If we have a clear destination, that clarity guides our actions from professional uncertainty to a targeted energy and sense of purpose. And yet, gaining clarity is not a singular measure like 20/20 vision – it involves organizational leadership dedicated to a process, a journey – with new inputs that need to be integrated with frequency and adapted with finesse.
This is the first of four blogs to share summaries of current client engagements and their “journeys to high performance”. Each client organization had different challenges to overcome and each has a leader who was dedicated enough to start a journey to high performance. We’ll review the learning process and how it pushed each organization to move toward greater clarity, resulting in increased energy and improved results.
Why consider a journey to high performance?
High performing leaders are driven by a powerful urgency to achieve their mission. They want to improve results for their clients and to get there, they need to change their organizational culture toward learning. They understand the potential that is unlocked when they have a mindset to meet the challenges of change head-on and drive toward continuous improvement.
How to get from Point A to Point B.
The Performance Imperative provides a grounding framework for the journey to high performance, and the definition of high performance provides a north star toward clarity. It states that high performance is: “The ability to deliver – over a prolonged period of time – meaningful, measurable, and financially sustainable results for the people or causes the organization is in existence to serve.”
There are two decisive factors in making progress on the journey: 1) the leadership readiness, willingness, and energy to start; and 2) leaders harnessing their role to guide the culture of the organization toward learning, for the long-run.
Carol Dweck’s seminal work, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success describes some of the attributes of the type of leaders that might be ready for the journey. In a nutshell, she defines a person with a growth mindset as someone who views intelligence and learning as an endless process: the person who is eager and willing to learn new skills; the leader who is constantly gathering new information, as essential ingredients of success. Leaders with a growth mindset are the opposite of the cliché if it ain't broke, don't fix it. They recognize there is always room for better.
Progress on the journey to high performance requires that leaders are internally driven toward continuous improvement, with a sense of urgency to learn the results they are achieving and asking questions of themselves, staff, and data about how to improve upon those results on an ongoing basis.
What does the journey to high performance look like?
There are a myriad of ways for the journey to manifest. This blog series exemplifies four different social sector organizations and their journeys. Although quite diverse, all have leaders with growth mindset who both believe in high performance and understand that getting there is challenging. Where they have a vision for change, these mini cases exemplify the background challenge they sought to tackle; progress they made along the way; mistakes and course-corrections faced; current status on the path to achieve goals and stay within time-frames needed to maintain energy and focus toward high performance; and finally, a leadership tip that might be considered by other organizations.
This first blog explores a community foundation journey. The second one will focus on a small direct service agency. The third blog will illuminate an umbrella educational organization, and the final post will comprise the journey of a large multi-service agency.
The work is informed by The Performance Imperative’s Pillar 1: Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership and an intentional drive toward developing Pillar 5: A culture that values learning. They all include the clarity achieved through a strong focus on mission – which raises energy through shared purpose - and feedback loops that lead to the actualization of continuous improvement.
Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago (JUF)
Background: For over 100 years, JUF has been a steward of community resources, and the senior leadership felt the weight of that responsibility. One leader in particular wanted to know the impact of their giving. He started asking questions that would lead to a slow but methodical shift – generally-speaking from outputs (# of agencies supported) to outcomes (the results they were achieving for their direct clients).
Although JUF had spent decades collecting data from grant partners, the data was limited, focused solely on demographics and activities (Eg: # of programs, # of people touched, # of meals delivered) and was largely used for communications and marketing purposes.
They wanted to maintain the momentum of data collection but move to a set of data that would serve more meaningful purposes for capacity-building, learning, planning and strategic communication. This meant re-thinking what data was collected, how it was reported and used by grant partners as well as the basis for system improvement in funding the allocations. The effort was championed from the top and designed to be supported financially for a long-term strategic shift.
Progress: Starting with the senior leadership in 2014, we designed a strategy for long-term change in two streams: first, to shift from collecting output data to gain an understanding of meaningful client change, outcomes. And second, the process of involving “bottom-up” collaboration for all relevant partner agencies to come together and develop shared outcome frameworks. An important part of the process was defining clear and explicit goals and referring back to them regularly. These goals continue to guide the work five years later and they are: 1) Program development for continuous improvement; 2) Improved planning/allocation of resources; 3) Strategic reporting and communication.
To maintain the long-term nature of the effort, we needed to define both the strategy and process for change. The foundation understood the need to focus on recruiting, developing, engaging, and retaining the right internal talent and leadership to maintain, expand and continually improve the effort.
Mistakes and Course-corrections: This was a huge undertaking, and rather than starting with a cohort of agencies that would be small, nimble, and non-threatening, we started with an ambitious population-level effort. Although the intent of the strategy was to have JUF serve in a facilitation and convening role, we neglected to operationalize the idea of a lead or principal partner agency from the beginning. We also underestimated the challenges in bringing different agencies together into a learning community and to forge trust – both with each other and with JUF itself, based on the very real power differential.
In hindsight, which is 20/20, we found that it was useful, if ambitious to start with a broad population and then narrow for future cohorts. We also learned that trust was possible but would take time to nurture and grow. Part of the eventual success derived from the determination, professionalism and dedication to engaging in formative or process evaluation for ongoing learning and course-corrections. The foundation learned from feedback about blind-spots and made explicit changes. One of the needs they identified was gathering internal support for the effort and creating a position to carry it forward.
Current state: About two years into the process, JUF hired an internal senior level leader for evaluation and learning and more recently, they expanded to an assistant director position. The evaluation leader developed a process and format to document definitions and changes throughout, making it possible to bring on and bring up-to-speed new people at the agency level. JUF built an internal data team, a data working group made up of the data managers at each partner agency, and a management system to maintain a consistent data structure and knowledge base.
JUF is dedicated to facilitating peer learning, providing technical assistance, and supporting participating agencies with funds for professional development tied to evaluation. Recently, participants started requesting more opportunities to connect around the data. The process continues to hone data collection toward the most meaningful information and knowledge curation.
Leadership Tip toward Implementing Clarity and a Culture that Values Learning:
Listen to your team. It is impossible to have all the answers in the C-suite or around a conference room table. Ask data managers and field staff to provide ongoing feedback. Consider encouraging them to keep a change log or idea log when they notice potential improvements in efficiency or effectiveness – they are the critical “boots on the ground”. Create space for practice-based innovation toward better mission achievement. Then circle back to the executive or Board level to prioritize what to implement and when.
As you work to gain clarity and then to operationalize it in your actions as a leader – consider these three ways to start on a journey to high performance – borrowed from a mindful yogi, who I have found great inspiration from for my business and family:
2. Continue with intention and energy.
3. Commit and practice for a sustained time.
I hope you’ll find these mini cases useful and informative; I’m wishing you a productive new year, guided with clarity. How might you incorporate the extrapolated tips and patterns into your own organizations, when determining next steps for your own journey to high performance? Please let me know what you think!