this, as in my three decades of practice I’ve written a lot of the former and conducted a lot of the latter.
In the early years, I made the mistake of putting people into rather rigid boxes. This was not good for the people stuck inside, nor was it good for the organization as a whole. Later, I learned to be more flexible and play to people’s strengths.
Before I get specific, here comes the Godin post that stimulated this little rant.
We spend some of our time building things, from scratch. New ideas, new projects, new connections. Things that didn’t exist before we arrived.
We spend some of our time breaking things, using them up, discovering the edges.
And we spend some of our time fixing things. Customer support, maintenance, bug fixes… And most of all, answering email and grooming social media. The world needs fixing, it always does.
You’ve already guessed the questions:
— where do you personally add the most value?
— how much of your time are you spending doing that?
What follows is a bit of thinking out loud. I hope it will inspire you as well. If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
The “Peter Principle” Problem
If you look at a nonprofit organizational chart, too often you’ll see job titles that no longer describe what the folks in them are doing. Sadly, the “Peter Principle” is alive and well. Folks rise to the level of their incompetence, and the function they are supposed to be performing gets shoved to the back burner.
This can lead to hidden organizational inefficiencies. For example:
- High-performing COO becomes an under-performing CEO. They were great at making the trains run on time; not so great at meeting with and inspiring donors.
- High-performing major gifts officer (MGO) becomes a myopic director of development (DOD). They were great at donor cultivation; not so great at developing strategies and managing a team.
- High-performing planned giving director becomes a low-performing DOD. They loved meeting with elderly donors and helping them with charitable, financial and estate planning; now they find administrative work and need to meet with wider range of donors outside their comfort level.
- High-performing grants manager becomes an under-performing annual giving manager. They were great at writing grant proposals and reports; not so great at project managing direct mail and online fundraising.
- High-performing direct service manager becomes a low-performing development manager. They were inspired by mission-focused work; now they miss the direct contact with clients.
- High-performing marketing director becomes tunnel-visioned advancement director. They were great at communications, but know very little about managing a full-fledged development program.
Job Transitions Run Amok
I’m not suggesting these transitions can never work. Often folks grow into their new jobs. But often they don’t.
When it doesn’t work, these are the factors at play:
- Lack of consensus on what the employee is expected to accomplish in their new position.
- Too little training offered to develop the employee and add to their skill set.
- Employee’s lack of interest in developing new skills.
- Employee interested, but new position doesn’t play to their strengths.
- Failure to hold the employee’s feet to the fire in the new job.
When folks are brought into a new position on blind faith (i.e., “She’s a star employee who’ll be great at anything she takes on” or “He has great references, so he’ll be able to take the ball and run with it” or “She knows our organization already; it’s great to promote from within and she’ll learn on the job”), often what results is the blind leading the blind. You have folks who don’t know what they’re doing led by those who don’t know quite what they want them to do.
One of the ways out of this management conundrum is to face the problem head on.
For each position, consider the match (or lack thereof) between the job description as written and the employee’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. This seems patently obvious, I know. But in practice we often sacrifice the obvious for the sake of expediency.
To make this easier, today let’s look at this from your perspective (of course, you can also consider this from your perspective as a manager, focusing on what you hired others to do and whether they’re adding value and playing to their strengths in those positions). Let’s begin with YOU:
- What were you hired to do?
- Where do you personally add the most value?
- How much of your time are you spending doing that?
What Are You Hired to Do?
Are you meant to be a builder, breaker or fixer? All three are viable purposes. It’s just important to know yours, at any given point in time. Because sometimes your purpose evolves. In my career, I’ve been asked to do all three at one point or another. Here are some examples from my personal career portfolio:
- A development program from the ground up
- A marketing program from the ground up
- A development committee
- A major gifts program
- A planned giving program
- A capital campaign
- A signature special event
- A monthly giving program
- A tired event (more than one of these!)
- A dysfunctional committee
- A brochure model website
- A labor-intensive online auction
- A siloed fundraising and marketing team
- A siloed development and program culture
- A client-centered volunteer program
- A moribund direct mail program
- An outdated website
- A board who wouldn’t ask for money
If you’ve been hired to do one or more of these things, yet find you’re stuck in the daily grind of other ongoing tasks, it’s time to regroup. It may mean your job description needs to be rewritten so that certain tasks are off your plate.
Or perhaps what you were hired to do is no longer a priority, in which case you can stop feeling guilty you’re not getting around to it. Guilt can be a real stress, and does not lead to productive, fulfilling employment.
Where Do You Personally Add the Most Value?
Too often in our society we focus on weaknesses over strengths. It’s paradoxical and counter-productive.
Marshall (not his real name) was a great annual giving director. His writing talents were superb, and he excelled at project management. Then he was promoted to major gifts officer. He still wrote inspiring proposals, and his email correspondence with donors was unparalleled. Honestly, sometimes his emails left people in tears. Good ones. But it turned out he was super awkward interfacing with donors in person. It just wasn’t a strength. Where he added the most value to the organization was in creating and following through on fundraising strategies and writing compelling pitches. At weekly meetings and at his performance evaluation we’d spend the lion’s share of time talking about how he could do better in face-to-face meetings. This was ass-backwards. It made him stress about his weakness and under-appreciate his strengths.
What I finally did: Rewrote someone else’s job description so they spent 40% of their time handling face-to-face meetings (and did some myself) and focused Marshall on being the “moves manager” rather than the “moves maker.” I lived and learned.
How Much of Your Time Are You Spending Doing That?
Marshall was probably spending only 20% of his time with donors. This should have been a clue this was not the area where he added the most value. He was outside both his comfort and competence zones. As a result, critically important major donor cultivation was falling by the wayside. And he was unhappy.
Are you unhappy? Are you working at the top of your game?
1.To find out, begin by spending a week or a month writing down all you do at work. Or, if you’ve been in your job a while, guesstimate your work breakdown over a year. Be honest!
2. Divide this into categories that match your job description [e.g., Planning; Budgeting; People Management; Project Management; Implementation (by strategy); Meetings; Phone calls; Email; Social Media). Also add in any categories not included in your job description in which you find yourself regularly engaged (those activities that may come under “other tasks as assigned.”).
3. Now write down the amount of time you spend on work activities outside of office hours. This time counts! If you were hired to build something, but don’t have time to do so when you’re in the office, make sure you include this in the panoply of tasks consuming your energy.
Okay. Now you’ve got a list.
4. What on this list plays to your strengths? And what percentage of your time are you spending in your “strength zone.”
If it’s not much, you may want to think about how your job description might be rewritten. You’re doing no one any favors by hiding your real light under a bushel while you work on activities where you don’t shine as brightly. Think about who else might pick up some of the duties that aren’t your forte. Or whether they need to be done at all.
CEO (and co-founder) who is well-known and well-liked in the community and is an excellent people “connector,” spends only 5-10% of their time on major gift development. No one else in the organization is seen similarly as “the face of the organization.” But since she built the program, she still has her finger in every programmatic pie and can’t envision letting go. While she’s good at building programs, the daily management of them is not her strength.
Then she took the Gallup Clifton Strengths Finders test (an excellent tool, used by more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies, to build individual and team performance and work satisfaction). She found her top skill was “WOO” (wins others over). That’s how she got the programs from vision to reality. That’s also how she inspires major gifts! She needs to be using more WOO and spending less time with program implementation at this point in her organization’s life cycle.
If you’re spending a large amount of time doing things you’re not exceptional at, you’re working inefficiently. And you’re robbing your organization of your true talents and passions – which may be exactly the ones that will help you secure more gifts!
Job Transitions Run Well
When you match people to environments or roles congruent with their skills, knowledge and strengths, they’ll do better. So it’s wise to find compatible roles for people that mesh with their inherent talents, and then leverage those talents to make them even better at what they’re already good at.
At the same time, you don’t want to focus exclusively on strengths when you really need a higher level of performance in other areas. Here you must call a spade a spade and figure out if an employee’s “weak areas” can, in fact, be improved. Or maybe even their strong areas can be improved, to the extent it might make sense to reframe their job description. It seldom hurts to add more tools to one’s toolbox. And in the current zeitgeist of rapid change, people need to become adaptable. No one can simply rest on their laurels.
Really, this is just common sense. But it’s easy to forget. Especially when we want something else to be true. We really want to hire from within. We really love this person and don’t want to lose them (and they’ll leave if we don’t promote them). And so forth.
Caveats: Don’t Ignore the Dark Side
While most people are good at the things they enjoy, and enjoy the things they’re good at, some folks still need to focus on their darker side in order to succeed in a given (or sometimes any) situation. Someone who lies habitually may not be someone you want on your team, even if their other strengths are stellar.
There are less obvious caveats of which to be aware:
- Just because someone scores high on certain skills in a test does not mean they approach these skills better than someone else. They may be their best strengths, but still weaker than a colleague who doesn’t score particularly high on them. So as useful as a tool like Strengths Finders can be, it’s not the be all and end all. Sometimes you have to counsel people out of jobs.
- Even the smartest, brightest, super stars have a dark side. They have personality and behavioral traits that are counterproductive. If left unchecked, no matter how smart, competent, and talented they are, their careers are at risk of derailing. So sometimes you have to focus on these areas and help people to work on them.
- Sometimes people excel at things that aren’t of great use to your organization. When you bend over backwards to play to these strengths, you shortchange your mission. It’s better for these folks to move to another environment where they’ll be able to thrive.
- Sometimes people who are good can be great. Not everyone who can perform better has a “dark side.” They may just have a “ready to take it to the next level” side. For these folks, coaching to help them build on their strengths can be advantageous. In other words, you don’t just say “do more of this;” you say “let’s help you do this even better!”
- Moderation and balance are key. Just because someone is good at breaking things, doesn’t mean you never want them to be a builder or fixer. Similarly, just because someone scores high on ‘achievement’ or ‘ambition’ does not mean you want them to pursue this at all costs – to the extent they become power hungry or selfish.
Endeavor to spend most of your time on the right thing: what you do well and what you’re passionate about. Also be open to developing new skills that may enhance your productivity and even add to your passion.
- Develop awareness. Self-awareness and other-awareness.
- Know what mode you’re in – building, breaking or fixing.
- Determine how this mode meshes with your job description and organizational needs.
- Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses.
- Determine how to best play to strengths and minimize weaknesses.
- Don’t ignore any weakness that can undermine your success.
Some of the tools you can use include: (1)Take the Strengths Finders or other personality assessment test; Ask for feedback from your colleagues (e.g., a 360 evaluation); Hire a coach, and/or write down your personal plan with specific ways to make you a more effective leader or employee. There’s no one right way to do this. Just find a tool, human or virtual, that works for you and make a commitment to embrace change. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
Want to Play to Your Strengths?
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This is truly a great approach to employee management. This could be applied not only to non-profits but also to businesses as well.