I'd like to pass along 3 principles that have defined my work life. These 3 I am still learning to put into practice. Let me illustrate with a client's story...
A young leader of a nonprofit was experiencing some high levels of stress within his organization. As he shared some of the details, I learned that he was dealing with a significant degree of turnover, and not being able to retain good people for very long. Also, there seemed to be an issue of his focus. His attempts to implement all the great ideas could never be fully accomplished or realized. Finally, the growing pains of launching a new organization and being stretched in many different directions. As I listened to him describe some of his challenges, I asked about his advisory team. He immediately responded confidently that, "I have a great board of directors." I asked him to describe who his board was and their involvement. As he explained his board, like many startup nonprofits, he surrounded himself with friends who shared his enthusiasm for the mission, who were providing great ideas and strategies to help launch the organization as well as providing some level of financial support.
The more I listened to this leader share about his board of directors; it sounded more like a fan club than a board of directors. There seemed to be a gap between objectivity and clear counsel versus enthusiasm and affirmation. Ultimately, all the optimistic feedback was causing him to suffer because he had surrounded himself with people who were giving him precisely what he wanted to hear, instead of what he needed to hear. His board and executive team were "Yes" men and women. What he needed was a little more "No" in his leadership. Launching anything can seem overwhelming. Just getting an idea off the ground and birthing it to reality can be a daunting undertaking. Having healthy people who can encourage you is essential, yet these personalities should not take all the seats on your advisory team. Whether you're leading a startup nonprofit, a public company, or even operating as a solopreneur, I merely want to ask, who has the power to speak into your life?
In 2016, I interviewed Peter Greer with HOPE International on our Leadership Conversations podcast. He was in a situation where he knew he was running hard, but his organization was running him, and it was coming at the expense of his marriage and his family. At one point in his story, he shares how he wrote a letter of resignation and gave it to his wife to give to his board of directors if, in her opinion, he ever moved beyond the point of a healthy balance in his life. As you reflect on that for a moment, ask yourself who your most important relationships are, and is the mission or the cause of your organization coming at the expense of your most significant priorities in life, and particularly, the most important people in your life? If you were to write a resignation letter, to whom would you give that? Another way of considering this is to ask, who are your advisors? Those who care most about you and your mission, and what permissions have you given them? In my years of working with CEOs and leaders, the number one issue that I have found is the issue of blind spots. I have an opportunity to work with some exceptional leaders, but the fact is, regardless of whether your circle of influence is just within a local community or all over the world, the truth is, leaders have blind spots.
Leaders must have a circle of people who can speak into those blind spots, which provide the protection that both the leader and the organization need. It's the input of a trusted team of advisors that can create sustainability, health, and vitality not only for the leader but the organization as well. Many leaders, especially entrepreneurs, that I know love their autonomy, yet autonomy, for all its freedom, often comes at a price. What is the cost of your independence? If you have led for any period, you probably don't have to look back too far, either months or years or over projects, to see the mistakes under your leadership. It is in those situations where having good counsel around you would've helped prevent some of those costly mistakes. Having an advisory team doesn't eliminate or protect you completely, but it does help mitigate some of those risks. Wherever you are today in your level of leadership and circle of influence, I want to encourage you with three principles in establishing your advisory team.
Principle #1 is Know Your Authority.
My mentor often reminds me that a man under authority is a man of authority. Who has veto power in your life? To whom have you permitted to provide wisdom and much-needed counsel when you're putting out fires? It does not matter how good the leader is, at times our ambition blinds us, and need somebody who comes in with a strong arm to protect us. That protection might even be from ourselves and our blind spot(s). By delegating a level of authority to a small group of people is essentially saying, "I trust you." Even in a formal board setting where you may be casting your vote right along with other board members, the collective weight of votes may not be unanimous, but there is counsel that you may have the right idea, but the timing is wrong. You need people, to whom you’ve given authority, to speak into the process and then trust their judgment and experience.
Principle #2 is Seek Advice.
When we put ourselves under authority, we also invite their advice, as well. Business is dynamic. Things are happening all the time. Literally on a daily basis, decisions need to be made, revised or new strategies to be considered, new investments and people to be hired and in sometimes, fired. Resources need to be optimized. There are partnerships to be nurtured, and customers to serve. Within all of this, there are so many opportunities for us to learn from others. We need to avail ourselves of the wisdom and counsel of a variety of inputs. You would love to be in a position to tap into a group of leaders who have fifteen, twenty, thirty years of experience in a particular discipline. Their insight would help guide your decisions and move you forward. Most leaders would agree and be open to gleaning wisdom from others. The challenge is always how to draw best out and capture the insight of those who are trusted advisors in your life and your work?
I would suggest that success in obtaining good counsel has a great deal to do with the process. It includes scheduling the time, preparing a few questions, and defining the situation. Then your advisor(s) will be able to offer their very best counsel. For you as the leader, accurately describe the most significant issues then giving the advisor a proper amount for preparation to consider is vital in their advice. There is undoubtedly a place for spontaneity such as ideation sessions. The more significant the issue, the more time you should allow for guidance. Then as you get advice, what will you do and commit?
Principle #3 is Commit to Accountability.
Accountability will protect you. You, the leader must define, in the midst of your autonomy, the level of responsibility in which you're willing to submit. Like authority and advice, this is the point where you're committing to action. You're inviting a group of people to keep you accountable for your time, discipline, and commitment to see it done. It is this accountability that will ultimately protect you from distraction and help strengthen the focus you need to see it done. Ideally, what you and your advisors define as success and the accountability is what is essential. While immature leaders may view responsibility as a limiting factor, it provides great freedom to move toward agreed objectives and is critical to focus your attention on accomplishing your goals.
I want to encourage you, whether you lead a nonprofit, a public company, or are just launching into a new venture, to formalize, redefine, or even recalibrate the counsel in your life. To whom have you given veto power? Yes, you as a leader have a vote, yet the full weight of a collective council will help support you see you succeed.