Sunday, April 29, 2007

Eliminate what?

4. Eliminate management, organization charts, job descriptions, and hourly wages.

I enjoy people who approach life from less than standard approaches. I’ve regularly made suggestions in the organizations I’ve been apart of that have led people to look at me askance.

A good friend of mine recently sent his son to talk to me about his career because, as he told his son, “Rich thinks out of the box and some of his ideas are downright hare-brained.”

So far in Bakke’s Joy at Work Top Ten I’ve been enthusiastic. But I must admit even I, when I read “eliminate management”, was taken aback.

Bakke’s #4 touches on one of the 7 paths that I’ve written about before--the smart and friendly systems path. Every organization develops systems. The trick is to dazzle people with your organization's smart and friendly systems.

Most nonprofits have management, organization charts, job descriptions, and categorize staff as hourly or salary. Each of these is so much a part of companies and nonprofits in the USA that we never stop to ask whether they are smart and friendly.

But none of the standard organizational practices were handed down by God as part of the Ten Commandments and thus we are free to ask if they are smart and friendly systems. Do they really help your nonprofit transform the lives of the people you serve and do they really make your nonprofit to be a great work place?

While trying to create a fun work place at the energy giant, AES, Bakke noted that dividing workers into salary and hourly divided people which does not make for a fun work place. Bakke went on a campaign to put everyone in his company on salary. Of course, that’s against the law. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in the 1930s to protect hourly workers and to ensure they were paid overtime for work over 40 hours a week.

Bakke made working on a salary such a great system for workers, that almost everyone, including union workers, voluntarily joined the salary system. As a built-in safe guard, and to keep the company out of legal trouble, workers eligible under law to be hourly, could switch back to hourly any time they wanted.

Former hourly workers often discovered that they could work less hours and still get paid the same.

Do your systems, including managers, really make your nonprofit a smart a friendly workplace? If not, eliminate them and come up with smart and friendly systems.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What makes a fun workplace?

3. Attempt to create the most fun workplace in the history of the world.

Bakke in Joy at Work says that in AES, the energy giant he co-founded, he discovered the key to a fun work place was decision-making. Getting to make decisions is great fun and under Bakke’s tutelage workers had great fun. Machine operators in AES power plants made the daily phone calls to invest the company’s short term investments.

His goal as CEO was to make one decision a year so that the employees of the organization could have all the fun.

Nonprofits and other organizations thrive on trust. When I worked for Horizon House of Illinois Valley Jim Monterastelli showed incredible trust in me. PR was part of my role and Jim trusted me. One day I managed to shoot a photo and do a story that landed on the front page of the local daily news paper. I was so used to Jim’s trust that I forgot to tell him that I had submitted to the paper. The next day he gently suggested that I let him know when I was submitting a story to the paper because he had been at a business event fielding congratulations on a story that he didn’t know anything about.

There’s one other key to a fun work place that Bakke doesn’t mention in his book--getting to use your talents. Gallup Organization defines talents as “recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.” Getting to do those things we do over and over again because their fun and getting to do them on the job definitely makes for fun workplace.

You can find Bakke’s Joy at Work Top Ten here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Who benefits from your nonprofit?

The purpose of business is not to maximize profits for shareholders but to steward our resources to serve the world in an economically sustainable way.

Every organization operates based on certain assumptions. Once I interviewed a bank vice-president for a feasibility study for a capital campaign. He said corporations should not make donations since they exist to maximize profits for shareholders. Individual shareholders can decide whether to donate to charities from their personal funds but companies should not make the decision to donate shareholders money, he thought. Fortunately for the nonprofit I consulted for, the bank made a generous donation despite the V-P’s opinion.

Organizational assumptions taken to the extreme can have devastating consequences. The practice of maximizing profit for shareholders has led to global warming.

In the second of "Bakke’s Joy at Work Top Ten," he balances profit for the shareholder with the needs the world and the need of the company to be sustained economically.

How does this translate from the business world to the nonprofit world?

As part of my work for Evergreen Leaders I recently I’ve begun writing the introduction to 7 Paths of Thriving Organizations, a book on the issues that nonprofits need to pay attention to in order to thrive. As I was writing I began to ponder the assumptions that Evergreen Leaders is built on. I came up with three that balance the interests of everyone affected by the organization:

  1. Evergreen Leaders shares power justly between board, staff, clients, suppliers, genders, ethnics, neighbors and strangers.
  1. Evergreen Leaders shows mercy when people screw up.
  1. Evergreen Leaders faithfully carries out its word.

What are the assumptions about who benefits from your work place?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Radical organizations 1

1. When given the opportunity to use our ability to reason, make decisions, and take responsibility for our actions, we experience joy at work. From here.

I grew up in a working class/farmer family whose attitude toward leaders was that they were the folks who didn't know how to do the actual work and made life miserable for those who did.

Now I'm quite sure the leaders of the factories that my people worked in didn't get up in the morning and say, "Now how can I make life miserable for the workers today."

No, the factory managers woke up knowing that it was their job to think and to make decisions and be responsible for the whole shebang while it was the role of my people to carry out the decisions. And then my people would come home and tell stories about the stupid decisions the bosses were making.

Radical organizations begin with the assumption that everyone has the ability to reason, everyone has the abilitiy to make decisions and people love to take responsibility for their actions.

The role of leaders and managers of thriving organizations is to create as many opportunities for people to
think, make decsions, and to be responsible for the results of their actions.

Before Bakke co-founded AES he worked for the US Energy Department, an experience that led him to hate staff positions. Staff people were supposed to do the thinking for the line people. In AES they tried to get by on as few staff people as possible and instead created task forces of workers who did the work ordinarily done by staff people.

One day Bakke's wife was at an AES recognition dinner when they asked everyone who had worked on the budgeting task force to stand up and be acknowledged. A man sitting near her stood up with the others who had been working on the task force.

When he sat down she asked him what his position was with the company. "Security guard," he said.

Now I can guarantee you that the working class people I grew up with would have loved to work for such a company.

My father has an 8th grade education. He would never have been given major thinking and decision-making responsibility in most organizations and yet he designed and oversaw the construction of one of the most advanced dairy barns in Minnesota in the early 1960s.

Are you giving everyone in your nonprofit the ability to think, make decisions, and experience the joy of being responsible?

People love working for radical organizations that give them the opportunity to be at their best.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Radical organizations--an intro

Dennis Bakke, an American businessman, and Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian businessman, have been the two biggest influences on my thinking about what it takes for a nonprofit to thrive. Both have pursued radically different approaches to organizations than the corporate norm.

I first read Semler's Maverick: The World's Most Unusual Work Place in the early 1990's and his The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works last year.

Semler's Maverick was a liberating book for me, to say the least. In the early 1990 the Christian intentional community I am a leader of, Plow Creek Fellowship, went through a crisis. Maverick was the right book at the right time as I and my fellow communitarians renewed our organization.

Last year I also read Bakke's Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job. Like Semler, Bakke and the company he co-founded, energy giant AES, took an approach of radical trust in employees and giving employees incredible responsibility.

Bakke's website features Joy at Work Dennis Bakke's Top 10.

Read all ten, get Semler and Bakke's books, and follow along as I post my reflections on each of Bakke's top ten.

As I reviewed this post I realized that I was not totally accurate. Jesus of Nazareth is a bigger influence than either than Semler or Bakke. It's taken quite awhile to realize how radical an organizational leader he was because I was acculturated in the church, a generally conservative institution.

Perhaps I will weave a little of Jesus' edginess into my reflections on Bakke's Top 10.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Teach your children well

Teach your children well
7 Paths
#102, February 15, 2007

Occasionally I wonder how 7 Paths e-letter readers apply what they learn in their work. I caught a glimpse recently in a conversation with Heather Munn.

Last summer Heather taught about 40 AIDS orphans in a summer program in a one-room schoolhouse in Jos, Nigeria.

When she finished teaching in the summer school she began to teach literacy classes which opened her eyes to an issue she had been reading about in Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.

Education is valued very highly in Nigeria and yet there is a shortage of teachers. She realized that there is a treasure in Nigeria that is not being used--literate mothers who have less than a high-school education but could teach their children to read.

Because these mothers are poor they assume they cannot teach their children to read. As Heather described in one her e-mails last fall, “They know they are not "Educated People". And only Educated People can teach. They believe they are incompetent and helpless in the area of education. They believe that only teachers teach, and teachers are trained in a teacher-training school; they, unqualified, untrained, cannot hope to teach.”

Heather created a program, Teach Your Child, to address this issue. She set up a class to teach four mothers how to teach their children to read.

Recently Heather, back from Nigeria, stayed with Sarah and I over a long weekend. She had been reading the 7 Paths e-letters and realized that she needed to use the smart and friendly systems path to create Teach Your Child. She created “track sheets” that described each step in teaching your child to read and allowed mothers to track their child's progress. For instance, track sheet three instructs the mother how to use the Simple Words Page. At the end of the instructions the mother is asked: . “Can he read all the words easily and correctly?” and the mother circles: “No, Still learning, or Yes.”

Shortly before returning to the states Heather did a seminar for fifteen people, teaching them how to run Teach Your Child classes.

Heather isn't done with creating smart and friendly systems for Teach Your Child. She plans on using the open source model, posting Teach Your Child on the web so that anyone with access to the web can download the materials and Teach Your Child materials and even add to the materials.

If you'd like to know more about Teach Your Child, you can e-mail Heather at

Wisdom for the week: Use smart and friendly systems to produce your treasure.

Fare thee well, Rich

No need for another book on leadership

No need for another book on leadership, 7 Paths #101, February 1, 2007

“This world does not need another leadership book,” I thought in the fall of 2005 after an hour of browsing through the management and leadership sections of a major bookstore chain.

Two years earlier I had helped found a nonprofit, Evergreen Leaders, whose mission is to help nonprofits thrive. I was on a continual search for resources we could use in our consulting, coaching, workshops, e-letter, and blog. During those two years I browsed the leadership and management sections of bookstores every chance I got. I had found plenty of good books.

But after two years of reading, teaching and writing about leadership I was getting tired of the model of leader as hero.

Organizations thrive on a lot more than leaders. As Marshall Goldsmith, corporate America's preeminent executive coach, said in a Fast Company column, “Long-term success is created by the 40,000 people doing the work -- not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.”

“If you read the literature,” Marshall also observed in the same column, ‘you'll see that much of it exaggerates -- if not glamorizes -- the leader's contribution.”

“What this world needs,” I thought that day in the bookstore, “is a book on the 7 habits of highly effective organizations.” Not a very original title, but a seed was planted.

In June 2006 Stephanie Grimes, the president of Evergreen Leaders, and I went to a two day workshop of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey studied success literature and through his research he identified 7 habits of effective people and also the principles, paradigms, behaviors and results linked with each habit.

As I was writing in my journal on other issues the morning after the first Covey workshop I kept interrupting my journaling to jot down I ideas for the paths of thriving organizations. In the months since I’ve used my 25 years of experience in nonprofit and church leadership as well as years reading leadership and management books to revise and polish the 7 paths. I also added notes on the principles, paradigms, behaviors and results linked with each path.

The world may not need another leadership but I do think it could use a book on the 7 Paths of Thriving Organizations. I’ve begun work on the introduction and the first two chapters. When they’re completed I’ll outline the remaining chapters and then second hire an agent to market the book. I’ll keep you, the readers of this e-letter, informed.

While for-profit businesses and families benefit from using 7 Paths, my passion is helping nonprofits thrive. Every day people in deep need turn to nonprofits for hope. My deepest hope is that countless nonprofits will use the 7 Paths of Thriving Organizations to meet deep human needs and to be great workplaces.

Wisdom for the week: When organizational life is tangled, complex and frustrating, you need a path or seven.

Fare thee well, Rich

The delicate balance of power and tall grass prairie

The delicate balance of power and tall grass prairie, 7 Paths #100, January 18, 2007

Leading a nonprofit organization is a delicate balance of personalities and performance, values and vulnerability, commitment and creativity, power and humility.

One day in late December 2006 when I was thinking about how being a humble leader can help an organization thrive, I rolled into a gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center located in a beautiful old building in downtown Chicago.

One piece in the gallery in particular, a video playing on a small screen, drew my attention. In the video a young artist, Victoria McOmie, dressed in a stocking cap and coat, walked across brown, wintry-looking grass and approached an abandoned chicken coop on the Ragdale Foundation grounds.

The Ragdale Foundation, a nonprofit organization, provides inexpensive residencies for artists and writers in an old mansion north of Chicago. At any one time there are 12 artists and writers living and working there. The exhibit, to celebrate Ragdale’s 30th anniversary, featured pieces done by artists while in residence at Ragdale.

McOmie had collected pieces of wood and plants and created an installation by arranging them in the coop in a pattern based on balance. The camera follows her inside and pans the collection of material balanced in the coop. Then the camera focuses on her as she crouches next to a long, stem of prairie tall grass balanced on an unseen object. Gently she blows on the head of the tall grass--you can see her breath--and the tall grass gently moves away from her, then back again; she blows again and the tall grass moves away, then back. I sat mesmerized; never once did she blow too hard and disrupt the delicate balance of the long stem.

McOmie’s installation seemed to me to be a perfect metaphor for leading a nonprofit. McComia created a work of art out of an abandoned chicken coop, dried weeds, fallen branches, and broken bits of wood. Nonprofits often work with people who have been abandoned, neglected, and are on the margins of society.

Yet nonprofit leaders, like McOmie, have the ability to see potential in otherwise overlooked people. And they create organizations that thrive on a delicate balance between clientele, staff, board, donors, funders, and regulators, and the community

And when it’s done well it’s a thing of beauty.

Wisdom for the week: Humble hierarchy leaders create space and balance in which the unlikeliest of folks thrive.

Fare thee well, Rich

2007 in your memoir

2007 in your memoir, 7 Paths #99, January 4, 2007

As we begin 2007 I think about Doris Haddock, otherwise known as Granny D, who on January 1, 1999, at the age of 89, starting in Pasadena, California, began a walk across America in support of campaign finance reform.

On February 29, 2001 and 3200 miles later she walked into Washington, DC. Actually she skied the last 100 miles along the towpath of the C & O Canal in Maryland. In Washington, DC she was joined by 2200 reformers including several congressmen as she walked to the Capitol to press her case for campaign finance reform.

A year later the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 also known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, was passed into law.

A couple years ago my daughter Hannah gave me a copy of the memoir that Doris wrote after her walk, Granny D: Walking across America in my 90th Year. I read it and was deeply moved.

The seed for a Doris’ journey was planted one evening in her hometown of Dublin, NH, when she was complaining to Bonnie, the leader of a study group that Doris belongs to, about how the rich were taking over and “you can’t get elected unless you have a million dollars.”

“Well, Doris, what are you going to do about?” Bonnie asked.

“Me? For heavens sake, what can I do?”

“Well, what can you do?”

She organized her friends over the next two years they collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions for campaign finance reform and they sent them to the New Hampshire senators. One responded with a form letter calling unlimited campaign contributions a form of free speech and the other senator never even bothered to respond.

She felt like a woman scorned.

Rather than giving up she decided to walk across America in support of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. She walked and talked to all the reporters curious about a 90-year old woman walking across America.

At one point in her corporate career she was the second highest paid woman in New Hampshire. Yet, when she wrote her memoir after her walk, she never mentioned her career until near the end and then it was to say that she guessed that her career was not important compared to her public service on behalf of campaign finance reform.

In 2007, do something to make this a better world, something you will be proud to include in your memoir when you are in your 90s.

Wisdom for the week: Humble hierarchy leaders believe that powerlessness can be overcome by persistence.

Fare thee well, Rich

Note: In my last issue of the 7 Paths I invited folks to offer their own suggestions on how to spot dangerous leaders. Two responded. You can check out their thoughtful comments here.