Start-Up to Sustainability
Another Board meeting has just ended, and while things are okay, you find yourself with a persistent, nagging thought. You’ve heard the Board recount yet again the wonders of your predecessor, the founder. You ask yourself, “Am I just wasting my time here?”
The real question is whether you can lead the organization from start-up into sustainability?
If you’ve had similar thoughts, or have experienced challenges with following in the steps of a founder, you’re not alone. The real question is whether you can lead the organization from start-up into sustainability?
By start-up, I mean not the length of time the organization has existed, but rather its modus operandi. Perhaps the organization you’ve inherited is like a single-cell organism where every decision is made at the top. Is the basis for those decisions seemingly elusive to you and others? If so, you’re not alone.
Short of starting back at square one, there is a way forward. Like any endeavor, you need to count the cost. I suggest there are three broad steps, or activities, often short circuited as new leaders enter the scene. They are: 1) Learn the organization, 2) Embrace your founder and stand on their shoulders to see the future, and 3) Lay out a clear path, rally the troops and stick to it.
3 Vital Steps for New Leaders
- Learn the Organization – (Don't skip this step.)
Learn the organization. Many new leaders don’t take the time to learn what really exists within their organization. If you are following a somewhat successful founder, they have no doubt put in place the seeds of good ideas. Many founders, energized by their entrepreneurial spirit, simply do not ensure the organization bakes the good ideas in and weeds the bad ideas out. There is most likely a lack of clearly outlined processes. If there are processes, they may not align to a set of values.
Learn about the founder. What makes them tick? Where did their passion to create an organization originate? Imagine the sleepless nights, the time spent on their knees in prayer, and the struggles they faced. All of that and more preceded handing you the reigns. Perhaps they were even forced to step down because of health or some other life circumstance.
Learn about your donors. Expect them to love the organization and its founder. They will expect you to love both. You should. You don’t have to like every aspect of everything you’ve inherited.
There are discreet ways to work with each of these groups of folks. With the founder it is simply spending time with them and loving them enough to speak truth. With donors it is listening. With staff you may enlist third party tools. Those tools move you out of the role of expert, and into a joint role with them as learners. A vast array of no or low-cost tools such as DISC, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, etc., are widely available.
As leaders we are action-oriented and impatient. Many new leaders short-circuit these steps, because they require time and energy. You have to figure out a way to both learn about the organization while still leading it! By showing a learning attitude you will begin to plant seeds of the new culture you are seeking to create. You will engage the founder. You will engage donors. You will engage your staff and begin to assuage all their fears. You will begin to create something sustainable, rather than re-creating another version of a start-up.
- Standing on Shoulders – (Know where you’re starting.)
It is easy to forget you are standing on someone’s shoulders.
It is easy to forget you are standing on someone’s shoulders. You may be on top of a mountain of success, or in a hole of failure, but you are standing on top of your predecessor’s shoulders.
I watched one of my bosses be carried off in a stretcher one day after collapsing at work. Before his appointment to this post, which nearly killed him, he was a successful leader. He assumed command, began giving direction, and in the process made bold and unfounded assumptions about the people he was leading. He wrongly assumed we knew what we were doing. We did not. He failed to realize his predecessor micro-managed every detail. He had inherited people who blindly followed orders. He expected us to think for ourselves. We tried. We simply were not ready.
Knowing where you are starting is key. Are you following a visionary or an integrator? What is their leadership style? How does all that information advise your approach to leading?
Why is this important? If you are standing on your predecessor’s shoulders and are in a ten-foot deep hole with an eager but ill-equipped staff, it will inform your vision, culture creation and your strategy. After all, isn't that why the Board hired you?
What has been presented thus far is wildly collaborative. Collaboration can be a difficult skill for leaders. The process needs to be collaborative, but only up to a point. Don’t be confused. All of this work is building towards you setting direction. Casting vision and holding up values for the organization to aspire towards is your job.
Ever seen a leader declare the vision, or establish values, and no one follow? People may feign support, but in their hearts they don’t believe. In part it is because the leader has skipped or short-circuited the learning process (a process which builds their individual credibility with stakeholders).
Ever seen a leader seek to try to get the troops to declare the vision? That process is called compromise. Compromise doesn’t energize, it screams to keep on doing what’s been done.
Both results leave the shadow of the founder looming over the organization.
In the end you must set the direction. In The Power of Vision (Baker Books, Rev. Ed., 2009) George Barna writes, “Vision is not the result of consensus; it should result in consensus.”
- Clarify Your Path – (Get results for the long haul.)
All this effort is to lead to results. Results matter. Many books discuss the need to build quick, short-term, wins. While true, short-term wins only work for the long haul if they build to an envisioned outcome; for that you need a clear vision and clear path/plan. Without a plan you will find yourself chasing the latest squirrel of an idea, with your organization being tossed to-and-fro with all the other single-cell organisms.
What path do you follow?
What path do you follow? There are many approaches. The business press is full of them. Ask your peers what they are using and if it is helpful. You should consider a peer advisory group. Before you pick the path, consider one question. Is the organization acting like an amoeba? You know, a single-cell organism where everyone comes to you for answers. Or, is the organization like several amoebas, operating independently, with you being the only connector?
You need a path towards becoming a multi-cell organism; a living, breathing team, with freedom to operate and grow, and with interconnectivity that does not rely only on you. To reach sustainability you must either scale, aiming to become a multi-cell organism or stay a small, single cell. Either approach is fine. The problem is many organizations get stuck in the middle, with leaders burning out.
At The Pocket Testament League we are leaning heavily into the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS Model). We are a part of Christian Leadership Alliance, and I am personally part of a Christian CEO peer advisory group. And quite frankly, we are not expanding into more. We are choosing to focus on what these organizations are offering. It is hard work. The good news is the team understands that this is not a flavor-of-the-month approach. They understand the need to grow. It will be their collective determination that will win the day. It will be the team that determines if we get to sustainability.
Sustainability is Possible
Returning to that nagging thought that kicked off this article, here are a few observations. First, you most likely prayed about taking the position you are in. You believed it was and is God’s will. Second, God qualifies the called, not the other way around. Which means you have a lot of work in front of you. Third, you are not alone. There are a lot of people who want both you and the organization to grow and thrive. Fourth, keep looking forward. As Bob Shank of The Master's Program teaches – institutions talk about their history, but movements talk about their future.
David J. Collum serves as CEO of The Pocket Testament League, an organization that has shared the gospel with more than 145 million people. He worked in corporate America, managing the nuclear power plants of our nation's fleet of nuclear submarines, and served as a full-time pastor for 12 years.