This is a continuation of the lessons I learned in my capacity as Acting CEO at Leadership Victoria. If you missed my previous newsletter, you can check it out here.
On several occasions throughout my tenure, I was presented with what appeared to be complex, adaptive challenges within the team. Problems that sounded like: “How’s the organisation prioritising work? What’s the purpose that drives our decision-making?” The types of big soul-searching questions that naturally beg vision and mission answers.
Except that the solutions I implemented were – more often than not – operational or technical ones; a resource plan here, an automated process there.
See, what I realised I was hearing were challenges rooted in a lack of clarity or shared visibility on how something was supposed to work and who was responsible for it. It wasn’t so much a lack of vision (as that had already been explicitly prosecuted), it was the how that was tripping people up.
I liken it to a team of chefs cooking in a messy kitchen with tools everywhere, ingredients mislabelled, and there’s no work roster. It’s still possible to turn out a fine banquet but it’s inefficient, wasteful, and there’s a team of frustrated chefs afterwards. In this situation, a new vision or purpose is not the answer; people simply needed a hygienic environment to work in.
When I did introduce solutions that improved organisational hygiene, that guided people on what they needed to do, those complex and adaptive questions often disappeared (this is not dissimilar to what I discussed in Ko Lab 13 on whether we think too big).
Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate the impact of a clean and tidy kitchen.
A passing mentor once said to me: “The sign of a great CEO is one who can make themselves redundant.” For some reason, this always stuck with me (see Ko Lab 6), and it’s been a position I held even before I stepped into the ACEO role.
My time in this role only reinforced this mindset. Perhaps this is linked to my previous lesson learned on the loneliness of leadership, but I take very little joy in being the person who people came to for decisions. I would much rather people be empowered to make their own decisions, and I could simply run alongside the team to guide them in the right direction.
This meant instead of trying to be a CEO, I more often than not became a consultant. When people came to me with problems, I didn’t just give a solution, I tried to approach it from a position of: “How can I create a framework / system around this so people can solve the problems themselves? What skills or tools do they need?”
The benefits of this approach are four-fold:
If people are interested, I can go more in-depth on my specific approach in a future Ko Lab.
Lesson learned: Sometimes being CEO simply means being a good consultant. What would I advise to someone else facing the same problems?
Being in a CEO position means being privy to every moving part of the organisation, and one of the most interesting side effects (and benefits) of this is seeing how the organisation changes over time. New systems and interventions that were challenging to implement bear fruit 12 months later. Different parts of the organisation start to gel in different ways, building on top of each other to create progress.
An interesting observation here is that whilst there are still aches and pains felt within the organisation, they are different aches and pains from what was experienced a mere 12 months ago. In fact, I came to celebrate this because I realised it was a sign of growing pains! To build on my kitchen analogy before, people weren’t concerned by mislabelled ingredients anymore, they’re now concerned by how different ingredients work better together.
The nuance is that not everyone has the privilege of seeing every part of the organisation, meaning it’s possible for people to feel like nothing’s changed. Even from my vantage point, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re spinning our wheels when in fact, we’re much further down the road.
Lesson learned: Remember to lift my gaze so that I can look forwards and backwards in time, and then help others try to see this.
This lesson is one that’s perhaps most unique to a CEO / C-suite position, and that’s engaging with the Board of an NFP. This is one area of my professional life I’ve never experienced, so I wanted to share what I learned. When I first engaged with the Board, it felt like they were up on a pedestal; a ‘higher power’ so to speak. As a result, it felt like I was working ‘for’ them, rather than ‘with’ them. It wasn't combative, but nor did it feel collaborative.
Over time, I came to realise that I was working with a group of really busy people who wanted the best for the organisation, but only saw glimpses of the work through the infrequent windows of the Board meetings. I realised that I didn’t need to think of them as ‘people above me to report to’ but instead as ‘equals I can work with’.
With this realisation, one of the changes I introduced was a new dashboard report (look I used to be a consultant, I can’t help it) designed to address the following questions:
Lesson learned: The Board are just regular (if busy) folks. Making the effort to bring them ‘inside the tent’ is far more effective, and means I can work ‘with’ them, not ‘for’ them.
Running Leadership Victoria and ColourSpace at the same time (amongst all my other bits and bobs) has definitely been a challenge. On reflection, I’m a bit surprised I haven’t burned out during this period, and I think part of the reason is because of the first lesson I shared, on bringing all of myself to the table.
I’m not working two or three jobs, I’m doing one job that I really love, which is to help people elevate their self-awareness through a myriad of channels, whether that’s changing art or cultivating curiosity or developing leadership behaviours. And thus when I rest, I’m not resting from multiple jobs, I’m actually resting from one.
That said, I realise it sounds like something a workaholic would say, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve wandered into the shadowy dark side of being ‘in flow’. How do I know that I’m actually resting as opposed to simply ‘not working’?
And so on that note, I’ve taken myself to Bali on a last minute holiday. My challenge? I want to see if I can do absolutely nothing. To actually ‘switch off’ and see if that recharges me differently. Wish me luck!
Lesson learned: It's a great privilege to be able to stay in flow but perhaps there can be such a thing as 'too much', and it's ok to experiment with different ways to rest.
For my friends in the Not-For-Profit space and feeling in the mood for a laugh, you have got to check out this Twitter feed: Shit Nonprofits Say. I promise you’ll get a chuckle out of some of the tweets.
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Have a great week!